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By Kaya Oakes 4-25-2017

In late March, the White House announced that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner would be leading a “SWAT team” of strategic consultants tasked with using ideas from the business world to help streamline government. The White House Office of American Innovation will theoretically deliver on Trump’s campaign promises “ahead of schedule, [and] under budget,” as the president told the Washington Post.

President Trump’s decision to appoint his 36-year-old son-in-law to this new office is strategic in two ways: The office will report directly to Trump, bypassing complex and chaotic White House channels, and it will place a millennial in the spotlight. Trump only won 37 percent of the millennial vote, and no member of his cabinet falls in the millennial age demographic.

The idea that government should be run like a business was popular with Republicans (and with some Democrats) long before Trump’s election. New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia made it one of his campaign promises in 1938, and it was a featured talking point of billionaire Ross Perot’s insurgent but failed presidential campaign in 1992. In the last 20 years, has also been built into the missional model of megachurches, which have been a prominent presence in America long enough to have influenced a whole generation of millennial Christians. Rick Warren built much of his Saddleback empire around “Doing Business with God,” and Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels reportedly has a poster outside of his office that asks “Who is our customer?” Mark Driscoll’s leadership of Mars Hill ended among accusations of racketeering, a term more often associated with Wall Street than Jesus Christ.

Sabri Ben-Achour of NPR’s “Marketplace” said earlier this year that this view of governance might include notions like “walking away from negotiations, always getting the best deal, negotiating the lowest possible costs.” For some millennial Christians, the business-minded thinking now dominating government may create opportunity. But more often, it creates a jarring clash between the gospel message and the reality of our new political administration. Will younger Christian voters be swayed by the promise of a more efficient federal government? White Christian voters came out to support Trump in large numbers, and Christian millennials were certainly among them. But do younger Christians believe that business and government have much in common in terms of America’s social structure?

I interviewed a dozen Christian millennials from different denominational backgrounds about these questions, and found that most of them disagree with the idea that government should be borrowing ideas from business in terms of how it operates. While this is by no means a scientific sampling, my respondents labeled themselves anywhere from a 1 for most conservative to 10 for most progressive, and they were scattered geographically all over the country. A few think that there is potential in Trump’s idea: Josh*, a 20-year-old nondenominational Christian from California who describes himself as a political moderate, says inefficiencies in government “could be resolved if things were to be restructured a bit in order to reflect how the modern world works.” Josh says that business should be regulated to make sure they don’t take advantage of people, but adds that “businesses will always have power, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.”

Most younger Christians, however, disagreed with the notion that government should act like a business. And, in a striking consensus, many agree that the basic Christian belief in caring for the most marginalized in our society is at odds with a business placing profit above people.

The Mission or the Bottom Line?

The question of how an institution balances mission with financial stability is not a new one. But many young Christians reported clarity on prioritizing mission — even among the more conservative-minded.

Carter*, a 33-year-old Baptist from Virginia who describes himself as “on the conservative side theologically,” says a government’s purpose is “to serve the people and their interests, ... and the care and health of the person and the community can and should be placed at the center of decision making.”

Carolyn Browender, a 29-year-old United Methodist from D.C., says this notion of government-as-business might further weaken the social safety net, leading her to “concerns about who might fall through the cracks in the name of efficiency.”

Elizabeth*, an 34-year-old Episcopalian from Colorado, is more explicit. “The level of luxury some Americans enjoy, contrasted with the inability of many others to afford housing, health care, food, or education, would disgust the prophets and Jesus alike,” she says. "There is no incentive for a business to be merciful, or even just.” 

And hence a concern over running the government like a business: Even if intentions are good, can anything match profit as a motivating factor in decision-making? To Elizabeth*, a 32-year-old Catholic from Louisiana, Trump’s presidency is “a repulsive confirmation of America’s idolatry of business. His only credentials are his wealth and his shiny possessions, and his policies clearly show that appearances are the highest good to him.”

This concern is not just present among Christian millennials; a Deloitte poll from this year revealed that millennials view businesses as “holding back from full engagement with social issues.” When the first travel ban was announced and New York taxi drivers staged a solidarity strike, millennial favorite Uber sent drivers to JFK airport. Lyft, on the other hand, immediately pledged 1 million dollars to the ACLU, and #DeleteUber trended on Twitter for many days as people ditched Uber for Lyft. Similarly, when a New Balance spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the company felt things would “move in the right direction” under Trump, millennials tweeted, Instagrammed, and Snapchatted footage of burning their New Balance shoes. Karina Guzman, a 23-year-old Catholic from central California, says this exploitation has been vividly illustrated in recent headline-making incidents with Pepsi and with United Airlines.

Religion or Politics

To get a better understanding of what framed their responses, I asked these young voters how their Christianity impacts their view of the roles government and business should play. Carter says his faith doesn’t provide him with policy solutions, but it does inform “how I think about things, what I value, and ultimately how I think others, especially the least of these among us, should be treated.” Episcopalian Elizabeth and Catholic Karina both stressed that their understandings of Jesus' teaching informs their voting and their focus on social justice.

For others, their Christian faith critiques both business and government. Catholic Elizabeth argues that Jesus’ teaching about “rendering unto Cesar puts government and business on separate planes,” and that conservative efforts to label America as “God’s chosen nation” reveal “an arrogant concept ignorant of history.” And Preston Culbertson, 23, who comes from an Episcopal background but “feels more connected” to evangelical churches, adds that business “stands explicitly against many of Christ's teachings — deep structural change is needed to make our society look more like the Kingdom.” 

When it comes to worker protections and our national tendency to work more and more hours, Alexander Paris Brown, 31, who was raised in the black Baptist tradition and currently attends Catholic parishes in Colorado, reflects a sense that both business and government "run counter to the ideals upheld by faith."

“What's the role of a spiritual identity when you work for six to seven days a week to afford shelter?" he asks. “What’s the function for prayer when the only free-time you can find is within traffic on the commute?”

Justice and the State

For Micah Bales, a 33-year-old from D.C., a Quaker faith informs his view that “government and business have fundamentally different jobs. Business is meant to serve the needs of the market. Government is intended to serve the will and priorities of the people.”

Micah explains that his Quaker faith leads him to be skeptical of big business and big government. “Both have an important role to play, but both are easily corrupted by human selfishness. ...[Both] need to be subordinated to Jesus’ command to love one another,” he says.

In the Easter sermon at my own church, the priest commented that Jesus was killed by the 1 percent, in the form of an empire that exploited its citizenry for the sake of profit and growth. While this sentiment might not be surprising where I live in liberal Northern California, it’s also present throughout the Bible. President Trump, whose own religious beliefs remain puzzling, vague, and nearly impossible to parse even among theologians and religion journalists, has repeatedly pushed policies that are the opposite of many of Christ’s messages even in his short time in office.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that so many of the Christian millennials I spoke to disagreed with the idea of the new office Kushner will lead, or that they have concerns with businesses’ tendency to favor profit-making over human safety and development. With job security rapidly disappearing under the gig economy, student debt rising, and global tensions coming to the boil, it’s unsurprising that millennials want to hold businesses accountable and hope businesses will behave in a more ethical manner. When it seems that young Americans have little left to control, how they spend their money can become a more conscious and ethical choice. And when neither businesses nor government are acting in an ethical manner, the notion of business and government cozying up to one another can indeed look ominous, with the additional looming threat that government programs will become increasingly privatized.

It won’t be surprising if we see increased boycotts and social media campaigns calling out businesses in the coming years. And with the resurgence of faith-based activism in the past few months, Christian millennials have the potential to be real leaders in holding Kushner and his father-in-law accountable. “We must honestly examine how government can enshrine our sins,” Elizabeth from Louisiana says. For Christian millennials, now may be a very acceptable time to begin.

*First names-only used upon request.

*Share image lev radin / Shutterstock.com

Kaya Oakes is the author of four books, most recently including The Nones Are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015). She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and lives in her home town of Oakland, California. 

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