Do Social Conservatives Care About Capitalism

Austin Hill

1/15/2012 12:01:00 AM - Austin Hill

The Republican primary races are underway, and pundits are abuzz about whether or not religious social conservatives will embrace Mitt Romney.

That’s an interesting and worthwhile question.  But here’s another interesting question: do religious social conservatives care about the free market economy, and capitalism?

I’ve pondered this question over the years, in previous columns and in various talk radio venues.  When I do, I usually get very angry, visceral answers – responses like “of course we do,” and “how do you dare even ask?”

Despite the anger and discomfort, this is an important question to be asking.  Religious social conservatives are large in number and can influence the outcomes of elections. And as our nation is currently at an economic crossroads, it remains to be seen what our country and our country’s economic system will be like in the future.

But before we think about capitalism, ponder this for a moment: who are “religious social conservatives,” anyway? According to research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 70 Percent of American adults identify with some form of evangelical Protestant Christianity, mainline denominational Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, or Mormonism.

Obviously, adherents to these various faith traditions do not all think alike on issues of culture and public policy. However many members of these religious groups share common, strongly-held beliefs and values, so it is not surprising that over the past several decades they have often exhibited similar responses to public policy concerns amid America’s changing cultural landscape.

This is to say that not every individual who practices one of these religious traditions necessarily qualifies as a religious social conservative.  However, the religious social conservative movement is comprised of members all of these various faith communities, while the movement is most certainly dominated by Evangelical Protestant Christians.

The earliest beginnings of this movement can be traced back to the social upheaval of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s youth culture, and the 1973 Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision.  After decades of non-participation in elections and public policy debates, many devoutly religious Americans became alarmed by a “hippie” generation that was determined to overthrow our culture’s authority structures, and by their government arbitrarily determining that unborn children were not really human beings. 

Thus, “social conservatism” emerged as a movement that was focused on the most basic of all social structures – the traditional family.  Over the past several decades, concerns about the life of the unborn child, the rights of parents, and the definition of marriage have all taken center-stage among social conservatives, while each of these concerns have been openly regarded as “moral issues” that are worthy of religious peoples’ attention.

While the long-standing concerns of social conservatives remain in-play today, the United States now finds itself at another turning point.  Will our country continue as the “most free” among the world’s free market economies?  Or will the U.S. devolve in to more of a European-styled, socialistic economy, where private individuals and businesses make fewer decisions with their own economic resources, and politicians and government bureaucrats make more of those decisions?

Given our nation’s economic crossroads, and given  that social conservatives are so influential among the American electorate, the religious social conservative movement needs to look within itself and answer this question: should economics be regarded as one of the “moral issues” that is worthy of our attention? And if it is, then which economic system do social conservatives prefer – our free market capitalistic system, or a more socialistic, government-controlled system?

Economic systems and policies are, after all, an expression of how a society regards both its weakest and most powerful members and everybody else in between.  Likewise, economic policies often play a key role in determining who “wins” and who “loses” in a society, and they can either encourage or discourage positive, productive behavior.

Social conservatives can begin addressing economic issues by first confronting a very common assumption that is widely held as true – the assumption that capitalism is an economic system built on greed and selfishness, while socialism is a system based on generosity and “fairness.”

Despite its prevalence, this is a false assumption. When properly understood and implemented, capitalism is an economic system that allows every willing participant the opportunity to gain entry into the marketplace; demands that every participant abide by a uniform set of rules; rewards people according to a system of merit; and allows private individuals and organizations the freedom both to succeed, and to fail. Special governmental favors – bailouts and so forth – are an anathema to a capitalistic economic system.

Socialism, however, places in the hands of politicians and governmental bureaucrats the power to take away increasing amounts of wealth from certain individuals (generally the more wealthy in a society), and re-distribute that wealth to people that are believed to be “deserving” of it.  In such an economic system, personal responsibility, a system of merit, and one’s freedom to succeed and to fail, are all undermined.

Economics is absolutely a “moral issue,” and our nation’s economic dilemmas are numerous and profound.  Will the influential social conservative movement have a voice in setting the course for our nation’s economic future?