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Christianity Caused the Crash?

Friday, December 11, 2009

A screaming headline in the Atlantic magazine blames Christianity for the recent economic turmoil. In fact, changing economic attitudes among Christians did contribute to the problem—just not in the way the Atlantic believes.

Recently the Atlantic magazine ran an article under the provocative headline “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” The article itself was much less silly than the headline, but even so, its effort to tie Christian religious movements to the crash was a pretty implausible stretch. However, the topic of Christianity and the market deserves some serious attention, because (the absurdity of the Atlantic notwithstanding) recent shifts in Christian religious attitudes really are related in important ways to the American economy.

So—Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

The Atlantic focuses on the “prosperity gospel,” a theology pushed by a lucrative industry of religious hucksters, which ruthlessly twists the meaning of a few Bible passages in order to produce a promise that the faithful will be rewarded with fabulous worldly prosperity. (No one who studies the Bible seriously could believe this stuff for a moment, of course, but that’s no problem for the prosperity gospel hucksters because so few of their followers study the Bible seriously.) The Atlantic’s contention is that churches used to teach people fiscal self-restraint and prudence back in the good old days, but the rise of the prosperity gospel undermined those bulwarks and encouraged a lot of irresponsible risk-taking, which may have made the difference between a downturn and a meltdown.

Attributing the current market meltdown to the current surge in the prosperity gospel would be like attributing the 2000 crash to AOL’s acquiring Time Warner, the election of Vladimir Putin, or the Rams winning their first Super Bowl in half a century.

The most obvious problem for the Atlantic thesis is that the prosperity gospel isn’t a new phenomenon. The Atlantic treats the prosperity gospel as though it first appeared—ex nihilo, as it were—on the fateful day when Oral Roberts’s Bible supposedly fell open to 3 John and his eyes were drawn to verse two. But the idea that God rewards the faithful with wealth is actually centuries old. (No surprise there—all the really good swindles are.) And Americans, alas, have always had a particular weakness for it. Alexis de Tocqueville complained that promises of worldly success for the faithful were corrupting the gospel of Christ everywhere he turned in America—in 1831.

It’s true that the prosperity gospel is currently going through one of its periodic upswings rather than one of its periodic downswings. But the larger historical record doesn’t much suggest any relationship between upswings in the prosperity gospel and market meltdowns. The prosperity gospel went into a major contraction after the collapse of the big 1980s televangelists, but even after a decade of detox from the prosperity gospel we were still managing to have regular market crashes (1997, 2000). The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression were preceded by the Social Gospel movement, perhaps the high watermark of censorious restriction in American religion.

The plain fact is that rising asset prices have always inspired periodic bouts of irresponsible borrowing followed by crashes, with or without the prompting of religious hucksters. Attributing the current market meltdown to the current surge in the prosperity gospel would be like attributing the 2000 crash to AOL’s acquiring Time Warner, the election of Vladimir Putin, or the Rams winning their first Super Bowl in half a century.

In fact, while the temptations of the “prosperity gospel” are perennial, it is really less a part of mainstream American Christianity than it is a parasite on it. During periods when the gospel of Christ is on the decline, the hucksters sell healing crystals and other pagan gimmicks. When the gospel is on the march, the hucksters jump on the bandwagon and sell a Christian gimmick.

During periods when the gospel of Christ is on the decline, the hucksters sell healing crystals and other pagan gimmicks. When the gospel is on the march, the hucksters jump on the bandwagon and sell a Christian gimmick.

But while the Atlantic is off track seeking to pin specific economic events on specific religious movements, it is true on a deeper level that a nation’s religious beliefs broadly shape its economic arrangements. And there have been some gradual but very dramatic changes in the way American Christians think about economics that do have some relevance (though not in a straightforward “caused the crash” sort of way) to the mess we’re in now.

Since the crash, we’ve heard a lot of Christian voices talking about how the economic crisis is a symptom of “consumerism” and moral corruption. That happens to be true—irresponsible borrowing, political favoritism and other ethical lapses were at the heart of last year’s collapse.

But one thing these Christian voices don’t usually mention is how we Christians ourselves are contributing to the problem of consumerism and moral decay by failing to live up to our own teachings about economics. The exact same consumerist mindset that drove the economic crisis is also pervasive among Christians—and I’m not talking about the prosperity gospel churches but the core mainstream of American Christianity, that is, the evangelical and Roman Catholic churches. So before we try to take the economic speck out of Wall Street’s eyes, we should take the economic beam out of our own.

“Commit Your Work to the LORD.”

Take, for example, our worldly attitude about work. Like everyone else, we see a job as mainly a way of earning a paycheck—and we assume that this makes our work essentially selfish and unspiritual.

We Christians ourselves are contributing to the problem of consumerism and moral decay by failing to live up to our own teachings about economics.

Earning a paycheck isn’t a sin; for most of us it’s a biblical duty. But, much more important, this attitude robs us of the discipleship of service in our occupations. No matter what job you have, when you’re doing it, you are serving your neighbor. You are taking the talents God put into you and putting them to good use for the good of others and the cultivation of the created order—that’s essential to the whole biblical outlook on the purpose of human life. If we started doing our jobs with servants’ hearts and tried to help others do the same, instead of focusing on the paycheck as the only thing that gives a job meaning, our jobs would become full-time training in discipleship.

One of our most common complaints today is that we’re “part-time Christians.” We follow Christ for an hour a week in church on Sunday, not with our whole lives. Well, one of the main reasons we have this problem is our materialistic, unbiblical attitude toward work. People spend a huge portion of their lives on the job, so if we don’t apply the Bible to work, we’re not equipping Christians for full-time discipleship.

Perhaps worse, by implicitly looking down on work as selfish and unspiritual, we encourage others to think about it that way. If nobody’s offering a vision of economic activity as a sphere of service and dignity, why should we be surprised if lenders, borrowers, investors, and managers—and their enablers in the government regulatory system—think that their job is to amass as much money as they can get their hands on, no matter whom they have to cheat to do it?

“He raises up the poor from the dust.”

Our approach to charity is no better. Naturally, Christians are deeply anxious about answering the call to serve our neighbors who are poor. But for the most part our model for how to help the poor isn’t biblical. Instead it embraces a worldly focus on handouts.

Whether in our own cities or in distant countries, our ministry to the poor rarely does anything to help them rise out of poverty. We don’t teach them to fish; we’re content to keep on giving them fishes forever. We pay no attention to the underlying causes of need, we seek no accountability for those who create those conditions to change them, and we make no contribution to anything that might help the recipients of our assistance become self-reliant.

Before we try to take the economic speck out of Wall Street’s eyes, we should take the economic beam out of our own.

Handouts can be an appropriate way to deal with short-term need. But in the long term, handouts create dependence and facilitate poverty, as well as putting the donor in a position of power and control over the recipient. The Bible warns us about this.

But more often than not, we measure our love for the poor not by whether we help them escape poverty but by how much money we shove at them. Meanwhile, more effective ways to help the poor are easily identified but go largely ignored in the broader Christian culture.

What are we afraid of? That someday they might not need our help? Isn’t that what we should want? Do we really love the poor or are we just in the charity business to feel good about our own righteousness?

And as it has become clear that our charity efforts are ineffective, we have responded not by seeking out a more excellent way but by giving up. For centuries, caring for the poor was almost entirely the church’s job. Then everything changed in the early 20th century. Now, the church’s puny efforts are just part of the background noise compared to the welfare state. We have let government usurp our role in helping the poor. And if we take Jesus’s words seriously, we should tremble about that.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Where did we get these ineffective economic concepts that have so completely enervated our ability to be full-time disciples and help our neighbors? We got them from the world. These are the attitudes that have always prevailed, across history and in every civilization—except where the influence of Christianity has introduced another, radically different way of thinking.

At the heart of the world’s conception of economics is a focus on consumption. The most important aspect of economics, in the worldly view, is the fact that people consume things. This is why, when we want to denounce worldliness and selfish materialism, we sometimes call them “consumerism.” Worldly thinking does often rise to a much higher and nobler level than selfish materialism. But even in its best forms it still thinks the most important economic fact about human beings is that they consume.

For the most part our model for how to help the poor isn’t biblical. Instead it embraces a worldly focus on handouts.

Hence, in the worldly view the only source of meaning in your job is that it gives you a paycheck to consume. Hence, in the worldly view we help the poor by endlessly throwing money at them for them to consume.

Over the course of the last century the church has undergone a catastrophic breakdown of biblical education and theological training for the laity. Earlier generations were equipped with a fully rounded biblical worldview that made it much easier for them to maintain a biblical perspective on the areas of life that take place outside the church, such as the sphere of work and economics. We don’t do that now. We have been coasting for some time on mere cultural inertia, the leftover influence of the worldview training of earlier generations. And it has been gradually petering out. Today’s rising generation of Christians is perhaps the first in a century that reflects little or no influence of rigorous biblical analysis in its economic outlook.

We shouldn’t romanticize the past. But even if we take a hard and critical look at separating the nostalgia from the historical record, it’s clear that the church just doesn’t educate the laity in a comprehensive biblical worldview the way it used to.

So what, then, is the biblical alternative to our current, worldly thinking about economics? When we lack a biblical view of something, one good place to start rebuilding is to look at the four basic elements of the biblical worldview: the creation of the world, the fall of humanity, the redemption of humanity, and the final consummation of all things in eternity.

To start thinking biblically about economics, let’s look at some of the things each of these four elements tells us about work and money. Obviously it would take a lot more space than we have here to delve deeply into the theological issues and engage with the biblical text at length, but we can at least outline some basic principles.

Creation–“The LORD God … put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

The Bible says we were created in the image of God. The full depth of what this means is beyond our power to know, but one aspect of it is that we are endowed with creative abilities. We have minds able to see what needs doing, and bodies able to do it. Economists refer to these abilities as “human capital.”

Today’s rising generation of Christians is perhaps the first in a century that reflects little or no influence of rigorous biblical analysis in its economic outlook.

The world was created under our stewardship so that we could cultivate it and responsibly enjoy it. So humans were created to be creative; we are called to share in God’s creative activity by serving as stewards of what he has created.

Stewardship means not only conserving the world, but more important, cultivating it—helping it grow and flourish. Thus Adam’s commission at creation has come to be called the “cultural mandate”— “cultural” as in cultivation.

This mission is carried out through work. We don’t help the created order grow by sitting there staring at it. Adam was put in the garden “to work it.” So work is not a curse of the fall, but a blessing of creation. Cultivating the created order is what work was made for.

The parable of the talents exemplifies the centrality of work to stewardship. God has given each of us abilities (“talents”) to enable us to do work that produces beneficial results. Some have extraordinary gifts of creativity and others have more modest capacities, but God doesn’t judge us by that. What counts, as the parable shows, is whether you take what God has placed in you and put it to use in service.

People ought to profit when they put their talents to work. “The laborer deserves his wages,” Jesus declares, in words cited by both Luke and Paul. God does not promise to make anyone wealthy. But some people do in fact get wealthy. And wealth, if it is honestly accumulated and rightly used, is always treated as a great blessing from God in the Bible. It is “the love of money,” not money as such, that is “the root of all kinds of evils.” Ownership of property is part of the image of God in each person.

On the other hand, accumulating money shouldn’t be the motivation for our work, as countless scriptures make clear. The reason is rooted in our creation as stewards. All wealth ultimately comes from someone’s productive work; there is no other source of wealth anywhere in the natural order. Work, in turn, comes from putting our “talents” to use. And our talents were given to us for service as stewards, not for selfishness.

And speaking of selfishness . . .

Fall, Part One–“Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it.”

The Bible says that humanity has rebelled against God, and the whole created order is suffering because of God’s curse against our sin. While the effect of the fall, like the image of God, is something too great for us to fully know, we can identify two main consequences: its impact on the created order as a whole, and its impact specifically on human nature. Both have implications for economics.

Because of the fall, instead of living in a world where all our legitimate desires are easily satisfied, we live in a world where we can never have total satisfaction. While work was part of creation before the fall, after the fall work became painful and difficult. We can’t get anything, even our most basic necessities, without suffering for it—either by working painfully or by giving up something else that we also want to have.

If we started doing our jobs with servants’ hearts and tried to help others do the same, instead of focusing on the paycheck as the only thing that gives a job meaning, our jobs would become full-time training in discipleship.

Economists call this phenomenon “scarcity,” and economics is the study of how people respond to scarcity. Scarcity makes cultivation of the created order through productive work—what economists would call “value creation” or “wealth creation” —morally imperative for both individuals and society. You can sometimes do a little good by moving money and goods around from one person to another. But because of scarcity, you don’t do very much good that way. Cultivating the world—improving it so that there’s more for everyone—is the only way to do a lot of good in the long term.

We see this vindicated around the world every day. In societies that liberate people’s talents through productive work, everyone (including the poor) tends to be better off. In societies that stifle talents, everyone tends to grow poorer. Statistical analysis confirms that it’s not a coincidence—liberating people’s talents is the key to helping your neighbor.

Just like in the parable of the talents, the benefits are not evenly spread. Just as the five-talent servant makes more than the two-talent servant, when the economy is focused on liberating talents, those whom God has blessed with more abilities benefit more.

But what counts is that everyone—at all levels of society—is better off than they were when their talents were not liberated. Societies that liberate the poor to put their talents to use in productive work dramatically reduce poverty, while those that discourage the poor from working perpetuate poverty.

Fall, Part Two–“None is righteous, no, not one.”

The other major aspect of the fall is its impact on human nature. The Bible says because we are fallen, we are all guilty and corrupt before God. Because of the fall, our hearts consistently tend toward selfishness. Obviously these realities influence economics in major ways.

We must be careful to distinguish “selfishness” from legitimate care for ourselves. It’s not selfish to take care of your own needs, and taking care of the needs of your own household is an urgent duty. In fact, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” means our love for others grows partly from our love for ourselves. The point is to weigh your own needs and those of others equally instead of being biased toward your own.

This is important because we tend to mix up legitimate self-care and family care with selfishness. Our attitude towards paychecks shows this. The fact that I get paid to do my job doesn’t make my job less a form of service to others. It makes my job more a form of service to others! In addition to serving my customers, my work also feeds and houses my family.

This point also has broader application. People tend to think an economic system that emphasizes liberating talents through productive work must be “based on greed” or “liberate selfishness” because it allows people to get wealthier. But a system that was really based on greed and that liberated selfishness would be total anarchy where the strong oppress the weak—the furthest thing in the world from liberating talents.

But it’s true that selfishness is always a factor in our behavior, because of the fall. So while we shouldn’t condemn people for their legitimate self-care, we also need to deal with their greed.

There are two ways to approach this problem. You can try to change people directly, making them less selfish and more altruistic. That’s primarily the job of the family, the church, and schools. You can’t do it through politics or economic policy, because the problem is spiritual and it can only be fought with spiritual weapons. When we try to alleviate people’s greediness through politics and policy, we usually do nothing to reduce greed, and plenty to inflame envy.

The other approach is to punish people when they harm others, and reward them when they serve others. Politics does this through the power of the sword. Good economic policy also does it, in a variety of ways. One of the most important is customer choice—companies that serve the customer thrive, while those that don’t go out of business. When customers are in charge of who succeeds or fails, usually the only way for greedy people to get rich is by piggybacking (as partners, investors, managers, or successors) on the productivity of entrepreneurs who are focused on serving the customer, not making money. So even the selfish people end up serving others.

Redemption—“Apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Bible says that Christ’s death and resurrection make it possible for sinful humanity to be reconciled to God and turn away from sin, if they trust in his work on their behalf. While this redemptive work has much less direct connection to economics than the creation and fall, there are some important intersections we should consider.

Our sinful nature doesn’t want to admit that only Christ can save us because we can’t have any righteousness of our own. So we constantly seize upon artificially trumped-up claims to righteousness.

One of the major ways we do this is by connecting property ownership with merit. Some people treat ownership of wealth as a sign of merit. This is wrong, which is why the Bible sternly warns us against showing favoritism to the rich. Other people think we should take property away from its owners—for example, by taxation—if in our opinion they don’t deserve it, and redistribute it to those we find more deserving. This is equally wrong, which is why the Bible warns us just as sternly against showing favoritism to the poor.

Both these ways of connecting ownership to merit are unbiblical at their roots, because none of us guilty sinners has any merit. The Bible bases ownership rights on lawful title without regard to merit. The laborer is said to “deserve” his wages because he did his job and is therefore entitled to them; his personal character is irrelevant.

We must not underestimate the danger of letting economics become a substitute for gospel righteousness. The social gospel is a perennial temptation. We fell for a left-wing social gospel in the early 20th century, and it was a disaster. Then we fell for a right-wing social gospel in the late 20th century and were equally disappointed. You would think we would have learned our lesson by now. But with many Christians rushing naïvely to promote harmful but well-meaning policies on everything from the environment to third-world debt relief, all signs indicate that we’re gearing up to try this fool’s game yet again.

Glory–“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”

The Bible says at some point history as we now know it will come to an end and this fallen world will be totally recreated as a redeemed world, in which all those who have been rescued from their sins will fully enjoy God forever. This recreation of our world and ourselves is sometimes called “glorification,” because God’s glory will be directly visible to all.

Knowing that our world is going to pass away presents Christians with a balancing act. We need to put God’s ultimate glory ahead of the things of this world, but part of that is making God’s kingdom as visible in this world as possible. We are “sojourners and exiles” in this world just like the Israelites in Babylon, but that means part of our job is to “seek the welfare of the city.” Peter writes that “our citizenship is in heaven,” but that does not negate our earthly citizenship–or its duties.

People spend a huge portion of their lives on the job, so if we don’t apply the Bible to work, we’re not equipping Christians for full-time discipleship.

Unfortunately, whenever economics is on the table, there’s a constant temptation to reduce people to merely economic units. That’s one reason we view our jobs as nothing but a source of paychecks and shove money at the poor without caring whether it will help them escape poverty. That’s why we don’t think about work in terms of our createdness, or about economic incentives in light of the fall.

However, there is also the equal and opposite temptation to simply ignore economic realities. I once heard a theology professor declare that “the parable of the talents has nothing to do with economics!” Of course the parable of the talents does point to spiritual realities; the money in the parable stands for the gifts God has put into us. But those gifts, and the call to use them productively, need to be part of our economic thinking; I would argue that they’re fundamental to it. If we separate God from economics, we also separate economics from God.

“You are the light of the world.”

Earlier I said that the world always views economics mainly through the lens of consumption, except where Christianity has introduced a radically different perspective. Although the theological issues are complex and we have barely begun to look at them here, I wonder if the most central difference between the worldly and biblical economic perspectives is the shift of focus from consumption to production.

The world looks at people and sees mouths that need feeding. The Bible agrees that people need to consume, but it also shows us people as beings created in God’s image, each with creative abilities that make him able to produce the things he and his neighbors need. It shows us that because of the fall, those gifts tend to be locked up inside people and need to be liberated to become productive. And it shows us how to properly relate these gifts (talents), their exercise (work), and their fruits (wealth) to our relationship with God, the world, and one another.

The Bible does not contain a blueprint for how to run a national economy. But politics isn’t the most important aspect of our lives, or of the nation’s life. The general attitude of consumerism—getting as much as you can for as little work as you can—was the underlying cause of the financial crisis. Yet even though we Christians complain incessantly about consumerism, our own thinking about economics can be as consumerist in its basic principles as anybody else’s.

As God’s people, it was our business to show the world a more excellent way. And it still is. We should be opposing the worldly mindset of consumerism with a biblical mindset that values the divinely bestowed gifts in all people and the imperative to liberate them in service. Who knows? If we go back to our Bibles and learn that mindset, and put it into practice in the church’s own life, we might well help avert the next crisis.

Greg Forster is program director for American history, economics, and religion at the Kern Family Foundation and the author of The Contested Public Square.

FURTHER READING: Jay Richards recently discussed the junction of Christianity and capitalism in "Greed Is Not Good, and It's Not Capitalism." And in "Morals, Markets, and the Pope," Joseph Loconte reviews the same ideas within Pope Benedict's latest encyclical.


Image by The Atlantic.


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