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Monday, April 25, 2005

Gospel to Gospel - Progressive Era to Now


Could it be that one of the most despicable capitalists of the 19th century may have a few words of wisdom for 21st century liberals?

While doing research on the Conservative movement, I was somewhat surprised to never hear anyone reference the amazing personal story of Andrew Carnegie . This is, of course, the guy that spent his later years building libraries , rewarding heroism , and even building a certain musical hall . He was a real bastard to competing businesses and laborers. He is the archetype in which Bill Gates remade himself.

The reason this almighty thunder-god of capitalism is despised by Conservatives is because – wait for it – he believed wealthy people have an obligation to society. It’s an obligation that goes beyond simply providing low paying jobs so they can eek out a meager existence. It goes beyond ostentatious displays of consumption that create a market for luxury goods. It goes to the heart of the Social Contract itself.

Read “The Gospel of Wealth” . Carnegie, it turns out, was one of the foremost men arguing FOR a national income tax. He fought FOR a national estate tax. He believed it was shameful for a man to die wealthy or to make his heirs able to idle their lives away unproductively.

Notice how Carnegie carefully separates men like himself – the wealthy – from those who simply aspire to live comfortably and pay their bills on time. “It will be understood that fortunes are here spoken of not moderate sums saved by many years of effort, the returns from which are required for the comfortable maintenance and education of families. This is not wealth but only competence, which it should be the aim of all to acquire.” In other words, Carnegie is placing himself directly inside of what is today (and was then) called “class warfare”.

The cure for such class warfare is for the wealthy to see themselves, while they are here on earth and able to administer their estate, as part of the same community as the poor. “The highest life is probably to be reached … while animated by Christ's spirit, by recognizing the changed conditions of this age and adopting modes of expressing this spirit suitable to the changed conditions under which we live; still laboring for the good of our fellows, which was the essence of his life and teaching, but laboring in a different manner.” Carnegie speaks of the wealthy being a good “trustee” for the poor – the Bible speaks of being a good steward. Either way, the result is the same.

It’s important to realize that Carnegie wrote “Wealth” at the height of Teddy Roosevelt’s rabble-rousing Progressive Era . Read Teddy’s 1903 State of the Union Message . He addresses corporate malfeasance – you know, like Enron and WorldComm and half a dozen other corporate criminals. He addresses fair labor without attacking business. Most importantly (are you listening Tom DeLay?) he says, “No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor.”

Conservatives would really like for use to forget the Progressive Era. It was filled with populist rabble-rousers like Jane Addams who based her Christian Socialism in her Quaker upbringing. How many people remember that a white woman was one of the founding organizers of the NAACP? How many have forgotten the name Hull House ?

It was a time when Upton Sinclair exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Thomas Nast was developing a new form of political protest by exposing Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed in cartoons . The Suffragettes marched and suffered abuse for the cause of gaining voting rights for women. It was an era of trust-busting, advances in workplace safety, and a march towards equality.

The Progressive Era set the stage for the New Deal. The Progressive Era was an era when Christians moved to the forefront of politics – insisting that attention be paid both to the social causes and personal failures of poverty, despair, drug abuse, and corporate victimization. As the anti-Biblical right tries to remake the Bible in their own image and the secular Democrats are rushing for “the vital middle”, it is important to realize that the greatest strides were taken by liberal Christians who didn’t care if they were seen as wing-nuts, muckrakers, or rabble-rousers.

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