Evangelicals Versus Property Rights

Guess who invented the idea that property rights evolve with changing social values?

Today, evangelical Christians tend to be aligned with conservatives in defense of private property. But that was not always true. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, evangelicals launched a major attack on property rights. As historian John Compton documents in a recent book, they also adopted the idea of the “living Constitution” to justify their revisionist view of property.

The conflict between property rights and religion was sparked by moral opposition to drinking and gambling. Evangelicals wanted to ban alcohol and lotteries, both of which had been long-standing, widely accepted features of American life. Lotteries had even been used to finance the construction of churches. But prohibition of alcohol sale and lotteries threatened to destroy vested rights in those activities. Evangelicals argued that changing moral judgments could render some existing property rights illegitimate. They were largely successful in this effort.

These days, it is environmentalists, rather than evangelicals, who want to revise  concepts of legitimate property rights. They believe that some uses of property, such as destroying wetlands or the habitats of endangered species, are illegitimate and undeserving of constitutional protection. It is somewhat ironic that the theories used to justify these views have their roots in the arguments of what would now be called the Religious Right.


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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “Evangelicals Versus Property Rights”

  1. This article of Prof. Farber is so interesting .The theories of religious right give the environmentalists enlightenment. The environmentalists want to connect the environmental destruction of property uses with the concept of property.This effort is inspiring,but will be faced with the challenge of traditional property rights.

  2. Interesting post – wonder how that applies to the development of Christian view on property rights in the UK (as opposed to the US) – or perhaps it has been a global trend.

    Also, just in passing, thought you or your readers would also find my property law news & legal blogs site PropertyBlawg useful ( http://www.propertyblawg.com/ ). Also happy to have you or your colleagues get published there if you’d like?


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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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