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What Liberal Evangelicals Should Know About the Economic Views of Conservative Evangelicals

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liberal-conservativeWe read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus. We go to the same churches and even agree on the same social issues. So why then do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues?

The answer most frequently given is that both sides simply baptize whatever political and economic views they already believe. While this is likely to be partially true, I don’t think it is a sufficient explanation for the views of more thoughtful and sophisticated evangelicals (which naturally, dear reader, includes you and me).* Even if we start with our naturally acquired political orientation, our engagement with the Bible tends to have a dialogical effect, causing us to modify and rethink our economic views in light of principles we discern from Scripture.

Because we conservatives and liberals come to different conclusions, though, one side will be right and the other wrong (or at least more right and more wrong than the other). We all believe our views on economics are true, which is why we are justified in holding these beliefs and think those who disagree are necessarily wrong. That is just how belief works.

But we often don’t have a sufficient depth of understanding about each others fundamental economic beliefs to know why exactly we come to such different conclusions. Too often we express disagreements about policy without comprehending what guiding principles are motivating our differences of opinion.

In a short series posts I hope to shed some light on our differences by explaining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. (Note: A PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.) These are not the only principles that matter, of course, but these dozen often underlie our disagreements (or at least what we assume are our differences).

1. Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences.

If I had to choose only one item to highlight the difference between liberal and conservative evangelicals, it would be this one. Whether we are right or not, we conservatives truly believe we have a better grasp on the idea that good intentions are insufficient since they are frequently trumped by unintended consequences.

The law of unintended consequences is the principle that actions of people — and especially of government — always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. As the French Catholic economic journalist Frédéric Bastiat explained in his famous essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”:

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

A prime example is the debate about minimum wage laws. Both liberals and conservatives believe they are arguing in defense of the poor. The difference is that liberal evangelicals tend to focus on the visible effects (e.g., individual workers get higher wages) while conservative evangelicals tend to focus on the effects that must be foreseen (e.g., minimum wage increases hurt the poor and disproportionately affect African Americans).

If you’re a liberal evangelical and are baffled that a conservative evangelical could oppose an economic policy that appears so obviously just and moral, it’s a safe bet that it’s because they believe the policy leads to harmful unintended consequences.

2. Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles

Some conservatives are stuck in the go-go 1980s of the Reagan-era while some liberals act as if we’re frozen in the oppressive pre-Great Society era of LBJ. But both liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to be caught up in an even earlier age – somewhere between the time of Moses and Jesus.

We rightly derive our moral principles about economics from the Bible. But we often disagree on how they should be applied because we differ on applications of the context. In my experience, liberal evangelicals tend to directly map the Old and New Testament framework onto a modern context. When, for example, the Bible refers to the wealthy or the poor, liberal evangelicals apply those principles to what we consider, in our era, to be the wealthy and the poor.

In contrast, conservative evangelicals believe that we must properly interpret the context of the Bible in order to apply the principle to modern times. For instance, those who live in poverty in America – our ‘poor’ — often have more material wealth than the ‘wealthy’ people in the Bible. Conservatives are prone to ask,”How then can we accurately transfer and apply the Biblical terms ‘poor’ and ‘wealthy’ onto our own economic system?”

Similarly, in the Bible the poor were often poor because they were unjustly exploited by the wealthy. The economic systems in the Bible were often based on agriculture and animal husbandry. To raise livestock and plant crops required access to land. The wealthy, therefore, had incentives to exploit the poor: they wanted their land. But what does it mean for the wealthy to exploit the poor when the poor have nothing of value that the rich would want?

That brings us to the next point . . .

3. To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government.

Conservative evangelicals aren’t naïve; we understand that because human nature hasn’t changed. Given the right incentives (some) wealthy people will exploit the poor for their benefit. Where we differ from our liberal evangelical brothers and sisters is that we believe that when the wealthy want to exploit the poor, they will more often than not seek out and get the help of the government.

This is crony capitalism, the replacement of free markets with political markets. As Samuel Gregg explains:

In political markets, the focus is no longer upon prospering through creating, refining, and offering products and services at competitive prices. Instead economic success depends upon people’s ability to harness government power to stack the economic deck in their favor. While the market’s outward form is maintained, its essential workings are supplanted by the struggle to ensure that governments, legislators, and regulators favor you at other people’s expense. In that sense, crony capitalism certainly constitutes a form of redistribution: away from taxpayers, consumers and businesses focused on creating wealth, and towards the organized, powerful, and politically-connected.

Cronyism takes many forms, and almost all of them hurt the poor. A prime example that is often overlooked is occupational licensing. Some forms of occupational licensing are, of course, necessary to protect public safety. For instance, we all want a doctor who is licensed to practice medicine. But oftentimes, occupational licensing is merely a way to use the power of the government to reduce competition.

Take, for example, the case of Jestina Clayton. Ms. Clayton grew up in a village in Sierra Leone where every girl learns traditional African hair-braiding. When she was 22, Clayton moved to Centerville, Utah and found a niche market among a small group of Utah parents who had adopted African children but didn’t know how to style their hair. When she began advertising her services, though, she was shut down because she didn’t have a cosmetology license. Getting such a license would require nearly two years of school and $16,000 in tuition.

The “wealthy” (a relative term that can include the middle-class) can often find ways such as this to get the government to help them exploit the poor.

4. We love economic growth because we love babies.

The reason conservative evangelicals love economic growth is not because we love consumerism – it’s because we love babies and want more of them around.

Before we explain how that works, let’s consider the consequences if there were to be a long period in the U.S. with no economic growth:

• Unemployment and poverty would skyrocket.
• The national debt would increase as tax revenues declined.
• Banks and other financial institutions would go bankrupt, leading to housing and credit crises.
• Housing and land prices would sharply increase.
• Food prices would increase, leading to famine in other countries and hunger in our own.
• Social welfare programs would have to be scaled back.
• Federal and state governments would not be able to service their debts.
• Workers would have to work longer hours to maintain their current standard of living.

In other words, as soon as economic growth stops, economic decline starts.

But what causes the immediate decline? In a word: babies. As the population increases, more resources are needed to feed, clothe, and shelter all of the new people that are being created. To understand why this is happens, let’s consider a scaled-down economic model.

Imagine a village that has 100 people living in a state of economic equilibrium, that is, their economy is neither growing nor shrinking. Everyone has just enough food, clothing, shelter, and other amenities to take care of themselves—no more and no less than enough for subsistence living. Now let’s imagine that a “baby boom” occurs, and 20 new children are added to the village. What happens to the standard of living for the villagers? Assuming that they redistribute their resources equitably, everyone (including the new children) will only have 83% of the resources they need to survive. Over time, they will begin to starve or die of malnutrition.

We can see this occurring today in countries with low economic growth. As the population increases, there are not enough resources for everyone to rise above the poverty level.

Similarly, in the U.S. we need to create around 400,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with the babies that are growing up and entering the labor market. If the economy does not grow, there will be no jobs for them. In the short term redistribution of resources (e.g., unemployment compensation, welfare) will prevent the unemployed from going hungry. But without long-term growth a country’s wealth becomes depleted, causing instability and social breakdown.

However, if the new workers do find jobs and are engaging in productive labor, the economy will automatically grow as these laborers buy goods and services. Economic growth is, after all, a natural byproduct of productivity.

Economic growth is not a goal that should be pursued for its own sake nor a means to achieve a materialist paradise. Economic growth is not the chief end of man, but merely the blessing that results from fulfilling God’s cultural mandate.


Those are the first four principles. The other eight, which I’ll be writing about in future posts, are:

5. The economy is not a zero sum game.

6. Inequality and poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice.

7. The best way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase individual freedom.

8. Saddling future generations with crippling debt is immoral.

9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.

10. Jobs that lead to human flourishing are the most important part of a moral economy.

11. Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people

12. Free markets are the best way to serve free people.

Other posts in this series: Part 2

*The scope of this post is limited to evangelicals because we share a common source of authority – the Bible. This is not meant to exclude other traditions, for of course they will find much to agree and disagree with. It merely acknowledges that some other sources of authority (such as, for Catholics, papal social teachings) will necessarily be excluded from the discussion. Similarly, Christian libertarians will find that some of the principles that shape their views (such the non-aggression principle) are not addressed. That is why I’ve limited it to points of agreement that are more likely to be broadly shared by conservatives.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


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  • stefanstackhouse

    The problem that I have with so much of our discourse these days is that the extremes of left and right are presented as if these were the only two possible alternatives. This is simply not true. There are other possible positions, including ones that are every bit as or even more faithful to biblical principles than those advanced by either the left or right.

    Take the minimum wage, for example. The author is quite right to point out that while imposing a minimum wage might SEEM to be compassionate to those on the left, it actually operates in a way that ends up being to the disadvantage of the very people it was intended to help, pricing them out of the labor market altogether. All true. However, while it may be true that a labor market unfettered by a minimum wage might indeed generate full employment at a market-clearing wage, there is no guarantee that the wages that the lowest paid workers will receive will be enough to sustain life. The hard truth is that there are human beings whose work is simply not worth very much at all in the labor market. Those on the right seem to either lack the honesty to openly admit the hard and unpleasant truth, or else they unfeelingly close their eyes to it. Neither reaction is even remotely with biblical warrant. So what about those on the low end of the economic totem pole? I would suggest that a thoroughly biblical response would be to encourage all people, including these people on the low end, to take the responsibility to help themselves to the extent that they can do so, but also recognize that we their neighbors have a responsibility to intervene and help them help themselves to the extent necessary so that they can at least subsist and sustain their lives. This is not at all a mandate for centralized government redistributionist policies, but it is a plea that each of us needs to take our personal responsibilities – including our responsibilities toward our neighbors – seriously. While government redistributionism is not the answer, perhaps there are things that those in government could do to provide leadership – or at least leadership by example – in the local communities to help people come together and help their less fortunate neighbors on a more organized and systematic basis. Government can be on the lookout for structural obstacles that get in the way of neighbors helping neighbors, and to do what it reasonably can to lessen or remove those obstacles.

    None of what I describe comes even remotely close to what could be called “socialism”; it is just people in a community and those in their governments working together in a civic-minded effort to make their community a better place in which all of its people can live – a movement that has a long and honored history in our country. However, neither can what I have described even remotely be called “laissez-faire capitalism”. It is something that fits between the two extremes of the political spectrum, but that actually provides a better and more biblical answer than does either extreme.

    • Roger McKinney

      “Those on the right seem to either lack the honesty to openly admit the
      hard and unpleasant truth, or else they unfeelingly close their eyes to

      That’s simply not true and advertises either ignorance or dishonesty. There is no way to have a decent dialog about these issues if each side refuses to be honest about the other.

      All conservatives and libertarians know that some work will not pay a living wage for an individual to live alone let alone support a family. It’s entry level work. Most who work in such jobs are teens with no experience or skills. They learn those skills on the job and prepare themselves for better paying jobs. Almost all people in those jobs move on to better jobs.

      Some people do not have the mental abilities to move on to better jobs. In those cases we should all be prepared to give charity to help them out and for the most part we do. Surveys have shown for decades that conservatives give 80% of all charity and perform 80% of all volunteer work. Giving of their own wealth proves that conservatives care about the poor. Socialists who use the state to take the wealth of others advertise their lack of concern for the poor.

      BTW, most charitable giving in the US goes to education to help poor people get the skills they need to work at better jobs.

  • WBrisky

    I might add one more to your list: A person who is poor is still poor if he is not supporting himself even if he receives government benefits which improve his physical well-being. So you don’t get a guy out of poverty by giving him stuff. He only leaves poverty if, and when, he starts to support himself. This does not exclude providing benefits while you are getting him a job, but that can only been seen as a temporary palliative, not the solution, like giving a guy pain killers while you set his broken leg.

  • Erin Higgins Martin

    This was an excellent article. I’ve never seen these issues put exactly in this perspective. It explains so much in a very clear and concise way. Not to mention it echos many of my own thoughts that I wasn’t able to express as eloquently as the author. I’m looking forward to your future articles.

  • Roger McKinney

    “…conservative evangelicals believe that we must properly interpret the
    context of the Bible in order to apply the principle to modern times.”

    Exactly! Looking forward to the next parts!

    Conservatives have great respect for the Bible and as a result apply the principles of hermeneutics to interpreting it. Socialists (I refuse to call them liberals or progressives because they are neither) follow the same principles of hermeneutics to the Bible that they have to the Constitution – it means what I want it to mean.

    Another difference is that conservatives tend to know economics while socialists consider the entire field to be too evil to even think about, let alone read a book on it.

  • Andy Hogue

    This article overstates the permanency of liberal Evangelicalism — though I agree with the author’s economic views wholeheartedly.

    There was a lot of knee-jerk reaction to the Bush Administration in the early 2000s, which caused many younger Evangelicals to question their conservative stances and identify with liberalism (and, in true Evangelical fashion, the older Evangelicals exploited this sentiment for outreach purposes). Mix this with a small but vocal “Red Letter” movement (Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Shane Clairborne, etc.) and you had the infrastructure for a temporary defection to Team Obama.

    My personal observation has been two-fold:

    1) As Evangelicals notice the social consequences of liberal economic policy (regulations on Catholic hospitals, forcing Christian businesses to cater to gay weddings, etc.), they’re slowly returning back to conservative values. But, as is also true to Evangelical fashion, they disdain “labels” and are reluctant to announce their return to the GOP. The majority-building will happen “silently,” as it always has.

    2) The Evangelicals who have turned permanently liberal are not staying Evangelical for very long. They’re flirting with Neo-Orthodoxy, Emergent theology, Mainline liberalism, Quietism, Universalism, etc. They may start out Evangelical (where saving the lost is the primary motivation) but the sharing of the Gospel is soon replaced with the “Social Gospel” of good works, political organizing for lefty causes, ecumenical coalition building, etc. This approach has more of a home outside of Evangelicalism (for better or worse).

    • This article overstates the permanency of liberal Evangelicalism

      Perhaps you’re right about that. I completely agree with everything else you said and it may be the case that many liberal evangelicals will stay liberal but not stay evangelical.

      • Andy Hogue

        Thank you, sir!

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