Non-market Motives at Work in the Market: “New Evangelicals” in civil society in the US and Overseas

Non-market Motives at Work in the Market: “New Evangelicals” in civil society in the US and Overseas

By Marcia Pally

2011  Telos (157):165-184 · DOI: 10.3817/1211157165

             In light of the 2008 global financial crisis, a reassessment of the global market system seems to be afoot. If neoliberalism (too much market) yields the Great Recession, if socialist planning (not enough market) produce the failed economies of the former Soviet bloc, and if social-market combinations (too much centralization of the market) progress towards the slow economic growth and high-cost programs ofWestern Europe, what are better options?

“New evangelicals,”[1] perhaps unexpectedly for non-believers, offer a few ideas—interesting for their mix of market and common-good positions, and for an apparent paradox. “New evangelicals” work with a sophisticated notion of the common good–though their beliefs and practices rely on the very eighteenth century principles that fostered unregulated market development. That is, they uphold unencumbered entrepreneurialism in markets, but this commitment makes them entrepreneurs for the benefit of others. This becomes more interesting when one considers that the “new evangelical” paradox has significant effect on the circulation of money and people worldwide. The material here is taken from field research that I did between 2005 and 2010 and which will appear in a book, The New Evangelicals, later in 2011 (Eerdmans publishing).

Emerging from Britain’s and Germany’s “enthusiast” and pietistic movements, evangelicalism is an approach to Protestantism found across many denominations. It sought a more personal relationship to Jesus and a less state-oriented/state-run religion than was the case in Europe of the time. It empahsizes an inner individual relationship with Jesus, the cross as a symbol of service and sacrifice, individualist Bible reading by ordinary men and woman, and the priesthood of all believers rather than of a priestly class. More contemporarily, over the last forty years, evangelicals have been associated with conservative theology and politics, neo-liberal economics, hawkish foreign policies, and with efforts to impose their version of Scripture on the body politic.

“New evangelicals,” however, are those who distinguish themselves in self-identification, aims and means from these last forty years of associations. They hold to the doctrinal beliefs just mentioned but have broadened their activism beyond opposition to abortion and gay marriage and beyond the Prosperity Gospel[2] to an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist focus on poverty relief, environmental protection, and immigration reform. “New evangelicals” are neither small nor elite, coming by some estimates to 24 percent of the American population, [3]  distributed across Protestant denominations and the country.

“New evangelicals” both believe in the individualist, capitalist market and paradoxically spend their time forming institutions that restructure opportunities for the needy–without the first rule of capitalism: calculation of reward to themselves. They are entrepreneurs for the sake of others not themselves, pace Mandeville and Smith, and their entrepreneurial activity aims at restructuring what the market has wrought. They assess not only market functioning but market results by their effects on the common good and, where that has suffered, set up organizations to redress that wrong.

Support for the market arises from doctrine. The individualist emphasis of Protestantism—the responsibility to develop a system of moral conduct–is itself an outlook of self-responsible striving that helped build the early modern open market  and suits unregulated markets today.[4]  “Self-responsible striving” is actually two things: one, self-responsibility—it is weak and unethical to rely on others— and worse, possibly papist. Two, striving: what we do in this meager life is strive asymptotically forward. No flat-liners here. While this originally meant striving towards the divine, striving became a muscle well-exercised and applied to all arenas of life, including the secular and economic. Do-it-yourself moral uplift became the model for do-it-yourself conduct across the board. In addition, doctrinal support for anti-statist self-reliance came also from the evangelical understanding of the human and divine realms.  As all human governments are fallen, the kingdoms of the world may never be confused with thekingdom ofGod. Each individual believer must try to witness it, not follow the authorities or status quo.

These ideas are available to all Protestants, but dissenting Protestants, which evangelicals were, became emphatically self-reliant since the others on whom they might rely—neighbors, states, and state churches—persecuted them. Many came to America, where the two things we’ve mentioned–self-responsible doctrine and the dissenter’s suspicion of authorities–interacted synergistically with the rough nature of American settlement. One could not rely on authorities or the state because there was little of either—and what state there was was resented as British meddling. Willy nilly, survival depended on a can-do inventive individualism and voluntarist associationism. Here, the mytho-poetics of liberal freedom, freedom as absence of restraint in politics and economics—ever twined in the American mind–thrived.

America’s churches developed these same self-responsible, creative features to survive in the grassroots, multi-faithed religious landscape that had arisen from multi-faithed immigration. Like Americans overall, churches too had few authorities or structures to rely on. Even where colonies had official faiths, parishes were embedded in a hierarchy far flatter than in Europe. Moreover, there was little taste for following top-down hierarchies or dicta, owing to the dissenter’s suspicion of states and state churches. The First Great Awakening (1740s) was a festival of break-away, entrepreneurial churches and unorthodox ideas preached by self-appointed, anti-authoritarian men and women. These were the churches that grew as traditional churches declined.[5]

In sum, in an America where people strove to start new lives by their own efforts, evangelical striving towards uplift was the spiritual support of choice for a broad spectrum of the American public. Evangelical individualist theology, the dissenter’s suspicion of government, and the physical conditions of American settlement converged, to make evangelicals anti-authoritarian civil society builders, suspicious of the loafers and the state. The largest US government operation in ante-bellum America was the postal service, but by 1850 evangelical churches had double the employees of the postal service, twice as many facilities and raised three times as much money.[6]

This socio-doctrinal worldview endured through the following 150 years, as the frontier and then the frontiers of industry continued robustly—with the opportunity and demand for start-up can-do-ism. This is not to say the federal government did not expand in infrastructure development and legal reach.[7] Yet in the US, civil society remained the locus of much national activity, and governmental regulation is often state and local, owing to America’s federal system—itself a reflection of American suspicion of government and preference for voluntarist associationism. “New evangelicals” share this socio-doctrinal worldview, making them avid supporters of civil society and its free market, and wary of authorities and their regulation.

Yet for “new evangelicals,” the ethos of self-responsibility doesn’t end with the liberal market. It directs them to form civil-society institutions so that conditions wrought by the market may be re-wrought when they violate the common good. It’s not that the state is exempt from aiding its citizens. It’s that relying on the state makes people feel exempt. And that is unchristian. “New evangelicals” remain self-responsible entrepreneurs but for Jesus’ aims, so to speak.

“New evangelicals” come to this also through doctrine. They hold to a political Jesus–not in the sense of his being in government but in his seeking a radical reorganization of the way men live in the polis. Building on the Jewish Jubilee principles of debt cancellation and slave manumission, Jesus calls us not only to service but to serve unto sacrifice, as he did in life and death. Communities of Christians would transform the polis through “revolutionary subordination”—John Yoder’s term.[8] They would accept their social roles and political rule (Romans 13: 1-7; 1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 5:22). But they would live in the polis as a “contrast society,” aiding others and promoting the dignity, freedom, and equality of each person (1 Corinthians7:20; John17:15-16).

The key to doing this is relationship. This does not mean that large aid agencies are unproductive but that the structures which organizations set up should promote relationship between giver and recipient, and that the job training or substance abuse counseling, for example, should be entwined with those.

It’s interesting to note that the “new evangelical” emphasis on common-good economic restructuring echoes the principles of gift-exchange as discussed in the work of Lewis Hyde,[9] John Milbank and others. Milbank summarizes the literature on gift-exchange by noting four central features:[10] 1) delay of return; 2) non-identical repetition (the returned gift is never the same as the initial one);  3) that the gift be appropriate to the recipient, and 4) asymmetrical reciprocity (gift from A generates a gift to B which generates a gift to C etc., which may return to A only much later, even in another form). That is, one gives out of concern for the rightness of the world and forming relations in it, not because of gifts in return. “New evangelical” service fulfills these criteria if the asymmetrical reciprocity reaches to all God’s children, if the appropriateness of the gift lies in worldwide care and justice, and if gifts come back to the donor when Christ comes back to us.

To the non-believer, this may seem utopic, but it has significant consequences for the global circulation of resources and people. World Vision, the largest Christian relief organization, aids one hundred million people in nearly one hundred countries, with an annual budget of near three billion dollars from governmental and private sources, including donations from 4.7 million Americans. Its micro-credit program supports over 440,000 projects in forty-six developing countries. Though donations do not create personal relationships with recipients, the thousands of World Vision volunteers do. Moreover, giving of one’s money also reflects a sense of responsibility and connection with recipients—the asymmetrical reciprocity of gift exchange. [11]

Reflecting “new evangelical” market-for-life ideas, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 2004 released its watershed document, For the Health of the Nation, calling for a fair legal and economic system “which does not tolerate perpetual poverty.” This requires not just alms-giving but structural improvements in health care, nutrition, education, job training, and immigration for the common good.[12] In 2010, a new organization, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, was established specifically to bring “new evangelical” ideas to the public. These include human rights, democracy, peacemaking, economic justice, strong families, and environmental protection.[13]

The bulk of “new evangelical” work, however, is done by local churches, whose programs include free medical clinics, prison counseling, substance abuse programs, literacy and job training, environmental protection, and, overseas, reducing disease and building orphanages and  schools. These organizations are staffed almost entirely by volunteers, who do much of the fund-raising as well. Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, set up the P.E.A.C.E.[14] coalition, which—in a significant effort to restructure market resources based on relationship–links hundreds of American churches directly with sister churches in developing regions. One effort raised the number of health care providers in a Rwanda region from one doctor in 2007 to over 1,400 trained community health care workers in 2009. Warren explains: while there was only one doctor, there were “826 congregations in this thing. Now, where would you like to get your meds distributed? [A hospital] two days’ walk, [a clinic] one day’s walk, or five minutes away?”[15] The point of P.E.A.C.A. is not charity but the redistribution of resources—medical care, education—where the market failed or doesn’t reach.

One southern church in my study spends roughly $1.5 million a year on social justice projects. In its work in Swaziland, “what started out as two camp fires and a kettle is now several classroom buildings, a medical clinic, and we’re doing micro-loans forbusiness start ups” one pastor explained. As with Warren’s program, this is not charity but the redirection of market resources—education, credit—where the market is disinterested. “The project is run by people who instead of taking a vacation at the beach volunteer forSwaziland.” Another church in Idaho, where parishioners are largely working and lower-middle class, raised $66,000 in one offering to build a training center in Zambia and one hundred thousand dollars in another fund raising effort. In addition to its domestic programs, it runs ongoing partnerships in Ecuador, the Philippines, Zambia, Chile, and Paraguay for poverty relief, community development, and environmental protection. The point, again, is not only to feed the hungry but to impart skills that restructure the local economy.

Many more examples could be given of the resource distribution and economic restructuring resulting from the “new evangelical” paradox–entrepreneurialism in markets yielding entrepreneurialism for the common good. Against the view that linking markets to common-good principles is Romantic or useless, the “new evangelical” paradox might have something to say, especially since it is already on the ground, doing just this sort of linking.

[1]                 “new evangelicals,” a term taken from Rich Cizik, former Vice President of the NAE and current president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

[2]               where belief in Jesus ostensibly brings not only spiritual uplift but material success

[3]               This 25 percent includes: the “religious left” at 9 percent of the US population (the older evangelical left, the Catholic left, and new, emergent churches); the “red letter Christians,” who red-line Biblical passages as a guide to progressive politics, also at 9 percent; and religious centrists (liberal theology, moderate politics) at about 6 percent, see, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2008, June 5). Assessing a More Prominent ‘Religious Left’.

[4]               This echoes but is not identical to the Weberian argument, which, with its emphasis on the Protestant rationalization of life, underestimates the striving aspect of the Protestant ethic.

[5]               The number of Methodist churches rose from twenty in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860, a 994.1 multiple of increase. The number of Baptist churches rose from 150 in 1770 to 12,150 in 1860, an eighty-one multiple of increase. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the evangelical Methodist and Baptist churches accounted for two thirds of Protestants in the U.S. [5] Through the same period, the more traditional Congregationalist churches increased by a factor of 3.6, Anglican by a factor of 6, German Reformed by 4.7, Dutch Reformed by 4.4; see Finke, R., & Stark, R. (1989, March). How the upstart sects won America: 1776-1850. Journal for the scientific study of religion,

[6]               Noll, M. (2002) America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.New York,OxfordUniversity Press, p. 182, p. 200-201.

[7]               For a discussion of governmental expansion as a support for capitalist development, see Pabst, A. (2010, Fall). The crisis of capitalist democracy. New York: Telos journal

[8]               see Yoder, J. (1972/1994), The politics of Jesus.Grand RapidsMichigan/Cambridge,UK: Eerdmans Publishing, pp. 185-187

[9]               Hyde, L. (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. NY: Vintage Books

[10]             Milbank. J. (2010). Can a gift be given? Unpublished manuscript.

[11]             Other major evangelical relief agencies include the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organization, the International Justice Mission, The Urban Alternative, Evangelicals for Social Action, Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, Call to Renewal, and Christian Churches Together, among many others.

[12]             In 2009, NAE president Leith Anderson and other evangelical leaders issued a statement asking Obama to provide adequate finances to implement immigration laws and reduce the “enormous” waiting time for immigrants applying for legal status; see, Vu, M. (2009, April 1). Evangelicals Make Case for Welcoming Immigrants. Christian Post Reporter.


[14]              P.E.A.C.E. stands for Promote reconciliation, Equip ethical leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick and Educate the next generation.

[15]              The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2009, Nov. 13). The future of evangelicals: A conversation with Pastor Rick Warren.