Fundamentalists Embrace Darwin!
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 08, 2007 at 06:14:21 PM EST
Many fundamentalist Protestants embrace Social Darwinism. We have to appreciate the irony that as they reject Darwin's theory of evolution, they spread the idea of survival of the fittest in the economic sphere. 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.

Social Darwinism takes the idea of the survival of the fittest in nature and imposes it on economic systems by arguing that fierce and unregulated competition builds individual character and national economic health.~1 Social Darwinism is "a secularist philosophy," explains Richard Hofstadter, but it is influenced by "a kind of naturalistic Calvinism in which man's relation to nature is as hard and demanding as man's relationship to God under the Calvinistic system."2

There was "nothing in Darwinism that inevitably made it an apology for competition or force," says Hofstadter, so how "can one account for the ascendancy...of the rugged individualist's interpretation of Darwinism?" The answer, he explains, is that in the unregulated economic system of the 1800s, "American society saw its own image in the tooth-and-claw version of natural selection, and that its dominant groups were therefore able to dramatize this vision of competition as a good thing in itself. Ruthless business rivalry and unprincipled politics seemed to be justified by the survival philosophy."~3

In the late 1800s, "it was natural for conservatives to see the economic struggle in competitive society as a reflection of the struggle in the animal world."~4

An influential Social Darwinist in the late 1800s was William Graham Sumner of Yale University.~5 Sumner was a sociologist who believed in evolution, and at the same time was a preacher in the Puritan tradition.6 Sumner justified his views by arguing that in the United States, the terms "strong" and "weak" are "terms which admit no definition unless they are made equivalent to the industrious and the idle, the frugal and the extravagant...if we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest."7

Social Darwinism was used to justify great disparities between a wealthy few and the vast majority of working Americans. This was true in the late 1800s, and it is true in the early years of the new millennium.


1 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought; Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought; Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.

2 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, p. 10.

3 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, p. 201.

4 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, p. 57.

5 Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays.

6 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, p. 51.

7 Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, p. 57, citing Sumner, Essays, Vol. 2 p. 56. Similar sentiments are found in Sumner's essay, "The Challenge of Facts," in Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays, especially pp. 25-31.

Books Cited

Bannister Robert C. 1979. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Degler, Carl N. 1991. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. Oxford University Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. [1955] 1992. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Reprint edition. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sumner, William G. 1914. The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

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

This is an interesting topic to explore.  How can Christians, who are taught to reach out to the poor and weak, support a brand of political economy in which the poor and weak are oppressed as a political statement?
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Mon Jan 08, 2007 at 06:37:27 PM EST

Chip, this essay falls right in line with the research I've done in the last few months on the treatment of the poor in America- and it all goes back to Calvinist theology.  Indeed, much of the things we see have roots in the Henrician poor laws.

Tomorrow I will be bringing this to my Urban Poverty class- we will be discussing poverty research from the late 1800's and early 1900's and this may fit right into the discussion- especially that previously unknown tidbit about Sumner, who we may be discussing by name.

I may even quote this essay in the near future (in my papers), with your permission.

by ArchaeoBob on Mon Jan 08, 2007 at 11:40:01 PM EST

Thanks for the kind words. I will be following up on this next week with some discussion of more material published by others. I can't claim these are my ideas, but I have been working on a longer scholarly treatment. I am delighted to be cited in any context. There are a number of posts on this site that cover some of the same ground from a variety of fascinating perspectives. This includes my Talk2Action cyber-tome on Calvinism: God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 12:43:51 PM EST

Are most conservative evangelicals really social Darwinists, or do they simply not care about economic issues?  They certainly have aligned themselves with the pro-war, pro-rich crowd, and there seems to be a general "keep the government at bay" strain in those communities.  But that's different than a strong and considered belief that somehow our economy and society will be better off if we leave some folks at the side of the trail.  Besides which, some of these folks are part of the "big government conserative" crowd.  I'd be curious to know what specific fundies have been emphasizing social Darwinism.

by miggsathon on Fri Jan 12, 2007 at 11:20:30 AM EST
The following articles in this series contain numerous cites to folks who think that a substantial number of conservative evangelicals embrace a social Darwinist Free Market economic worldview, although they would simply call it "Christian Economics."
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Thu Feb 01, 2007 at 10:43:12 PM EST

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