Tuesday, February 28, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part One: Coalitions

Today, many ideas, concepts, and frames of reference in modern American society are legacies of the history of Protestantism as it divided and morphed through Calvinism, revivalist evangelicalism, and fundamentalism.

Even people who see themselves as secular and not religious often unconsciously adopt many of these historic cultural legacies while thinking of their ideas as simply "common sense."

What is "common sense" for one group, however, is foolish belief for another. According to author George Lakoff, a linguist who studies the linkage between rhetoric and ideas, there is a tremendous gulf between what conservatives and liberals think of as common sense, especially when it comes to issues of moral values.

In his book Moral Politics, which has gained attention in both media and public debates, Lakoff argues that conservatives base their moral views of social policy on a "Strict Father" model, while liberals base their views on a "Nurturant Parent" model.

According to Axel R. Schaefer, there are three main ideological tendencies in U.S. social reform:

  •  Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

  •  Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

  •  Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.

Republicans have forged a broad coalition of two of the three tendencies that involves moderately conservative Protestants who nonetheless hold some traditional Calvinist ideas:

Calvinist/Free Market advocates ranging from multinational executives to economic conservatives to libertarian ideologues; and

Evangelical/Revivalist conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists with a core mission of converting people to their particular brand of Christianity.

This is a coalition with many fracture points and disagreements.

The Calvinist/Free Market sector is already a coalition based on shared ideas about individual responsibility and successes in Free Market or Laissez Faire capitalism- sometimes called neoliberalism to trace it back to an earlier use of the term "liberal" by philosophers who opposed stringent government regulation of the economy. This is where the neoconservatives fit into the picture as sort of secular Calvinists.

Libertarians are against government economic regulations and believe in a Free Market, but libertarians generally also oppose government regulation of social matters such as gay marriage and abortion. These and other social issues, however, are central to the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in the Republican coalition.

This can get complicated. For example the evangelical idea that it is personal conversion and salvation that will make for a more perfect society, not government programs and policies, sometimes ends up supporting (in a complementary and parallel way) the goal of libertarians and economic conservatives to reduce the size of government.

As the Bush Administration has shifted government social welfare toward "Faith-Based" programs, it has diverted government funding into privatized religious organizations (which raises serious separation of Church and State issues), but the amount of funding applied to "Faith Based" projects is small compared to the large budget cuts in previously government-funded government-run social welfare programs.

Libertarians approve of the overall budget cuts, but would prefer cutting out the government funding of "Faith Based" projects.

It's all about compromise. Coalitions unite around shared agendas, while temporarily setting aside disagreements. So if several groups share a particular worldview, that helps bind the coalition together.

Although the Christian Right is coming from a very specific religious perspective, its theology and political ideas are rooted in a common cultural context with other components of the coalition being held together by the Bush administration. To appreciate how this has happened, we need to look at the version of Calvinism brought to our shores by early settlers.

Berlet, Chip and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.

Frank, Thomas. 2004. What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Lakoff, George. [1996] 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. "Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996," pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. (I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer).

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at www.Talk2Action.org.

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions

Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates