God is a creative, capitalist family man: The religious right in America has produced an alarming programme to remake the world, says Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown
Sunday 08 May 1994 23:02

WE DO not usually think of the religious right in America as an intellectual movement; more as something slouching towards Bethlehem with its knuckles in the gutter. But this is a mistake: there is a group of subtle and energetic intellectuals who have a programme to remake the world. One of them, a Catholic named Michael Novak, has spent the past 20 years arguing that democratic capitalism is God's preferred system on this earth. For his efforts he was presented last week with the annual Templeton Prize for progress in religion: a cheque for pounds 650,000 handed over at a private ceremony in Buckingham Palace by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Professor Novak, 61, is one of the group of neo-conservatives who started on the left in the Sixties, and moved rapidly rightwards during the Seventies to become the midwives of Thatcherism and Reaganism. He was never a Communist, as so many of the most doctrinaire libertarians had been (though he was a speechwriter for the Democrats' candidate, George McGovern, in 1972). He is not even an unbridled enthusiast for capitalism. He just hates socialism. He thinks it keeps people poor, ignorant and misled; and that social democracy does the same, but less efficiently.

This may not be a new message, but it is still a surprisingly vigorous one. The professor was giving interviews last week at the Institute for Economic Affairs, the think-tank which, more than any other, provided Margaret Thatcher with her economic agenda and self-confidence. If you want to know what leading right-wing politicians will be saying in speeches next year, read what the IEA says in pamphlets today.

In its early-Eighties prime, the IEA's doctrines contained a strong libertarian, humanist streak. This has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now; it is religion which provides the basis for the latest analysis and assaults on the welfare state.

Professor Novak talks with the kind of confidence in the power of his analysis that the left has almost completely lost: 'It is crucial to think about the components of a free society. The economists talk economics; the politicians talk democracy, and the churches talk about morals. But no one shows how these three fit together.

'The political and economic system just won't work without the relevant moral and economic framework; and it won't be worth it even if it does. If you get a stable society where everybody's prosperous, it can be boring as hell if there isn't a sense of transcendence and human aspiration.'

He says he is far more concerned to relieve poverty in the Third World than anything else: 'What's cruel is that most of the world's poverty is unnecessary. It is the product of an inadequate system; of a system that represses the creativity and energy of people even in places filled with resources.'

The next wave of capitalist development, after Europe, America and eastern Asia, is taking place in Catholic countries: Brazil, the Philippines, and some of Eastern Europe. Professor Novak keeps in close touch with his family's roots in Slovakia. He often broods, he says, on the circumstances in America that enabled his own family to escape so quickly from the poverty of their peasant forebears in Europe.

None the less, his real power and influence lie in his role as a critic of Western welfare states. What Michael Novak says today, Michael Portillo will say as soon as he dares. Novak's critique of the welfare state is both moral and economic. But it is founded on a belief that human beings are not created for a life of total security.

Thus proponents of a welfare state, that shields us from the raw effects but also the creative potential of market relations, are imposing a system doomed in principle: they are going against God's design of what a human being should be. 'In the United States there is no doubt that the war on poverty benefited the elderly. However, welfare programmes designed for younger people between 16 and 60 have been quite damaging.'

All these concerns come together in his attack on single mothers. The idea of a 'culture of dependency', in which the poor are trapped and have their morals rotted by the provision of state benefits has been a key theme of the American radical right for some time now. When Novak talks about it, one gets a chilling sense of just how far moral and political concerns can be united to put the squeeze on single mothers especially.

'Something like 50 per cent of mothers with children under six are working in the US and it is a political problem to urge them to pay taxes so that other women in a similar situation - except without husbands - won't have to work. That is why people from all sides of the political spectrum find it harder and harder to justify these expenditures - apart from the damage being done to the family, which is the most serious argument.'

He mentions with interest that the New Jersey state legislature has passed a bill to cut off welfare benefits to single mothers for all but their first child. 'It's very interesting. It is too early to say yet, of course: the bill has only been in place for about three months. But already there seems to have been a 10 per cent reduction in the number of illegitimate births.'

The beauty of a federal, decentralised system, Novak says, is that it allows experiments like this. From them we would surely discover the best solution to our problems.

Whatever progress he holds out for small-scale experiments, he has a pessimistic view of the future. 'I think Europe will pay a heavy price for the secularisation of the present generation: the loss of the religious and moral system that threw up Europe's great cultures. Perhaps I'm wrong, but from a distance it seems that price is being paid.'

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