Big Sort

So What If They Didn’t Talk? The Differences Were Still Fundamental.

Just a few minutes into Friday’s debate and Jim Lehrer was already exasperated. The moderator wanted McCain and Obama to talk to each other. (Did he expect the candidates to banter away the next 90 minutes like two buddies in a fishing boat?) And Lehrer was convinced McCain and Obama hadn’t stated their “fundamental differences” in how the two approached the financial crisis.

The differences were pretty clear to me—and fundamental was the word. In the first few minutes of Friday’s debate, John McCain and Barack Obama placed themselves on either side of a divide that has defined the country for more than a century—two worldviews that are today expressed in church, party, and neighborhood.

When Obama talked about the financial crisis, he said there was a demand for new social controls. McCain spoke about the need for individual responsibility.

Obama’s described the financial situation as a failure of “we.” The Wall Street debacle was the result of a “theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down.” The collapse was caused by “an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad.”

McCain lamented a society that had abandoned personal accountability. He said he would have fired the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “We’ve got to start also holding people accountable, and we’ve got to reward people who succeed,” said McCain. The Republican looked at the collapse of Wall Street and saw an “I” problem.

In the late 19th century, American Protestantism split. The division wasn’t denominational. It was about how people viewed the world. On one side was what University of Chicago religious scholar Martin Marty called “Private Protestantism.” Private Protestants promoted personal salvation and promised that individual morality would be rewarded in the next life.

On the other side was “Public Protestantism,” a conviction that the way to God required the transformation of society.

Private Protestants thought drunkenness was an individual failing that could be cured by faith. Public Protestants saw alcoholism as a social ill that should be addressed by “blue laws.” Public Protestants confronted the new industrial age with the eight-hour day, child labor laws, and the minimum wage. Private Protestant preacher Dwight Moody witnessed the Haymarket labor riot in 1886 and concluded that either “these people are to be evangelized or the leaven of communism and infidelity will assume such enormous proportions that it will break out in a reign of terror such as this country has never known.”

There were “two types of Christianity” in the country, Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong wrote in 1913. The competing views were “not to be distinguished by any of the old lines of doctrinal or denominational cleavage,” Strong continued. “Their difference is one of spirit, aim, point of view, comprehensiveness. The one is individualist; the other is social.”

The one staged revivals to save souls. The other pushed social reforms to save the world.

Private Protestantism guided the fundamentalist/evangelical church and, eventually, the Republican Party. It’s expressed in

The Fundamentals

, Goldwater, Ayn Rand, the nondenominational church, Reagan, Cato and Heritage, right-to-work, school vouchers, Social Security privatization, the Great Commission, conceal and carry, free trade and the market.

Public Protestantism drove the ecumenical movement of the mainline churches and, in time, the Democratic Party. It was

The Jungle

, the New Deal and Great Society, the Ford Foundation, Medicare, the National Council of Churches, OSHA and the labor union.

This election was supposed to be about post-partisanship, but it’s not even post-19th century. It’s a contest between two worldviews that have been struggling against each other in sanctuary and voting booth for more than a century.