When conservative Christians were politically liberal

My point was apparently not clear in yesterday’s post about “government as a force for secularization.”
I’m trying to think through the history of conservative Christian’s stance towards politics. There was indeed a time when many if not most conservative Christians were politically liberal.

I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt, as they say, in small town Oklahoma, where most people were Southern Baptists. (Not us, we belonged to a liberal denomination.) But virtually everyone was liberal politically. There was no Republican Party in the county where I grew up. They were liberal when it came to economic policy. We thrived on government pork barrel projects, with our long-ensconced representatives building dams and lakes and waterways and all kinds of stuff. If there was a problem, we wanted the government to take care of it. And the reason was not resentment of Abraham Lincoln or anything racial. It was fidelity to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. He brought us out of the depression, put us to work, started rural electrification, and on and on. None of our political heroes, from FDR to LBJ, did anything to challenge our Christian faith. It never occurred to them to do so.

Then came the Vietnam war. We were good LBJ Democrats, supporting him in his civil rights bill, the Great Society, and his crusade to bring Democracy to Vietnam. But then came another kind of liberal: The cultural liberal. The hippies and the yippies and the yahoos. Our boys volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but now these people are vilifying them. Then the Democrats started being on their side! Then we were getting things from our government like outlawing school prayer. Some of us saw the wisdom of that, but then the Supreme Court legalized abortion. The tide turned. As I heard people say, I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left me. We became Reagan Democrats. And now my county is solidly Republican.

Of course conservative Christians can be liberal politically. That was arguably the norm up until a few decades ago. But now things have changed. Most conservative Christians, not all, but most, are now alienated from their government, which in their eyes has become a force for secularization. Now they want a smaller government to minimize its power to threaten their way of life and their beliefs.

Could the Democrats win them back by focusing on economic and political liberalism, without the cultural liberalism? I suspect so. ButI don’t think that can happen now.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    If you mean by “Liberal” that people want a life relatively free from government interference, then I would classify myself as a liberal in that sense (i.e.-”classical liberal”). The problem is that the term “liberal” was hijacked by Marxists in the late 19th century, thus implanting the big government association that now resides with the word.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    If you mean by “Liberal” that people want a life relatively free from government interference, then I would classify myself as a liberal in that sense (i.e.-”classical liberal”). The problem is that the term “liberal” was hijacked by Marxists in the late 19th century, thus implanting the big government association that now resides with the word.

  • Joe

    And the Dem party was forever changed post 1968 convention.

  • Joe

    And the Dem party was forever changed post 1968 convention.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I think political liberalism, and liberalism in general (especially in media) is dying from a paradigm shift. After all, classic liberalism said something like “I am going to listen charitably, weight the arguments, and follow the evidence.” But that presumes somethings that we no longer hold. It presumes a neutral observer (to some extent), objectivity (to some extent), and arguments and ideas that make sense and can be accepted or rejected outside of context or experience. Most of these ideas are dead or dying in the liberal arts (there’s irony for you). I just don’t think that people believe liberalism any more.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I think political liberalism, and liberalism in general (especially in media) is dying from a paradigm shift. After all, classic liberalism said something like “I am going to listen charitably, weight the arguments, and follow the evidence.” But that presumes somethings that we no longer hold. It presumes a neutral observer (to some extent), objectivity (to some extent), and arguments and ideas that make sense and can be accepted or rejected outside of context or experience. Most of these ideas are dead or dying in the liberal arts (there’s irony for you). I just don’t think that people believe liberalism any more.

  • DonS

    I’m not sure I agree with your point that “most” Christians were economic liberals. Our family never was, nor were any of our friends or family, except my uncle, who was not a Christian. Perhaps in Oklahoma, which suffered unduly during the Dust Bowl Depression, folks were grateful for the public works projects which no doubt helped to drag that region out of the depression.

    I do believe that more people were more economically liberal 50 years ago than they are today, and that the cultural liberalism and statism that has arisen out of the left has caused people to re-think the wisdom of big government. But, think about this. What did it mean to be an economic liberal in the 1930′s – 1950′s? It meant public works, interstate highways, dams, bridges, lakes, etc. In other words, visible infrastructure that moved the economy forward and benefited everybody, at least in the community containing the project. Also, government budgets, as a percentage of GDP, except for WWII, were much smaller than they are today. Debt levels were small and manageable, and taxes were relatively low, especially for the middle class.

    Beginning in the 1960′s, liberalism changed its focus from public works to transfer payments. Government unions came into being, and converted the image of the civil service from relatively low paid, steady work, to big money, big pension activists out for themselves and not the citizens they purportedly serve. Other activists rose up, various special interest groups, to demand their share of transfer payments. Infrastructure began to be neglected, partially in the name of extremist environmentalism, another growing activist group, which attempted to block every project, worthy or not, and endlessly litigated everything. Infrastructure was also neglected because, quite frankly, most government money now goes to transfer payments and redistributive programs. Now we are to the point where the average productive person doesn’t feel like they see anything for their taxes, which consume about 40% of GDP, and that various interest groups are basically stealing their hard earned money for themselves. Together with all of this mayhem, government debt levels and entitlements have soared, and government has become openly hostile to traditional values and morality.

    It’s not a pretty picture, and, quite frankly, we would be nuts NOT to re-evaluate our political leanings in the face of all of this nuttiness.

  • DonS

    I’m not sure I agree with your point that “most” Christians were economic liberals. Our family never was, nor were any of our friends or family, except my uncle, who was not a Christian. Perhaps in Oklahoma, which suffered unduly during the Dust Bowl Depression, folks were grateful for the public works projects which no doubt helped to drag that region out of the depression.

    I do believe that more people were more economically liberal 50 years ago than they are today, and that the cultural liberalism and statism that has arisen out of the left has caused people to re-think the wisdom of big government. But, think about this. What did it mean to be an economic liberal in the 1930′s – 1950′s? It meant public works, interstate highways, dams, bridges, lakes, etc. In other words, visible infrastructure that moved the economy forward and benefited everybody, at least in the community containing the project. Also, government budgets, as a percentage of GDP, except for WWII, were much smaller than they are today. Debt levels were small and manageable, and taxes were relatively low, especially for the middle class.

    Beginning in the 1960′s, liberalism changed its focus from public works to transfer payments. Government unions came into being, and converted the image of the civil service from relatively low paid, steady work, to big money, big pension activists out for themselves and not the citizens they purportedly serve. Other activists rose up, various special interest groups, to demand their share of transfer payments. Infrastructure began to be neglected, partially in the name of extremist environmentalism, another growing activist group, which attempted to block every project, worthy or not, and endlessly litigated everything. Infrastructure was also neglected because, quite frankly, most government money now goes to transfer payments and redistributive programs. Now we are to the point where the average productive person doesn’t feel like they see anything for their taxes, which consume about 40% of GDP, and that various interest groups are basically stealing their hard earned money for themselves. Together with all of this mayhem, government debt levels and entitlements have soared, and government has become openly hostile to traditional values and morality.

    It’s not a pretty picture, and, quite frankly, we would be nuts NOT to re-evaluate our political leanings in the face of all of this nuttiness.

  • –helen

    Yes, but which direction would you lean now, when neither major party seems to be interested in anything but catering to the most wealthy who provide the campaign money by which they stay in power?

  • –helen

    Yes, but which direction would you lean now, when neither major party seems to be interested in anything but catering to the most wealthy who provide the campaign money by which they stay in power?

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I wish people would remember we are not limited to two choices. There is a third, even a fourth or fifth choice. Any more I would say both the Democrats and Republicans are conservative politically. They both wish to maintain the status quo of a large intrusive government. They only differ on the social agenda they which to enforce through governmental action. Any more true liberalism lies in the realm of the Libertarian party, they want to change the status quo.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    I wish people would remember we are not limited to two choices. There is a third, even a fourth or fifth choice. Any more I would say both the Democrats and Republicans are conservative politically. They both wish to maintain the status quo of a large intrusive government. They only differ on the social agenda they which to enforce through governmental action. Any more true liberalism lies in the realm of the Libertarian party, they want to change the status quo.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    * they which to enforce should read they wish to enforce

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    * they which to enforce should read they wish to enforce

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    The sticking point for me is the money.

    What do we do when the interest on our debt becomes the biggest expenditure?

    Is there a way to get back to solvency?

    I haven’t seen anyone really explain how we are going to get there.

    I guess there could be a way. But how?

    It is one thing to argue over spending and on what when there is money for it, but in this case, there is no money.

    I remember reading Larry Kotlikoff’s book, The Coming Generational Storm where he skillfully explained the obvious: the maximum amount a government can collect in income taxes is somewhere below 100% of what is earned. Unfortunately that may not be enough.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    The sticking point for me is the money.

    What do we do when the interest on our debt becomes the biggest expenditure?

    Is there a way to get back to solvency?

    I haven’t seen anyone really explain how we are going to get there.

    I guess there could be a way. But how?

    It is one thing to argue over spending and on what when there is money for it, but in this case, there is no money.

    I remember reading Larry Kotlikoff’s book, The Coming Generational Storm where he skillfully explained the obvious: the maximum amount a government can collect in income taxes is somewhere below 100% of what is earned. Unfortunately that may not be enough.

  • Terry Culler

    I’ve thought over the years that 3rd parties in this country fail because they are always built by people in an ideological minority–that is people who are economically conservative and socially liberal. In fact most people are economically liberal and socially conservative. If any party ever embraced such a view, I believe it would be the majority party for quite some time.

  • Terry Culler

    I’ve thought over the years that 3rd parties in this country fail because they are always built by people in an ideological minority–that is people who are economically conservative and socially liberal. In fact most people are economically liberal and socially conservative. If any party ever embraced such a view, I believe it would be the majority party for quite some time.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “We thrived on government pork barrel projects, with our long-ensconced representatives building dams and lakes and waterways and all kinds of stuff.”

    Those are not pork barrel projects any more than the Panama Canal is a pork barrel project.

    “If there was a problem, we wanted the government to take care of it.”

    Like what? You just wanted your tax dollars spent to provide police and fire protection and courts of law and building inspectors? That is not the same as expecting gov’t to provide medical care and free lunch for your kids. Those responsibilities fall squarely on the head of the household not on government.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “We thrived on government pork barrel projects, with our long-ensconced representatives building dams and lakes and waterways and all kinds of stuff.”

    Those are not pork barrel projects any more than the Panama Canal is a pork barrel project.

    “If there was a problem, we wanted the government to take care of it.”

    Like what? You just wanted your tax dollars spent to provide police and fire protection and courts of law and building inspectors? That is not the same as expecting gov’t to provide medical care and free lunch for your kids. Those responsibilities fall squarely on the head of the household not on government.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    sg, You hit the nail on the head. Government projects for the benefit of infrastructure enhancement or general economic benefit are far different than welfare and handouts. The REA came to Montana in the early 50′s. Before that only the larger towns had electricity and telephone. This benefit did not take very long to create economic benefit for the users or repayment to the government. This is a direct contrast to throwing government debt into programs that show no real long term benefit even for the direct recipients.

    Trying to stimulate the economy by generating debt is like wetting your pants to keep your butt warm. It doesn’t take very long before a very uncomfortable situation develops.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    sg, You hit the nail on the head. Government projects for the benefit of infrastructure enhancement or general economic benefit are far different than welfare and handouts. The REA came to Montana in the early 50′s. Before that only the larger towns had electricity and telephone. This benefit did not take very long to create economic benefit for the users or repayment to the government. This is a direct contrast to throwing government debt into programs that show no real long term benefit even for the direct recipients.

    Trying to stimulate the economy by generating debt is like wetting your pants to keep your butt warm. It doesn’t take very long before a very uncomfortable situation develops.

  • S Bauer

    One man’s pork barrel project is another man’s infrastructure enhancement.

  • S Bauer

    One man’s pork barrel project is another man’s infrastructure enhancement.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    OK, first a correction; given that unemployment never went below 15% from 1930 until the Wehrmacht was in Poland, it’s an error, and a big one, to suggest FDR got the nation out of the Depression. FDR has benefited from the biggest MSM PR campaign (never mind schools of education) ever, with the possible exception of the treatment Barack Obama has been afforded by the same. FDR did not end the Depression, but rather sustained and nourished it until Schicklgruber and Hirohito made his policies moot.

    SG asks a great question; when does it become unsustainable? I’ve personally seen information that indicates that when the total federal tax rate gets above about 20% in our country, something very interesting happens; it doesn’t get paid. So when spending plus interest on the debt exceeds this level, it is unsustainable.

    That is, right now.

    What to do to fix the problem? More or less, we have a choice to make; either we drastically cut back on most spending, especially entitlements, or we bankrupt ourselves and our children. Repudiating portions of our debt–especially those held in government trust funds–might need to be on the table.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    OK, first a correction; given that unemployment never went below 15% from 1930 until the Wehrmacht was in Poland, it’s an error, and a big one, to suggest FDR got the nation out of the Depression. FDR has benefited from the biggest MSM PR campaign (never mind schools of education) ever, with the possible exception of the treatment Barack Obama has been afforded by the same. FDR did not end the Depression, but rather sustained and nourished it until Schicklgruber and Hirohito made his policies moot.

    SG asks a great question; when does it become unsustainable? I’ve personally seen information that indicates that when the total federal tax rate gets above about 20% in our country, something very interesting happens; it doesn’t get paid. So when spending plus interest on the debt exceeds this level, it is unsustainable.

    That is, right now.

    What to do to fix the problem? More or less, we have a choice to make; either we drastically cut back on most spending, especially entitlements, or we bankrupt ourselves and our children. Repudiating portions of our debt–especially those held in government trust funds–might need to be on the table.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    S Bauer @12– See sg @10. There is a big difference between building for the common good and throwing money at the economy for “stimulation”.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    S Bauer @12– See sg @10. There is a big difference between building for the common good and throwing money at the economy for “stimulation”.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “More or less, we have a choice to make; either we drastically cut back on most spending, especially entitlements, or we bankrupt ourselves and our children.”

    According to the census 20% of women over 40 have no children. Assuming men are similar, that means 20% don’t need to worry about the future. Not saying they don’t care, just that it isn’t obvious they need to worry. Assuming another 31% figure later generations will magically figure something out, and you have 51% who will not be voting to reduce entitlements.

    We have a mess on our hands.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “More or less, we have a choice to make; either we drastically cut back on most spending, especially entitlements, or we bankrupt ourselves and our children.”

    According to the census 20% of women over 40 have no children. Assuming men are similar, that means 20% don’t need to worry about the future. Not saying they don’t care, just that it isn’t obvious they need to worry. Assuming another 31% figure later generations will magically figure something out, and you have 51% who will not be voting to reduce entitlements.

    We have a mess on our hands.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    I am over 40. 58 to be precise. We have 5 children. We have 8 grandchildren and more to come, I am sure, over the next 10 years. I hope they become independent workers and thinkers rather than wards of the government. I will vote the “I refuse to drink the Kool-aid” ticket and hope for the best. Unfortunately, many do not know what that means.

  • Jerry Roseleip

    I am over 40. 58 to be precise. We have 5 children. We have 8 grandchildren and more to come, I am sure, over the next 10 years. I hope they become independent workers and thinkers rather than wards of the government. I will vote the “I refuse to drink the Kool-aid” ticket and hope for the best. Unfortunately, many do not know what that means.

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