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Religion, Freedom, and Prosperity

Universal values at the heart of Christianity underlie the political and economic freedoms inherent in classical liberalism.

Rachel M. McCleary

The United States today is more diverse than it has ever been. A demo­graphic snapshot of millennials, the largest segment of the United States population, shows that they are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in our his­tory. They are less white (55 percent) than Gen X (59.7 percent) and the Baby Boomer generation (71.6 per­cent). Millennials are the first generation in the United States to grow up with a prevalence of individuals of varying ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and the trend continues with succeeding generations. It is not surprising that half of millennials self-identify with a non-white racial or ethnic group. Cross-cutting social interactions among ethnic and racial groups is ­­altering stereotypical perceptions, creating new affiliations through friendship and marriage, and increasing support for systemic policy change.

In a lecture at the University of Chicago on October 3, 1977, the economist Milton Friedman warned that the United States, through increasing government intervention, was losing those values that made it the “land of opportunity which produced . . . the greatest freedom and prosperity for the widest range of people the world has ever seen.” The United States prospers because people of varied backgrounds freely “cooperate together to achieve their separate objectives while at the same time retaining a diversity of values and opinions.” Friedman went on to warn, “We are nearing the point of no return” when ethnic, racial, and nationalistic groups are fighting for “the political levers of power” and we “lose that spark of creativity, that spark of independence, of freedom that we have all loved in our country.”

Indeed, prior to World War I, several incipient trends altered the classical liberal orientation of the United States. First, open immigration, until the later part of the 19th century, became increasingly restricted. In 1924 the government introduced a quota system. Second, mainline Protestant denominations, waning spiritually but politically a powerful force in American society, organized together to influence public policy. “If the kingdom of heaven ever comes to your city, it will come in and through city hall,” proclaimed Washington Gladden, a Congregational minister and champion of the Social Gospel. Mainline Protestant denominations lobbied on Capitol Hill as well as influenced several presidents to expand government social and economic programs, once considered the responsibility of private and voluntary associations, especially local churches.

Third, the introduction of scientific methodology, language, and scholarship revolutionized American higher education. Sociologists George Marsden and Bradley Longfield have described this process of secularization as the “transformation from an era when organized Christianity and explicitly Christian ideals had a major role in the leading institutions of higher education to an era when they have almost none.” Religion became anachronistic, overtaken by scientific, verifiable truths.

Intellectually and culturally, the secularization of mainline Protestantism and the rise of scientific investigation went a long way to undermine the American consensus supporting classical liberal ideas of freedom and prosperity. Religion was now “civil religion” consisting of symbols, beliefs, and rituals around which groups organized, formed an identity, and collectively mobilized (as well as lobbied). Secular, scientific analysis of social and economic issues explained poverty and inequality as “systemic” problems. Christian values highlighted in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)—individual responsibility, hard work, thrift, and otherworldly salvation—were irrelevant. In their place came notions of economic entitlement, identity politics, and government largesse.


The Christian values of which Max Weber wrote originate from fundamental human impulses to be free and to prosper. They are not inherently Christian. Shared by human beings across societies and geographic regions, classical liberal values arise in imperfect historical circumstances where injustices (for example, slavery) exist. Yet to function efficiently, freedom and prosperity require setting aside considerations of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, and political affiliation. Parties to the transaction can all benefit in a classical liberal model as long as each respects the freedom of others to work and to be productive.

As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776), “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” Such a pure form of classical liberalism is impractical, idealistic, and, in reality, informed by religious and moral values, as preached by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a contemporary of Adam Smith. Yet, an exchange based on freedom and self-interested prosperity serves as the basis for social harmony and discourse, as well as our concern for other human beings even though they may be total strangers.

Francis Fukuyama offers no ready solution to the American slide into progressive liberalism with its current culture wars. Several scholars, religious leaders, public policy analysts, and journalists predict the decline of culture wars as the millennials ascend and the baby boomers fade away. A decidedly generational shift in values on a variety of personal and social issues is well under way.

Ironically, however, the challenging economic outlook for millennials could turn back the trend toward progressive liberalism. With the strain on government social safety nets, poor job prospects and low wage grow, and higher education debt, at least 50 percent of millennials favor the entrepreneurial spirit but, thus far, are not demonstrating it. Maybe when their levels of frustration at deferring personal choices such as marriage, children, and home ownership reach a breaking point, millennials will turn to classical liberalism and take up Elon Musk’s criticism of local officials as “breaking people’s freedoms” and demand that government “get out of the way” of innovation.

Rachel M. McCleary is lecturer in the economics department at Harvard University, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Discussion replyEconomicsCultureDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited States

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