Thursday, November 15, 2007


Economists Hungerman and Gruber have a new article forthcoming estimating how much the New Deal “crowded out” similar spending on compassionate activities by American churches. This is consistent with an overall interest by economists and political scientists on why there was such an unprecedented ramp-up in the size of the federal government between World War I and World War II. The wars and the Great Depression are obvious proximate causes, but are we forgetting the role of Christians?

The period between The Civil War and World War I was that of what is sometimes called the “Third Great Awakening”. One of the economic manifestations of this great revival was the so-called “Social Gospel” which had enormous influence on the government-activist populist, progressive, and socialist political movements of the time. (The American Economic Association was a product of the Social Gospel movement). These movements had some direct influences during the so-called progressive era, but more importantly, when the New Deal required intellectual support for federal attempts to end the Great Depression, the Social Gospel – inspired movements had numerous big-government ideas already on the shelf (Social Security, being one example).

Now, Mark Noll of Notre Dame, in a new article in First Things , moves the action back several generations to the Second Great Awakening of the first part of the 19th century. Paradoxically, the effect of this great religious revival was the decentralization and democratization of the institutions of American Christianity. However, the paramount social issue of the Second Great Awakening, abolition, led to the Civil War and the reconstruction Constitutional amendments -- all of which solidified and made unambiguous the notion of a strong, centralized federal government. Noll calls this the Second Founding Era. It is no surprise then that the next generation of Christians in the Social Gospel movement were so much more likely to turn to governments, including the federal government, for solutions.

Doug and I are working on a research project which asks the question: is reverse crowding out possible? Is the transition of compassionate activities to the government a reversible process, or is it simply the nature of the situation that government becomes “locked in” as the solution?

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