Jesus vs. Koch Bros. in Kansas

So…what IS the matter with Kansas? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Smarsh offered a mistaken look at the way big money and big religion work together to erode public education in the Sunflower State.

The way Smarsh describes it, “extremist Christians” have been fooled into working with “fundamentalist capitalists.” They both want to privatize public schools, but for different reasons. Her article underestimates and misunderstands the long tradition of American conservatism. New histories, including my new book on educational conservatism in the twentieth century, have laid out the long roots of deep organic connections between religious conservatives and free-market conservatives.

Smarsh describes current education policy in Kansas as dictated from “that ancient place where the religious and the greedy mingle.” As she puts it,

Today, the religious right and wealthy free-marketeers both long to privatize a system that educates 50 million students, but for different reasons. One wants to make 50 million Christians; the other, 50 million paying customers.

As Smarsh explains, at its root this alliance of religion with capitalism results from a cynical conspiracy among the big-money folks. She quotes Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders. “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized. In matters of public education, which the religious right finds distasteful along moral lines, “they’re already more than halfway there.”

In reality, according to Boston, big-money folks like the Koch brothers don’t care about Jesus. They only want to get their paws on the public-school sector to weaken the influence of the government and strengthen private business.

I’m no Koch fan. Nor am I a conservative Christian. I do indeed find it believable that some big-money types have hoped to co-opt religious conservatives to get their votes. But to say that the alliance of conservative Christians with big-business is some sort of elaborate scam does not fit the facts.

Right fools left...

Right fools left…

Just as Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas did a decade ago, Smarsh’s argument resolves puzzling situations by resorting to conspiratorial explanations. Frank argued, roughly, that conservative schemers managed to convince working-class voters to vote Republican by waving the bloody shirt of abortion and gay rights. In essence, conservative strategists fooled people into voting against their own economic interests by emphasizing culture-war hot-button issues.

In Frank’s argument, conservative voters come off as dupes, conned into voting for Kansas Republicans because of an irrational attachment to pro-life ideas. Smarsh makes similar implications. Big business free-marketeers manipulate conservative Christians into fighting against public education, in this line of argument.

Let me be as clear as I can be: I don’t doubt that some libertarian business folks might HOPE to enact such a scheme, but the notion that conservative Christians are somehow rustic pawns of a corporate megalith are far too simplistic and Manichean.

Folks like Smarsh and Frank (and me, to be fair) have a hard time understanding how conservative Christians could support privatization, so they (we) jump to a false conclusion that big business has somehow fooled religious conservatives.

More careful historical treatments have noted the far more complicated connections between big business and evangelical Christianity. Kim Phillips-Fein, for example, looked at the roots of business conservatism in her 2009 book Invisible Hands. Phillips-Fein is certainly no fan of big business, but she describes the way industry leaders such as J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil dedicated much of their fortune to promoting evangelical Protestantism. This was more than a scheme or a scam. It was a long-term effort to promote conservative Christianity and big-business. It was an effort to bring both together for the good of both.

...or does it?

…or does it?

As I’ve found, too, many religious conservatives have embraced big business for reasons that Smarsh and Frank don’t seem to understand. Many religious conservatives have not been fooled into supporting capitalism, but rather see capitalism as an inherent part of their American Christian tradition.

In educational conservatism, at least, the deep organic connections between Jesus and capitalism were not imposed by any move of the sinister Koch brothers. Rather, religious conservatives themselves have long insisted that schools must teach both capitalism and Protestantism. Even a cursory familiarity with the writings of leading conservative activists will make these connections clear.

For instance, in a description of the decades-long educational activism of Mel and Norma Gabler, biographer Jim Hefley connected the dots (emphasis added):

The Gablers also began to grasp progressive education’s grand scheme to change America. They understood why the new history, economics, and social study texts trumpeted Big Brother government, welfarism, and a new socialistic global order, while putting down patriotism, traditional morality, and free enterprise. Simply stated, Mel and Norma realized that the Humanists in education were seeking to bring about the ‘social realism’ which John Dewey and other ideologues had planned for America.

For its part, big business also has a long tradition of pushing for more Jesus in public schools. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, an industry group, offered in 1939 a new curriculum for schools nationwide. It was vital, NAM leaders argued, for schools to combine “the historical and spiritual foundations of the American system of government, free enterprise and religious liberty.”

I’ll say it again: I don’t doubt that tycoons such as the Koch brothers might hope to manipulate religious conservatives. But it hardly counts as manipulation to encourage conservatives to support a cause they already support.

When journalists such as Thomas Frank or Sarah Smarsh paint a conspiratorial picture of hapless religious conservatives taken in by evil-genius financiers, they do a disservice to those of us hoping to get a better understanding of the ways cultural politics really work in this country.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  January 26, 2015

    I think Christians have tended to be committed capitalists for the simple reason that its opposite, communism, was officially atheistic.

  2. To me it sounds like you’re almost splitting hairs — no religious conservatives were not quickly duped by a few business interests and institutions; they came to share a basic ideology with business conservatives over a long period of time for a variety of reasons, including the powerful influence of business interests.

    Smarsh is not arguing the former thesis or making a historical survey, but her article does clearly imply it is the older fundamentalists — presumably those who came up on the “moral majority” and Reagan revolution 40 years ago — who were prone to make the equation between Christ and capitalism. Her article ends by focusing on a young conservative minister who sees things exactly the opposite way. Nowhere does she say there is a simple conspiracy of cynical, Machiavellian plutocrats manipulating naive Christian conservatives or that this is a new thing. She’s writing about Kansas today, and the Kochs come into that.

    • I have to disagree. I think Smarsh is indeed arguing that religious conservatives have been the victims of a big-business conspiracy. WILLING victims, perhaps, but still co-opted. I don’t know how else to take this passage she takes from AU’s Rob Boston, emphasis added:

      The unholy union, he told me by phone from his Washington office, begins with the money holders.

      “They look at the shock troops of the religious right, and they think, ‘How can we tap into that power? How can we get them to endorse our agenda of privatization?” Boston theorized.

      As for the minister she engages with at the end, he is not a conservative, as far as I can tell. He pastors at a United Methodist church, a very liberal denomination. Of course, individual clergy can be at odds with their denominations, but Gannon’s church explicitly makes its liberal positions clear on its website. As the Chapel Hill Church explains,

      At Chapel Hill we have a special calling to welcome all people into our congregation no matter what their past or current situations, without judgment or condemnation, just as Jesus did when He walked this earth.

      I would guess that Smarsh and other journalists such as Thomas Frank might recognize the longer connections between big money and conservative religion, but in order to sell papers, journalists feel pressure to explain that their articles are describing something new. In the article under discussion, Smarsh notes that the “greedy” and the religious have an “ancient” connection, but her article states that the biggest action has come “in recent years.”

      • You don’t think it’s accurate to say the biggest financial and political mobilization of religious conservatives in US history has happened relatively recently — in the last quarter of the 20th century? That’s the span represented by the old and young ministers featured in this article.

        It’s unclear who Boston’s “they” refers to — Smarsh makes it out as the “money holders” but is not quoting Boston at that point. Sure they’re both being a bit loose about it, and people who want to hear “conspiracy!” can always do that, but the line being drawn is fundamentally correct — conservative business interests do look for ways to use conservative religious interests and vice versa (or sometimes they are one and the same), but big business tends to be the bigger influence. I don’t see why correctly labeling this as something iother than “conspiracy” (collusion?) is so important.

        Labels like “conservative” and “liberal” are the ones that require more care. Gannon is clearly an Evangelical, and slapping a “liberal” label on him and his denomination does not change that. The soft inclusive language on his church’s website is typical of a lot of younger evangelical churches, even in more generally conservative traditions, as is his perspective on politics and society. Relative to his own denomination, he probably is a conservative compared to UMEs on the coasts. So you could say he is in the middle, a moderate, a liberal among conservative evangelicals who agrees in the main with Smarsh’s critique. Pew’s demographic data on the last presidential elections have tracked the emergence of this trend on the religious right. I grew up and lived with these cultures for most of my life in the northeast, southeast, and midwest; my reaction to Smarsh is that she’s not wrong. She’s not super-precise on how the money flows, but that wasn’t really her issue.

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