Churches and States

The paradoxical alliance between libertarian activists and Christian charities

In the final days of the Republican presidential primary earlier this year, Mitt Romney found himself battling against two very different opponents representing opposite ends of the Republican spectrum: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Paul is a libertarian who calls for a minimal state at every turn, opposing everything from drug laws to the invasion of Iraq. But social conservatives like Santorum favour a morally interventionist state, one that says you cannot have an abortion or marry someone of the same sex. While Paul and Santorum represent two arguably incompatible perspectives on the role of the state, most Republicans—including one Mitt Romney—try to embrace both, despite the inherent tension and contradictions between them. American conservatives like a low-tax, minimal welfare state that yet spends heavily on the military and law enforcement, and many see no irony in fighting any attempt to regulate guns while furiously trying to ban dirty pictures.

Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States focuses on this sometimes paradoxical fusion between economic and religious conservatives in the United States, especially among evangelical Christians. A geographer (but “a political economist, really”) at the University of Toronto, Hackworth finds an explanation in “religious neoliberalism,” a set of ideas that seeks to replace the traditional welfare state with religious charities and other private organizations.

Religious neoliberalism, Hackworth argues, serves different ends; it allows religious groups to build and maintain a role in public life, but also helps to “soften the edges of cold-hearted bare-knuckled neoliberalism” by promoting “faith-based” solutions that empower religious groups while chipping away at the state. The book explores this apparent bargain within American conservatism and the implications for the welfare state, with references to George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives along with case studies of Habitat for Humanity, gospel rescue missions and the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Very few individuals actually call themselves neoliberals, but it is a term used heavily by self–proclaimed opponents, often to cover a variety of right-wing ills. Unlike many such writers, Hackworth provides a succinct and focused definition of neoliberalism, which he sees as libertarian and rooted in the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman: belief in a minimal state and the primacy of individual rights and choice in almost any context. Hackworth suggests that the number of actual card-carrying neoliberals is relatively small—a few activists, the Cato Institute, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc.—and, crucially, most do not care about the moralistic agenda of the religious right, recognizing its inconsistencies with their larger anti-state, no-government-meddling message, or at least view it as a lesser priority. (Some, however, oppose abortion on the grounds that fetuses have individual rights that trump those of the woman carrying them.) But neoliberals have realized the value of harnessing social conservatism for their own ends, even if religious and faith-based groups may not realize what is happening. Thus Hackworth argues that neoliberals have been successful at getting evangelical Christians and others to adopt their ideas of state inefficiency and the inevitable supremacy of private solutions for public problems—whether or not it leads to contradictions.

Why do Christians go along with neoliberalism/libertarianism? Christianity is altruistic and calls for compassion for the less fortunate, one of the reasons Ayn Rand disliked religion. But the numerous scriptural references to helping the poor are silent on whether this is a job for the state or the private responsibility of churches and individuals, and Christians are split on this. For a fair number of Catholics, the bulk of mainline Protestants and the small but vocal “evangelical left,” it is right and just to use the power and resources of the state to help the poor. But many evangelicals, with their heavy individualistic emphasis on personal salvation, see compassion primarily through a personalized, non-state lens. Already among the most reliable givers to charity (mainly to support their churches and missionaries), conservative Christians are highly susceptible to neoliberal arguments that it is they, rather than the state, who should be looking after the poor.

Hackworth explores these ideas through several methods, but primarily through content and discourse analysis. He examines 50 years of Christianity Today magazine (the Time of the evangelical world) and decades of policy resolutions by the National Association of Evangelicals to see how evangelicals view poverty and welfare, finding a strong neoliberal streak suspicious of government welfare but also a commitment to charity. “Because the evangelical identity is self-consciously built, at least in part, on the idea of compassion,” he finds, “most critiques of government welfare are followed by or contrasted with the presentation of suitable alternatives” (such as private faith-based charities). Hackworth labels these “discursive contortions,” but concedes that evangelicals do seem to have “an evidently genuine concern for the poor.”

There are only a few true Christian libertarians, at the far end of the conservative spectrum, along with renegades such as legendary televangelist Pat Robertson, who recently came out in favour of legalizing marijuana. A much bigger and less ideological strand of American Christians embraces “prosperity theology”—an updated form of Weber’s Protestant work ethic that does not directly attack the state, but approves of the pursuit of wealth and “individual responsibility for material success” through figures such as Joel Osteen, the Houston mega church pastor whose self-help books are on sale at your local Chapters. It is through this sort of back channel that neoliberalism has spread so effectively, convincing the religious that they do not need the state—they just have to work harder. This also matches up with Christianity’s inherent moralism to emphasize “individual causes of poverty,” rather than larger structural reasons, and encourages paternalistic, non-state solutions like “adopting” former welfare recipients until they are “relieved of their irresponsible ways.”

So private religious charities are very useful for the neoliberal vision of a sharply diminished state, whether they realize it or not, and the second part of Faith Based documents these arguments through specific charities. One is Habitat for Humanity (which Hackworth notes is so well known that it needs no explanation, and is thus a particular neoliberal favourite). Hackworth reviews newspaper editorials to find references to Habitat not just as a sporadic charity but normalized “as an honorable alternative to the welfare state.” He finds these more prevalent in conservative American newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal than in The New York Times, and concludes that Habitat provides “a politically feasible way to criticize the welfare state and its recipients without being mean spirited.” Another chapter examines “gospel rescue missions”—homeless shelters that are not just faith based (like, say, the basement of a typical United Church) but “faith-saturated” and openly religious in their Bible thumping. Hackworth suggests these missions are “venerated” by neoliberals because they shun government funds and emphasize personal responsibility. Finally, he chronicles the “neoliberal fantasies” of think tanks and activists who sought to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans through churches, volunteers and other non-state alternatives.

Hackworth makes it clear that it is not necessarily the religious charities making these claims and that most do not seek to replace the state entirely. Many are interested in taking money from the state, as long as there are minimal strings attached, and their “religious liberty” (such as the ability to set their own standards of moral behaviour) is not endangered. And so “neoliberals are eager to hand social services over to churches as a way of reducing the size of government, while social conservatives are interested in using government to reform the poor and the larger culture from which they feel poverty is spawned.”

Hackworth argues faith-based charities are no substitute for the state for two reasons. First is simple capacity. Private, volunteer-based charities cannot possibly replace the full scope of the state, and most of them know it. Habitat for Humanity has built many thousands of homes over the years around the world, but turns away most applicants and is ultimately only a tiny supplier of housing to the poor. Second is the moralistic approach of faith-based organizations, often emphasizing “the deserving poor.” Thus, Habitat recipients must have a certain income and invest their own “sweat equity” hours to earn/deserve their house, while the gospel rescue missions commonly require that recipients attend chapel services in return for food and shelter (although there may not be any requirement to stay awake). In short, says the author, the idea that these can replace the welfare state is fanciful and highly unrealistic, except in “neoliberal fantasies.”

Hackworth’s focus is the United States, but he tries to incorporate Canadian content here, with limited success. He says “Canada has not thus far had a widespread faith-based welfare debate” and lacks the vigorous and well-funded neoliberal/libertarian movement found in the United States. He tracks Canadian newspapers for neoliberal references to Habitat for Humanity as superior to government housing but, unlike The Wall Street Journal, he finds few such references in the National Post; inconveniently for the argument, they are more prevalent in The Toronto Star. However, there are some interesting Canadian developments not mentioned in Faith Based, like the 2010 kerfuffle over public funding for a Youth for Christ aboriginal drop-in centre in Winnipeg, and the recent Christian Horizons case over the firing of a lesbian worker from a religiously run group home in Waterloo, showing that some of the American tensions and issues are spilling over the border.

Faith Based is about public policy, but it is ultimately a work of political and social theory rather than a policy wonk treatise, since Hackworth is searching for “theoretical ways out of this quandary” of trying to make sense of the religious elements of neoliberalism. He notes that most critiques of neoliberalism have little to say about religion and the contradictions between economic and moral conservatism; Faith Based makes an important and original contribution for that reason and will be an important addition to the radical political economy literature.

But Faith Based’s theoretical focus on discourse leaves unanswered key questions: How truly influential are these ideas? Are faith-based charities really the (unwitting) handmaidens of libertarian neoliberalism? Admittedly, policy outcomes are not the book’s focus, which is rather to identify and unpack the concept of religious neoliberalism. But while neoliberals may let their fantasies run rampant, the Cato Institute and Wall Street Journal editorial page do not set policy, even in Republican administrations, and the book provides few smoking guns to link specific proposals and ideas with actual policies and outcomes. In particular, the Bush administration’s much discussed Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (continued by Barack Obama, and referred to throughout the book) proved largely hollow with modest and unclear impacts.

Instead, Faith Based is rather undiscriminating in identifying examples of neoliberal influence, because it seems that almost any criticism of the welfare state or praise for the superiority of non-government alternatives qualifies. If you suggest that public housing or social assistance are not always roaring successes and have flaws that cannot be solved simply by more money, or that private partners can be at least part of the solution, then you too, according to Hackworth, have been drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid. The book is also somewhat disjointed (several of the chapters were previously published as journal articles, providing a somewhat lurching narrative) and feels curiously out of date because it tries too hard to be timely. Hackworth argues that “religious neoliberalism … has been hobbled, to say the very least, by the events of the past several years”—i.e., the financial meltdown, the election of Obama and a more interventionist posture in Washington. Such assertions may have made sense in the stimulus years of 2009–10, but less so in the following age of austerity and polarization, not to mention the run-up to another presidential election.

Faith Based also has no time for the uncomfortable question of whether morality and personal responsibility do have a place in welfare policy. Is there indeed a “deserving poor”? Can the state ask for certain types of behaviour? Can religion and spirituality provide solutions where the state has repeatedly failed? These are controversial but not outrageous questions. While the book does not specifically address aboriginal poverty issues, the importance of aboriginal spirituality for welfare and justice issues provides a particularly interesting dimension of “faith-based” solutions. Ultimately, Faith Based makes an important theoretical contribution to the study of neoliberalism and sheds light on the odd contradictions of modern American conservatism. But it does not answer the question of how the state can do more with less, and if and how religion might play an appropriate part.