When we think about the question of whether or not religion plays a role in economic policy, it is first necessary to think about how the civic ethos of a nation, in all of its multiple layers, comes into being. It is important to think about what knowledges construct the shared values and beliefs of a society. The knowledges of religious traditions as understood and practiced by various faith communities have always been elements of a civic ethos.
These beliefs mix with other knowledges from secular sources-science, philosophy, political economy-to create the geography that becomes the ground for a contestation of ideas. Some ideas prevail. Others fall by the wayside as human moral evolution sheds those ideas that retard human progress.
Religions live in the wider world, so there is often a reciprocal influence of religion upon the world, and the world upon religion. The question for believers is: to what extent has their religious beliefs been influenced by secular political ideologies and to what extent has their religious beliefs influenced political ideology?
So, yes religion plays a role in economic policy, but religious understandings of what makes for just economic policies are varied. Political positions-conservative, progressive, reactionary, radical-influence religious perspectives when it comes to economic policies. I say religious thinking ought to influence the civic ethos, the shared values and beliefs of a nation, when those ideas lead to social and economic justice, when they help to compel and propel a nation to make economic decisions that work for the common good and not for the good of a single class.
I say and say again: the United States is a plutocracy-government of, by and for the rich. The income inequality that is a fact of current American life demonstrates that economic policy in the past thirty years has disproportionately benefitted the top one per cent of the population. Such inequality has a profoundly corrosive effect on the society as a whole. It does not bring social justice or work for the common good. (For a good series of reports on income inequality and its effects see Paul Solman’s series on the PBS Newshour.)
Plutocrats spend large sums to influence legislation, but they also buy knowledge that shapes our thinking regarding what is sound economic policy. (See the award-winning documentary Inside Job by filmmaker Charles Ferguson.)
I call myself a Christian, and I do not know how it is possible to follow Jesus and be anything other than radical when it comes to a spiritual morality that informs economic policy. Jesus teaches that one cannot serve both God and Mammon, the god of material wealth. (Matthew 6:24). In The Magnificat, Mary sings praises to God who has chosen her to be the mother of Jesus: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1: 52-53)
Jesus says of the poor:
Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, For you shall laugh. (Luke 6: 20-21)
Jesus says of the rich:
But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full, For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6: 24-25)
In Jesus’ model prayer a.k.a. The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for the forgiveness of debts, both the ones we owe and the ones owed to us. He teaches through parables the vanity of storing up riches because God can take our lives at any moment. The gospels records the story of the rich your ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but did not because Jesus asked him to sell all his riches and distribute it to the poor. In this case Jesus says: “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)
The kingdom of God here is not the heavenly bye and by in the sky when you die, rather it is the realm of God that exists inside ourselves. It is that space of moral conscience ruled by recognition of transcendent Divine Love.
These teachings are for each individual believer, but they also form a value system that ought to influence the world around us and help to create a eudemonistic civic ethos that understands public policy as a way to build a society that leads to the happiness of the entire population. This is a civic ethos that allows for both sustenance and joy of all the people.
At the beginning of the 20th century, pastor and Christian moral theologian Walter Rauschenbusch wrote the book Christianity and the Social Crisis in which he argues that the church ought to use its influence to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. He writes:
The vastness and the free sweep of our concentrated wealth on the one side, the independence, intelligence, moral vigor, and political power of the common people on the other side, promise a long-drawn grapple of contesting forces which may well make the heart of every American patriot sink within him.
It is realized by friend and foe that religion can play, and must play, a momentous part in this irrepressible conflict. (xxxv)
Today, there would be no national debt stretching as far as the eye can see if not for two wars of choice fought without raising taxes on people who have the money. We would not be slowly and painfully climbing our way out of this current deep economic retraction had there been stronger regulation of Wall Street and the financial services industry. This lack of regulation resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top.
Religious values ought to shout out loud and long, ENOUGH.
Valerie Elverton Dixon | Sep 29, 2011 4:42 PM