Acton Institute Powerblog

The Conservative Coalition Crack-up

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Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Mrs. P

    Huckabee is absolutely right.

    I believe that the government which governs best, governs least. But I don’t believe in the extreme position that says it’s alright to hack away at ANY and ALL sections of government.

    I believe there are many ways we can cut down on the bureaucracy. But I don’t believe there are infinite ways we can cut down on the bureacracy. At least not in the 21st century.

    I’m an idealist, but I’m also a realist.

    And I say Huckabee is right!

  • Mrs. P

    And I say the author of this article is right too!

  • R. George Dunn

    Well said and spoken to. Being a part of the Summit in Michigan with the McCain advisor Marlys Popma, it was fruitful in sharing with her. It was probably a shock to her as it was to us when we heard of the compromising McCain has manifested at this hour and at this time of coalescing with the Huckabee Grassroots. A shock to say the least and one that may have unrecoverable results for McCains winning support.

    As to Governor Huckabee and the social programs of caring for the poor and needy, we are all in agreement. Though there is a question of difference in what Government level should be performing this Christ Like passion, it needs to be done.

    The Constitution has insisted that such passion is to be a State issue and not the power of the Federal Government. One could come up with reasons to so at the Federal Level, the proper place for such action would be to put it under the auspices of the Board of Governors as a volunteer program to the States to opt in or not. Having such legislative powers within the Federal Government has proven to bring us to the near collapse of our system, with spending way out of control.

    We need to get the social programs out of the office of the sheriff, the Federal Government in my humble opinion. The concept is grand, but the Constitution is Greater.

    Even so, with Governor Huckabee at the helm will prove to be stabilizing for this Nation. That alone makes Governor Huckabee the best choice to be VP just in case.

  • Craig J. Bolton

    I am amazed that anyone connected with the Acton Institute would author this piece.

    Governor Huckabee’s argument is simple -anything enacted by government is necessary because it responds to a failing of private individuals to act responsibly. Does anyone who knows anything at all about public choice theory or, more simply, about the way that politicians make their livings believe such a thing?

    A much more accurate statement is that: “Anything demanded by a special interest group or individual, that said group or individual is willing to pay for in personal favors to legislators, will be enacted. Insofar as such legislation purports to surplant traditional individual responsibilites some individuals [those who worship the state as if it were G_d] will believe that they have been relieved of their former responsibility and act accordingly.”

    For shame that you are supporting individual irresponsibility and idolatry.

  • Douglas Smith

    Your heart is in the right place, but your head isn’t. This is the kind of thinking that has drilled so many holes in constitutionally limited government that there are no limits. There is always another mouth to feed or illness to heal or problem somewhere in the world to fix.

    Small government allows Christians to keep their money for charity and missionaries. When government takes over, and it will when invited, charity becomes heavily taxed, wasteful, cradle to grave social programmes forced on everyone. Missions become meddling, dangerous foreign policies. All this may meet some needs in some ways, but it is no longer constitutional or Christian.

    Compassionate conservative Christians fall into this trap every time and become faithful supporters for the big government they claim to hate.

  • John S.

    Mike Huckabee sounds like he is for bigger government. Isn’t that the party platform of the Democrats? Tax and Spend.

  • Roger McKinney

    It’s interesting to me that when libertarians talk about cutting the government down to size, Huckleberry automatically reaches for the poor. All state spending doesn’t go to the poor. Most of the social programs, such as Medicare, feed the middle class. If all state social programs were means tested, the state would shrink dramatically.

    Huckleberry seems to think that if the state doesn’t help the poor they will starve to death. But how much success has the state had? Johnson’s great society began 40 years ago. Hundreds of billions of dollars later the poverty rate is the same, while the Huckleberry’s of the world demand even more money so that the state can fail on an even grander scale!

    I think it’s disgusting of Huckleberry to assume that only the state will help the poor. Charitable giving in the US is almost equal to the federal budget. The main difference between state charity and private charity is that private charity wastes less money on administration and giving to people who don’t need it.

    Kuyper’s statement that “…state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” is very poor theology. Nothing in the New Testament encourges the state to help the poor. All of Christ’s admonitions are directed at individuals. There is no justification for the idea that the state stepped in to make up insufficient giving by individuals. All state social programs have their origins in socialist ideology, not the failure of private charity. No one knows how much charity to the poor is sufficient because no one can define poverty or how much is necessary to give to the poor. The left and the poor will never say “Enough!” Only the people giving will do that. So there is no justification for whay Kuyper said. Kuyper had no idea whether private giving was enough or whether state giving just supplanted private giving.

    We should remember that state-sponsored social programs are very new to this country and even newer in world history. How did poor people (the vast majority) survive? The charity of the wealthy and neighbors kept them alive. And what raised Western Europe and North America above the poverty of the rest of the world? Not charity, but capitalism.

    Looking world-wide, poverty has dropped dramatically in the past generation. Why? Not because of massive amounts of charity pouring into poor countries. The main cause of lower poverty has been the economic growth in China and India. Economic growth, not charity, reduces poverty.

  • Ryan O’Neill

    The author is confusing groups that have no common moral source. Libertarianism is not a philosophy, it is a political ideology. It does not bear on apolitical subjects and does not aspire to. Objectivism is the philosophy that is being attacked by the author and it is one of many philosophies that can lead to libertarian political positions, but is not limited to public policy. Roman Catholicism is the moral source of my libertarian political doctrine. It is my religiion that guides my world view. Objectivism is a very minor player in the political movement that is libertarianism. As for Gov. Huckabee, he should be thankful that libertarians continue to vote with him despite their disgust for all that he represents. The scriptures teach that I am my brothers keeper. It does not teach me to subjugate my fellows in Jesus’ name. God is our judge, no one else is.

  • R. George Dunn

    Respect is a fine thing. Those are not perfect should consider it. Huckabee is the name and his heart for this Nation is huge and his stnad against the Federal Government is real. His position on education at the Federal level is but the bully pulpit, that educaiton is a State issue.

    As to social programs coming from the State level, that is a State quesiton, not a federal one. Being as in most states, the State Constitutions have placed the people as the bulwark of what should or should nto be. It is closer to the people then the Federal Government and much easkier to control locally. Setting up safety nets at state level is wise, but the continued push for supporting those who refuse to work and are able is having a huge economic and attitudinal effect on the people.

    The real cause of our jobs going overseas is how we have set up our tax structure in America, placing excise tax on our own production to sell to ourselves while openning up foreign imports which are tax free. We are taxing ourselves into oblivion. We need to change to a consumption tax, get those under the table to help pay, get the rich who have their wealth and incomes protected to pay and again bring manufacturing back to this country so we can be individually self sustaining, without excuse for Marxist handouts.

    The American people are crying for equity of wealth and are embracing Marxism. This is scarey as history tells why. The Fair Tax plan is the true alternative to this by it’s providing for no taxation for everyone up to the level of poverty. The actual Tax revenue from this system is predicted to reduce the tax burden on Americans by half and if we would put the Federal Government back under the Cosntitution, it would be very low and the State would be about the same and not much more even with the State accepting the social burdens from the Federal Govenrment. Yes, if we had wealth, the Churches would be the vehicle to care for the poor, to which we will always have, but under Marxism, it woudl be all of us that would be poor.

    Hucakbee knows this and had you have followed himclosely, your opinion of him would be understanding why the Washington insiders hate him, fear him and di everything they could to stop his campaign tht by a shoesting of funding came so close that had Thompson not been the attack dog in the South Carolina debate Huckabee would be the nominee today.

    I am sure that I cannot convince you of what I just said without you investigating and seeing for yourself. In the next election bid, Mike will probally be the candidate and all one can ask is to follow his campaign then and give him a chance.

    Of course my hope is Mike Huckabee to be the VP, but the RNC has their site on Romney since 2005 and you can bet that this abortion talk by McCain has but one goal, to ice over the Romnney past and make him acceptable. Not here, sorry.

  • Clare Krishan

    Has Mr Baillor’s Huckebee-hucksterism fogged just his spectacles or his mind also? Can’t he join the dots: starting with the price to taxpayers of *poverty* in New York:
    “In a time of fiscal constraints, abortion is costing the state at least $16 million in Medicaid spending annually, and city taxpayers still more through a city Health and Hospitals Corp. policy that provides free abortions to poor women at its facilities. The surgical costs alone are between $1,000 and $1,800 per abortion, compared with the $425 average annual cost for birth control pills.”
    Government assistance to feed another hungry mouth? Pay its mother to abort it before it becomes eligible for WIC assistance or food stamps. That’s the most ‘economical’ choice – it saves on the delivery costs of all those indigent births. Beware of applying the labor theory of cost to human action – Austrian praxeology may appear “anarchic” to those raised by Protestant confessing parents, but give me the Caritas of libertarian pro-bono OB-Gyn services any day over government drossled “welfare” a la Senate ethics committee:

    “Meanwhile, with all of the ethics stinkbombs lurking in Washington, the committee, chaired by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, is aiming its guns at Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for “a serious violation of Senate rules.”

    Coburn’s bad? An obstetrician by profession, Coburn won’t heed the committee’s threat to reprimand him for delivering babies back home in Oklahoma – for free.

    “On my own time, I’m taking care of women who have a need, and I’m going to continue to deliver babies,” Coburn told

    And, bully for him: “I’m not going to stop.”

    When a member of the House, Coburn delivered 400 babies under an agreement with ethics meisters that allowed him to do so – if he charged only enough to cover his expenses.

    When elected to the Senate, which was first run by Republicans and now Democrats, Ethics Committee members told Coburn that if he wants to treat patients – largely poor and “at risk” mothers – he could not charge them, and thus would have to eat the costs of his practice.

    The Senate Ethics Committee allows big-buck book deals for U.S. senators, but in a May memorandum, it told Coburn “you are allowed to practice medicine if you provide such services for free.” So he started working for nothing.

    Even free wasn’t good enough.”

    Christians who propose Caritas sans Deus are dissembling at best, lying at worst. In this fallen world, all good things come from God, the anarchy of the secular market delivers as well as the tyranny of secular relativism! Mr Bailor – disparage not those whose philosophy (personalist phenomalism) and politics (praxeology vs socialism) you understand not: ignorance is no excuse for irrationality!

    (May I be so bold, as a spiritual work of mercy, to offer this excellent article by way of fraternal correction:
    “Epistemological Relativism in the Sciences of Human Action”
    and join me in praying for Rep Paul’s critically ill wife, God Bless)

  • Clare Krishan

    Oh-m.w.h! yessaree! if your’s is a BigMac/WalMart/Hallmark world: “Fattest children to be taken away from their parents” by Home Affairs Correspondent Nigel Morris at

  • Huckabee is of course missing “the dog that doesn’t bark”. What about the kids who do not go to be hungry? Is it some kind of miracle to feed your own children?

    Of course not, but it may be cheaper and easier to enroll in “school lunch” programs etc, rather than feeding your kids.

    Providing vast social programs creates a cultural of dependency rather than responsibility, and opens up the economy to loads of abuse and corruption. Much of what Mick is suggesting is simply an extension of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.