The Market As God

John ArmstrongEconomy/Economics

financial oversight The free market is the best way we know to distribute goods and services fairly. When the freedom of the market is taken away efficiency and production are both adversely impacted. I believe in free market capitalism, not because it is overtly biblical but because it is just and because it has lifted the most people out of poverty. Both communism and socialism have failed because they control people in adverse ways that destroy human initiative and responsibility. I have believed this way for a long, long time. In fact, I have believed this way for as long as I have thought about economics and the way societies function best in promoting freedom and the incentive to work and serve.

What I do not believe in is the concept of the market that many in America now defend in our every day debates about the Great Recession. I believe the market has become, for many Americans and for a lot of Christians, a modern “golden calf.” Some people actually worship this concept of the market, so it seems. Some attribute to it divine-like status much like Israel attributed to the “golden calf” a kind of divine quality that would help them serve God and each other. Consider that we trust in the market. We really do. Our corporate responsibility for society, and thus for one another, is replaced now being replaced by loyalty to markets. We elect our leaders based on market plans and advertising campaigns. We regularly misplace our priorities by putting our confidence in hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s and mutual funds. These various financial tools are not inherently wrong but we too easily fall into the trap of seeking a “risk free” system where we put our confidence in man, not in God. When this happens we can even explain what we think will happen in the future based upon market performance in the past and present. Economists have become, for many of us, a new priesthood. We pick the ones we trust and expect life to play fair in the end. It doesn’t. It never has. God will be always be God.

All of this affects the rich and the poor, but especially the poor. I think multitudes of Americans have made the market into a type of idol over the last thirty years of incredible market success. Listen to how we talk about the market. One theologians suggests that we think that it is all-knowing, all-present and all-powerful. Anyone who dares to suggest that the regulation of greed is important is a heretic. And the implications of what greed can do to ordinary people is shouted down by the very folks who have made the market an end to be praised as a god. Listen carefully to the discussion about the economy on the left, but especially listen to it on the right.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox was correct when he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in March of 1999 that in America we now see “The Market as God.” Cox says that markets change but meaning and purpose in life must always come from somewhere else. Cox wrote: “The Market is not only around us but inside of us, informing our senses and our feelings. There seems to be nowhere left to flee from its untiring quest. Like the Hound of Heaven, it pursues us home from the mall and into the nursery and the bedroom.”

Images But idolatry always has consequences. Our love affair with debt, irresponsible home buying and “we can have it all right now” is literally destroying our society. I have become more and more convinced that many Christians are missing this moment in a big way. We listen to all the praise of the market system and then we want to fix the blame on one problem and be done with it. People on the left blame the economics of Ronald Reagan and his disciples. People on the right blame Congress and the Fannie and Freddie fiasco. Frankly, there is blame for everyone here if you look long enough.

I offer an alternative response. We are all to blame in general, some of us more particularly than others. Investors, home owners, borrowers, lenders, journalists, elected officials, economists, regulators, credit rating agencies and even Christian ministers and ministries who failed to tell people the truth about debt are all responsible in some way. The tragedy is that we all suffer, to varying extents, because we are all in this together and we failed to listen to the truth. But those who suffer the most are the real poor. Most of us know few of these people personally and most of our churches don’t really care. Odd isn’t it? The Bible is filled with a clear message about the poor and how we should be concerned for them. The problem is that most of our conservative churches never preach on the subject and fewer still do anything about it. I wonder if our separation of the races, of ethnic groups, and of the rich and the poor is the real scandal in the church and we are now just beginning to reap what we sowed for decades, even centuries.

Markets will only work well when a society is truly free and truly virtuous. If we lose our personal and collective virtue then we will lose our personal and collective freedom. The markets will break down and scandals will abound. Doesn’t that strike you as exactly what has been happening during the past forty years or more? Ultimately I can’t change anyone but me. I am seeking to listen more intently to what God says and to respond in faith. I would encourage everyone who calls on the name of the Lord to do the same. Take your Bible, if you think I am off my game here, and mark every text you see that has something to say about how the godly should care for the poor and the weak. You may be shocked by what you discover.