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The Improbable Marriage of Faith and Capitalism

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made news last month when his annual budget was found to contain a line item that would amend the University of Wisconsin's mission statement to remove the sentence, "Basic to every purpose of the UW System is the search for truth." But an article this week by Salon's Heather Cox Richardson puts Walker's action in a historical context going back more than half a century to a then-recent college graduate name William F. Buckley. The whole article is worth a read, but I'm going to focus on Buckley's remarkable synthesis.

Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’” was a sophomoric diatribe by the Catholic son of a wealthy oil magnate, published by the small right-wing Henry Regnery Press. In it, Buckley rejected the principles that had enabled social progress for centuries and laid out a mind-boggling premise: The Enlightenment, the intellectual basis of Western Civilization, was wrong.

Buckley's argument was not that post-Enlightenment failed in their efforts to promote rationalism. The problem was that they succeeded...and in so doing, led the nation astray.

Impartial debate based in empirical facts was dangerous because it led people toward secularism and collectivism—both bad by definition, according to Buckley. Instead of engaging in rational argument, Buckley insisted, thinkers must stand firm on what he called a new “value orthodoxy” that indoctrinated people to understand that Christianity and economic individualism were absolute truths.

As propaganda, Buckley's strategy was brilliant. Secularism and collectivism were the hallmarks of communism; Buckley argued that communism could only be defeated by a union of the opposite of these: religion (specifically Christianity) and economic individualism (also known as laissez-faire).

These two ideas have been joined long enough that it might be easy to miss how disjointed they truly are. Christianity teaches that we are born slaves to sin, and that we can be set free through faith in Christ,  while laissez-faire capitalism teaches that freedom is grounded in individual rights and a lack of governmental oversightChristianity teaches putting others ahead of self, while laissez-faire capitalism sees that as a sign of weakness. Christianity teaches that, if necessary, we should be willing to give our own lives on behalf of others, while laissez-faire capitalism teaches that we have no moral obligation to others.

This improbable union would never have made sense except in the face of ascendent communism, which was a threat to both Christianity and capitalism. Buckley took full advantage of his fortuitous timing. But 60 years later, and 25 after the fall of the Soviet Union, do Buckley's ideas even make sense? This unholy union has survived long past its usefulness, perhaps because at its core Buckley's brand of conservatism urges its followers not to ask questions.

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