Jeff Haanen

As we got off the shuttle bus, I knew there was going to be a problem.

My wife and four daughters and I had just finished a Mediterranean cruise, and we needed a taxi ride to the airport in Rome. We didn’t know when our delayed ship would arrive, so we hadn’t booked a ride ahead of time. We decided to take our chances with hailing a ride the old-fashioned way: in person. Big mistake.

The sun was blazing as we hauled our backpacks and suitcases to the parking lot. We were greeted by a crowd of stranded tourists and what turned out to be the taxi mafia of Civitavecchia, Italy. We asked for a price; it was twice the amount Uber had quoted a day earlier. We said no, but Uber was somehow blocked in that area, so we had little choice. One man with a gold chain, receding hairline, and expanding waistline controlled all the taxi drivers, their rates, and the unsuspecting tourists waiting helplessly in the summer sun.

What we needed that day was a free market. We needed free competition, a lack of market coercion, a fair price, and a safe ride. And yet we needed more than just a free market. We needed a taxi driver who was, well, moral.

Classical liberalism champions limited governmental powers, the autonomy of civil society, intermediary institutions, individual liberty, and noninterference by the state (or a taxicab monopoly) in the market. But that day, as the taxicab driver pulled over and made me pay in cash before we could ride, I realized that free markets do not exist in a moral vacuum. Our economy’s health is ever dependent on the virtue of the citizens.

The challenge today is that American society has slowly lost a common moral language. David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, points out that the only time you’d see the word “sin” printed in a magazine is in reference to eating a sinful dessert.[i] Moral language of right and wrong, good and evil, so rooted in the Western tradition from Aristotle to Aquinas to the Founding Fathers, is nearly absent from our economic life today. Occasionally, we may be required to take an ethics class while, say, studying for an MBA. But it feels like an awkward add-on, tacked on because of the inconvenience of corporate scandals such as those of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Morality just doesn’t seem to fit in the “objective” worlds of government, economics, and business.

And yet when we pay for a 3D printer on eBay but don’t receive it, our credit card is charged twice for a breakfast biscuit, or a lawn mower breaks and the company we bought it from won’t honor the four-year warranty, we protest. We complain. We leave Google reviews filled with righteous indignation. We assume a moral core to the free market.

But do we ever ask a closely related question: How, actually, do we become moral?

Here we pull up to the frontier between economics and religion, the marketplace and meaning-making. If we believe that markets need moral agents, we cannot avoid questions about morality, good and evil, and ultimate purpose.

At some point, we must ask: Can religion make markets more moral?

A Brief History of Religion, Virtue, and Free Markets

The foundations of capitalism heavily depended on the moral system of historic Christianity. Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark makes the case in The Victory of Reason that early capitalism developed first in 12th- and 13th-century Italian city-states. Sophisticated management, free markets, a cash economy, access to credit, and the growth of private firms developed precisely because of virtues such as frugality, honesty, and equality. Stark argues that the church’s theology of individual moral equality, private property rights, and the separation of church and state allowed markets to develop.[ii]

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that a religiously-motivated ethic of hard work, thrift, order, and efficiency contributed to the economic success of Protestant groups in early European capitalism[iii]. Although Weber’s thesis has been fiercely debated, it’s hard to believe that Protestantism didn’t majorly influence economic development.

For example, Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that the doctrine of vocation meant that secular work—not just the work of priests and monks—honored God, which deeply influenced everyday congregants’ vision of work.[iv] Luther and Calvin’s teaching influenced later religious thinkers. In The Reformed Pastor,Richard Baxter, a 17th-century English Puritan church leader, taught his flock to avoid sinful work, choose jobs that contributed to the public good, respect habits of work and rest, and avoid frivolous industries such as those of “lace-sellers, feather-makers, and periwigmakers.” Why? Such types of work were “a prison and constant calamity,” and it was morally wrong “to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good to others, though he should grow rich by doing it.”[v] Reformers directly connected a life of service to God to their behavior in the marketplace.

Other historians and social scientists have argued that Protestantism directly influenced the rise of capitalism and democracy. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson argued in Civilization: The West and the Rest that the Protestant work ethic was one of six “killer apps” that led to the rise of the West.[vi] And sociologist Robert Woodberry, who has studied 19th- and mid-20th-century Protestant missionaries in Africa, found a strong positive correlation between Christian evangelism and economic and democratic development.[vii] For example, teaching all kids to read—even if they learn to read principally with a Bible—aided business and the moral underpinnings that business needed to flourish.

The real challenge comes when economies lack virtues such as trust that make work and community life possible. Francis Fukuyama shows in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity that when people lack a generalized expectation that others will do the right thing, economies stay mired in poverty.[viii] Similarly, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam writes,

The touchstone of social capital is the principle of generalized reciprocity—I’ll do this for you now, without expecting immediately anything in return and perhaps without knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favor.[ix]

When trust plummets, so does economic prosperity. When trust rises, again, so does wealth creation.[x]

The hard question, then, is: How do humans, who are prone to greed, envy, laziness, and pride, actually become generous, grateful, hardworking, and humble? Does religion help?

Questioning the Secular Shift

For well over 1,500 years, it would have been unthinkable to answer questions about morality without resorting to belief in God. But today God is as absent from our public discourse as atheism was 500 years ago.[xi] Faith is under assault by historians as a vestige from the past, by scientists as simply a product of human evolution, and by journalists as a dangerous force for division. Indeed, faith has gone from being viewed as a public good to a private good to a public bad.[xii] Those with faith may cultivate it in private if they wish, but it’s generally not invited into public discourse, and confessional faith is certainly not welcome at the tables of policy, education, and commerce. The modern world believes that the unrestrained individual can chart the way through any societal challenges without reference to our ancestors’ faith.

But we should consider bringing faith back to the table of our shared public life. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”[xiii] Jefferson, a deist, was deeply convinced that the most precious liberties outlined in our founding identity were based in a theistic worldview. And at least on this point, John Adams agreed: “Religion and Virtue are the only Foundations; not only of Republicanism and of all free Government: but of Social Felicity under all Governments and in all the Combinations of human Society.”[xiv] Adams unabashedly believed that religion was indeed a source of moral truth.

The Founding Fathers believed we should oppose theocracy and the submission of state authorities to ecclesiastical authorities but not oppose religion. In fact, a healthy free market requires us to embrace the dual gifts of faith and a moral life while remaining accountable to a higher authority. The great economist Friedrich von Hayek stated that “unless this breach between true liberal and religious convictions can be healed there is no hope for a revival of liberal forces.”[xv] Liberty requires faith; the free market needs the morality religion provides.

Religion, Really?

I can anticipate, however, an objection: Faith does not make one virtuous. In fact, quite the opposite: Religion makes its followers intolerant, divisive, and even sometimes quite immoral. Examples abound in the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, Christian nationalism and the resurgence of white supremacy, and historic abuses against women.

Those looking to exclude faith from our market economy and democracy can find ample reasons. I don’t believe that religion automatically makes a person moral. I’m a good example here: In any given week, I’ve committed most, if not all, of the seven deadly sins.

But data also suggest that we need religion and that it is a positive force in our country. Studies have shown that students raised in Christian schools are more engaged citizens than their public school counterparts are.[xvi] Arthur C. Brooks has argued that religious, conservative people tend to be more generous than their secular counterparts are.[xvii] And a Bridgespan study found that in six American cities, 40 percent of social services are delivered by faith-based nonprofits, serving particularly the Latino and black communities and addressing a wide variety of issues including economic opportunity, affordable housing, and homelessness.[xviii] Faith does, in fact, tend to make people generous, engaged, and compassionate.

There are many reasons to question the role of religion in public life. But there are also strong reasons to believe that faith can lead to public virtue, and this virtue is the magic behind a dynamic economy.

A Path Forward

In a country where the number of church members is plummeting and the number of those claiming no religion at all is skyrocketing,[xix] it may seem strange to advocate giving faith a role in our economy and public life. But even though the number of professing Christians in the West is declining, the world is not becoming less religious. Actually, research shows the world is becoming more religious.[xx] I’m convinced that religion should be openly invited into the conversation about morality, markets, and a free society.

Here are three ways to advance the conversation around faith, morality, and the economy.

Be Humble. Religious people can’t come into the public square and proudly claim to have the solutions to the world’s problems. Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1953 book Christian Realism and Political Problems: Essays on Political, Social, Ethical, and Theological Themes gives people of faith a strong serving of humble pie when it comes to faith and politics. Niebuhr counsels Christians to stop blaming “godless” people for all their problems, take ownership for the church’s fault in societal issues, and plainly admit when they’re wrong.[xxi] It’s good advice. Believers must come to the table of public life with a strong dose of humility.

Far too often, people of faith assume their political or economic view is God’s view and overly identify their religion with their political persuasion, contributing to the culture’s heat and divisiveness. They also often fail to let their own religion surprise them and challenge their own political leanings. (As a center-right conservative myself, I was once surprised to read from my favorite theologian, “Free markets are a good servant but a bad master.”[xxii] Might the free market have been an object of false worship for me?)

The remedy here is humility. We may be wrong. We might not be as virtuous as we think we are. And we should look at the plank in our own eye before stepping forward with our policy insights. As Thomas à Kempis once said, “Be not angry you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”[xxiii]

Honestly Evaluate the Differences Between Religions and Their Public Consequences. One of secular society’s great myths is that all religions are the same. This is simply woeful religious illiteracy.[xxiv]

We wouldn’t assume that capitalism, Communism, fascism, libertarianism, and socialism all teach the same things because they’re all political systems. Neither should we assume that the great world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—all teach the same things.

Nor should we assume they all have the same effect on a society. If we care about the free competition of ideas, we should honestly examine the actual teachings of religions and study how they influence economies, political systems, and culture as a whole. When we assume differences don’t matter, we dishonor the most deeply held beliefs of the majority of the world’s people. This assumption also relegates religion to the intellectual ghettos of society, severing the link between faith and public virtue. There’s no reason we can’t incorporate the free exercise of religion and critical inquiry into our religious beliefs and recognize how those beliefs influence our shared public life.

Develop a Good Ground Game. For the past 10 years, I’ve led an educational nonprofit called Denver Institute for Faith & Work, which is committed to “forming men and women to serve God, neighbor, and society through their work.”[xxv] Our vision is local. We believe that people’s on-the-ground choices about their daily work—and the motivations behind those choices—have tremendous economic, political, and societal consequences.

We also believe that examples, not just doctrine, matter. So, we’ve told many people’s stories. Karla Nugent is an entrepreneur who started an apprentice program at her electrical contracting company for those with a criminal background or history of addiction.[xxvi] Don Flow is the owner of a network of used-car dealerships in North Carolina who’s bringing trust back to a seedy industry.[xxvii] Robin John is the Indian American cofounder of Eventide Asset Management, which “strives to honor God and serve its clients by investing in companies that create compelling value for the global common good.”[xxviii] Now with over $8 billion in assets under management, they’re committed to “investing that makes the world rejoice.”[xxix]

Denver Institute is part of a widespread “faith and work” movement, touching millions globally and comprising thousands of organizations led by pastors, academics, lay people, and entrepreneurs.[xxx] We—and many like us—deeply believe that faith shapes character, character shapes work, and work shapes society. Our movement consists of thousands of local on-the-ground leaders convening conversations, creating content, and pushing for change.

To some, I realize that conversations on faith, character and work may seem abstract or esoteric. But if you have a family of six on vacation, baking in the hot sun with luggage in hand, and just need a fairly priced taxi ride to the airport, in that moment, the only question is: How moral is this market?

This essay was first published by the American Enterprise Institute as a part of The Morality of Markets initiative. I’d like to extend a special thank you to Rachel Ayerst Manfredi, Elyse Newbert, and Rosalie Blacklock for publishing and editing this essay.

[i] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 53.

[ii] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005).

[iii] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: And Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2002).

[iv] For an excellent historical treatment of the development of the doctrine of vocation, see Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990).

[v] This quote is from Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, quoted in, Jeff Haanen, “How to Choose a Career: Advice from a Puritan Pastor,” 4 December 2013,

[vi] Niall Fergusen, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

[vii] Robert D. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012).

[viii] Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 149-160.

[ix] Robert Putnam, E pluribus unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century, Scandinavian Political Studies 30 (2): 134.

[x] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012), 251–52.

[xi] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

[xii] American society particularly associates public bad with evangelicals.

[xiii] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Avalon Project,

[xiv] John Adams, letter to Benjamin Rush, August 28, 1811, Founders Online,

[xv] Friedrich A. von Hayek,  Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 155.

[xvi] Ray Pennings and Kathryn Wiens, Cardus Education Survey: Do the Motivations for Private Religious Catholic and Protestant Schooling in North America Align with Graduate Outcomes?, Cardus, August 16, 2011,

[xvii] Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[xviii] Jeri Eckhart Queenan, Peter Grunert, and Devin Murphy, “Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector,” Bridgespan, January 28, 2021,

[xix] Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” October 17, 2019,

[xx] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[xxi] Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism and Political Problems: Essays on Political, Social, Ethical, and Theological Themes, (New York: Scribner, 1953), 20.

[xxii] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 76.

[xxiii] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1940),

[xxiv] A great place to start increasing your understanding of world religions is Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007).

[xxv] Denver Institute, website,

[xxvi] See Tyler Castle, “Business as an Unstoppable Force for Good: From AEI’s Values & Capitalism Initiative,” American Enterprise Institute, February 7, 2017,

[xxvii] See Faith Driven Entrepreneur, “CEO Worked Every Job at the Car Dealership to Build Trust with His Team,” YouTube, May 13, 2019,

[xxviii] Denver Institute for Faith & Work, “A Partnership of Vision and Values,” September 22, 2017,

[xxix] Eventide, website,

[xxx] For a brief introduction to the movement, see Molly Worthen, “What Would Jesus Do About Inequality?,” New York Times, December 13, 2019,

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