Gillis Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College.
First, let me express my sincere appreciation to Tom Lehman for his thoughtful and detailed response to my article. I am gratified to know that he found much of my portrait of historic evangelicalism “spot on.” It is also encouraging that he agrees that American evangelicals need “to be reminded of this historical tradition.”
In response to his claim that the traditionalist approach of these evangelicals has not worked well economically, perhaps I should clarify my intentions. As an effort in intellectual history, the article’s primary purpose is descriptive and analytical rather than prescriptive. I am not an economist, and Lehman is better qualified than I am to evaluate the efficacy of these sorts of policies. As I noted in the article, “I am not arguing that the traditionalist Evangelicals I have identified in this essay were always correct. Nor do I hold any brief for an intrusive bu-reaucratic statism. Left free, market mechanisms usually work very well.” At the same time, as an evangelical Christian, I do believe (apparently unlike Lehman) that a retrieval of some aspects of their perspective could be salutary. To describe their policies as “almost always doing more harm than good” strikes me as painting with a very broad brush indeed. While this latter point is not central to my argument, revisiting what Lehman dismisses too readily as their “old moralistic economic dogma” can provide a helpful balance in our current circumstances.
Next, I can’t agree with some of Lehman’s historical points. To begin, it is not accurate to label most of the individuals in this tradition “collectivist.” Communitarian, yes; paternalistic often; but not truly collectivist. Most were deeply committed to private property, indeed to a form of small-scale proprietary capitalism that strikes me as less “anti-market” than much of the oligopolistic corporate capitalism in America today. Are policies that place any limits on the market inherently “anti-market?” These evangelicals didn’t think so, nor do I. Further, few historians today would characterize the economic agenda of the antebellum Whig party as “economically quite backward.” Certainly Lehman’s description here doesn’t fit the nuanced portrait of Whig thought and policies advanced by scholars such as Daniel Walker Howe. Howe describes the Whigs as promoters of “industrialization, technological innovation, education, nationalism and the work ethic.”1 Regarding railroads, Lehman refers to “the more successful private transcontinentals,” but they also depended on a lot of local subsidies. Nor would most scholars (and I doubt too many Christians) concur with Lehman that the sole effect of humanitarian factory reforms championed by British evangelicals like Richard Oastler was to “remove income options for the poor.” While such reforms did often have unintended negative consequences, I’d wager that most historians think that prohibiting companies from employing eight-year-olds ten hours a day pulling carts in a mine shaft was probably a good thing.2 Nor was it “unscientific” for Progressives in the early twentieth century to seek to regulate workplace safety to avoid events like the hideous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York.
Moving away from the historical particulars, I’d like to close with a more general point. Lehman portrays his policy prescriptions as “positive science,” while he dismisses more interventionist schemes as “backward.” Given the lack of consensus about state policy among academic economists, it seems inappropriate for either side to don the mantle of hard science. After all, it would be easy to cite numerous prominent academic economists (some Nobel laureates) who have argued strongly for substantial state intervention in certain circumstances. Finally, I was particularly surprised that Lehman argued that Christians should actually be “more philosophically utilitarian” in their approach to economics. Christian critics of the discipline have often argued the very opposite.3 They have decried the divorce of economics from moral reflection that occurred in the late nineteenth century. As economist John Médaille has explained:
The 19th century utilitarians were embarrassed by this connection with morality. They believed that in order for political economy to be a ‘real’ science, it had to be divorced from ethics, just like physics; which is to say, political economy would have to lose the political. Justice and other value-laden topics would be confined to the first [i.e., politics], while economics would be ‘value-free,’ like all the other ‘real’ sciences.4
Many of the evangelical traditionalists surveyed in my article would have been horrified by such a divorce, and I think more evangelicals today should share their concern.5
Cite this article
- Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 302.
- For an interesting discussion of this question, see: Jane Humphries, “Cliometrics, Child Labor, and the Industrial Revolution,” Critical Review 13 (1999): 269-283.
- See, among many: William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), ch. 5.
- John Médaille, “Where is the Freedom of the Markets, and Why Can’t the Economists Find It?” (paper presented at the Tocqueville forum of Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 2010), 3.
- In my original article I neglected to thank the following for their generous help with earlier drafts: John Haas, P. C. Kemeny, Wilfred McClay, David P. Mills, Eric Potter, and Gary Scott Smith.