The Almighty and the Dollar

Economics is frequently portrayed as the most imperial of these social sciences. That, however, hasn’t stopped scholars, such as economists, from leading to negotiations on the connection between religion and economics. Nor has it inhibited them from writing huge tomes about religion’s role in capitalism’s development.
The line of inquiry is associated with Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. What is common about most such texts is their endeavor to set some causation between specific religious faiths along with also the advent of the most transformative economic system in history.
I’ve long been skeptical of such jobs. It’s notoriously tough to set up linkages between particular theological positions (which frequently prove to be misrepresentations, or even caricatures) and particular economic thoughts, institutional types, or even expressions of economic culture. For each claim that a particular spiritual entity, ethic, or figure provided the critical ingredient or a”decisive” impetus for its evolution of capitalism, then there are tons of counter-examples. Even the Industrial Revolution first occurred in Britain, a Protestant country. Nevertheless the next country to move down the route of industrial capitalism was Belgium, closely followed by the Rhineland and Silesia from Germany, then northern France–most of Catholic regions not especially known for its effect of Puritan ethics which Weber recognized as playing a critical role in capitalism’s development.
Thus far, it has proved hard to get beyond broad generalities within this area. There is a case to indicate that Judaism and Christianity’s conception of God as a rational being, their de-divinization of their organic universe, linear perspective of history, stress on free choice, and confidence in reason’s ability to understand reality eventually shifted people’s understanding of themselves and their relationship to the material world in a way that improved economic productivity. That, however, is a far cry from having the ability to say with assurance that, absent particular Jewish or Christian thoughts or doctrinal positions, post-Enlightenment economics would have been quite different.
Even establishing firm associations between someone’s religious beliefs and his economic views is not a simple issue. Several aspects help form our opinions of many topics. Thus, to say that a person’s religious faith or background explains why she favors free markets within socialism or even vice-versa is a dangerous exercise, given all of the other dynamics (household setting, education, political beliefs, self-interestand employment expertise, philosophical obligations, etc.) likely to be on the job. If the linkage between certain religious beliefs and particular economic positions was so apparent, why do individuals who cleave closely into the very same doctrinal teachings frequently end up advocating different economic positions?
Then you will find disagreements that spiritual beliefs exert impact on people’s economic thoughts without them even knowing it. Maybe they do. However, I have yet to see anyone studying these questions get beyond careful, hyper-qualified conjectures–or, even more often, raw assertions.
Predestined and Enlightened
This brings me Benjamin M. Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (2021). The wide name is misleading, as the Harvard political economist’s focus is primarily on different civic doctrines and confessions and also the manner by which he considers they formed specific economic thoughts from Britain, colonial America, along with the United States.
But he also situates Smith’s intellectual revolution against a background of spiritual beliefs and arguments which had flowed out of the Reformation and continued to ignite controversies over forthcoming centuries throughout Europe. The doctrine of predestination assumes a central location here. After describing its origins in Scripture and the theology of figures like Augustine,” Friedman outlines how predestination acquired specific kind in John Calvin’s labour as well as the ways in which Calvinist remedies of the subject gradually worked their way during the spiritual landscape of the British Isles.
The Enlightenment stress on improvement wasn’t necessarily seen to be in conflict with standard Calvinist happens on predestination.Friedman’s reflections on the development of Smith’s economic thought and its relationship to philosophical movements of their time are more solidly grounded than his account of related theological developments. Friedman argues, for instance, the significant innovations in economic thought pioneered by Smith owed much to some fading of their more conventional Calvinist positions on predestination which had hitherto reinforced (presumably) fatalistic and pessimistic views of truth. A waning of such views, we’re told, opened the doorway to greater optimism about humanity’s capacity to form the world via the emerging social sciences.
Part of the evaporating which Friedman has in mind revealed the spiritual setting surrounding highly-educated 18th-century Scots like Smith.
A significant difficulty with this particular report is that Reformed conceptions of predestination (like most Christian churches’ doctrines of predestination) have consistently had more complex relationships with questions regarding human liberty, natural regulation, advancement within this planet, and the liberty of the will than Friedman indicates. Hutcheson and Blair certainly articulated a positive view of humanity and our capability for virtue. But this didn’t signify there was an enormous gap between their views about predestination and people that were relatively standard amongst Presbyterian and Reform clergy and theologians during 18th-century Northern Europe.
Nor is it clear that a lot of people who belonged to the Church of Scotland’s more richly orthodox wing (known as the Popular Party) who held stricter fantasies of predestination were necessarily closedand let alone aggressive, into the new learning associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. There is no evidence, by way of instance, which Rev. John Witherspoon, the most dominant Popular Party leader and eventual signer of the Declaration of Independencehad any trouble consuming or accepting the key economic messages of books like the Wealth of Nations. Presbyterian clergy like Witherspoon, in his capacity as President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), decided of integrating Scottish Enlightenment emphases and texts into their reforms of faculty curricula throughout colonial America. In these instances, the Enlightenment stress on improvement wasn’t seen to be in conflict with standard Calvinist requires on predestination.
American Religion, American Economics, American Politics
The next half of Friedman’s book discusses the American experience of Protestant faith, doctrines, and practices and how they’ve shaped American attitudes involving economic problems. Part of Friedman’s argument is the disappearing of orthodox Calvinist predestination doctrines made more space for the types of outlooks which were amenable to economic originality and growth.
Protestant clergy, Friedman notes, represented upon and wrote a excellent deal about economics from 19th-century America. Friedman also claims that doctrines around predestination do not appear to have played a substantial role in shaping their economic thought. This really is true. But did this lack of focus to predestination contribute, as Friedman claims, to more positive views regarding the capacity of economics to improve the planet? If so, how precisely did this happen? Once again, purposeful causation is not established.
The last portion of Friedman’s book explores why adherents of special Protestant confessions have supported economic coverages ranging from people associated with the Social Gospel movement into the financial conservatism that began its rise to prominence to the American right from the 1960s. Friedman concentrates on the political preferences of these Americans who (at least nominally) belong to different faiths and their views about the state’s economic role and if people can get socially and economically cellular by their unique efforts.
Among other matters, Friedman argues that Evangelical customs of favoring voluntary and associational answers to social and economic problems help to explain the small-government views and conservative-leaning voting patterns of the segment of America’s inhabitants. Again, I would suggestwe could say,”Well, maybe.”
Yes, such customs exist. But how do we assess that? What about the burden of different elements which might have been on the job? Perhaps Evangelicals were just, like most Americans of all faiths and none, profoundly saddened by the social and economic results of the New offer and Great Society. Could it be some Evangelical leaders encouraged members of their churches to support fiscally conservative policies as part of an estimated deal with different teams to build a political movement which would also promote goals closer to their hearts like rolling back Roe v. Wade, protecting religious liberty, or even defeating atheistic communism?
The brief answer to these and similar questions is perhaps, or perhaps not. In summary, despite Friedman’s best efforts, we do not appear to be getting any closer to the reality of such matters. Efforts to evaluate religion’s role vis-à-vis economic thoughts, preferences, and practices too frequently confuse correlation with causation, or just progress hard-to-prove along with easy-to-dispute hypotheses. Our understanding of how spiritual beliefs, doctrines, institutions, and habits form economic life and thoughts consequently remains delicate, tentative, and profoundly driven by ideology and speculation instead of persuasive evidence.