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What Liberal Evangelicals Should Know About the Economic Views of Conservative Evangelicals (Part 3)

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schoolchoicesignWhy do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the third in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found here. Part 2 can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

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

As it relates to economics, structural injustice could be defined as occurring when outside forces unjustly limit some person’s opportunities to enact their morally legitimate plans. Almost all evangelicals – whether liberal or conservative — agree that structural injustices still exist and that they must be opposed. Where we disagree is about what forms of structural injustice are most pervasive in 2014 and how they should be corrected.

We tend to think of structural injustices as macro-level phenomena (such as racism) that affect the actions, practices, beliefs, and laws of a large region (such as the Jim Crow laws that that codified racial segregation and discrimination). That has historically been the case in America. But today, structural injustices are usually created on the micro-level and affect a smaller area. Take, for example, the issue of poverty. In 2014, the two factors that are most likely to create structural boundaries that keep a child in poverty are their parents and their local community.

For almost four decades, social science research has shown there is a strong connection between the experiences of early childhood and socio-economic success in adulthood. Non-cognitive “soft” skills — qualities like impulse control, resilience, and “grit” — are now considered vital to ensuring a child has the education and character development necessary to succeed in life. Parents failure to instill these virtues in their children is the primary impediment to escaping poverty.

Liberal evangelicals hear such claims and decry them as “blaming the victim.” The parents don’t instill such virtues, they say, because they weren’t taught such virtues themselves. No doubt this is true. But it was also true that the structural injustices of racism were passed down from parent to child in the Jim Crow era. What matters is not so much who gets the blame but how we fix the problem – and in almost situation structural injustices are overcome by decreasing the levels of disorder and increasing the levels of individual freedom.

In the next few weeks I plan to write a series of posts explaining how increasing order in the lives of individuals, families, and communities overcomes structural injustices and promotes human flourishing. So for now I’ll merely provide an example of how increasing individual freedom can lead to the same outcome.

There are hundreds of thousands of children in America who could escape poverty if only their parents were allowed to choose the school they attend. While there are some excellent public schools in America, many students are trapped in schools with inadequate facilities, substandard curriculum, and incompetent teachers. Most parents, however, cannot afford to pay for education twice — once in taxes and again in private school tuition. School choice programs empower parents by letting them use public funds set aside for education on programs that will best serve their children. As Bill Cosby, a comedian who holds a doctorate in education, says, “We have a moral and societal obligation to give our children the opportunity to succeed in school, at work, and in life. We cannot meet that obligation unless parents are empowered to select the best schools of their children.”

Unlike their secular counterparts — who are more concerned about appeasing the NEA than helping children out of poverty — I suspect many, if not most, liberal evangelicals also support giving parents the power and opportunity to choose the schools their children attend, whether public, private, parochial, or homeschool. The main difference between liberals and conservatives on this issue is that many liberal evangelicals don’t yet recognize that educational choice not only increases freedom but also reduces one of the most pernicious forms of structural inequality.

8. Saddling future generations with crippling debt is immoral.

Another issue on which liberal and conservative evangelicals are beginning to find common cause is the issue of national debt. At Christianity Today, David P. Gushee — an ethicist and politically progressive evangelical — explains why the $17 trillion national debt is both immoral and unwise:

Most progressive evangelicals who address government spending focus on compassion issues. They connect God’s care for the poor to U.S. government spending priorities. This often seems to mean by default that all cuts to social welfare spending are bad, and that all increases are good.

I agree with my progressive evangelical allies that our government—which projects spending $3.77 trillion in fiscal 2014—seems to have sufficient resources to provide for the sick, the aged, the poor, and the uninsured. I agree with an overall reading of the Bible that prioritizes physical human needs over most other priorities. But I protest a too-easy move from “God cares for the poor and calls Christians to do the same” to “God wants the secular government of the United States to spend x on social welfare.” Translating a sacred text into a political ethic is not that easy.

Still, we have a moral problem on our hands: While our nation budgets $3.77 trillion for spending in fiscal 2014, it forecasts revenue of $744 billion less than that. If a nation does that for long enough, it ends up with a debt of $17 trillion—and rising.

A government that develops a pattern of spending considerably more than it raises behaves immorally. But its immorality is not simply the immorality-as-immediate-hardheartedness-to-the-poor, so often decried by my friends.

Like conservatives, many liberal evangelicals are beginning to recognize that national debt is a matter of intergenerational justice. As my friend John Coleman has said, “Debt can often be seen, essentially, as a loan from future generations to the current generation.” We are taking money to pay for our current projects and sending future generations the bill — all without giving them a voice or vote in the matter.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains,

Present generations may be said to exercise power over future generations when, for example, we create conditions that make it costly for future generations to decide against continuing to pursue present generations’ projects.

It’s easy to justify incurring debt in order to pay for projects we believe are necessary, such as expanding our current social safety net. But is it fair to reduce the ability of future generations to pay for their projects so that they can pay for ours? Most conservative evangelicals would say it is not only unfair, but outright immoral to transfer exorbitant amounts of wealth from future generations to those of us who are living today. Our crippling national debt is immoral form of intergenerational injustice.


In future posts, we’ll cover the remainder of the 12 principles:

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.


Recent posts in this seriesPart 1, Part 2

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).


  • Have been enjoying the series quite a bit, thank you!

    Any chance that it will be published as one essay? I have found the summary to be useful in my own conversations not only with other Orthodox Christians but the many liberal and progressive here in Madison.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks, Fr. Jensen. That’s a great idea. I’ll create a PDF formatted version of the series (e.g., links as footnotes) and have that ready on Friday when I post the last entry.

  • Blank

    Awesome series, and one that is sorely needed. Quick FYI: You have a type in the intro paragraph: This is the 3rd article but it says this is the 2nd.

  • Drewl

    Yikes. This is quite the telling of history.

    But it was also true that the structural injustices of racism were passed down from parent to child in the Jim Crow era. What matters is not so much who gets the blame but how we fix the problem – and in almost situations structural injustices are overcome by decreasing the levels of disorder and increasing the levels of individual freedom.

    Structural injustices like Jim Crow laws were defended on grounds of maintaining levels of “individual freedoms”: go read the Southern Bloc’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Or better yet, let’s go back to the Lincoln-Douglas debate: Douglas was all about affording states the individual freedom to do as they wish regarding slavery. Lincoln has a great quote about the ambiguity of the word liberty, which largely applies to your uncritical advocacy of “freedom” to remedy injustice:

    “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.”

    Promoting freedom to fight injustice only works if we can agree on whose freedom is being promoted, and at whose expense that freedom may come. For instance, Walmart is exercising its freedom to pay workers a wage so low that they will need various forms of assistance–government and private–to meet basic living needs. If, as the past three Popes have agreed, all workers are owed a wage that preserves their basic dignity, the freedom of Walmart is much like the freedom of the wolf, a freedom that comes at a cost to others, and in this case, perpetuates a structural injustice according to Catholic social teaching.

    • If, as the past three Popes have agreed, all workers are owed a wage that preserves their basic dignity

      When Walmart recently opened in Washington, D.C. they had 38 applications for every job opening. Now you could say that those worker should not have had the freedom to apply for those jobs and Walmart should not have had the freedom to offer them because they did not comply with what you think is an adequate wage. But then let me ask you, why aren’t you offering to pay them a higher wage yourself? Why would you expect Walmart to pay what you yourself would (I assume) be unwilling to do?

      It’s easy to talk about what “freedoms” should be allowed when we are not having to give up our own freedom (or money). Both Walmart and their workers are much better off than they would be if Walmart paid a higher wage (since the company would simply higher more productive workers since the higher wages would price the lower productivity workers out of a job).

      • Drewl

        Here’s the difference, Mr. Carter: the Catholic Church doesn’t say I individually owe Walmart workers a wage that protects their dignity, it says their employer does, or if not their employer, it says that “we” as a society do. Standing up for the “freedom” of Walmart to violate worker dignity (following CST) is exactly what troubles Lincoln: freedom sometimes merely perpetuates injustice.

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