Sunday, September 25, 2011

The ghost of John Calvin rides on

Today's economists using high-end math and powerful models would like us to forget that economics as an academic pursuit has it roots in theology, and more specifically, moral philosophy.  For those of us who were overwhelmed by religion as children, the links between economics and religion are just painfully obvious.  That is why this USA Today article last Tuesday is not so surprising at all.
Baylor Religion Survey reveals many see God steering economy
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY 09.20.11

The way you see God tells a lot about how you see the U.S. economy, a new national survey finds.
About one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and champions the free market as a matter of faith.

"They say the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work," says sociologist Paul Froese, co-author of the Baylor Religion Survey, released today by Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"They think the economy works because God wants it to work. It's a new religious economic idealism," with politicians "invoking God while chanting 'less government,'" he says.

"When Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann say 'God blesses us, God watches us, God helps us,' religious conservatives get the shorthand. They see 'government' as a profane object — a word that is used to signal working against God's plan for the United States. To argue against this is to argue with their religion."

Most (81%) political conservatives say there is one "ultimate truth in the world, and new economic information of cost-benefit analysis is not going to change their mind about how the economy should work," Froese says.

At the opposite pole, another one in five Americans don't see God stepping in to their daily lives and favor reducing wealth and inequality through taxation.

"So they're less likely to see God controlling the economy. Liberal economic perspectives are synonymous with the belief that there is no one 'ultimate truth,'" Froese says.

This is a distinctly American cultural finding and specific to this point in history. It was different in the past, it might be different in the future and it's different now in Western Europe, Froese says. more
This is an article that just screams for historical context.  Start with the assertion in paragraph #1.
About one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and champions the free market as a matter of faith.
1 in 5 is 20%.  In the world of political science, 20% is the number most would consider the irreducible minimum—as in "No matter how preposterous, every position taken by a major party in USA will be supported by at least 20% of the voters."  So the beliefs in this article are only subscribed to by the nutcase minimum.  Even so, it is interesting to examine where someone might actually come up with this "Jesus wants you to be a capitalist swine" argument.

Christianity comes is a wide assortment of flavors so making sweeping generalizations is probably a bad idea but since this practice constitutes the vast majority of folks in USA, some broad outlines are helpful.  Catholicism is the oldest mainstream Christian practice and millions still attend their devout observances but for much of our history, Protestants ran things.

The Protestant Reformation may have started in Martin Luther's Germany, but the reformist impulse would not stop there.  Luther had one especially radical notion—that everyone could through the tools of literacy and study come to an understanding of his or her relationship to God.  With this idea, the authoritarian relationship of the church was destroyed.  The Protestant Reformation shattered Christianity into thousands of sects large and small.  Yet out of this cacophony would emerge dominant themes.

In political terms, the center would be occupied by Luther and his followers.  On one hand, his teachings about the worth of the lowliest among us would inspire the Peasant's Revolt of 1524-25.  On the other, he would encourage the secular authorities to brutally suppress the uprising.  Lutherans would run the governments of the Nordic countries for hundreds of years and were a part of feudalism, yet there were plenty good Lutherans in those countries who could find reasons to explain why Jesus and Luther would have loved cooperatives and become Social Democrats.  Lutherans have more or less put themselves out of business as a religion but their cultural heritage still makes it true that if a social welfare system works anywhere, there's a good chance it is happening where Lutherans once roamed the earth.

The Reformation's left would be occupied by the followers of Menno Simons—the Frisian Anabaptist.  Now it may be pretty hard to imagine the very culturally conservative Mennonites and Amish as lefties but consider this—Christianity had managed to keep silent or encourage the practices of human slavery for over 15 centuries before Mennonites wrote principled objections to it in 1683.  They are SERIOUS about staying out of wars and have been since their founding.  Their economic beliefs encourage sharing and community, and because they are so honest, a lot of the expensive apparatus of contracts is avoided.  Not surprisingly, they are usually very prosperous.  You can think of them as hippies going back to the land! man—only with skills and excellent work habits.

And then we come to the right.  John Calvin was a Frenchman living in Geneva who would literally set Christianity on its head.  For example, usury had been considered the mortal sin for over 1000 years.  Now Calvin would teach that Jesus did not mind moneychangers so much—he just didn't want them setting up shop in the temples.  For most of history, Christians were the poor, the folks with the shit jobs, the slaves.  Now Calvin would teach that God made people rich to show that he loved them.

Calvinism would migrate to USA in many forms but the dominant one was through the Puritans who came to Massachusetts.  These folks would organize our most prestigious schools like Harvard and Yale.  When people talk about WASPs, they are talking about worship-the-rich Calvinists.  But the Calvinists are not limited to the snooty set.  Oh no, no, no.  Find some mouth-breather that denies evolution or climate change and thinks Jesus rode a dinosaur to church and in USA, the chances are about 99% you are talking to a Calvinist.  Calvinism so defines the American culture that one is not wrong to think that when someone calls themselves a Christian and is not Catholic, that person is an off-shoot of the Calvinist impulse.

As someone who grew up in a Lutheran parsonage and was educated K-6 by the Mennonites, I find it pretty hard to appreciate the Calvinists.  So I take some pleasure in noting that the belief in the paragraph above (which I consider purest Calvinism) is only supported by the irreducible nutball minimum.  Notice how a professor from a Calvinist fortress like Baylor University in Waco Texas spins it so this goofy minority sounds larger and more influential than it obviously is.  And I thought honesty was a Protestant virtue (tsk, tsk).


  1. Thanks for this overview. For a person like me, who has only a rough understanding of all these 'christian' religions, I get confused how a 'christian' can praise being rich and be uncaring toward those people in need.

    This posting might generally explain it--but I'm sure there are plenty of people of all 'faiths' willing to bend their belief system to allow themselves to be more rich and comfortable--they are followers of the universal religious sect referred to as 'Hypocrites.'

    It was Ghandi who who said it best, when asked about Christians-- 'I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.'

  2. Gandhi was dealing with the Church of England. Just remember, the real English Protestants were called "dissenting" Protestants to distinguish them from the Anglicans. This put the Anglicans considerably to the right of the Calvinists on most things economic. The Church of England was the official state church of the British colonialism so they had to turn a blind eye to, and cover up for quite monstrous crimes. I'll just bet Gandhi didn't like that flavor of "Christian" very much!