The Christian Right, Calvinism, and Free Market Ideology
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 15, 2007 at 04:56:29 PM EST
In my current series of articles I am expanding on the idea that the connection between Social Darwinism and Calvinism as it evolved in the United States is one reason so many conservative Christian evangelicals today find allies in the Republican Party.1 I have already explored this in my Talk2Action series God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series as well as my last blog essay here, Fundamentalists Embrace Darwin!

Just before the mid-term elections, I co-wrote an article with Pam Chamberlain, my colleague at Political Research Associates (PRA), Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006. We argued that:

There is a natural historic congruence between the Calvinist-based theology of many White evangelicals, and the ideology of Free Markets and less government regulation fostered by the Republican Party.2

How does this work?

In an interview with Doug Henwood of Left Business Reporter, Henwood explained how the work of historian Richard Hofstadter puts these relationships into a context which makes the legacy of anti-Roosevelt rhetoric in the Christian Right come more sharply into focus:

Hofstadter underscores the radical departure of the New Deal from the individualist roots of historic American social and political movements for something much more collective. That kind of collectivism, which lasted into the 1970s, is exactly what the New Right has been trying to reverse all along, and they've accomplished a good bit of the task.

Hofstadter’s emphasis on the individualism of American white Protestantism is highly relevant now - it illuminates what's the matter with Kansas, since American white Protestants love “The Market” as an instrument of reward and discipline. That love is not some recent confidence trick perpetrated by Karl Rove, but has deep roots.3

Richard J. Meagher shows how this works in a specific issue: taxes. In PRA's Public Eye magazine, Meagher wrote an article titled "Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion."4 Meagher writes:

"Death Should Not Be a Taxable Event." In August of 2005, this headline appeared on the website of the conservative evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family. The accompanying article asked Focus members to persuade their Senators to repeal a federal tax on inherited estates.5

Focus on the Family is not the only Christian Right organization to add this tax to its hit list. The Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council (FRC), and other conservative Christian groups condemn the estate tax in radio broadcasts and in newsletter updates; they include it on voter scorecards; and they ask members to encourage their federal representatives, as FRC head Tony Perkins puts it, to "give this onerous tax a proper burial."6

But the estate tax only affects the wealthiest of Americans, and seems to have nothing to do with the social issues, such as abortion or sex education, that normally concern the Christian Right. What would make them lobby for a lower tax rate on the wealthy, especially since almost all estates are exempt from the tax anyway?

The answer is simple. Over the course of the 1990s, the economic conservatives successfully recast the estate tax as a "family" issue, using language that appealed more directly to conservative evangelicals. And the Christian Right, primed by years of describing themselves as a "pro-family movement," and spurred on by a group of intellectuals who put forth a Christian economics of the family, jumped at the bait, becoming staunch supporters of repeal. Once Bush signed a temporary estate tax repeal in 2001, the Christian Right groups joined the fight in earnest to make the repeal of the so-called "death tax" permanent. 7

The result, says Meagher, will be "closer ties between economic conservatives in the Republican Party and the religious conservatives who make up the Party's voting base." Meagher reports that "some conservative activists feel that economic issues like the estate tax may be the key to maintaining a conservative electoral majority in the years to come." 8

Thus Calvinism plus Social Darwinism begat the anti-Roosevelt Free Market ideologues who begat the New Christian Right. This is one way Christian Fundamentlaists and evangelicals can find common cause with uber-libertarians such as Grover Norquist, who once said he wanted to starve the federal government to the size where it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Norquist also has denounced recipients of federal funds as “cockroaches,” 9 and he suggested his allies “crush labor unions as a political entity.” 10

I am sure Christian Right readers of Talk2Action can help point me to the passages in the Bible where those sentiments can be found, yes?


1 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcot Parsons (New York: Routledge, [1930] 1999). See also, Chip Berlet, "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration,” The Public Eye, Political Research Associates (18)3, (Winter 2004),

2Chip Berlet and Pam Chamberlain, Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006. A Report from Political Research Associates, October, 2006,

3 Interview with Doug Henwood, based on comments made on LBO listserve.

4 Richard J. Meagher, 2006, "Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion," The Public Eye magazine, (Winter), pp. 1, 8-14,

5 Meagher, citing Atwood, Aaron, "Death Should Not Be a Taxable Event," Focus on the Family,, 9/15/06.

6 Meagher, citing Perkins, Tony, "Death and Taxes," Tony Perkins' Washington Update,, 9/15/06.

7 Richard J. Meagher, 2006, "Tax Revolt as a Family Value."

8 Ibid.

9 Norquist “crush” quote from Henderson and Hayward, “Happy Warrior"; Norquist “bathtub” quote from Ed Kilgore, “Starving the Beast: If President Bush keeps listening to Grover Norquist, Republicans won't have a government to kick around anymore,” Blueprint Magazine, The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) (June 30, 2003), (accessed June 16, 2006). Cockroach quotes appear in both.

10 Kilgore, “Starving the Beast.”

See Also:

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series

Fundamentalists Embrace Darwin!

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog


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