Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

  • By Benjamin M. Friedman
  • Knopf
  • 560 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
  • March 30, 2021

An intelligent yet repetitive exploration of America’s worshipful relationship with the dollar.

What are the connections between economics and religion? Economics is often seen as analogous to it; John Rapley, in his 2017 book, Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong, asserts that “we follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics…with an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands.” Alternatively, as Max Weber famously claimed, there is a direct link between one’s religion and a proclivity to engage in market economics.

Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of political economy at Harvard, asserts the relationship between the two goes much deeper. As he argues in his new book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, “Our ideas about economics and economic policy have long-standing roots in religious thinking.”

This may seem counterintuitive: The field we now call economics is popularly perceived as a sterile undertaking overly reliant on mathematical formulas and models that do not reflect actual human experience. But now it seems that even the economic thinking of those who are not observant Christians is unwittingly based on such age-old concepts as original sin, human will, and why we were created.

Friedman’s stated focus is U.S. economic thinking, but his journey to our shores does not move in a direct line. He starts, rather, with Adam Smith’s revolution in economic thinking in the late 18th century, as laid out in The Wealth of Nations. This work drew the lines among individual self-interest, beneficial outcomes for society as a whole, and competition as the principal organizing mechanisms of economic activity, “the central channel of economic thinking and economic policy for the past two hundred years.”

What is the religious connection? There are many, but Smith’s breakthrough was enabled in great part by British society’s wholesale rejection of predestination, the doctrine that God controls our fate and that the pursuit of self-interest is therefore sinful. The more optimistic view of human agency that emerged in the late 17th and early 18th centuries paved the way to the rationalism of the Enlightenment in Smith’s time.

Following a lengthy explanation of predestination that literally goes back to Adam and Eve, Friedman turns his attention to the United States. Here, economics and religion have been uniquely intertwined since the Revolution, a function of both the pervasiveness of religion in American society and a related sense of economic exceptionalism — i.e., the creation of this country and its unprecedented prosperity conferred by Westward expansion were ordained by God.

The most influential American economic thinkers throughout the 19th century tended to be ordained clergy. And two major opposing schools of U.S. economic thought in the late 19th century were framed in decidedly religious terms. The first was the Gospel of Wealth, in which it was not only justifiable to seek personal wealth but morally imperative: The rich could use their money to help the poor. Laissez-faire Gospel of Wealth adherents saw a rising tide lifting all boats, and where poverty existed, it was a result of personal deficiencies.

This “Gospel,” however, took a hit as the U.S. urbanized, poverty rates rose, and many Americans suffered from the economic downturn of the late 19th century. In response, there arose a Social Gospel, the previously unthinkable idea that the market may not automatically provide positive outcomes for everyone. Adherents to the Social Gospel were behind unionization, institution of a national income tax, creation of Social Security, and more. Today, these competing “Gospels” still drive U.S. economic discourse, even if their original nomenclature would be unfamiliar to many Americans.

Friedman then raises the question of why so many Americans vote against their own economic interests. The quick answer is the rise of fundamentalist Christianity about a century ago in reaction against late-19th-century religious liberalism. Fundamentalists decried the Social Gospel, “which discards the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and substitutes a religion of good works…the hope of the world is not in a new social order instituted by unregenerate men…but a kingdom established by Christ which will fill the earth with glory at the coming of the King.”

In a strange-bedfellows dynamic, fundamentalists teamed up with economic conservatives after World War II, when the spread of communism seemed to threaten both religion and free-market capitalism. In the process, fundamentalists began voting in ways that supported laissez-faire capitalism. Today, the communist threat is gone, but fundamentalist aversion to government intervention is now ingrained: “Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding the net.”

Friedman is an engaging narrator, but his book may try the patience of many readers. His weaving together of so many strands of human history is a remarkable achievement, but his non-linear and frequently repetitive prose make for an overly long book. Most crucially, the argument he is trying to make is often obscured by the plethora of detail.

A little streamlining might, in fact, have left room for a sorely needed last chapter: how a global pandemic has shone a merciless light on the economic precarity of our society and discredited the policies long supported by religious and economic conservatives. Per conservative commentator David Brooks, “This is a moment in which Americans are rethinking their fundamental values and the political-economic system that grew out of those values.” It seems that an important part of this story remains to be written.

Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor with the U.S. government, including tours at the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief Staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the CIA. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.

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