Religion & Liberty Online

What Liberal Evangelicals Should Know About the Economic Views of Conservative Evangelicals

liberal-conservativeWe read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus. We go to the same churches and even agree on the same social issues. So why then do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues?

The answer most frequently given is that both sides simply baptize whatever political and economic views they already believe. While this is likely to be partially true, I don’t think it is a sufficient explanation for the views of more thoughtful and sophisticated evangelicals (which naturally, dear reader, includes you and me).* Even if we start with our naturally acquired political orientation, our engagement with the Bible tends to have a dialogical effect, causing us to modify and rethink our economic views in light of principles we discern from Scripture.

Because we conservatives and liberals come to different conclusions, though, one side will be right and the other wrong (or at least more right and more wrong than the other). We all believe our views on economics are true, which is why we are justified in holding these beliefs and think those who disagree are necessarily wrong. That is just how belief works.

But we often don’t have a sufficient depth of understanding about each others fundamental economic beliefs to know why exactly we come to such different conclusions. Too often we express disagreements about policy without comprehending what guiding principles are motivating our differences of opinion.

In a short series posts I hope to shed some light on our differences by explaining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. (Note: A PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.) These are not the only principles that matter, of course, but these dozen often underlie our disagreements (or at least what we assume are our differences).

1. Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences.

If I had to choose only one item to highlight the difference between liberal and conservative evangelicals, it would be this one. Whether we are right or not, we conservatives truly believe we have a better grasp on the idea that good intentions are insufficient since they are frequently trumped by unintended consequences.

The law of unintended consequences is the principle that actions of people — and especially of government — always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. As the French Catholic economic journalist Frédéric Bastiat explained in his famous essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”:

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

A prime example is the debate about minimum wage laws. Both liberals and conservatives believe they are arguing in defense of the poor. The difference is that liberal evangelicals tend to focus on the visible effects (e.g., individual workers get higher wages) while conservative evangelicals tend to focus on the effects that must be foreseen (e.g., minimum wage increases hurt the poor and disproportionately affect African Americans).

If you’re a liberal evangelical and are baffled that a conservative evangelical could oppose an economic policy that appears so obviously just and moral, it’s a safe bet that it’s because they believe the policy leads to harmful unintended consequences.

2. Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles

Some conservatives are stuck in the go-go 1980s of the Reagan-era while some liberals act as if we’re frozen in the oppressive pre-Great Society era of LBJ. But both liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to be caught up in an even earlier age – somewhere between the time of Moses and Jesus.

We rightly derive our moral principles about economics from the Bible. But we often disagree on how they should be applied because we differ on applications of the context. In my experience, liberal evangelicals tend to directly map the Old and New Testament framework onto a modern context. When, for example, the Bible refers to the wealthy or the poor, liberal evangelicals apply those principles to what we consider, in our era, to be the wealthy and the poor.

In contrast, conservative evangelicals believe that we must properly interpret the context of the Bible in order to apply the principle to modern times. For instance, those who live in poverty in America – our ‘poor’ — often have more material wealth than the ‘wealthy’ people in the Bible. Conservatives are prone to ask,”How then can we accurately transfer and apply the Biblical terms ‘poor’ and ‘wealthy’ onto our own economic system?”

Similarly, in the Bible the poor were often poor because they were unjustly exploited by the wealthy. The economic systems in the Bible were often based on agriculture and animal husbandry. To raise livestock and plant crops required access to land. The wealthy, therefore, had incentives to exploit the poor: they wanted their land. But what does it mean for the wealthy to exploit the poor when the poor have nothing of value that the rich would want?

That brings us to the next point . . .

3. To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government.

Conservative evangelicals aren’t naïve; we understand that because human nature hasn’t changed. Given the right incentives (some) wealthy people will exploit the poor for their benefit. Where we differ from our liberal evangelical brothers and sisters is that we believe that when the wealthy want to exploit the poor, they will more often than not seek out and get the help of the government.

This is crony capitalism, the replacement of free markets with political markets. As Samuel Gregg explains:

In political markets, the focus is no longer upon prospering through creating, refining, and offering products and services at competitive prices. Instead economic success depends upon people’s ability to harness government power to stack the economic deck in their favor. While the market’s outward form is maintained, its essential workings are supplanted by the struggle to ensure that governments, legislators, and regulators favor you at other people’s expense. In that sense, crony capitalism certainly constitutes a form of redistribution: away from taxpayers, consumers and businesses focused on creating wealth, and towards the organized, powerful, and politically-connected.

Cronyism takes many forms, and almost all of them hurt the poor. A prime example that is often overlooked is occupational licensing. Some forms of occupational licensing are, of course, necessary to protect public safety. For instance, we all want a doctor who is licensed to practice medicine. But oftentimes, occupational licensing is merely a way to use the power of the government to reduce competition.

Take, for example, the case of Jestina Clayton. Ms. Clayton grew up in a village in Sierra Leone where every girl learns traditional African hair-braiding. When she was 22, Clayton moved to Centerville, Utah and found a niche market among a small group of Utah parents who had adopted African children but didn’t know how to style their hair. When she began advertising her services, though, she was shut down because she didn’t have a cosmetology license. Getting such a license would require nearly two years of school and $16,000 in tuition.

The “wealthy” (a relative term that can include the middle-class) can often find ways such as this to get the government to help them exploit the poor.

4. We love economic growth because we love babies.

The reason conservative evangelicals love economic growth is not because we love consumerism – it’s because we love babies and want more of them around.

Before we explain how that works, let’s consider the consequences if there were to be a long period in the U.S. with no economic growth:

• Unemployment and poverty would skyrocket.
• The national debt would increase as tax revenues declined.
• Banks and other financial institutions would go bankrupt, leading to housing and credit crises.
• Housing and land prices would sharply increase.
• Food prices would increase, leading to famine in other countries and hunger in our own.
• Social welfare programs would have to be scaled back.
• Federal and state governments would not be able to service their debts.
• Workers would have to work longer hours to maintain their current standard of living.

In other words, as soon as economic growth stops, economic decline starts.

But what causes the immediate decline? In a word: babies. As the population increases, more resources are needed to feed, clothe, and shelter all of the new people that are being created. To understand why this is happens, let’s consider a scaled-down economic model.

Imagine a village that has 100 people living in a state of economic equilibrium, that is, their economy is neither growing nor shrinking. Everyone has just enough food, clothing, shelter, and other amenities to take care of themselves—no more and no less than enough for subsistence living. Now let’s imagine that a “baby boom” occurs, and 20 new children are added to the village. What happens to the standard of living for the villagers? Assuming that they redistribute their resources equitably, everyone (including the new children) will only have 83% of the resources they need to survive. Over time, they will begin to starve or die of malnutrition.

We can see this occurring today in countries with low economic growth. As the population increases, there are not enough resources for everyone to rise above the poverty level.

Similarly, in the U.S. we need to create around 400,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with the babies that are growing up and entering the labor market. If the economy does not grow, there will be no jobs for them. In the short term redistribution of resources (e.g., unemployment compensation, welfare) will prevent the unemployed from going hungry. But without long-term growth a country’s wealth becomes depleted, causing instability and social breakdown.

However, if the new workers do find jobs and are engaging in productive labor, the economy will automatically grow as these laborers buy goods and services. Economic growth is, after all, a natural byproduct of productivity.

Economic growth is not a goal that should be pursued for its own sake nor a means to achieve a materialist paradise. Economic growth is not the chief end of man, but merely the blessing that results from fulfilling God’s cultural mandate.


Those are the first four principles. The other eight, which I’ll be writing about in future posts, are:

5. The economy is not a zero sum game.

6. Inequality and poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice.

7. The best way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase individual freedom.

8. Saddling future generations with crippling debt is immoral.

9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.

10. Jobs that lead to human flourishing are the most important part of a moral economy.

11. Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people

12. Free markets are the best way to serve free people.

Other posts in this series: Part 2

*The scope of this post is limited to evangelicals because we share a common source of authority – the Bible. This is not meant to exclude other traditions, for of course they will find much to agree and disagree with. It merely acknowledges that some other sources of authority (such as, for Catholics, papal social teachings) will necessarily be excluded from the discussion. Similarly, Christian libertarians will find that some of the principles that shape their views (such the non-aggression principle) are not addressed. That is why I’ve limited it to points of agreement that are more likely to be broadly shared by conservatives.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).