Why don’t white evangelicals vote for Democrats?

Historian Daniel Williams, in a thought-provoking piece at The Anxious Bench, asks:

Why have white evangelicals been so antipathetic to Democrats, even before their disagreements with Democrats over abortion or LGBT issues emerged?  And can anything ever convince them to support a Democratic presidential candidate?

And here is part of his answer:

I am convinced that as far as evangelicalism is concerned, there are deeply rooted theological and cultural reasons for white evangelicals’ rejection of the Democratic Party.  In other words, white evangelicals who vote Republican really are acting consistently with their own theological worldview, as can be seen in at least three areas where evangelical theology has clashed with liberal Protestantism and, by extension, with a Democratic Party that is today a largely secularized form of liberal Protestant theology.

Here are the three areas Williams identifies:

  1. White evangelical commitment to individualism means that they do not except political policies that address systemic or structure inequity.
  2. White evangelicals are suspicious of the state.
  3. White evangelicals do not view inequality as a social problem

I totally agree with Williams’s assessment here.

But then, if I read him correctly, Williams suggests that the “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden” movement embodies these ideals as well.

He writes:

Trump, they argue, is not a moral leader for the nation.  His racially charged rhetoric is dividing the church and making Christian racial reconciliation more difficult.  While the website for Pro-Life Evangelicals does note some areas in which pro-life Christians should support the policies of the Democratic Party (except, of course, on abortion), the explanations given by leading evangelical pastors as to why they joined the group focus much more on familiar evangelical arguments about individual character than on policy proposals.  “I’ve never seen someone so divisive and accusatory,” Joel Hunter, who voted for Trump in 2016 and now regrets it, declared. “We’re becoming divided and angry, and it’s the opposite of pro-life.”

In other words, the argument of many members of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden is that in a world of imperfect political choices, the Democratic presidential nominee this time around would be better than the Republican incumbent for the cause of the gospel.  Whether a majority of white evangelical voters will accept this argument and vote Democratic is highly doubtful.  But even if they don’t, it’s hard to imagine an argument that has a greater claim to being authentically evangelical.  If any argument could conceivably convince white evangelicals who genuinely believe in their own theological tradition to consider breaking with the Republican Party in this election, an argument about individual moral leadership and the cause of the gospel is the one that should.

This is a fair critique of the statement on the Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden website, but I am not sure it accurately describes the positions of the men and women who signed this statement.

  1. I don’t know the policy positions of all of the signers, but John Perkins, Ron Sider, and Richard Mouw certainly believe in systemic injustice.
  2. I don’t think any of the signers of the statement are suspicious of the state.
  3. I would imagine everyone who signed this statement believes that inequality is a social problem.

Read Williams’s entire piece here.

Frederick Douglass on Economic Inequality

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Historian Matt Karp introduces us to Douglass’s papers “The Accumulation of Wealth” (1856) and “The Land Reformer” (1856).

Here is a taste of his introduction at Jacobin:

No single document, of course, can solve the riddle of Douglass’s complex political ideas. But while doing research at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I came across two articles in the 1856 Frederick Douglass’ Papers that have not, to my knowledge, been reprinted or digitized since. (Most of Douglass’s journalistic writing remains unpublished, though a forthcoming volume in the Frederick Douglass Papers should help address that problem.) Nor have they been excerpted, quoted, or discussed at length in the extensive scholarship on Douglass.

Both articles, “The Accumulation of Wealth” and “The Land Reformer,” help shed new light on how Douglass saw the relationship between economic inequality and political democracy in the 1850s. They also demonstrate that in the age of Trump and Michael Bloomberg, Frederick Douglass has much to teach us today — not only about racism and civil rights, but the acute dangers posed by “the unlimited hoarding of wealth,” and the hard truth, still sidestepped by many liberals today, that true political freedom is only possible under conditions of material equality.

In both pieces Douglass embraces the position, held by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans (though remarkably few establishment Democrats today), that “wealth has ever been the tool of the tyrant, the readiest means by which liberty is overthrown.” He anticipates arguments that “unbridled accumulation” is simply a part of human nature: in fact, the “mighty machine” of capitalist society is an innovation, which compels, rather than reflects, acquisitive behavior. And he rejects the idea that poverty is an unchangeable fact of social life: it is, rather, the “consequence of wealth unduly accumulated.”

What is perhaps most striking here, however, is the underlying assumption that it is the duty of democratic politics to “minister” to the problem of economic inequality. Individual philanthropy, however noble, can never address the root of the problem. In fact, the highest aim of “the true statesman” is to devise measures that eradicate poverty, prevent “the undue accumulation of wealth,” and create an egalitarian economy where “no one” is either rich or poor.

Read the entire introduction and the primary documents here.

The Author’s Corner with David Prior

between freedom and progressDavid Prior is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. This interview is based on his new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: I stumbled into the project through primary source research. When I started my graduate work, my advisor encouraged me to look at U.S. foreign relations during Reconstruction. In the process of doing that, I wrote an early seminar paper on American interest and involvement in an insurrection by Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Crete against Ottoman imperial rule from 1866 to 1869. I was struck by how people in and from the United States, including former Confederates, not only discussed the insurrection, but argued over its meaning through competing sets of analogies to slaveholders, Apaches, Mormons, Poles, and Russians. Those analogies, and the underlying worldview they stemmed from, became what my book was about. I researched a number of seemingly disparate case studies that people at the time connected to each other and to Reconstruction, which is itself a term borrowed from Europe through analogy. I found myself attempting to fathom why these events, places, and individuals all called out for attention from people who, one would think, would have been narrowly focused on the South and its relation to the Union.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: In the broadest sense, the aim of the book is to take a new look at the cultural, intellectual, and political landscape inhabited by Reconstruction’s partisans—those who struggled over and with Reconstruction’s core issues. Between Freedom and Progress does this by recovering why and how they imagined themselves as actors in world history, and in particular how a belief that struggles for freedom and progress transcended the globe stood in creative tension with a closely related assumption that history was about and made by coherent, distinctive groups of people (nations, races, religions, tribes) with their own characters.

JF: Why do we need to read Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: To recover a sense of the otherness of the past, even while we continue to acknowledge the ways that racism and inequality link the United States and the world today back to the contested politics of the postbellum decade.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DP: I loved history, as well as economics, going back to high school and double majored in college. When I started thinking about graduate school, I decided I enjoyed history a touch more, although I’ll admit I’ve always missed being able to engage with both disciplines.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: Right now I am working on an edited volume entitled Reconstruction and Empire that looks at the various ways in which the legacies of the Civil War and abolition shaped the imperial moment of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

JF: Thanks, David!

The Meaning of Trump’s “Winter White House” in the Wake of Irma

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Rollins College historian Julian Chambliss puts Mar-a-Lago in some historical context.  He argues that the winter White House is part of a “Florida dream” that is unsustainable.

Here is a taste of Chambliss piece at Boston Review:

Donald Trump calls his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, his “winter White House.” This proclamation has been met with derision as well as outrage about the security costs and conflict of interest. But the sheer hucksterism that has defined Trump’s ownership—buying the once federally owned estate, overcoming local objections by turning it into an exclusive club, and finally using it, in name only, as a public institution—should also interest us. Often casting himself as an aggrieved party fighting entrenched interests in Palm Beach, Trump’s battles there offer a funhouse-mirror version of the common man’s struggle against elites. Presented in the rarified air of Palm Beach, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago travails foreshadowed his current political narrative.

Moreover, Trump’s relationship to Mar-a-Lago and his pursuit of victory there at all costs reveal a regressive vision of community, one that resonates deeply with Florida’s history. For almost 150 years, wealthy outsiders have fought an anemic state over who gets to enjoy paradise. Aggressive development opened up Florida for millions of ordinary Americans, but in the absence of an effective state, wealthy interests have hollowed out prospects for working people, degraded the environment, and made the consumption of Florida a rich man’s game. Mar-a-Lago reflects the legacy of Florida’s past. Given the newly established winter White House, this legacy now belongs to all of us.

Now, with Hurricane Irma’s aftermath certain to shape the state for years to come, the reality of policy inaction and the cost to individuals and communities is clear. Even as Republicans at the national and state level are quick to promise relief, they are equally committed to not talking about the excesses that cause it. As one scientist explained to the New York Times, “We know that as humans, we are all too good at pretending like a risk, even one we know is real, doesn’t matter to us.” In Florida, that natural human tendency has been enhanced by Republican governors who so persistently avoid mentioning the words “climate change” that scientists even “self-censor” their work. Yet, Florida is testament to a reality that cannot be ignored. Even as the state pulls itself together, the uncertain future must contend with a pattern of denial and a history of consumption that many are eager to maintain. Mar-a-Lago reflects this legacy of Florida’s past. Indeed, while the newly established “Southern White House” will no doubt be fine this time, we should care about what Florida’s legacies mean for all of us.

Read the rest here.

Can the Constitution Really Save Us?

GansehGanesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, argues in a piece at The New Republic that the Constitution of the United States was not designed to get us out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Here is a taste:

Long before Trump came along, America was already mired in a constitutional crisis—one that crept up on us gradually, as historical transformations always do. The reason is simple: Our Constitution wasn’t built for a country with massive economic inequality and deeply entrenched political divisions. The three times in our history when the republic has faced a threat to its very existence—the Civil War, the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, and the present moment—the crisis arose because America had evolved in ways the Founders could only dimly imagine. In each instance, the social conditions of the country no longer matched the Constitution.

Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the crisis we now face. It is written, in fact, into the very fabric of our society. And the only way we’ll avert the disintegration of our political system—as Lincoln and the abolitionists did in their day, and the Roosevelts and the progressives did in theirs—is first to understand its origins.

Read his entire piece here.

Did the Founding Fathers Care About Inequality?

Unequal GainsOver at The Atlantic, writer Alana Semuels argues that inequality was not an issue in revolutionary America.

Here is a taste:

…Is it really correct to say that America is built on a foundation of opportunity and economic freedom when that type of equality isn’t mentioned at all?

Not necessarily. The lack of language about equality might not be because the founders didn’t believe it important, but because economic inequality was barely a problem then. In fact, the colonies were among the most egalitarian places on earth at the time they declared independence. In the late 18th century, “incomes were more equally distributed in colonial America than in any other place that can be measured,” authors Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson write, in the recently released book Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700. The richest 1 percent of households held only 8.5 percent of total income in the late 18th century. Today, the richest 1 percent have 20 percent of total income. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1(with 1 being very high inequality) was just 0.367 in New England and the Middle Atlantic. It was 0.57 in Europe, in the late 18th century.

Early on, the colonies provided a level of economic equality that simply wasn’t possible in Europe. For one thing, there was a lot of land available once the colonists started taking it from Native Americans, and—as the game Monopoly shows us—owning property has historically been a good way to get ahead. Colonists were able to profit from the land. They farmed wheat, tobacco, and rice, and fished the seas for cod and hunted whales. With easy access to abundant resources, they sent goods to Europe and profited as a result. At the same time, population growth was slow. That meant those who wanted to work but didn’t own land could always find a job, And those who owned land paid a premium for labor because—with the exception of the South, which had slave labor—those seeking workers had few candidates to choose from. The scarcity of labor created an unintentional redistribution of wealth—inflating the earnings of non-landowners.

Upward mobility was also a lot easier to achieve around the time of the country’s founding, according to Gordon S. Wood, the author of the seminal book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. There were poor people in the early colonies and the Republic, but many fewer than there had been in Europe. About half the population of Britain in the 18th century was on the dole, Wood said. But there were far fewer poor people in America, partly because they couldn’t get there if they were truly impoverished.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Semuels correct?  It seems hard to argue with the fact that inequality among white people was not as great in 1776 as it was in 1876 or 2016.  But there was some degree of inequality in eighteenth-century America and it is definitely worth continued exploration by historians.

Quote of the Day

…the real poor are revealed as those who refuse to see themselves as such. They consider themselves rich, but they are actually the poorest of the poor. This is because they are slaves to sin, which leads them to use wealth and power not for the service of God and others, but to stifle within their hearts the profound sense that they too are only poor beggars. The greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow. It can even reach the point of being blind to Lazarus begging at their doorstep (cf. Lk 16:20-21). Lazarus, the poor man, is a figure of Christ, who through the poor pleads for our conversion. As such, he represents the possibility of conversion which God offers us and which we may well fail to see. Such blindness is often accompanied by the proud illusion of our own omnipotence, which reflects in a sinister way the diabolical “you will be like God” (Gen 3:5) which is the root of all sin. This illusion can likewise take social and political forms, as shown by the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, and, in our own day, by the ideologies of monopolizing thought and technoscience, which would make God irrelevant and reduce man to raw material to be exploited. This illusion can also be seen in the sinful structures linked to a model of false development based on the idolatry of money, which leads to lack of concern for the fate of the poor on the part of wealthier individuals and societies; they close their doors, refusing even to see the poor.

From Pope Francis’s Lenten Meditation, 2016

Nicholas Kristof’s Canadian Dream

Writing in his The New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof argues that the “American dream has derailed” as a result of inequality.  In fact, the so-called “American Dream” is more likely to be found in Canada.  Canadians receive free health care, work less, live longer, have healthier children, have safer pregnancies, and are more technologically savvy.


Meanwhile:

• The top 1 percent in America now own assets worth more than those heldby the entire bottom 90 percent.

• The six Walmart heirs are worth as much as the bottom 41 percent of American households put together.

• The top six hedge fund managers and traders averaged more than $2 billion each in earnings last year, partly because of the egregious “carried interest” tax break. President Obama has been unable to get financing for universal prekindergarten; this year’s proposed federal budget for pre-K for all, so important to our nation’s future, would be a bit more than a single month’s earnings for those six tycoons.

Read his entire column here.  Or perhaps watch this:

Ron Sider on Inequality

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, wonders if “economic inequality of opportunity” is a sin.  Here is a taste of his nuanced answer:

In my book Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, I argue that the bible does not promote equality of income or wealth. When laziness and other forms of sin result in less income, inequality is appropriate. When parents rightly pass on an inheritance of skill and wealth to children, some inequality is proper (although we certainly should keep the estate tax!). When the economic rewards of work create incentives for creativity and diligence, some inequality is desirable.

On the other hand, I believe the Bible suggests at least two limits on inequality. For one, the biblical principle of justice demands that every person and family have access to the productive resources so that if they act responsibly, the can earn a decent living and be dignified members of society. Whenever the extremes of wealth and poverty make it difficult or prevent some people from having access to adequate productive resources, then that inequality is unjust, wrong, sinful and must be corrected.

The second limitation on inequality flows from the biblical understanding of sin and power. In our broken world, whenever one group of people acquires excessive unbalanced power, they will almost always use it for their own selfish advantage.

And then Sider provides the sobering statistics, as he did so well in his classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  (You may also want to watch this video for some context).

Between 1993 and 2007, more than half of all the increase in income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. Between 2002 and 2007, 66 percent of all increased income went to the richest 1 percent. And in 2009-2010, 93 percent of all the increased income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. The richest 1 percent of Americans own more than the bottom 90 percent.

Over the last three decades, the average annual income of the richest 1 percent has jumped by $700,000 while the average Joe has actually lost ground. The poorest 20 percent had less income in 2009 than they did in 1979. Over 46 million Americans are in poverty.

Today there is much greater inequality and less equality of opportunity in the U.S. than in “aristocratic” Europe.

Then Sider offers some action steps:

There are ways that public policy could move us away from today’s gross inequality and back toward more equality of opportunity. We should maintain effective programs that care for and empower poor people. We should spend enough on minority urban education so that everyone, not just white suburbanites, receive an education that offers vastly expanded equality of opportunity. We should increase taxes somewhat on rich Americans and tax income from dividends and capital gains at the same rate as other income. Yes, we must greatly reduce our ongoing federal budget deficit over the next five years, but we need not — and should not! — do it on the backs of the poor.

And he finally concludes with an answer to the original question:

It is time for evangelical preachers to label today’s gross inequality what it is: SIN. If we believe what the Bible says about God’s concern for the poor; if we believe what the Bible says about justice; then we must denounce the gross inequality of opportunity and income in our country today as blatantly sinful.

D.G. Hart: Are You Looking for Inequality? Go to College

Darryl Hart reflects on Andrew Delbanco’s recent New York Times op-ed on the elite nature of America’s most prestigious colleges.  We blogged on Delbanco’s piece here.

Here is a taste of Hart’s post at The Front Porch Republic:

It doesn’t take an acquaintance with Tocqueville to spot the flaws in many American claims about equality. Just go to school. You soon learn that an A paper is not equal to a C paper. You also learn that those different grades will have a bearing on where you go to college. And at college you will learn the hierarchy of professors and the jealousies by which faculty guard their senior statuses. If you persist and go on to graduate school (and didn’t have grades to see the point of national rankings), you learn the differences between elite graduate programs and middle rung institutions. And if you hang on to finish a dissertation, you have already mastered the differences among university presses and will feel little gitty-up in your morning run if you have to settle for Penn State University Press after having shot for Princeton University Press or even the University of Pennsylvania Press.

In other words, the American academy, like every one of its peers and predecessors, is built upon hierarchies that should have taken down the American myth of equality at least 140 years ago when the research university set the pace for higher education and elevated the Ph.D. to its esteemed rank. But it did not….

Shackled and Drawn

Springsteen is very ticked off about inequality in America.  Here is another song off the forthcoming Wrecking Ball. 

Great morning light splits through the chain
Another day older and closer to the grave
I’m closer to the grave and come the dawn
I woke this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
Woke up this morning shackled and drawn

I always love the feel of sweat on my shirt

Stand back, son, and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong
Woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
The shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing this song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
Woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock, son, and carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing this song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn