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Religious and Free-Market Fundamentalism Have More in Common Than Their Fans in the Tea Party

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The Republican Party has adopted increasingly hard-line stances on economic issues in recent years. Moderate Republicans have declined both in number and in influence as the party has made a point of categorically opposing the Obama administration’s rather centrist economic agenda. This obstructionism not only reflects the Republicans’ avowed priority to make Obama “a one-term president,” but also an ideology that has received insufficient attention: free-market fundamentalism. This ideology rests on the notion that the economy can fairly provide for everyone’s well being without government regulation or stewardship. It fosters the conviction that “big government” regulation, and taxes are the causes of nearly all economic problems.

The term “fundamentalism” originates from essays called “The Fundamentals,” which were published in the 1910s in an effort to defend traditional Christianity against modern and liberal influences. “Fundamentalism” eventually came to describe hard-line forms of religion, as well as ideologies sharing comparable traits. Like religious fundamentalism, free-market fundamentalism emphasizes the need for ideological purity, thereby leading people to embrace extreme positions and uncompromisingly oppose government economic intervention.

Because fundamentalists are ideologically driven, they tend to reject basic facts that do not comport with their ideology. Religious fundamentalists have unyielding faith in the literal veracity of the Bible and consequently dispute all conflicting science, such as the theory of evolution. By the same token, free-market fundamentalists dispute basic facts that call into question the efficiency and fairness of strict laissez-faire economics. For instance, market fundamentalists have led the Republican Party to oppose increasing financial regulation as a matter of principle, even following the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession. Insisting that the market can adequately regulate itself, few Republicans have recognized that the crisis was primarily caused by Wall Street’s reckless practices, which had been facilitated by financial deregulation.

Since the fundamentalists’ extreme views usually do not square with the facts, they commonly proceed to make up their own facts, resorting to disinformation and conspiracy theories. As such, religious fundamentalists have claimed that the theory of evolution is a “fraud,” that there is no consensus in the scientific community about its validity, and that creationism is accepted by many scientists. Free-market fundamentalists have likewise resorted to glaring misrepresentations in order to defend their ideology. Partisans of deregulation have notably challenged the Obama administration’s health care reform by claiming that America provides better and cheaper access to medical treatment than nations with universal health care, whose systems are less market-driven and more regulated. These arguments have heavily shaped opposition to “Obamacare,” plausibly even more than claims about its unconstitutionality, which the Supreme Court has now largely rejected, albeit by a narrow majority.

In fact, countries with universal health care have significantly lower medical costs than the United States and generally better health levels. At the time of the 2010 reform, 50 million Americans lacked medical insurance and many others were severely underinsured – a singularity in the developed world. While fundamentalists are adamant that an unregulated market efficiently provides for everyone’s health care, the opposite is true. America is the only developed country allowing insurance companies to profit from basic health coverage. Until the Democratic reform, it was also the only one that let insurance companies deny coverage to people with “pre-existing medical conditions,” such as cardiac problems or lupus. Proponents of unregulated markets have ignored these facts while advancing a host of canards about “socialized medicine,” in the image of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” conspiracy theory or Mike Huckabee’s claim that Obama had “suggested that seniors who don’t have as long to live might want to just consider taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation.”

Indifference toward the plight of the uninsured illustrates another salient feature of fundamentalism: obliviousness towards the social costs of ideological purity. This trait is not merely reflected by attitudes towards health care. Free-market fundamentalists are unfazed by the fact that wealth inequality has soared in recent decades, largely due to laissez-faire economic policies. The poor, working class and middle class have struggled while the richest of the rich have profited immensely. Market fundamentalists have additionally sought to expunge environmental regulations regardless of the consequences. In any event, most reject the science of global warming. Certain market fundamentalists, especially Tea Party activists, have recklessly insisted that a default on America’s national debt payments would be preferable to raising the debt ceiling. Some have precipitated other serious crises, maintaining that they would rather have the federal government partially shut down than have it operate with a budget not encompassing drastic spending cuts on public services and sweeping tax cuts that would chiefly benefit the wealthy.

Religious fundamentalists have displayed an equivalent indifference to the social costs of their purist ideology. Due to their conviction that pre-marital sex is a grave sin, they have promoted abstinence-only sexual education while seeking to limit or repeal access to abortion and contraception. These policies demonstrably lead to more unwanted pregnancies and unplanned parenthood, including by teenagers. Efforts to hinder contraception lead to more abortions as well.

Religious fundamentalism and free-market fundamentalism do not merely parallel each other. These two narrow, far-right ideologies often overlap. Contemporary American Christian fundamentalists typically hold staunchly conservative views on economic issues. In the words of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), “You can’t be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative.” The Tea Party movement is primarily known for its strident denunciation of “big government,” but many of its activists have likewise condemned abortion and gay rights in the name of religion. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter is expecting religion to play a prominent role in politics, according to a recent study.

There has not always been a relationship between religious fundamentalism and free-market fundamentalism. William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, is usually remembered for his condemnation of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” But he also had a far more progressive economic agenda than most of his contemporaries. As Andrew Koppelman, a law professor, has underlined, Bryan “was an early proponent of women’s suffrage, railroad regulation, the federal income tax, opposition to capital punishment, a federal department of labor, campaign fund disclosure, state initiative and referendum, and vigorous enforcement of antitrust law.”

Nevertheless, the relationship between narrow, far-right attitudes towards religion and the economy is palpable in the modern-day Republican Party. Religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism are both rigidly rooted in dogmatic faith – in the literal truth of scripture and in strict laissez-faire economics. These mindsets stand in sharp contrast to an evidence-based, pragmatic approach to religion and public policy.

Free-market fundamentalism goes far beyond the austerity measures promoted by European conservatives aiming to solve the region’s current economic crisis. Unlike the contemporary Republican Party, leading European right-wing parties support a measure of social solidarity and sensible regulation. They notably embrace universal health care and are amenable to financial regulation. Conversely, market fundamentalism has led the contemporary Republican Party to reject all egalitarian considerations and steadfastly oppose regulation. This rigid mindset has not simply fostered irreconcilable differences with the Democratic Party, but has also placed the Republican Party at the extreme right in the modern Western world.

Free-market fundamentalism is a utopian ideology aiming to create an ideal society with virtually no government economic oversight. Because fundamentalists are inherently hostile to compromise, they see no common ground with the Obama administration, which helps explain why they have systematically rejected pragmatic measures needed to tackle America’s current economic and social problems.

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