August 7, 2012

Why Don’t Evangelicals Embrace Regulation?

Yet another banking scandal is in the news today. This got me thinking about the right wing of the Republican Party. I know that the Tea Party and the religious right are not quite the same, but there is substantial overlap between the two groups. This means that there is a large group of politically active (or at least conscious) people in the U.S. who are evangelical Christians fundamentally opposed to government regulation.

Isn’t this odd? Evangelical Christians are supposed to believe that humans are sinful creatures prone to deal dishonestly with their fellow creatures. And yet these same folks seem to believe in a radically laissez-faire economy. Admittedly, market forces can efficiently allocate resources. But unregulated markets that turn a blind eye to those who lie, cheat, and steal do not efficiently allocate resources. They simply reward the least virtuous.

Evangelical Christians should be the most vocal advocates of government regulation of the marketplace to assure that everyone plays by ethical (or, if you prefer, moral) rules. Government is not a perfect referee, of course, but isn’t an imperfect referee better than none at all.? Apparently, many so-called Christians don’t think so.


  1. This probably has something to do with the influence of Calvinism and its easy seat with capitalism. It's about also deeply about individualism vs. corporatism that essentially divides the Protestant evangelicalism from the more catholic, social, view. A doctrine of election leads almost inevitably either to a very open laissez-faire, or a puritanical theocracy. I actually think we see elements of both in the present mix --- but following Calvin they want liberty in financial matters and control in "moral" matters.

  2. Perhaps some evangelicals believe that prosperity is a sure sign of election and that the elect need no regulation by government.

  3. I'm still having difficulty with the concept that humans are sinful creatures. They certainly can be, but Evangelicals apparently think they are automatically due to the taint created by Adam and Eve's indescretions. I mean, how can sane people believe this stuff?

    1. Of course, some argue that original sin is supported by a lot of empirical evidence. :-)

    2. I know. And some argue that there is a lot of emprical evidence that the tooth fairy and Santa Clause exist. I used to sit next to some of them in my last confinement in the asylum.

  4. Today's conservative Evangelicals are opposed to government regulation of our "public" lives. They care little for government regulating air quality or financial markets. They want no government involvement in things that affect the public good, such as education or health care. However, when it comes to our "private" lives, conservatives today want massive government intervention. The government should be involved in our decision about when or if to have children. The government should tell us whom we can or can't marry. Barry Goldwater is spinning in his grave.

    Bob Button

  5. The answer is simple. They have replaced Jesus with Ayn Rand.

    They'll be quite startled when they discover that Ayn Rand didn't die for their sins.

  6. I think too that there is enthusiasm to rush towards things that smack of eschatological abyss, e.g., crusading in the Middle East, with the not-too-small hope of inciting Armageddon. I think they find large-scale, sin-driven catastrophe to be apocalyptically titillating. So, if they can have a hand in facilitating, if not pushing, the world over the edge, while themselves remaining sexually "good" and demonstrating hatred of the sexual "bad," then they can have their cake, The Second Coming, and eat it too, be saved from being "cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, to be tormented day and night forever." The thinking straddles Piaget's pre-operational and concrete operational and operates within Kohlberg's pre-conventional morality, but there you go, just because one is chronologically an adult does not mean you are cognitively an adult. Big bodies, little minds. Deep pockets, little hearts.

  7. Lionel,

    I think it's an interesting question, and probably not one that can be answered simply--especially since the cluster of folks who get called "Evangelicals" in the secular social/political vocabulary are actually quite a diverse group in terms of theological foundation and heritage.

    Not sure, for instance, that there is much distinction made in the Gallup Poll surveys between those associated with the Evangelical movement as it emerges from the European Reformed tradition, from the American Churches (both denominational and "non-denominational") emerging from English and Scandinavian pietism, from those in descent from English and European Baptist and Anabaptist traditions, and from the churches and traditions coming out of the Renewal/Revival movements of the 19th and 20th century, not least the "Charismatic/Pentecostal" revival of the early 20th century.

    And that's just a tip of the iceberg. Each of these strands would reflect different understandings of what we would call "Church/State" issues, or what Richard Neibuhr pondered in his classic work "Christ and Culture."

    I mean, you have Calvin in Geneva, but also Luther, Cranmer, and, say, Menno Simons--each of whom would have had a different take on the role of the state. As Neibuhr would point out, you have "Christ against Culture," but then again you have "Christ OF Culture." There are paradoxical positions and transformative positions.

    And then there was a great old teacher of mine, Jim McClenddon, (an amazing Baptist/Anabaptist who spent a number of years arm-wrestling with Episcopalians at CDSP) who often remarked that if there weren't inconsistencies and contradictions in your Christian life, you hadn't given the issues enough thought.

    Bruce Robison

    1. Bruce,

      At some level, the distinctions you point out are important, but most Christians, of whatever tradition, are not deeply into theology. Original sin is a concept familiar (and accepted) by many, however. Logic would suggest—these folks may not be deeply into logic, either—that the existence of original sin would lead to skepticism about the virtue of business people. It would lead to skepticism about government types as well, but the schools are still teaching the virtues of checks and balances, I think. Thus, one might expect them to see the need for regulation.

    2. So anyone who disagrees with you is a "so-called Christian"? Does anyone here, besides Bruce, actually know or ,gasp, like an Evangelical? Are they human to you? No logic, brain, heart, guess not. The language Liberals use isn't as violent as Rush,etc. but the contempt oozes out. Like Brits I knew, they could be exceedingly polite and yet rip you to shreds. Liberals seem to use better words, but the hate is there.
      Part of the fear of regulation is because many evangelicals come from areas of the country with no power or influence over government. To them, it's always L.A., New York, Chicago, and D.C.--not exactly places of peace and prosperity for all-- who tell everybody else what to do and anyone who disagrees with them is simply an uneducated buffoon.Or Bob's environmental rules. City politicians decide to make farmers buy $500,000 combines to stop dust in fields(can you stop the wind blowing too?)for 3 weeks of the year. Now if Mississippi, Montana, Kansas, etc. forced you to buy a $50,000 electric car and buy solar panels and geothermal heat and evacuate New York City because of rising water...The ones making the rules always protect themselves, no matter what side they're on. This state's Dem. Senators are some of the biggest gits....

      Lonel,like evangelicals, BUSINESS is often lumped together and small businesses often feel they have to side with Big Business to survive. A law that causes Walmart to hire 3 accountants and tweek a computer program can cause real problems for small businesses.
      When this state made the minimum wage rise annually, it didn't hurt Walmart near as much as the local hardware store.

    3. Chris,

      OK, I apologize for the “so-Called Christian” remark. Liberals can be inconsistent or even hypocritical, too. In any case, I meant to ask an honest question to which I don’t have an explanation.

      One group’s domination over another group is an eternal problem of government, one especially troublesome in a democracy. To avoid it, we have constitutions, courts, and, one hopes, the goodwill of citizens. (Then there’s that sin thing again.) In the end, though, the existence of a large group that feels forever disempowered is destabilizing.

      As for the fairness of regulation, all we can do is do our best. Non-regulation produces banking scandals, ruined neighborhoods, unfair dismissals, poisoned streams, and toxic air pollution.

      Life is complicated.

    4. Apology accepted, and I will try to avoid commenting at midnight when my ability to overreact is high, sorry for the rant. Disempowerment is a big part of it. And not just for evangelicals(this conservative state is by church numbers mostly ELCA). Democratic plans seem, to the lower class working poor here(white,agricultural, non-union,rural), to be pushing them into the "wellfare worthless" as they're called here. Obamacare's enlarging Medicaid is one example. Those working poor will be put on Medicaid, like their drunk acquaintances who've been telling them to quit and go on welfare already. Workers were telling themselves, "At least I work for a living; at least I'm not a gov't leech." Now they will be. And since other regulations hurt small businesses as well, it seems to them like you're taking away their hope of the American dream and forcing them into wellfare worthlessness at the same time.
      Second, The only job growth around here is ag and natural resources-oil, coal,gas etc. All the things Democrats want to regulate(dust, on a farm??) and/or stomp out. So, the choice is vote Dem. and be a wellfare slug and save the environment, or vote Rep. to have a job and any, even tiny, hope for the American dream.
      Chris H.

  8. If you actually *want* an answer to your question [I can't tell], your primer is Max Weber. You're not the first person to ask the question, and there's an interesting, complex, and reasonable theory. "Because they're idiots" is not the answer. Start here:

    1. Episcopaul,

      I’ve read Weber’s book and was very impressed by it. It may explain the attachment to capitalism, but I don’t think it explains the aversion to regulation. Do you disagree?

      I actually do want an answer, by the way, and I’ll offer a guess here. (1) Weber explains an affinity to capitalism. (2) This inclination is strengthened by the American notion that anyone can succeed through hard work and enterprise. (Emerson may be an early influence here, though I don’t think Tea Partiers are reading Emerson.) (3) Ayn Rand (who Tea Partiers are reading) supplies the hatred of government, if not community. (4) The inconsistency I cited in my original essay is a product of misunderstood Christianity and the influences cited. The result is doublethink (credit Orwell)—simultaneously holding two inconsistent ideas at once.


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