Economics, Society

The Invisible Hand of God: Evangelical Economics

It is no secret that evangelical Christianity has played a significant role in uniting poor and middle class white Americans with big business to form what is called the religious right here in the states. The rise of Reagan and Volcker in the eighties, and Greenspan in the nineties brought the doctrines of neoliberalism into alliance with a newly engaged voting bloc: theologically motivated social conservatives led by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Likewise supply-side economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek gave the movement legitimacy, and helped neo-classical economic theory displace Keynesianism. This turn of events created an extremely powerful political coalition, which still dominates U.S. politics today.

Without the alliance with evangelicalism, it would have been significantly harder to sell lower and middle class voters on the merits of neoliberalism. Domestically speaking, free trade is code for ‘flexibility for corporations to outsource, or at least threaten to, if labor groups demand such frivolous things as living wages’. Lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations cause capital accumulation, inequality, and budget deficits which can be used as a political tool to force cuts in social spending. Likewise financial liberalization (i.e. policies that favor Wall Street over Main Street and liberal monetary policies) frees up excess capital for speculation in order to boost short-term profits for a few, while exacerbating systemic risk and socializing costs. The wealthy and opulent grafted opposition to legalized abortion and gay rights among other social issues into the Republican platform, effectively pitting the average worker’s moral convictions against their well-being, and solidifying support for these anti-worker economic policies.

In this article I’d like to explore a few ways in which evangelical theology mirrors the conservative view of the economy, and why it is such an effective alliance.

God and the market are both absolutely just, and should not be questioned.

It is widely believed that all people will be judged by God according to their actions, and rewarded or punished accordingly in the afterlife. Likewise, conservatives believe in a form of economic karma (i.e. hard work produces financial wealth and laziness produces poverty) guided by the equitable “invisible hand” of the market; a belief which establishes a selfish incentive for effort and moral grounds to blame the poor for their predicament. This belief in economic karma and it’s connection to conservatism is described in detail by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in relation to Moral Foundations Theory.

This overreliance on mythology was put on display several weeks ago when Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul said that “income inequality is due to some people working harder and selling more things,” This is a textbook example of what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, which may be cute when expressed by a child, but is not so appealing when you contemplate the fact that Paul wants to lead our country.

It goes without saying that the supposed justness of the market, if defined by an equitable effort-to-compensation ratio, is contradicted by some very basic facts. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2013 the average CEO earned 331 times as much as the average employee. And what is even more shocking is that they earned 774 times as much as those who earn minimum wage. If the ratio of effort-to-compensation is fairly consistent, then we should expect that the average CEO works 774 times as hard as someone making the minimum wage.

To put that in perspective, it is estimated that a 155 lb. fast food worker making minimum wage could burn more than 1,500 calories in an eight hour shift. If calories burned were proportional to compensation, then the average CEO would burn 1,161,000 calories in the same eight hour time period. To replenish those calories, the CEO would have to consume the equivalent of 2,639 McDonald’s double cheeseburgers daily; roughly five-and-a-half-burgers-per-minute over another eight hour period of time, leaving him or her with eight hours remaining to sleep and do it all over again after presumably being 774 times more productive than the average minimum wage earner.

If it isn’t sheer effort that determines compensation, one might say that it must be intelligence, ambition, and creativity; the intangibles which lead to success. But if we allow this, then what we are effectively advocating is social darwinism. It is an attitude which suggests that a person’s worth is almost entirely dictated by how well they can increase the bottom line for shareholders through utilizing the natural abilities they were born with.

I think it is fair to assume that the right series of events, partially determined by the person’s disposition, and partially by non-dispositional factors culminate in the diversity of financial outcomes we see in the market. Ultimately neither a person’s disposition, nor their environments (the product of disposition and chance) were the result of the person’s conscious choice. And how we approach this issue as a society has a lot to do with how we view human responsibility in light of the determinism vs. free will debate.

Ultimately, this obsession with rewarding an incredibly small few with a repulsively large share of our resources and punishing the many who do not rise to the top (through the “discipline of the market”,  as Chomsky likes to say) is quite fitting when you consider the projected gap in well-being between those who enter Heaven (and enjoy infinite joy) and those who enter Hell (and endure infinite torment) according to orthodox theology.

Nicholas Fitz of Scientific American reported this year that “the top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%.” He went on to add that “The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined”. Likewise Oxfam projects that the global 1% will own more than the remaining 99% by 2016. Despite these alarming figures, Americans have been indoctrinated into the belief that the outcomes are just and deserved, regardless of whether situational factors (e.g. being born into a low income household in an inner city ghetto) have greater power in predicting outcomes.

All of us deserve Hell, and likewise we all deserve poverty; so we should be grateful to God and the market for the blessings they bestow upon us, which is more than we deserve.

This low sense of self-worth can be promoted by instilling an undue sense of gratitude within a culture. Pastors tell us that we are all sinners (depraved and selfish by nature), worthy of nothing more than Hell, the just punishment for the sin of being born as a sinful human. Likewise, the average worker should not be ungrateful by asking for more than is necessary to remain productive, even if impoverished, for the wealthy elite (who are so generous to allow the selfish masses to be their wage slaves). After all, we don’t deserve anything more than poverty. Likewise God is infinitely generous in allowing all to be His slaves, and serve Him in fear and submission. He would’ve been justified in torturing us all forever.

Orthodox theologians fear populist preachers who present watered-down gospels emphasizing love without retribution, which they warn can result in a loose form of morality. Likewise politicians warn that without the threat of poverty and starvation (enforced through the curtailing of social benefits), the selfish, depraved masses would rebel against the societal order. ‘Rebellion’ in this context may be defined as protesting the form of work and degree of compensation which is optimal for growth of corporate profits. Protesting this form of work may be the right thing to do if such busyness ceases to contribute  to the well-being of society, or becomes detrimental to it. Much of our current economic activity fits this criteria.

Rigid forms of evangelicalism and conservatism discourage independent thought when such intellectual experimentation challenges authority. This is largely rooted in fear, as numerous findings in the cognitive sciences have shown us that conservatives are on average more fearful (to be fair, liberals may run the risk of being oblivious to threats). It’s easier for many to assume they are taking the safest route and avoiding the possibility of Hell and poverty by conforming to the existing social and religious order.

Nietzsche had noted that Christianity encourages and enforces a form of humble and submissive “slave morality”. Because of this it is no wonder that capitalism has thrived within Christian cultures, creating powerful growth engines fueled by submissive labor forces. This may not be a problem if you are fairly comfortable with your life, but for those who are at the bottom of the social stratum here or among the exploited workers in imperialized nations, the ever-present injustice within the global economic system must be difficult to bear.

Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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