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DALLAS (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Christians say the culture has gone to hell and it has taken the economy and Wall Street down with it.
It is a view which outsiders may find puzzling but has wide resonance in the U.S. heartland: the notion that moral decay and a lost sense of responsibility has brought on the worst banking and credit crisis since the Great Depression.
Such a view helps explain the unpopularity in conservative Christian circles -- which have a big influence on the Republican Party -- of a $700 billion bailout plan which the U.S. House of Representatives rejected on Monday, rocking financial markets.
Mounting consumer and household debt as housing prices fall is one of the main reasons behind the current crisis -- a crisis that religious conservatives say has moral roots.
The narrative goes roughly like this: the "collapse" of the traditional family, widespread divorce and a "permissive" culture have led to a disregard for personal responsibility.
A culture focused on instant gratification -- through the overuse of credit cards to buy consumer goods, for example -- has also lost other "traditional values" such as thrift and hard work.
"You can't have a strong, vibrant society when you don't have strong, vibrant families. It's a crisis of commitment, it's a crisis of responsibility," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group with strong evangelical ties.
"If you don't live up to your responsibility you are going to see that in the broader culture. You see this on Wall Street," he told Reuters.
It is a view that has been echoed by other conservative commentators, on Christian radio stations and on popular "Talk Radio" programs.
"To spend more than you've got is not the way we brought up our kids ... You have a whole credit industry that grew up around people wanting what their parents had without working 20 years to get it," said Gary Ledbetter, spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Conservative Christians and evangelical Protestants in particular are a key base of support for the Republican Party which has rallied to John McCain's White House bid since he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Tying "values" to economic problems is one way that religious conservatives can keep some focus on the "culture" issues they have long fought over as public attention is riveted on Wall Street, job security and house prices.
Upholding "traditional" values which they say have been under assault since the 1960s informs much of their outlook, ranging from their opposition to abortion and gay rights to a professed aversion to heavy debt loads.
"Although debt is not a sin, it also is not a normal way of life, according to Scripture ... debt is a dangerous tool that must be used, if at all, with extreme caution and much prayer," says the conservative evangelical advocacy group "Focus on the Family" on its web site.
But some commentators have noted that the "Religious Right" has long been among the staunchest supporters of the free-market ideology and the deregulation of financial markets preached by the Republican Party.
"Essentially the Christian Right did not do serious biblical reflection on economics, it just borrowed its model from the Republicans," said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.
"Conservative Christians who accepted the unregulated free market ethos must bear some of the responsibility for its consequences," said Gushee.
Editing by David Wiessler