Nathanael Snow on the Evangelical Coalition and Public Choice
Date: March 13th, 2016

How have evangelical Christians organized themselves over time to express their political and social views?  Has this coalition remained stable over time, or has it changed?  Nathanael Snow, a a PhD candidate in the department of economics at George Mason University discusses how the analytical tools of public choice theory can be applied to the study of the Evangelical Coalition over time to understand the organizational role that religion can play in political life.

As Tony can never resist the opportunity to explore where scholars develop their ideas from, he starts the discussion with an exploration of Nathanael’s background and how he came to blend public choice theory with economics.  Nathanael reveals that he was inspired to follow the path of economic study while serving as a missionary serving inner city youth and teaching economics.  This developed into a pursuit for a Ph.D. at George Mason University where student are encouraged to explore unique and non-traditional topics as economic graduate students.  His marriage of public choice theory to the study of religious organizations was prompted by a quip made by one of his professors during a graduate seminar, and that becomes the focus of our discussion today.  Public choice theory is then explained as a subfield of economics that applies the analytical tools of micro-economics to the world of politics, imposing the assumptions of methodological individualism, analytical egalitarianism, and self-interest onto the actions and decisions of people in the political realm.  As religious individuals are also people with political preferences that seek to get those goals realized in public policy, Nathanael reasoned that this theoretical perspective would be an ideal one for examining the changing nature of the Evangelical Coalition.

Following that introduction to public choice theory, we turn to the religious world and Mr. Snow notes that it is very difficult to find a specific definition for what it means to be an evangelical.  This ambiguity in definition is important because it provides a hint at the changing and chaotic nature of the “evangelical voting bloc” that so many politicians seek to capture.  This leads to a discussion of median voter theory wherein politicians will seek to capture the “voter in the middle” of some multi-dimensional voting space, and that interest groups will often try to navigate their coalitions to fit the median voter.  Given that not all evangelicals agree about everything, this leads to “voting chaos” within the coalition over time as different groups vie to be deemed the median voter and have their policies favored by elected officials.   Nathanael explains that as the electoral franchise has expanded over time, religious organizations lose their direct legitimizing influence over the state and must compete for the attention of parliaments and other legislatures.  Adam Smith becomes the topic of conversation as Mr. Snow makes a very insightful connection between what Smith wrote about religious organizations in Book V of The Wealth of Nations and his observation early in that work that members of a profession seldom meet for diversion before the conversation turns in a conspiratorial manner to raise prices.  Tony thinks this is a brilliant insight and is upset that he never saw that direct linkage in his own work.  Nathanael explains that it isn’t necessarily a “price” the way we think about it when it comes to religious activity in the public sphere, but getting one’s objectives codified into law.

Our interview then finishes with Nathanael’s review of the history of the Evangelical Coalition dating back to the early and mid-19th century in the United States.  We cover the involvement that evangelicals had in organizing around the abolitionist movement and then see how a new split between progressives and fundamentalists arises in the early 20th century, redefining how this religious coalition views such issues as science, Darwinism, and contraception.  As politics can make strange bedfellows, the interesting dynamics of this coalition can be seen when Southern evangelicals vote with Catholics for Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election and against Herbert Hoover.  The first half of the 20th century becomes a period of schism and churning within the Evangelical Coalition that eventually settles down by the 1950s, which Nathanael declares a period of “peak Christendom.”  It is at this time that the likes of Billy Graham can draw support from a wide spectrum of religious denominations and political viewpoints.  We see the emergence of more voting chaos in the 1970s as progressive evangelicalism (e.g., the Sojourners) distance themselves from what becomes the Christian Right.  Nathanael discusses the election of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and declares the period of George W Bush the era of “peak evangelicalism.”  Upon Tony’s prompting, Nathanael jumps into the world of speculation with respect to the upcoming 2016 presidential election, and also reflects on how his views about religion and politics have changed over the course of his research.  Recorded: February 25, 2015.



Department of Economics at George Mason University.


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Hunter Baker on the Past and Future of the Christian Right.

David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement.

James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Jerry Falwell.

James Wellman on Evangelicals versus Liberal Christians.

Gerald de Maio on the Electoral Religious Gap.

Kevin den Dulk on Religion, Education, and Civic Engagement.

John Wilsey on American Exceptionalism & Civil Religion

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

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