Sunday, March 25, 2012

The cultural importance of religion

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
I Timothy 6:10

One of the great teachings of Christianity is that while it is good to organize a society so that folks prosper, that society WILL fail if the pursuit is money is substituted for the pursuit of production excellence.  Big difference!  HUGE!

Of the all the fallacies of the Marxist worldview, the greatest is that in his telling, religion is merely an opiate that folks should lose like any other harmful addiction.  This is very likely why he never understood the Industrial Revolution even though he liked to write about it.  Because the Industrial Revolution was PROFOUNDLY religious.

In England, the Protestant Reformation was an uneven affair.  The Church of England (CoE) was founded by a greedy, overweight, serial killer whose split with the mother church was driven by sexual needs and power politics.  When Henry VIII actually thought about religion, he damned the Protestants to hell—his screed against Luther got him the title "Defender of the Faith" which the British monarch uses until this day.  So "official" Protestantism had almost nothing to do with matters of faith.

On the other hand, Britain had plenty of Protestants who WERE motivated by matters of faith and conscience.  They were the "dissenting" Protestants and they included the Puritans, the Presbyterians, and perhaps most interestingly, the Quakers.  Because if you look at the history of industrialization, the Quakers are just everywhere.  In hindsight this was not surprising—they were banned from establishment CoE schools like Oxford and Cambridge but because of their thrift and hard work, had money to invest and bright young folks for whom to provide opportunities.  They loved precision and honored inventiveness.  Sounds like a recipe for precision manufacture to me.

An interesting example of the Quaker influence in USA can be seen in the life of Ben Franklin.  In Puritan Boston he was a furious young man with a very limited future.  In Quaker Philadelphia, he just explodes with bright ideas and is welcomed into the community as someone who had been given a mega-dose of inner light.  BTW, Max Weber who is often considered an authority on the Protestant Work Ethic, uses Franklin as an example of Calvinism—which most assuredly applied to his Boston childhood but certainly did not apply to the colony where he became a rich man.

Back to England.  While the Industrial Revolution flourished in the Midlands and Scotland, the CoE types surrounding the king conspired to appropriate the fruits of the new wealth-generation for themselves.  And through an assortment of methods, were quite successful.  What Marx called Capitalism was the humanism of Industrialization seized by Predators determined to suck every farthing out those "dirty" enterprises up north.  Marx's Capitalism was the outcome of the conflict between the cynics who believed Protestantism was just another way to get laid and those who actually believed a religious life should lead one to higher callings—like creating the means for universal prosperity.

Poor Marx!  By writing off religion as a subject worth examining, he missed the critically important nuances of the historical event that was easily the most interesting revolution in human history.  It's no damn wonder his followers would some day build Ladas.  Because if you confuse money and prosperity, it's pretty easy to confuse industrialization with Capitalism.  And if you confuse those, your desire to regulate or destroy Capitalism has the unfortunate side effect of crippling the output of the Producing Classes.  And Trabants, Wartburgs, and Moskovichs are examples that prove Ladas weren't even the worst.  (You cannot make this shit up.)

Anyway, here we have a real Quaker writing in the Washington Post trying to explain how the economic thinking of their sect differs from the "Capitalism" as described by Marx.

A Quaker economy

MAX CARTER | SEP 28, 2011 8:53 PM

My college recently received a large grant to teach courses about capitalism. It was somewhat controversial, as one of the stipulations of the grant was that the writings of Ayn Rand were to be included. There were no strings attached, however, as to how Rand’s writings were to be utilized. Given the college’s Quaker values, faculty teaching the courses have chosen to incorporate writings about the capitalists and “captains of industry” who were informed by philosophies slightly different, shall I say, from Rand’s.

One such source is Deborah Cadbury’s recent book Chocolate Wars, in which this descendant of the Quaker Cadbury cocoa magnates of England makes the case for a very different capitalism than that described so devastatingly by Karl Marx in his critique of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Informed by the Hebrew prophets, Christian teachings, and Quaker testimonies, chocolateers such as the Cadburys, Frys, Rowntrees, and Terrys amassed wealth through hard work, integrity, quality, and focus but did so not so much for personal gain as for the good of the community. Workers were provided health care, education, worship opportunities, planned communities in which to live, and safe working environments. This pattern was typical of other “non-conformist” religious entrepreneurs such as Sir Titus Salt and Andrew Carnegie.

As these “enlightened entrepreneurs” read their Bible, they recognized that the prophets railed against those who “ground the poor under their heels” and “lay on beds of ivory while others suffered.” They recognized that Jesus spoke a great deal about money and wealth (”Mammon, how I love ya; how I love ya,” as one of my seminary professors once described it!), and that he was not all that keen on the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the good of the whole or of the state of ones soul!

The Quaker default setting on issues such as economics is often the 18th century Quaker John Woolman, whose essay A Plea for the Poor is a stinging critique of the misapplication of power and wealth in oppressing others for ones own personal gain. His opposition to slavery included such an analysis, and he is famous for making the connection between our economics and war, noting in his essay that we ought to examine our own lifestyles and holdings to see whether the “seeds of war” lie in our possessions.

Economics certainly are a religious concern. Just tune into any “Gospel of wealth” TV preacher these days - or any of their telethons; and, by the way, give some attention to whom they support politically! But somehow I don’t think that when Jesus spoke of how difficult it is for camels to struggle through a needle’s eye, and compared it with the impact of wealth on people’s spiritual lives, he meant “Send me your life’s savings, and my guess is that you’ll win the Lottery!” Rather, he seemed more interested in “seeking first the reign of G-d,” described vividly in the Sermon on the Mount, and not being “anxious” about amassing wealth. But if one did, by hard work or luck, they should share it with “the least of these” and “give when someone asks.” more


  1. Religion, like culture consists of systematic patterns of beliefs, values, and behavior, acquired by people as a member of their society. These patterns are systematic because their manifestations are regular in occurrence and expression: they are shared by member of a group. Within all religions, however, there is not homogeneity; there are differences of interpretation of principles and meanings. Thanks a lot.

  2. No homogeneity? You got that right! ESPECIALLY with Protestants. So I am pretty careful not to generalize too much about the thousands of little tribes that call themselves Protestants. But some generalizations work most of the time and it IS pretty hard to ignore the contribution the Quakers made to the Industrial Revolution. As a preacher's kid with a long-term interest in economic development, I have been following this story most of life and find it fascinating.

    Thanks for dropping by!