We’re beginning to see the contours of a new era in American politics: The once-bright line between so-called social issues and economic ones is blurring to the point of invisibility.
On my way to listen to a bunch of heathens play rock-and-roll at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club Monday night, I tuned into a sermon by Dr. David Jeremiah, broadcast on WAVA-FM.
Entitled “The Coming Economic Armageddon,” it tied the country’s fiscal woes—bankrupt entitlements, rising debt, endless war—to a prophecy in the Letter of James: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. ... You have lived on earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
Faith-based criticism of economic policies is not exactly unprecedented. From William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech to the Christian undercurrents of anticommunism to Jim Wallis’s religious-left movement, there has long been a cross-pollination of spirituality with dollars and cents.
Today’s wrinkle is that there seems to be an element of conservatism that sees cultural and economic questions not simply as interrelated so much as one and the same. Put another way: America is a Christian nation, and part and parcel of Christian orthodoxy is small-government conservatism.
From the left and right, respectively, Jonathan Chait and Michael Gerson independently corroborate this new phenomenon.
Reviewing Arthur Brooks’s book The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future, Chait writes:
The premise of The Battle is that America is fighting a “culture war,” but this culture war is not over social issues—it is over economic ones. A culture war, of course, is a zero-sum fight between two antithetical values in which compromise is impossible. That is how Brooks portrays the conflict between statism and free enterprise that has been unleashed by Obama’s radical attack on American values. “These competing visions,” warns Brooks, “are not reconcilable: We must choose.”
And here's Gerson, in a Washington Post column headlined “Obama’s new culture war over government’s role”:
[T]he failure of Obama's religious appeal is also ideological. It is true that evangelicals are generally not libertarian. They admit a place for government in encouraging values and caring for the needy. Yet they do not believe that governmental elites share their values or have their best interests at heart. Among conservative Christians, government is often viewed as a force of secularization—a source of both bureaucratic regulation and moral deregulation. By identifying with expanded government, Obama fed long-standing evangelical fears of the aggressive, secular state.
I’m all in favor of conservative efforts to limit and, where possible, reduce the size of government—and I believe there’s a moral dimension to these questions. Who could deny the corrosive effects of debt and greed on the soul?
But we’re raising the stakes of the kind of tension that Jesus discerned long ago in his famously brilliant God/Caesar distinction. A liberal democracy is simply not durable enough to handle every clash over public policy as though it’s a matter of life and death, orthodoxy and heresy, and righteousness and wickedness.