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.