10 March 2010

The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Entrepreneurial Conservatism

Max Weber I'm not, but an idea occurred to me recently that might fuel further thought elsewhere. For a long while I've wondered about the paradoxical affinity between American evangelical Christians and the modern entrepreneurial conservative movement. Entrepreneurial conservatives, who we can identify with the constituency for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Rush Limbaugh (for instance) ever since, endorse the kind of "creative destruction" that true conservatives should abhor, and give free enterprise priority over traditional morals in too many cases, one would think, for a religious conservative's comfort. Yet evangelicals often make up the shock troops for this ideological movement, long after they had any semi-plausible reason to fear godless communism. It's easy to assume that their motives have little to do with economics, and that they most likely fear the "satanic" elements that would undermine American virtue from within if not for Republican vigilance, however ineffective it proves in practice. But if evangelicals judged by results they might well find Republicans wanting on the moral defense issue. I think the appeal of entrepreneurial conservatism for evangelicals goes beyond moral sensibility, however.

One thing that distinguishes entrepreneurial conservatism is its contempt for any notion of "entitlement." Never mind that civilization itself is an entitlement claim to relief from the laws of the wilderness; this kind of conservatism despises what it perceives as a demand for "something for nothing" or, worse, a demand by Paul to live off of Peter's earnings, extracted by taxation. The entrepreneurial conservative dreams of breaking liberals' sense of entitlement, presuming that the liberal will become a more productive member of society once he realizes that nobody owes him anything but respect for his freedom to stand or fall on his own. I suspect that this mindset appeals to evangelicals because it's similar to their own belief regarding human destiny. The first premise of evangelism, after all, the beginning of the "born again" experience, is the acknowledgment that you are a sinner, the admission that you deserve to burn in hell if you don't submit to God's grace and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. The entrepreneurial conservative, in turn, wants you to admit that you deserve to die -- if you prefer, to suffer, to do without the best health care, the best education for your children, etc. -- if you don't submit to the laws of The Market and fend for yourself without making demands on others.

The idea that people in a community can entitle each other to life by committing themselves to cooperation -- that they might do such a thing on the assumption that we all deserve to live because we all want to live -- violates the dearest tenet of the evangelical and the entrepreneurial conservative alike: that there is an eternal and unalterable law that all must obey, or else. That people might make a better law, and stick to it, is an intolerable idea for this mentality, which is characterized in either case by a contempt for man's capacity to consciously order society to eliminate what one group considers intractable (sin) or what another considers necessary (competition for survival). The kinds of people I've described are full of professed love for mankind and faith in its ability to innovate and improve life, but they seem to be united by a kind of misanthropy and a corollary imperative, on the spiritual and material levels alike, to save themselves first. I apologize if this characterization offends or misrepresents evangelicals of liberal or leftist views, but to them I respectfully suggest that their views are exceptional, whether they prove my rule or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Which is rather strange, since the direct followers of Jesus were apolitical communists. They lived together and shared what they had. If Jesus needed a boat, Peter was right there. If Jesus needed a house to throw a party at, Lazarus and/or Joseph were there. There was no accretion of wealth or money as far as the earlier journalists saw fit to mention. The fact that Jesus decries the wealthy a number of times and admonishes his followers to "love one's neighbor as one's self (even if said neighbor is a Samaritan - the Hebrew equivalent of a "nigger").