Does economics need religion?

Mark D. White

Thanks to my globetrotting co-blogger Jonathan Wight, who emailed me about this: a symposium in Econ Journal Watch titled "Does Economics Need an Infusion of Religious or Quasi-Religious Formulations?", anchored by Robin Klay's article "Where Do Economists of Faith Hang Out? Their Journals and Associations, plus Luminaries Among Them" and featuring seventeen short responses from people such as Ross Emmett, Dan Finn, David George, Mary Hirschfeld, Eric Rasmusen, and Andrew Yuengert. Bless tham all.

Biblical Economic Ethics

Jonathan B. Wight

The following info came over the ASE listserv (congratulations, Al, on the new book):

Biblical Economic Ethics: Sacred Scripture's Teachings on Economic Life

by Albino Barrera Al Barrera book

This book synthesizes the findings of scripture scholars and ethicists on what the Bible teaches about economic life.  It proposes a biblical theology of economic life that addresses three questions, namely:

            - What do the individual books of Sacred Scripture say about proper economic conduct?

            - How do these teachings fit within the larger theology and ethics of the books in which they are found?

            - Are there recurring themes, underlying patterns, or issues running across these different sections of the Bible when read together as a single canon?

            The economic norms of the Old and New Testament exhibit both continuity and change.  Despite their diverse social settings and theological visions, the books of the Bible nonetheless share recurring themes: care for the poor, generosity, wariness over the inordinate pursuit of wealth, the inseparability of genuine worship and upright moral conduct, and the acknowledgment of an underlying divine order in economic life.  

            Contrary to most people's first impression that the Bible offers merely random economic teachings without rhyme or reason, there is, in fact, a specific vision undergirding these scriptural norms.  Moreover, far from being burdensome impositions of do's and don'ts, the Bible's economic norms are, in fact, an invitation to participate in God's providence and governance of the world.

Lexington Books (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield)

Cloth: 978-0-7391-8229-1 ISBN August 2013 370 pages Regular price: $95.00/ After discount: $66.50

To get 30% discount, use code LEX30AUTH14 when ordering (valid until 12/31/13)

The Pope Revealed

Jonathan B. Wight

Pope Francis gave an amazing interview last week.  One can sense a person of deep integrity and compassion.  It’s amazing that such a real individual of humility could have survived the vetting process for leadership selection.

Typically we think of leaders as people whose abilities for genuine empathy have been constrained and shrunken.  After all, we ask leaders to make hard decisions, and the psychological torment caused by empathizing deeply with the thousands of workers you have just laid off, or the thousands of soldiers you have just sent in to dangerous battle, would detract from focus and sap the leader’s energy. 

We really don’t want leaders to empathize too much, although they certainly have to pretend to empathize.  Hence, the ubiquity of phony leaders.

Pope francis

But Francis has an answer for this.  He notes that he became a leader too young—at age 36—and that he made his decisions in an autocratic, insensitive way.  He was young enough to learn from that experience that consultation and emotional openness was a better approach, which he intends to maintain.

Francis is clearly a socio-economist:

God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take placein the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.  The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules…. 

Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy…. The confessional is not a torture chamber.

In one of the most important discussions, Francis shows a remarkable faith by being willing to trust the flock.  He gives up the notion that a Pope, in descending in a direct line from Jesus, is infallible:

[In] this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble.

There’s much more, of interest to non-Catholics as well as Catholics.  American Catholic bishops, who have been pushing the culture wars against gays and women, may not be too pleased by the Pope’s interview, which asks them to reign in their venom and develop love, compassion, and an attitude of inclusivity.

The Dangers of Theocracy (Revisited)

By Guest Blogger John S. Morton

I was reading your blog on the dangers of theocracy.  I'd recommend a better book: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John Barry, a fascinating biography.  

Proger-williamsRoger Williams [who became the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, a haven of religious liberty] was one of the first people in North America to define liberty in modern terms.  Though deeply religious, he worried that not only would religion corrupt the state but the state would corrupt religion.  His vision was the opposite of John Winthrop's "city on a hill."  

Ironically, Williams is one of 12 people, including John Calvin and Oliver Cromwell, honored at the Reformation Wall in Geneva.  He was greatly influenced by Edward Coke, who said "Every Englishman's home is his castle."  

It puzzles me that the NSA surveillance hasn't sparked more discussion about why the 4th Amendment right to privacy is so essential in protecting our 1st Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech.  Somehow, I don't trust the government to do the right thing when they make political use of tax returns, tap the phones of reporters, and promote the people who gave guns to the Mexican cartels.  

I think this nation needs an adult discussion on the relationship between the government and individual rights.  But I doubt if we'll get this discussion.

[JW’s Note:  John Morton is the co-author of Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics (New York: The National Council on Economic Education, 2007) and many other books for economics instructors.  He is likely the best econ teacher in America(!) and the founder of the Arizona Council on Economic Education.]

A Rabid Christianity?

Jonathan B. Wight

When I was younger I loved to read books about the rise and fall of civilizations.  Arnold Toynbee was one of my favorites.  Moral decay is one of the obvious suspects in the downfall of earlier civilizations; wealth brings about the corruption of the work ethic and the spirit of sacrifice necessary for advancing group interests.

In Christian Nation: A Novel, Frederic Rush presents us with an interesting paradox: what if, in trying to repair moral decay, religious zealots bring about an even greater destruction?

The plot line is not too far-fetched. It begins with John McCain winning the 2008 presidential race by a few percentage points. A few months after his inauguration he dies from a stroke, leading to the ascension to the presidency of Sarah Palin.

Evangelical Christians have been plotting for this day for decades. While this book is fictional, the author brings in actual quotes of fundamentalist leaders to demonstrate that the creation of a Christian Nation is in the forefront of the hearts and minds of many current religious zealots.

What follows is the slow but steady decay of national institutions for the separation of church and state.  The Supreme Court and the Congress get packed with supporters.  A theocracy evolves after a civil war.  The evangelicals are bent upon destroying evil, very loosely defined. The justification for this is found in both the New and the Old Testaments:

“Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …. Do you that I have Luke come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother….’”  (Luke 12:49)

The brutality of religious fanaticism knows few bounds. World history is replete with examples of one group of people slaughtering another in the name of a greater divine glory.

My colleague Mark White rightfully worries about the nudging paternalism of a nanny state.  This is nothing compared to the vicious paternalism of a theocracy which claims to know God's will. Imagine an American version of Iran, and it is pretty scary.  Adam Smith was greatly worried by the mob hysteria produced by religious fervor, and it was one of the reasons he so thoroughly endorsed religious freedom and competition.

For those of us who are Christian but do not buy into literalist views, the battles to be fought here on earth relate mainly to the ideas and instincts that separate humans from one another – injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.  Uniting people and focusing on agape love—rather than the hatred and fear of division—is to me a more compelling religious mandate.

Rush’s account of a very different Christian Nation is deeply disturbing but well worth the read. 

[Thanks to Bacon's Rebellion for introducing me to this book.]

The Death of Current Religion

Jonathan B. Wight

John Shelby Spong has a useful explanation for why theology always fails, yet human spirituality remains a powerful force, even after Darwin, Freud, and Einstein:

Religion has adopted theological formulas based on two things: First, there is an experience of God, which people come to believe is both real and authentic, which makes them aware of transcendence. This experience is life changing, seemingly unrepeatable and certainly stretching to those having the experience. It leads to new dimensions of life and to new understandings. All religion, along with all theology, is born in such a primary experience.

The second thing involved in religion and theology is, however, the compelling need to explain that experience to another. That is the moment when the experience is inevitably put into human words. The experience and the wordy explanation are never the same. If the experience is true, it is timeless, external and transformative! The explanation, however, is always time bound, time warped and finite. Every explanation freezes the experience in the vocabulary of the explainer. The explanation reflects the world view of the explainer, the explainer’s level of knowledge and the explainer’s time in history. There is no such thing as an eternal explanation….

Truth is thus never served by static religious or theological explanations…..So religion as we now know and practice it is doomed.

This is probably overstated, but the general point seems valid.  Experience is the foundation for theory, but theory only dimly captures the experience.  

Adam Smith's moral imagination is similarly grounded in experience, and allows for evolution and change, not rigid ethical orthodoxy for all time.

What Spong does not address is why—if the literal view is so unsatisfactory—are evangelical churches on the rise? 

[To read the rest of Spong's essay, click here.]

Is Religion Needed in the 21st Century?

Jonathan B. Wight

Earlier this year the Cambridge Debate Society provided a wonderful debate on the role of religion in the 21st century. Much of the discussion related to the origins and importance of ethics in society.

Richard Dawkins (biologist of The Selfish Gene fame) and others present sharp arguments against the theology of God, original sin, blood sacrifice, and other religious dogmas that deliberately obscure the search for truth via science. Dawkins notes that the laws of physics somehow gave rise to trees, insects, and humans, and it is a glorious achievement—but it was not the result of a plan, even as we want so much to believe in a designer. Nor can we argue that religion is the basis for morality, which develops and evolves along the lines of moral sentiments not divine commands.

Dawkins says we should not be satisfied with religious supernatural non-explanations. These are a "cop-out" and "phony substitute for an explanation." Religion is a pernicious "charlatan" that gets in the way of truthful explanations. There are gaps in our knowledge, through which many religious would seek to offer their answers, but the gaps are getting increasingly narrower.

On the other side of the debate, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) and others argue that engagement with religion contributes to the organization of society. Religion is not so much "organized" as "communal." Religion is a matter of community-building, compassion, fellow-feeling, inclusion, and tradition-building.

William's strongest argument is that religion was the basis for the development (and continued support) of the concept of human rights. Religious community, he argues, is based a passionate metaphysical commitment to human equality: the respect and dignity for everyone. How can rights for all be defended without the backdrop of an argument that each is created equally in the sight of the creator?

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.

Citizens in some atheistic countries today enjoy rights, by way of tradition. But will such traditions survive without the underlying fabric of belief in a higher power? To Williams it is not wholly self-evident why everyone deserves our respect, except as an object of God's love. By contrast, Dawkins offers no defense of rights in a Darwinian world of survival of the fittest.

Williams notes that that even religious people fall short of perfection and narrow sects sometimes exclude others. However, the basic evolution of religious thought supports a greater concept for the possibility of humanity. A pluralistic discussion leads to improving both the church and society. Critics noted the gender discrimination in many churches such as Catholicism and Islam, and that the fastest growing religions in the world today seek to exclude non-believers.

There was much of interest in this hour-and-a-half debate. On leaving, students at Cambridge took a vote. Williams won the debate, 324 votes to 136, convincing the house that religion has a place in the 21st century.

Considering MyJihad

Jonathan B. Wight

Public education campaign called MyJihad featured in an advertisement on the side of a Chicago bus. (Courtesy of

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, attorney Qasim Rashid helps us to understand the true meaning of Jihad:

As a Muslim American, #MyJihad begins every night—get to bed on time so I can wake for pre-dawn prayer and nourish my soul. #MyJihad is not skipping a healthy breakfast—as our Starbucks society is prone to tempt—and thus properly nourish my body. #MyJihad ensures I spend time daily in service to humanity—charity, volunteer work, and mentoring—to nourish my personal moral development. And finally, #MyJihad is to read and learn about ideas that challenge my thinking—to nourish my intellect and foster pluralism.

And all the while, #MyJihad reminds me to treat those who malign, misdirect, and misinform Americans about jihad, with respect and decency—because that is the example prophet Muhammad set for all Muslims. As an American Muslim, #MyJihad is to properly define jihad with my actions of service and love—never hate.

So what is #MyJihad? It is a grassroots public educational and service campaign started by The campaign is designed to provide a unifying storm with bus ads, on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and news media. It is an inspiring phenomenon, as people of all walks of faith affiliation and non-affiliation—Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, atheist, and more are uniting to share their struggle towards self-improvement and overcoming the odds in their lives.

#MyJihad defines jihad correctly as—not holy war—but struggle…. [O]nce upon returning from battle, Muhammad remarked, "We are returning from the lesser Jihad to engage in the greater Jihad—the Jihad against the self."

Seen in this light, jihad is the virtue ethics of self-control. Mohammed, a merchant, interacted with many people and understood that getting along meant learning to respect differences, especially in religion.

They say cutting wood warms you twice. And so does international trade: it makes you warmer in wealth and potentially warmer in worldview.

Justice and Christian Leadership

Jonathan B. Wight

Bishop John Shelby Spong was in Richmond a few weeks ago, giving five daily lectures to packed audiences at St. Paul's Church, where he had been the rector from 1969-1976. They were fascinating talks about the origins and history of Christianity and the "new" Christianity emerging in the coming Reformation. According to Spong, Reformations come every 500 years or so. Each reformation attempts to rectify anomalies, injustices, and mistakes of the past.

I was moved to read Spong's autobiography, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (2000). He's written, by my count, over twenty other books that have inflamed as well as educated, and sold perhaps a million copies around the word.

The "New Christianity" that Spong preaches attempts to bridge 21st century science and religion. The New Christianity embraces evolution and other sciences, including those that develop the biological origins of sexual orientation. The New Christianity emphasizes the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. It is fundamentally a message about love, not judgment (see, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, 1999).

Spong's entrance to the priesthood was in North Carolina in the mid-1950s, where overt racism was rampant. The battles he went through are legion; I don't know how someone develops that stamina and tough skin, although it was surely needed given the harassment and death threats of the KKK.

By the late 1960s Spong was preaching in Lynchburg Virginia. A particularly vitriolic editorial writer named Carter Glass III, publisher of the Lynchburg News (and grandson of Sen. Carter Glass, who had helped create the Federal Reserve in 1913 as well as co-author the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), was determined to fight the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling more than a decade after it had been delivered. When Spong asked what Glass's motivation was, it turned out Glass believed that integration was part of the international communist conspiracy to infiltrate educational systems and encourage the breakdown of law and order. This wasn't the last time paranoia and fear stood in the way of dialogue and progress.

After fighting for racial integration and reconciliation, Spong became involved with the ordination of women. From there, his was a slow, but inevitable rise to leadership in promoting the rights of gays in the Episcopal Church and beyond, especially after he left Richmond to become Bishop of Newark in 1976. Spong was the first bishop to ordain an openly gay priest (although many gay priests were in the Episcopal Church, operating under "don't ask, don't tell").

Spong's take on leadership is particularly interesting in this book. A leader is not someone who spouts pious ethical statements. A leader has to organize the political fights that are inevitable any time change is proposed. Churches, like other organizations, unfortunately get populated by people who want to win more than they want to search for truth. Spong notes:

The [Christian] creeds were more about power than they were about truth. That some came to be called "orthodox" and their version of Christianity designated "orthodoxy" was not necessarily a recognition of who was right, but a recognition of who had won. The primary purpose of the creeds was not to spell out the Christian faith, but to exclude competing groups and their competing versions of truth from the church's life (pp. 242-243).

Adam Smith would love this story about the attempted monopolization—for personal gain—of the victors. That is why Smith so adamantly insisted on religious competition—exactly the sort of competition that the early creeds attempted to snuff out in the third century C.E. But there is also a psychological element:

Something deeply destructive is unleashed in some threatened human beings when they cannot keep the world from changing and in the process diminishing their power. They inevitably seek to destroy what they can no longer control (p. 48).

That sounds to me a lot like what is happening politically today and of course in ages past. Spong's last big official act as bishop before he retired in 2000 was to engage the Lambeth Conference in 1998. This once-a-decade event brings together the Anglican Communion from around the world. Bible literalists, and those opposed to gay priests, had formed a plan to repudiate Spong's inclusiveness. To carry this out Spong was vilified to African priests as a racist. This is both ironic and deeply hurtful, given his decades of work against racism in America. Spong's sin was to speak clearly in saying that opposition to gays and women (which is very strong in the African church) was based on unscientific beliefs. Nevertheless, the conservative bishops won, and passed a resolution on "Human Sexuality" that allowed no safe place for gays. And since then, of course, there has been the break-away of congregations from the Virginia Episcopal Diocese to the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, supported by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

The Episcopal Church, which in 2004 appointed an openly gay regional bishop and in 2006 elected a woman as overall Presiding Bishop, has congregations that are dropping and aging. Spong's hope is that a new enlightened and enlivened church will be born out of these ashes. His final lesson for "real" leaders—as opposed to stand-in leaders who like to wear the fancy robes and hats and take on titles—is this:

… losing a battle in the cause of justice is never a loss... the most important issue in life is not winning; it is being faithful to your core values (p. 211).

But justice and equality have generally been winning in the long run. I'm sure of very few things in life, but one of them is that 50 years from now the opponents of gay priests and female bishops will be looked upon as bizarre relics, just the way we look today at segregated bathrooms from the 1950s. Let's move on.

Christianity, Greed, and Markets

Jonathan B. Wight

Via Mark White comes this link to a New York Times blog post by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Gutting attempts to get inside the Republican candidates' debates and argues that a clearer and more careful understanding comes from seeing things from "inside" their world view. Here are some excerpts:

We could greatly improve the quality of our political debates if we simply held to the philosophers' rule of understanding and charitably formulating our opponents' views.

In particular, there is a basic tension between the two main elements of the conservative view: Christian ethical values and the free enterprise system. Christian morality is a matter of love for others and self-sacrifice on their behalf. A market economy assumes that all agents (employers, workers, buyers, sellers) act in their own selfish interests. The problem is evident in the New Testament's unease with the wealthy and sympathy for the poor; see, for example, Matthew 13: 22, Mark 10: 23-25 and James 5: 1-3.

The standard response to this sort of moral objection is that the "invisible hand" of the market produces public goods out of private selfishness. If we all act for our own selfish ends, there will be far more material goods for us to share than there would be otherwise. But this is a utilitarian argument; that is, one that judges actions as moral because they increase our material happiness. Christian morality, however, denies that moral good and evil depend on what maximizes such happiness. Christian love and self-sacrifice, in particular, are moral goods in their own right, regardless of their consequences.

Mark White rightly flags the second paragraph. First, Gutting makes the sort of mistake that Ronald Coase identified: science has no goals, only people have goals. Hence, the market economy itself makes no assumptions about agents, only people do. And it was a standard practice of economists to make such assumptions about selfish agents in the 20th century. But today such a view is largely obsolete. Anyone who has been reading Amartya Sen and Vernon Smith, or even anything written about Adam Smith, is by now aware that the old standard view is simply wrong.

Most markets—the ones that you and I frequent every day—do not operate in reality on the "greed is good" philosophy. To do so would be to alienate most customers. Yes, the butcher and the brewer and the baker want their lucre, but they acquire it within the context of a moral understanding—in which their self-interest is held in check by self-control and by genuine and natural feelings of benevolence and justice. Adam Smith, when writing about the invisible hand, explicitly noted that the "character" of the trader in a market was critically important to the operation of the invisible hand. For elaboration, see here.

Deirdre McCloskey has beautifully told this story in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). Paul Heyne also provided a lovely short analysis in "Moral Criticisms of Markets," The Senior Economist 10(4): April 1995 (link not available). My own academic novel, Saving Adam Smith, traces Adam Smith's views on the role of virtues in the marketplace and shows its relevance for business operations, even seemingly cut-throat computer chip businesses in Silicon Valley. There's plenty to read on this subject.

The bottom line is that markets and virtuousness (in the Christian sense) are entirely compatible. The most exciting development for the 21st century is the rise of social entrepreneurs, who use the vehicle of a company and the institution of a market to lift people out of poverty and solve a myriad of problems. The motives can be many, and do not necessarily have to do with maximizing material consumption (think of all the entrepreneurs working to solve global warming or those solving local problems of survival by giving poor people access to markets). Profit is a necessary part of greasing the machine and making it sustainable over time. In a healthy competitive situation, profit is held in check.

No one would deny that the system breaks down sometimes, and there are many who use markets who are decidedly non-Christian in their pursuit of greed. But as McCloskey and Heyne make so clear, the motive of greed is operative under communism and all other systems as well—it is part of human nature. Nothing is perfect. But a competitive market is often the most transparent and easy way to deal with sociopaths like Bernie Madoff. That is not so say regulations are not needed. Even Adam Smith desired regulations in the financial sector to protect small savers.

So, while trying to get inside the world view of Republican candidates, Gutting does a service by calling attention to the need for understanding. But it is possible today to entirely rewrite his last two paragraphs using a more realistic science and philosophy of economics. I think his thesis still stands, crafted in a different way: The caricature of a market held by some Christians is that agents operate on the basis of greed and this caricature is indeed in opposition to Christian values. Much work remains to be done to overcome the ideological legacy of Scrooge and the "greed is good" image of entrepreneurs. Thanks to Gutting for bringing this to our attention.