Acton Commentary

The Missing Link: Religion and Economic Freedom


If we’ve learned anything in the 2008 presidential primaries it’s that the predicted demise of the “values voter” had been greatly exaggerated. Religion and its impact on social issues remains the lodestar for many voters. But Gov. Mike Huckabee’s defeat in Florida last night along with losses in New Hampshire and South Carolina reveal that while Christian values and social issues are central, they are just one part of an overall conservative vision that includes limited government and economic freedom. The leftward bent of some of Huckabee’s economic views showed that -- outside of Iowa -- Republicans, including many Evangelical voters, are for the most part oriented to the free market.

Pundits have had a hard time locating Huckabee on the political spectrum. An op-ed earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal identified Huckabee with the religious left. Rush Limbaugh insisted Huckabee is not a true conservative. And conservative stalwart Richard Viguerie labeled Huckabee “a Christian socialist” and “a good man, but with a Big Government heart.”

We too are critical of Huckabee’s economic populism, but to characterize him as a member of the religious left is incorrect. Huckabee’s record on issues such as abortion and gay marriage are conservative. This distinguishes him from leaders on the evangelical left, like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, who preach a social gospel of compassion but are increasingly squishy on both of these moral issues.

Unlike Jim Wallis, Huckabee is far from a baptized, warmed-over socialist, as his plan to abolish the IRS and his talk of entrepreneurship and freedom demonstrate. Yet Huckabee seems to have uncritically adopted many leftwing solutions to economic problems. And, like the left, he confuses Christian ends (such as helping the poor) with big government programs.

Take four examples: minimum wage law, government welfare programs, agricultural subsidies, and business.

Minimum Wage When Huckabee raised the minimum wage in Arkansas by 21 percent, he quoted one of Jesus’ parables: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Surely he’s right to see a Biblical imperative to help the poor. The problem is that forced minimum wages don’t always help the least of our brethren, who may find themselves without jobs because their unskilled labor is worth less than the minimum wage. Such laws can in fact favor higher paid, unionized wage earners by criminalizing lower-paid competition.

Government Welfare Huckabee’s tax and spend policies in Arkansas have caused conservatives to worry he would support bigger federal welfare programs, which rarely enhance the welfare of recipients as much as do local, private charities—something Huckabee must know from his pastoral work. In fact, given the evidence, LBJ’s War on Poverty might better be called the War on the Poor. Despite spending trillions of dollars nearly the same percentage of Americans remain below the poverty line, due largely to the social pathologies created by the welfare state itself.

Subsidies Huckabee’s support of so-called “fair trade”— a euphemism for protectionist policies such as subsidies and tariffs—suggests his commitment to economic freedom is flimsy and that he doesn’t understand the mutual benefit of free trade.

Business Huckabee is right to criticize corporate welfare and corruption—they undermine a free economy. But his anti-business rhetoric sometimes goes beyond that. In a December interview with Lawrence Kudlow, he complained about “overpaid CEOs,” and even suggested the federal government should do something about it. Whatever the validity of the complaint about excess, the last thing we need is government bureaucrats trying to set prices and control complex economic details such as compensation.

Some of this may have been populist campaign rhetoric that he thought would win votes, but rather than characterizing him as a socialist, we would argue his left-leaning economics are inconsistent with the rest of his message. In his speeches, Huckabee connects the Judeo-Christian tradition to the political freedoms we enjoy as Americans. But he doesn’t seem to realize that economic freedom also is grounded in that same tradition.

In The Victory of Reason, sociologist Rodney Stark shows that the roots of capitalism lie, not in the secular Enlightenment, but in the Christian monasteries and medieval city-states of Northern Italy. From there, the principles of free enterprise spread to northern Europe, medieval England, and ultimately, to the American colonies. Those principles have done more to lift the poor than all of the big government redistribution schemes in American history put together.

Now of course there is no one “Christian” set of policies on the best way to help poor or stimulate an economy. Unlike life issues, these are prudential matters and good Christians can disagree. Yet there seems to be a growing tendency among Christians to allow the left to claim the moral high ground with their big government interventionist plans despite the fact that history has shown this to be not only ineffective but harmful.

Rather than adopting the rhetoric of the left, Huckabee should plumb the depths of his own religious tradition. That would not only make him more consistent, but might have made him more appealing to those Republicans who understand the link between economic freedom and political liberty.

Michael Miller is Director of Programs and Jay Richards is Director of Acton Media and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.