How a Theology of Work Can Help With the GOP’s Growing Protectionism Problem

By Joseph Sunde Published on March 21, 2016

Like any other area of economic liberty, free trade cuts to our very values and priorities. It challenges our security and pokes at notions of entitlement and self-worth. Thus, no matter how well or how artfully the GOP makes its arguments about trade as an engine for widespread economic growth, deeper forces are sure to persist and persuade.

It’s one thing to see the hockey stick graphs on global prosperity and shout “hooray.” It’s another to be willing and ready to take the punches and make sacrifices when economic progress bumps your preferred resume and retirement plan in the wrong direction. To be prepared for that you need to have healthy understanding of what work is actually for and why we’re spinning our wheels in the first place.

Supporting free trade doesn’t just require a tweak in our macroeconomic theorizing. It demands a full-scale adjustment of our attitudes and imaginations. Which is why the failure of modern conservatism to combat trade protectionism is not just a failure to communicate economics; it’s a failure to promote a holistic philosophy of life and a healthy theology of work, one that’s oriented not toward a self-constructed “American dream,” but toward an authentic pursuit of full-scale freedom, good stewardship and human flourishing. Conservatives have been talking for so long about tax cuts and entrepreneurship and trade as paths to prosperity that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of the work itself.

Work Isn’t Just About You

Though it will pain many Americans to hear it, and contrary to the nationalistic whispers of Trumpian protectionism or the materialistic voodoo of #FeeltheBern mercantilism, work is not ultimately about you. Yes, work provides sustenance and stability. Yes, it puts bread on the table and a roof over our heads. Yes, these are baseline comforts of a stable society, and yes, self-preservation is a good thing.

But we are no longer isolated hunters and gatherers. We live and work within a far-flung economy, and our hands are united with a large community of people. We are part of civilization, a glorious handiwork of human laborers — creatures made in the image of a creative God — working and collaborating together, and that is a good thing.

As Lester DeKoster reminds us, work is ultimately about “service to others and thus to God.” With this theology at our backs, the economic fruits of free trade are simply fruits: byproducts of humans working and serving together as God created us to do.

“Work restores the broken family of humankind,” DeKoster writes. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding … As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit.”

It may seem like a simple tweak, but once we begin to apply a service-perspective to the area of economics — a tough and messy task to be sure — our approach to things like trade policy will transform in significant ways.

Seeds of a Tree that Endures

If work is about service to others, no longer should Foreigner X or Migrant Worker Y or Unskilled Laborer Z be viewed as “stealing your job,” though the frustration will surely persist. Instead, we should realize that they, like us, are finally able to participate in the global economy, offering their own forms of service and their own unique gifts and talents in new and efficient ways. They are participating in God’s grand design for work.

Through this lens, the prospect of job loss is no longer an occasion to mope about what was or wasn’t an “American job” in years gone by. The pain and nostalgia will likely endure, but we can remain hopeful and confident in knowing our work is not done. In these cases, job loss is simply a signal of how we might best use our time on behalf of others. It’s an opportunity to adapt and retool, to serve the community in new and better ways, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may be. That’s going to require an entire shift in the imagination of America, but it’s one that will revive and replenish far more than surface-level economic growth.

As Charles Cooke has asked his fellow conservatives (recall from Part 1): “What, then, is the GOP supposed to do? If it can’t offer a safety net to mitigate the downsides of trade and it can’t limit trade lest it damage the welfare of the country, it’s in a bit of a moral bind isn’t it?”

In truth, my call to shift our basic attitudes and imaginations isn’t likely to play any better than the promise of cheap consumer goods … in the short term. Indeed, it’s likely less conducive to primary debates and radio sound bites. But these are seeds of a tree that endures, one that bears fruits not of selfishness and security, but of freedom and risk, virtue and prosperity. We should be planting those seeds every chance we get, whether in our children, churches, schools or the wider reaches of popular culture.

The temptation to dwell on the illusion of security will remain strong — to cherish and fight for the comfortable economic control America has enjoyed for much of the last century. But to do so requires us to distort God’s design for work, to give way to selfish impulses, to suppress our own creative potential, to cut off the opportunities of countless others, and erode the economic order in turn.

If conservatism hopes to hold up the light of economic freedom to the rest of society, it must resist these protectionist impulses and realize that the closer we are to our global neighbors, the more opportunities we have to cultivate freedom and virtue here at home.

America is not insulated from its competitors, whether we pretend to be or not. That is a good and beautiful and promising thing, if only we’d respond accordingly — reorienting our hearts and hands from a work that secures and collects to one that serves and sustains.

[Part 1, “The GOP’s Growing Protectionism is a Bad Sign,” is here.]

Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute. He also serves as managing editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and as content manager for the Oikonomia channel at Patheos.


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