CLASS, POLITICAL CONSERVATISM AND J ES U S
by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.
In recent years conservative politicians have met with great success in their quest to identify their conservatism with Christianity itself. Indeed, a number of conservative politicians explicitly claim that their policies and political rhetoric are the direct result of divine guidance or intervention. For instance, Stephen Mansfield reports that in the early days of his campaign for the Oval office Bush repeatedly asserted, "I believe God wants me to run for president . . . God wants me to do it."1 According to the Jerusalem daily Haaretz, Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. . . ."2
In a March 2005 speech to the conservative Family Research Council, the embattled House Majority Whip Tom DeLay rationalized his politicization of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Terri Schiavo life-support case with the assertion, "one thing God has brought us is Terry Schiavo, to help elevate the visibility of what is going on in America."
Statements like this and oft-repeated public confessions of Christian faith by conservative politicians across America are clearly meant to equate the focus and thrust of their politics and policies with biblical faith itself. This is the face conservative politicians have presented to the American public. Yet is this true? Are the precepts and policies of political conservatism consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the biblical tradition?
The Tenets of Conservatism
With the decisive victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal liberalism, by the end of the 1940's observers like the Harvard political science professor Louis Hartz and literary critic Lionel Trilling were claiming that liberalism was not only the dominant intellectual tradition in America, but the sole intellectual tradition, which was really another way of saying that conservatism as a political force in America was dormant, if not dead. Conservatism might have been dormant, but it certainly was not dead. After several years of relative quiescence, the demagoguery and "Red-baiting" by Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon in the 1950's began a resurgence of political conservatism that has culminated in its powerful position on America's political scene today.
Despite the publicity and public affirmation generated by the witch-hunts of McCarthy and Nixon, most conservative commentators trace the roots of America's awakened political conservatism after its trouncing by Roosevelt to another source: the 1953 publication of Russell Kirk's study, The Conservative Mind.3 Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a major conservative think tank, declared in a 2003 lecture, "With one book, Russell Kirk made conservatism intellectually acceptable in America."4 Edwards told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Kirk gave the conservative movement its name."5 This is reflected in the paucity of public use of the term "conservative" before Kirk's book. For instance, when William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, he called himself not a conservative, but an "individualist." And when Barry Goldwater was elected to the Senate a year later, his preferred terms of self-reference were "progressive Republican" and "Jeffersonian Republican."
The most significant contribution of Kirk's work, however, is that it energized conservatism by giving it the historical and philosophical heft and reflective self-understanding it had lacked. More importantly, it offered a coherent rationale for the values underpinning conservatism's world view. A sense of the influence of The Conservative Mind can be gleaned from its use as an ideological touchstone by political conservatives from the old-guard William F. Buckley to the neo-conservative William Kristol. Indeed, Buckley expressly credits The Conservative Mind for the resurgence of conservatism in America: "[It] is almost inconceivable to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirk's] labor."6
According to Kirk, political conservatism is based on six "basic canons" that I have summarized as follows:
In subsequent years, Kirk would articulate these tenets in various forms and forums, but his "basic canons" would remain the same.
One would expect that most Americans share these beliefs, if taken in their most benign forms. Most would agree to one degree or another that there is a divine intent that governs society, that tradition is important to the conduct of healthy lives in a healthy society, that abrupt and sudden drastic change can be disruptive and even destructive both to society and to individual lives, and so on. Yet when we consider the actions and extremist policies that have often resulted from these principles, we find that some of the basic tenets of political conservatism are not only problematic, but actually fly in the face of the teachings of Jesus and the most fundamental biblical precepts. For example, conservatism's insistence on gradual change, even in cases of egregious social injustice, has too often served to delay justice, even to maintain injustice. There is little question that this is what Martin Luther King meant when he decried "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism" in his epochal "I Have A Dream" address.
As troubling as this principle is, however, there is one that is even more disquieting: the notion that maintenance of classes and classism in American society is a necessary, even desirable, component of a "civilized" society. This valorization of classism is made even more disturbing by Kirk's dismissive equating of egalitarianism with "narrowing uniformity."8
Classes and Conservatism
Political conservatives today routinely level charges of "class warfare" at any public reference to class, as if the mere mention of it is misleading, if not inflammatory. The implication of their indignation is that the issue of class should not be raised because classes no longer exist in America, at least not to the extent that they are a worthy subject for public discussion. Of course this is a disingenuous response at best, given conservatives' belief in the necessity of classes and classism in American society. And in reality, by most measures class has come to play a greater, not a lesser, role in American society, particularly over the last three decades, roughly since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Conservatives' notion that distinctions of wealth and power are socially necessary would not be problematic if classes were vertical, that is, if they stood side by side without hierarchies to define their value, and if at the same time their functions were all counted as equally important and equally socially desirable, with only their different tasks and responsibilities to differentiate them. By definition, however, classes are horizontal and gradational, inevitably layered with one small rich, privileged class at the top with all others beneath in descending order of wealth and power. In other words, for a society to have classes at all, it must have over-classes and under-classes.
Class and the Gospel of Jesus
What Kirk and his conservative acolytes seem to have forgotten, however, is that one of the principal features of the coming kingdom of God as preached by Jesus is that it will sweep aside all forms of gross class disparity and elitism. Indeed, the class differences that made some rich and some poor, some free and some slaves, some secure and some held fast by fear and insecurity, were to be replaced by abundant life for all, with no one lording it over another. In other words, in Jesus' conception of the kingdom, there can be no social or economic classes. In parable and in narrative, Jesus preached that God equally welcomed everyone to the great banquet table of the kingdom of God and offered its fare to all in equal measure, as in the following parable in the Gospel according to Luke.
According to Jesus' telling, in the final instance the giver of the banquet, who clearly is meant to evoke God, did not simply invite all people to the feast; he also called for the removal of every barrier to their participation so they might share in all the good things the table offered. Yet, as one social commentator observed, sitting at the table doesn't make one a diner. A sitter becomes a diner only when he or she is free to enjoy what the table holds. It is true that in the full telling of Jesus' parable some chose not to heed the invitation because they were so self-absorbed by their status and their possessions that they were unconcerned with what the king offered. And we can be sure that of those who came to the table, some partook of more of its fare than others. But our concern here is not acceptance, rejection, or even differences in consumption. The point is that in Jesus' telling the hospitality table of every good thing that God has given humanity is freely open to all. But as long as there are classes and class societies, the full extent of God's largesse will not be realized. Class barriers deny complete and unlimited access to the fullness of the social and economic good that God has bestowed upon humanity. If for no other reason than this, maintenance of class differences violates the politics of Jesus.
In fact, it is the promise of lowering and removing class barriers that underpins Jesus' "good news to the poor," for the most welcome news to "the poor" is that they no longer must be poor. And if "the poor" as a class no longer exists, that is, if goods and resources are distributed in the just and equitable fashion that the Bible intends, then neither would there be a "rich" class. In fact, with the admonition "Woe to you who are rich," Jesus rejects the legitimacy of a "rich" class altogether. In other words, Jesus' declaration of "good news to the poor" proclaimed God's rejection of the extreme disparities in wealth and power upon which the class distinctions of "poor" and "rich" are based. That is not to say that Jesus declared "class warfare," in the sense of opposing one class to another, because in his preaching he never opposed other persons or groups per se. What he opposed were wrong-headed principles, sinful practices and selfish, self-serving ideologies. If Jesus can be understood to have declared "war" in any sense, it was war in the sense of uncompromising opposition to the continued existence of classes at all. This is also how the apostle Paul understood the meaning of Jesus' ministry, at least in part—as militating against all forms of class distinction and differentiation:
Moreover, Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) was an absolutely uncompromising critique of those who amassed wealth while others were in material need. There are numerous other examples of Jesus' opposition to the disparities of poverty and wealth that define classes.9 Taken as a whole, the gospels attribute to Jesus unquestionable egalitarianism and anti-classist sensibilities.
Class and the Hebrew Bible
As basic as the concern for equity and justice was for Jesus, biblical egalitarianism did not start with him. Rather, Jesus was re-articulating commands that stood at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. These commands had two distinct purposes: to guard against the further development of economic class differences in society, and to lessen, if not fully eliminate, the class differences that already existed. In fact, the history of the Hebrew people is interspersed with vivid recountings of God's rejection of elitism and class distinctions.
Recall that the Exodus, the root-event of biblical faith, is the recounting of the Hebrews' flight to freedom from the rigid and exploitive class hierarchy of Egypt. Having been divinely redeemed from a system in which a small privileged class claimed it as their birthright to lord over the masses, the Hebrews honored God for their deliverance by refusing to commit the sin of implementing a class system of their own. It was clear to them that to do as their oppressors had done would be to spit in the face of their salvation.
Both Joshua 18:1-10 and Numbers 26:52-56 reflect the Hebrew's egalitarianism in their apparent descriptions of equal distribution of land and land ownership. Likewise, the setting of the Book of Judges is a relatively egalitarian society of small landowners. However, the Hebrews' efforts to develop of a classless social system did not just express their hatred of Egypt's brutal class hierarchy; it was also their understanding of what God required of them.
An important point to note here is that although the Bible militates against hierarchies of material riches and power, it doesn't claim that all differences in wealth are necessarily the result of exploitation or theft or some other sin. There are natural advantages and disadvantages, physical handicaps, misfortunes and mishaps that can cause disparities of wealth. The sin arises when these disparities lead to extremes in which some lack the necessities for a decent quality of life, while others have much more than they need, yet refuse to share in any truly significant measure. The transgression is compounded when these disparities become permanent and are passed from generation to generation in the form of stratified classes.
Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 are divine prescriptions for combating the development of classes based on wide disparities of property and wealth. The Jubilee Year that is prescribed in Leviticus 25 stipulates that every fifty years all land, the principal means of wealth and sustenance in antiquity, was to be returned to its original owners. Leviticus 25 does not abolish private property, however. Ownership of real property was acknowledged and encouraged. In that land was the major means of production in antiquity, this served to give everyone the same opportunity and the same practical means to provide themselves with the things necessary to have a reasonable and acceptable standard of living. But not only were the means of production and the opportunity of every family to earn a decent living equalized by the Lev. 25 prescriptions, but more importantly, the equalizing mechanism was institutionalized so social and economic equity no longer depended on the whims of the rich to decide when and to what degree they chose to share. No longer would the needy be forced to wait for the crumbs of the wealthy to dribble down to them like some sort of rudimentary trickle-down economics. Leviticus 25 made clear that equal access to wealth and every good thing for everyone was what God commanded. As biblical scholar Warren Carter observes, "The redistribution of wealth [in Lev. 25] was to prevent the emergence of both an elite with massive wealth and power and a permanent poor class with inadequate means of support."10
More than that, the people were commanded that the Jubilee was always to begin on the Day of Atonement to remind them that the repentance they sought on that sacred day was not complete until their economic relationships were also set right (see Lev. 25:9).
Deuteronomy 15 not only provided for the freeing of all slaves at the end of six years, but directed that they be given a share of the goods and wealth that their labor helped produce, a directive that every corporate manager might keep in mind when laying-off, and especially when terminating employees:
Verses 1-6 of Deuteronomy 15 also stipulate that in the seventh year all debts are to be cancelled to ensure that no one is relegated to life-long membership in a debtor class. The goal of these biblical prescriptions is plainly stated in the imperative voice in verse 4: "There shall be no poor among you."
The Bible stipulates other prescriptions to soften and, where possible, abolish the extremes of wealth and power and opportunity that characterize class distinctions. Exodus 23:10-11 directed prosperous landowners to suspend cultivation of their land every seventh year and to give unrestricted access to those in need to whatever the land produced during that year, without requiring the needy to work the land on the owners' behalf. That the poor received a free year of gleaned produce while the landowners were forced to forego it also served as a kind of mild economic leveling mechanism.
We all know the Sabbath as the weekly day of worship. Yet the implications of the Sabbath are much more profound and far-reaching, for it is also a weekly re-enactment of radical equality in which everyone gets to rest and know leisure, not just elites. More importantly, on the Sabbath God is acknowledged as the sole sovereign of all humanity—including the rich. In other words, by its very nature, the Sabbath is the recognition of egalitarianism as God's holiest vision for humanity. That the Sabbath is held as holy week after week serves as a perpetual reminder that egalitarian values must govern all human relationships and interactions, both individually and collectively. In the final analysis, the purpose of the Sabbath is to regularly remove all class differences. In this sense it is a model of how life should be lived every day of the week.
In summary, except in its provisions for a hereditary priestly class,11 the Hebrew Bible not only decries class distinctions, it gives numerous detailed prescriptions for curtailing, if not abolishing them. Even the biblical writers' unconscionable relegation of women to secondary was not felt to contradict this, because in the unquestioned patriarchy of the biblical writers, women benefitted from these stipulations because they were part of a man's household.
In the gospels, Jesus echoes the Old Testament prescriptions, but goes further, for in practice and pronouncement he makes no distinction between the rights of women and men. He even rejects the legitimacy of a privileged priestly class, as in Matthew 23, for instance. Finally, Jesus' numerous pronouncements of woes against the rich and championing of the poor are unmistakable markers of his anti-classist egalitarianism.
Classes in America
When we shift our gaze from biblical times to present-day America, we see that despite the clear-cut anti-classist, egalitarian disposition of both the Hebrew Bible directives and the gospel pronouncements of Jesus, the social, economic and tax policies promoted by political conservatives have been routinely skewed toward the interests of America's wealthier citizens, with only secondary consideration at best given to the less privileged, particularly the poor. Conservative politicians opposed at their inception Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment compensation, the right to form labor unions, government guaranteed student loans, child labor laws, the minimum wage, workplace safety regulations, guaranteed bank and savings deposits, oversight to insure the purity of our food and drugs, the environmental protection movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, civil rights legislation, even anti-lynching legislation. Indeed, conservatives have opposed virtually every policy that might narrow the gap between rich and poor, particularly taxation of the wealthy.
Conservatives' belief in the necessity of maintaining economic classes goes far to explain their willingness to ignore the plight of poorer Americans. This social perspective has been most evident in recent years in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Under the "trickle-down" economic policies and the 60 percent tax cut for the wealthy that was enacted by Reagan and continued by his successor, George H. W Bush, the poorest 20 percent of Americans saw their after-tax family incomes drop by 12 percent, while the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their incomes increase by 136 percent. Under Bush's policies, the number of Americans living below the official poverty line of $17,960— for a family of four!— has increased by some 3 million, or about 10 percent of the American population. Similarly, the number of Americans without health insurance has also risen by 10 percent, to more than 15 percent of the American population.
These data should not be surprising because despite Jesus' repeated pronouncement of woes upon the rich and on those "who store up their wealth," there is nothing in conservatives' notion of class that precludes amassing extraordinary wealth while others merely subsist. Indeed, many of the large fortunes in America, particularly those comprised of "old money," are in no way the result of equal access to the means of wealth that the Bible commands, and certainly cannot be attributed to equitable distribution. Rather, many of these fortunes are the result of "cronyism," mutually enriching corrupt, clandestine deals between government officials and corporate elites that perpetuate class disparities. These and other such corrupt arrangements are egregious betrayals of both the public trust and clear-cut biblical commandments.
Cronyism takes various forms, including no-bid contracts, financially favorable legal rulings based not on law but on undisclosed relationships, and other kinds of special considerations given to corporate elites and the wealthy classes in general. Other forms of cronyism include special deals made in exclusive settings from which most Americans are excluded, like meetings taking place at country clubs and golf outings, for example; also preferential governmental treatment for the few, which can include individuals, corporations, even particular industries in which government officials, their family members or other cronies have a material interest, as in the case of President Bush and his ties to the oil industry, particularly the Enron Corporation, and Vice President Cheney and his continuing ties to the Halliburton Corporation.
Cronyism in American business is so widespread that it seems to be the common perception that the only thing wrong with it is getting caught. Yet it is a serous moral transgression, if not a major sin, in that it directly violates the Bible's demands for equity and justice for all. That is to say, cronyism benefits only the rich and well-connected as if they are favored by God; as if it is their God-given right to exploit others. The words of the prophets issue a trenchant denunciation:
Because cronyism serves to maintain wealth and power in the hands of those who already possess wealth and power, it assists the conservative agenda by perpetuating classism and economic elitism in American society. In other words, cronyism buttresses the economic ascendency of those whom President Bush affec tion ate ly calls "the have-mo res" at the expense of ordinary Americans. A primary purpose of Leviticus 25 was to guard against this type of abuse.
Why don't conservatives see the sin of purposely maintaining class distinctions? To be sure, there are probably some who simply don't care to see because it serves their personal interests. Others believe that the simple possession of wealth is evidence that it is deserved, as if it is God-ordained. This sense is reflected in a revealing statement by Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer in an 1893 address to the New York State Bar Association. Though it is over a century old, Brewer's speech portrays the unholy alliance of presumed class entitlement with the perquisites of government as if he were speaking today:
Compare this to the now well-known remark by President George W. Bush at a New York fundraiser in 2000: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite. I call you my base."
The unquestioned sense of wealth and class privilege by Brewer in the 19th century and Bush in our century is much closer akin to the ideology of the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy and their imperial overlords that Jesus so uncompromisingly opposed, than to the "good news to the poor" that Jesus gave his life struggling for.
Still other conservatives feel that class disparities are justified because they believe that poverty stems from personal shortcomings rather than from the confluence of deleterious economic and social factors. In a 1999 interview, future President George W. Bush made this very point. "Oftentimes people are poor because of decisions they make," he said. "Oftentimes, people are poor because they didn't get a good education . . . and aren't making right choices and staying in school and working hard in school." [Big Lies, 19]. Yet Bush's basing of economic mobility on personal merit and "right choices" alone is contradicted by his own example. He was admitted to Andover Prep and Yale University not because of merit or personal achievement, but as a "legacy" admission. That means that despite his low grades and consistent record of inattention to his studies, Bush was admitted over much more deserving candidates solely because his father and grandfather had matriculated at those institutions before him. In fact, Bush's every professional opportunity and achievement, including the bulk of his personal wealth, are fully the result of his family's connections. In other words, rather than profiting from his own "right choices," President Bush himself is a life-long beneficiary of cronyism. In his assessment of what is necessary for economic mobility, apparently Bush holds ordinary Americans to a different standard than that to which he holds himself and others of his privileged economic class.
This explains, at least in part, Bush's reluctance to address cronyism, as in his failure to make public comment on the Enron scandal, the largest debacle of its kind in the nation's history, for six full weeks: because Kenneth Lay, Enron's CEO, was a close crony of Bush. In fact, Lay was Bush's luncheon guest on his very first full day in the White House. It is also cronyism that explains the Bush administration's willingness to award an open-ended, $7 billion no-bid contract to the Halliburton Corporation in March, 2003, to rebuild the same oilfields that Vice President Cheney— Halliburton's former CEO—had relentlessly prodded the president to destroy. Halliburton paid Cheney $36, 086,635 in executive compensation in 2000, which made a total of $60 million he'd received from Halliburton in the five years prior to his swearing in as Vice President. Yet Cheney denies that he had anything to do with Halliburton's contractual windfall. Despite his denials, ironically, his cronyism is corroborated by a governmental source. In June 2004 The Washington Post reported that an Army Corps of Engineer's email affirms that Halliburton's multi-billion dollar contract "had been 'coordinated' with the office of Vice President Cheney."13
Regardless of the pervasiveness of cronyism in American society, conservative political ideology refuses to acknowledge the great extent to which the wealth of rich elites is based upon the shameless exploitation of workers, manipulation of markets, appeals to racial exclusivity, exploitation of the 'old boy' network, formulation of preferential governmental policies, and the like. That is why conservative jurist Robert Bork can say with no sense of nuance or irony, "In America, 'the rich' are overwhelmingly people—entrepreneurs, small businessmen, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, etc.—who have gained their higher incomes through intelligence, imagination, and hard work."14 Bork ignores America's rampant cronyism and the many fortunes built and handed down by robber barons, exploiters of unskilled—even unpaid— labor, and successful purveyors of myriad illegal self-enriching schemes and corrupt business arrangements.
America and the Social Order of Rome
Ironically, conservatives' belief in the necessity of orders and classes is reminiscent of the valorization of classes and orders in the Roman empire. This is a disturbing thought, given that the desire to perpetuate the wealth and privileged status of Rome's upper crust was what drove it to invade and brutally subjugate the entire known world.
Membership in Rome's political and economic upper class did not come cheaply. Those in the senatorial stratum, the tiny class second in power only to the emperor, were expected to possess wealth and property worth 250,000 times a laborer's daily wage. Acceptance as a member of the equites class, which in power and privilege was next in the imperial hierarchy, required a net worth of 100,000 to 125,000 times the going daily wage.15
The Roman elites' exorbitant multiples of wealth as compared to the incomes of the laboring rank-and-file bring to mind the huge economic divide between America's upper class elites and the average American worker. A telling example is the gap between the compensation of chief executive officers (CEO) and ordinary workers in America's largest corporations.
For the last fifteen years the average salary of a CEO of a major corporation has ranged as high as 419 times the average worker's salary. In the last five years the differential has hovered at the 300-to-1 level, still an incredible multiple. In 2004 the average CEO was paid $9.84 million in total compensation, while the average worker was paid $33,176. That means that the average worker would have to work 300 years to make what the average CEO makes in one year. This statistic might cause even the notorious "robber baron" J. P. Morgan to gasp. Morgan reportedly thought that a CEO's salary should be no more than 20 times that of his average worker.
In light of these extreme multiples of wealth held in common by the elites of Rome and those of America, it seems that apparently, the major difference between the classism of Rome and that of America is that Rome's classes were de jure, that is, they had formal legal standing, while America's classes are de facto, i.e., not explicitly enforced by laws, but virtually as deeply entrenched as if they were imposed by law, at least in part because throughout America's history laws have been routinely manipulated to serve America's rich.
That is another of the reasons Jesus opposed classism in the Israel of his day: it relegated vast numbers of people to a particular social and economic "place" from which it was exceedingly difficult for them to break free. It is little different in our nation today. There are more than a few notable exceptions to be sure, but the vast majority of Americans have no chance of entering the highest ranks of power and influence. In fact, most never significantly rise above the station of their birth. A 2005 study released by the New York Times found that today Americans are more likely to end their lives in the class into which they were born than they were 30 years ago. The New York Times report cites a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston as reaching similar conclusions. It found that fewer families experienced upward mobility in the 1980's than in the 1970's, and even fewer moved upward in the 1990's than in the 1980's.16
Many conservatives dismiss these data on the grounds that mobility patterns in America are in temporary flux because class mobility is now based strictly on merit. The career of President Bush is ample evidence of the falsehood of this claim. Yet, even true merit is at least partly class-based. The higher a family's economic status, the greater its access to the best educations and the social exposure and professional connections that come with those educations. Moreover, recent studies show that the advantage of being born into a wealthy family no longer lasts just two or three generations as was once believed. Now it is closer to five generations. That means that it can take five generations for families without historical wealth to gain an equal footing with those that have long had it. Taken together, these factors mean that in reality most Americans have no chance of entering the circles of power and wealth that determine the very course of their lives.
Take education, for instance. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains tightly linked to class. Many of those in the greatest positions of power in America come from the ivy-covered halls of America's top universities. It is a fact that the power brokers of this nation inordinately hail from Harvard, Yale and Princeton and other top-tier schools. The ranks of the nation's policy makers and business leaders are rife with graduates from these institutions, many with advanced graduate degrees. It is no coincidence that both 2004 major party presidential candidates were graduates of Yale University, or that both were members of the same Yale secret student society.
In principle, the doors of the nation's top universities are open to every American based upon academic merit.17 However, the reality is that out of the roughly 31,700 public and private high schools in America, only 930—about 3 percent—had more than four students in their 1998-2001 graduating classes who attended Harvard, Princeton or Yale. Yet Worth magazine, a monthly periodical dedicated to the interests of the very richest Americans, reports that the 100 top-rated American high schools sent 3,452 students to Harvard, Princeton or Yale. In other words, three-tenths of one percent of America's high schools accounted for a whopping 22 percent of students at the top three universities. But here is where class comes into play: ninety-four of the top hundred American high schools are exclusive private schools with annual tuition of $20,000 or more. And all of the six public schools on the list are located in communities that are among the nation's wealthiest.
Indeed, when the Educational Testing Service looked at students from the poorest 25 percent of the nation's population it found that only 3 percent of them made it to the nation's top 146 schools. On the other hand, it found that the children of the richest 25 percent of Americans comprised some 74 percent of the students at the top schools. More telling yet, the entire bottom half of America's total population accounted for only 10 percent of students at the Big Three schools.
At the end of the day, what this means is that students at the nation's top colleges are twenty-five times more likely to be rich than poor. And in recent years, the proportion of students from upper-income families at the most selective American colleges has consistently expanded. These data are significant when considering the impact of class because although matriculation at elite schools opens doors to leadership and authority in America, entry to them is circumscribed by access to wealth, and access to wealth is limited by class. It is a vicious circle. The poor continue to struggle while the rich continue running— and owning— things. At a time when manual labor can be farmed out to developing countries for as little as $2.00 a day, education and skills training are more important than ever. Yet education, particularly the best educations, are out of reach for too many. In the constellation of causes for this distressing state of affairs, to be sure class is the major culprit.
The American Aristocracy
A Congressional Budget Office study reveals the sad facts about class disparities in America. From 1979 to 2001, the after-tax income of the top one percent of American households jumped 139 percent, to more than $700,000, even after adjustment downward for inflation. Yet the income of the middle fifth of American households only rose by 16.8 percent, to $43,700. During that time the poorest fifth of Americans saw their incomes rise by just 8.5 percent, from $13,000 to $14,000. In other words, Americans' stratification into classes of rich and poor is becoming more divisive and more entrenched.
As the rich get richer, the life chances of the poor diminish, for class also affects Americans' lives in other crucial, yet less easily quantifiable ways. Every credible study has shown that the higher one's income, the longer the life expectancy. Upper-class Americans are less likely than middle-class Americans to develop and die from diabetes, stroke, heart disease and many types of cancer. In turn, and middle-class Americans experience far better health than the poorest Americans. And researchers report that this sad gap is widening. The primary factor in this health disparity in America is the cost and availability of healthcare. But there are other class-based health factors as well. For instance, the stress of the insecurity and the lack of affirmation that usually accompany jobs low on the occupational scale is more harmful than the stress of professional jobs that typically offer more security and greater appreciation of skills. In addition, the poor have less time and fewer resources to devote to health maintenance. And typically, the lower the income, the less healthful the diet. Professor Ichiro Kawachi of the Harvard School of Public Health explains that although "[m]ortality rates even among the poor are coming down . . . the rate [of decline] is not anywhere near as fast as the well-to-do."18 The result? The health gap between rich and poor in America, like the income gap, has not decreased; it has increased. In other words, the vagaries of class have made poor and lower-class Americans less healthy, while the health of more well-to-do Americans flourishes and even improves.
These are among the ways the class system in America keeps average Americans "in their place," and the ways America's aristocracy of wealth and power even determines the life expectancies of the classes beneath it on the socio-economic scale.
Yes, ironically, our democracy is despoiled by a privileged aristocratic class. The existence of a de facto aristocracy in America that continues to retain its privilege and preeminence is first reflected in the fact that the potential for upward economic class mobility in America, much less entree into the ranks of the rich, is no higher than in France and Britain. This is incredible, given that both France and Britain have had hereditary aristocrats and nobles for centuries longer than the United States has been in existence. What makes it more incredible is that although America's economy has grown faster than Europe's for the last three hundred years, for at least the last century, in good aristocratic style the richest and most privileged families in America have lost little of their social and economic preeminence. Indeed, they have remained rich and privileged by finding ways to garner the bulk of the fruits of America's economic growth. For instance, between 1983 and 1998, 91 percent of the increase in America's wealth went to the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans, and over half of that increase went to the richest one percent.
When year after year, generation after generation, the lion's share of a society's prosperity ends in the hands of the richest one percent of the American people, that is an aristocracy. When the richest one percent of the American people owns more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent, that is an aristocracy. When tax laws are passed so the wealth of the rich can be gifted to their descendants while giving back little or nothing in estate taxes to the public infrastructure that enabled them to amass their wealth in the first instance, and which continues to enable and undergird the growth of their fortunes in a myriad of ways, those whose wealth is protected by these specially crafted measures comprise an aristocracy.
Although the form and perquisites of the de facto American aristocratic class are not directly upheld by law, they are upheld in practice by every conservative policy that puts the interests of the rich before those of other Americans. In its stranglehold over the nation's wealth and power, America's de facto aristocracy is little different than the British aristocracy that American revolutionaries fought to free our nation from.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
To be sure, conservatives hold these words dear, as do all Americans of good will. Nevertheless, there is no question that the barriers of class that conservatives deem to be necessary for a healthy America stand in the way of all Americans pursuing their "self-evident" rights to the fullest. To seek to retain these inequities of wealth and economic mobility when millions of American children go hungry everyday flies in the face of the Christianity most conservatives profess.
Jesus taught that all God's children should live together. in love and fellowship. A society that views the existence of economic classes as necessary and desirable does not have in mind development of Jesus' beloved community. What Christians must never forget is that, in large measure, it was against grave disparities in wealth that Jesus struggled and strived and preached and proclaimed God's judgment. Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the peacekeepers." He did not bless those who strived to maintain society as it was. He taught "Blessed are the peacemakers," the ones who actively strive to make the kind of world in which true peace for all is a reality. But when there are classes working to maintain their privileged status over other classes, true peace cannot reign.
At the beginning of this essay we asked if the precepts and policies of political conservatism are consistent with the Hebrew biblical tradition and the teachings of Jesus. In light of political conservatism's foundational tenet that the continued existence of classes in America is necessary to a civilized society, the answer can only be a resounding "no." Why? Because any notion that a society built on valorization of the disparities in wealth, power and well-being that define classes stands in arrogant opposition to the egalitarianism of the biblical tradition and gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2003), 109.
2. Arnon Regular, Haaretz.com, June 24, 2003.
3. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (New York: Henry C. Regnery, 1953).
4.Lee Edwards, "The Origins of the Modern American Conservative Movement" November 21, 2003 (Heritage Lecture #811).
5. ___, "Old School Ties," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 2004.
6. cf. Book jacket of The Conservative Mind, 7th edition.
7. See Kirk, 8-9.
8. Ibid, 8.
9. Representative passages include Mt. 19:21-24; Luke 1:51-52; 12:15-21 ;18:24. 10.Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), 263.
11. See Exodus 28 and Leviticus. 21.
12. Quoted in Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (NewYork: Perennial/HarperCollins, 2001), 261.
13. "E-Mail Links Cheney's Office, Contract," The Washington Post, May 2, 2004.
14. Quoted in Robert B. Reich, Reason (New York: Knopf, 2004), 118.
15. Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations 50 B.C. to A.D 284 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 88-89.
16. Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, "Class in America: Shadowy Lines that Still Divide," New York Times, May 15, 2005.
17. Much of the data that follow are from Ross Gregory Douthat, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, New York: Hyperion, 2004, 50-51.
18. Janny Scott, "Life at the Top in America Isn't Just Better, It's Longer," New York Times, May 16, 2005.
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