Neoliberal Language Lessons

About Richard J. Meagher

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

How right-wing power—along with free-market ideas—shifted from conservative Christians to the Tea Party

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, political geographer David Harvey traces the triumph of neoliberalism back to a “revolutionary turning-point” in the late 1970s.[1] Figures across the world, including Deng Xiaoping in China and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, began to implement ideas and policies that favored property rights and market exchanges over public investment and government intervention.

In the United States, Harvey notes, Ronald Reagan participated in this early neoliberal wave when he “brought to life the minority tradition that stretched back within the Republican Party to Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s.”[2] This tradition had emphasized not only libertarian economics but also social traditionalism since at least the post-war period. But over the course of the 1970s, it was transformed into a political alliance between wealthy, neoliberal-friendly elites and a grassroots more interested in curtailing women’s bodily autonomy and promoting “family values”—the so-called Christian Right. Why has this latter group, comprised mostly of evangelical conservatives, acted as regular, if not always docile, allies in the Republican Party’s active role in the neoliberal project?

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

People wave signs at a “tea party” protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

Political analyst Thomas Frank, famously, thought the answer was clear: they were being hoodwinked.[3] According to Frank, Republicans talk about abortion and other social issues but do not actually provide much policy action. Yet while their supporters are distracted, Republican officials can erode the social safety net and promote unfettered, free-market capitalism. Still, Frank’s analysis has been criticized for suggesting that grassroots Christians are rubes.[4] In fact, social issues are not just distractions, but rather legitimate concerns for evangelical Christians. Liberalism and feminism are indeed threats to their way of life, or at least to the conservative, patriarchal social structures that their political and religious leaders promote as “natural.”

There also are concrete policy actions that Republicans provide to make neoliberalism “real” for evangelicals. Faith-based initiatives are a key feature of the “compassionate conservatism” so favored by George W. Bush.[5] These policies outsource and privatize welfare by providing grants to religious organizations, creating a kind of “market” where churches compete to provide voluntary support for the poor. (Frederick Clarkson covers this phenomenon extensively in his essay for this issue of The Public Eye.)  Churches remain eligible for federal dollars without having to conform to any prohibitions on discrimination or proselytization, while the neoliberal shrinking of the state proceeds. As both economic elites and evangelical leaders promote their alternative to a supposedly pervasive culture of “welfare dependency,” faith-based initiatives help cement Christian Right support for neoliberalism. As geographer Jason Hackworth notes, “The rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped to bond together elements of the American Right throughout the past thirty-five years.”[6]

Faith-based initiatives also have helped neoliberals by softening the image of their poverty policies; they’re not eliminating aid to poor families and children, but replacing it with a better alternative. (Forget that no evidence exists that these policies produce better results, or that they might actively undermine a democratic civil society.[7])

But Christian conservatives have come to neoliberalism for more than just welfare. Some scholars argue that evangelicals are naturally predisposed toward free markets. Sociologist Max Weber famously tied the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. More recently, historian Mark A. Noll has argued that the rise of evangelicalism in the early United States likely fostered acceptance of free-market principles among religious believers: having largely rejected regulation and authority in religious life, evangelicals were then ready to accept a similar economic program.[8] Sociologist Fred Block has even suggested that a shared commitment to “market fundamentalism” helps unite business elites and Christian conservatives; this latter group is particularly “reassured by its moral absolutism.”[9]

It may be true that evangelicals have an affinity for free markets, but Christian doctrine has also been aligned with social welfare liberalism, as with Catholics and the Social Gospel, or rights liberalism, as with the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement. The missing step is politics—a political force that activates Christian conservatives’ affinity for neoliberalism and transforms it into political action. And this is just what some savvy political operatives within Republican networks have done.

Evangelicals did not magically become Republicans in the late 1970s; the marriage required matchmakers. New Right operatives famously invited Christian evangelicals into the GOP, most publicly with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979.[10] Since then, the wealthy elites who run the GOP have spent years trying to convince the Christian Right to go along with their economic agenda, and have used religious-based discourse and coded language to do it. So the estate tax, for example, became portrayed as a “family” tax that disrupted the bonds of inheritance.[11] Similarly, voucher advocates use the language of “school choice” to enlist religious conservatives in neoliberal privatization efforts.[12]

All of these maneuvers have led to the present moment, when, at the grassroots level, the most active force within the Republican Party is no longer the Christian Right but the Tea Party. As polling by the Pew Research Center confirms, Tea Party activists are also often Christian evangelicals.[13] Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

It remains to be seen how much staying power the Tea Party has, and whether its leaders are engaged in a zero-sum game with the Christian Right in national politics. But their success in driving the American political agenda towards issues of deficits and the proper scope of government cannot be denied. On one level, this is a tremendous victory for economic (or corporate) conservatives. On the other hand, grassroots activists are taking neoliberal ideas to their logical conclusion, possibly damaging the GOP’s political prospects by pushing for government shutdowns and challenging incumbent Republican officials who are insufficiently devoted to their principles.

The obvious Frankenstein parallels may not be lost on today’s Republican elites. Still, Republican neoliberals continue to have one thing in common with their evangelical protégés; they are unlikely to waver in their faith.

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[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 9.

[3] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 6.

[4] Larry Bartels, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2006): 201-226. Frank’s analysis is generally more subtle than his detractors let on; his analysis is less about what voters think than about the kinds of discourses they adopt (referring to an antagonistic “liberal elite,” for example).

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014. https://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/

[6] Jason Hackworth, Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.

[7] David Ashley and Ryan Sandefer, “Neoliberalism and the Privatization of Welfare and Religious Organizations in the United States of America,” in Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance, ed. François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[8] Mark A. Noll, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). British historian Boyd Hilton suggests a similar dynamic for the UK in the same period; see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

[9] Fred Block, “Reframing the Political Battle: Market Fundamentalism vs. Moral Economy,” Longview Institute, Jan. 30, 2007, http://www.longviewinstitute.org/projects/moral/sorcerersapprentice.

[10] Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker, May 18, 1981.

[11] See Richard J. Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” The Public Eye, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2006). Also see Richard J. Meagher, “Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 2014).

[12] “‘School Choice Week’: A Dose Of Facts Debunks Voucher Propaganda,” Americans United for Separation of Church & State, https://au.org/voucherFAIL.

[13] “The Tea Party and Religion,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, Feb. 23, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion.

Rich Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA, and often writes about American conservatism. He blogs about Virginia politics at rvapol.com, and his article “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right is Becoming A Free Market Champion” appeared in the winter 2006 issue of Public Eye.