This morning, federal workers thronged back to work after a full 16 days of unpaid holiday. And while the political drama of the past few weeks has certainly received its share of airtime, few commenters have sketched a connection between the grandstanding of right wing politicians and the religion that undergirds so much of our politics.
To begin to tell this story, we need to look back to FDR, a figure who has been held responsible for many things—but government shutdown? What’s the connection?
I’d argue that the obstructionist forces opposed to health insurance for low-income Americans and for increased taxes on the wealthy are just the latest iteration of conservatives galvanized by FDR’s New Deal. And like older generations, many of today’s activists are as much motivated by religion as by politics and economics.
Between 1933 and 1936, Roosevelt initiated a series of laws and executive orders to help Americans crushed by the Great Depression. Bereft of jobs, savings and security, millions willingly accepted this New Deal, which transformed the government’s role in the nation’s economy as well as its relationship to citizens. Washington provided government jobs, insured the nation’s banks, established old age pensions and unemployment insurance, subsidized mortgage payments, and lowered trade barriers.
Realizing that the federal government provided short-term relief, long-term support and ongoing assistance to farmers and workers, many Americans were eased into thinking more collectively and communally than they’d been accustomed to doing.
Scholars argue whether or not the New Deal helped or hindered the nation’s recovery, and if it fundamentally altered or safeguarded capitalism, yet its influence on American values and identity shaped successive generations. Alongside older notions of self-help and limited government, the New Deal fostered acceptance of a strong centralized state actively involved with its citizens’ material well-being. The state guaranteed a minimum income, workplace rights, and support for the elderly, disabled, and unemployed—it also sought to relieve poverty, subsidize jobs, and assure basic necessities for all citizens.
To some this looked like the start of a millennial dream. To others, it seemed suspiciously like socialism.
Appalled by what they perceived as Roosevelt’s Bolshevik agenda, groups of businessmen, religious leaders, and politicians launched initiatives to counter FDR’s initiatives. In their view, the New Deal substituted government subsidies for hard work and individual responsibility. Christian captains of industry, men like J. Howard Pew and the DuPont brothers believed that free market capitalism and limited government were articles of religious faith, as central to their beliefs as the Virgin Birth and blood atonement.
To change hearts and minds, Pew and others funded radio programs, newspaper columns, films and forums that penetrated large cities and small towns, working class neighborhoods and farming communities with the message that the economic liberty and radical individualism that undergird American democracy were intrinsic to Christianity.
This version of religion, politics and economics gained supporters over the years but for more than three decades, the New Deal shaped American values and set the national vision. But in the 1960s and the 1970s, a series of cultural upheavals—starting with the Civil Rights movement and ending with the Iranian revolution—laid waste to FDR’s notion of a benevolent centralized state. Ronald Reagan began dismantling Roosevelt’s legacy and successive presidents followed suit. Free markets boomed, social nets frayed and paeans flowed to America’s religious liberties.
For many who opposed the New Deal and now stand arrayed against Obamacare, the message is the same: Jesus is the root of American democracy and capitalism. Christianity bestows freedom from big government, market regulations and sin.
The message may be exploited for political or economic purposes but don’t discount the many true believers: Ted Cruz, Mark Meadows and Michele Bachmann are not using politics for religious ends or religion for economic ends, it’s one and the same. This time, they may not have succeeded. But there will be a next time and a next time until an alternate vision of society—one that remixes religion, politics and economics into a more communal and collective venture, stirs hearts, minds and votes for a better America.
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