Can Christianity heal the economy? I think so. But it requires that we take a second look at the counter-cultural wisdom it offers for our relationship with work, power, society, and the generations to come after us…
Here’s my 15 minute intro to The Future of Colorado’s Economy, a panel I hosted with State Senator Owen Hill and State Representative Alec Garnett.
Perhaps the songs we teach our children is one the most important legacies we can leave for posterity.
This morning I sat down to breakfast with my wife and four daughters. After eggs and sausage, we listened to the classic hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” My wife educates our kids (and really our whole family), and this year we’re memorizing classic hymns, with the hunch that our ancestors have new light to shed on our 21st century lives.
Amongst the sound of chattering kids and clanking forks and knives, my wife turned on the iPad at the breakfast table and flipped on the speaker.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.
Written in 1680 by Joachim Neader, a German Reformed Calvinist, I couldn’t help but notice that this song begins not only with worship, but by affirming that God is the King of all creation. He is provider for both our bodies (our health and material needs) and our souls (salvation).
It’s kinda funny to listen to my four-year-old Alice pronounce the Victorian English of the translation, so I kept listening while sipping my coffee.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
Our desires have all been granted by “what He ordaineth?” Could anything be more different from the version of capitalism we see today, so well summed up by Andrew Carnegie: “The art of capitalism is turning luxuries into necessities.” Wouldn’t this Puritan view of God’s provision – even for our desires – lead to radical contentment? And even thrift, since we have all we really need and even desire in what God has given us?
Now Cora is rocking back and forth to the tune, Sierra has paused from eating her hard-boiled egg (she won’t touch those blasted scrambled eggs), and we sing the third verse:
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.
“Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee.” And here’s the miracle of the Puritans: the doctrine of vocation. All of life is to be lived for God, even our “secular work.” And when our work leads to prosperity, and even wealth, it’s a gift from God. It’s evidence of his daily “goodness and mercy.”
This is truly an incredible view of creation, money, work and contentment.
Some have argued that Reformed theology led to a magical combination: hard work, wealth creation, thrift, honesty created the explosion of wealth from 1500 to today. It was Christian theology that led to excess wealth (who needs to spend more if you’re content with what you have?), which led to capital investments, and, eventually, capital markets that built the modern economy. Not all agree with that view. But some do.
Listen to this perspective from a Chinese scholar. Dr. Peter Zhao Xiao is a high ranking economist in the Chinese Communist party. In 2002, he was sent by his superiors to the United States to research why the American economy had been so prosperous. After visiting the USA for months, he concluded that the secret to the American economy was their churches.
He penned an essay entitled “Churches in the Market Economy”, which would subsequently be read by over 100 million people.
“Americans are not idiots,” he wrote to his Chinese countrymen.
“Their need for churches is overwhelming, and churches provide something in answer to their call — there is definitely some principle at work. During my time in America, the relationship of churches with America’s economy, society, and politics became the issue that most often occupied my mind…At its heart the problem could be stated as a comparison between market economies with churches and market economies without churches.”
So what was his conclusion? Christians who attend church drive the market economy because their faith encourages them to spurn idleness, be honest, and discourage “injury” (cheating, lying, stealing). Here’s the logic of his argument:
The problem? It’s one of faith, says Dr. Zhao Xiao.
“These days Chinese people do not believe in anything. They don’t believe in god, they don’t believe in the devil, they don’t believe in providence, they don’t believe in the last judgment, to say nothing about heaven. A person who believes in nothing ultimately can only believe in himself. And self-belief implies that anything is possible — what do lies, cheating, harm, and swindling matter?”
“It is people who turn their eyes to church spires who generally respect financial norms and integrity… Puritans, though they may be called the most fervent people in the world in their drive to accumulate wealth, nevertheless do not pursue wealth for personal benefit but rather ‘to the glory of God.’”
Divine reward and punishment caused Reformed Christians not only to create wealth, but to also be honest, thrifty, and committed to the public good rather than merely private benefit.
Going back to “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation,” you can see how this kind of theology might create a society of both honesty and prosperity.
(1) God is King over all of creation, including the natural world, the social world, and our economic affairs.
(2) God provides for the needs of his people, which means they can be content with what they have. It also means we’re accountable to God for how we use what he’s given us, including our wealth.
(3) Work is a gift of God, and so are the fruits of our work, such as profit. As such, wealth is to be used for the public good, and not only personal benefit. And our work should be dedicated to living for “God’s glory” rather than personal success.
It’s unfashionable today to say that the market economy is fundamentally dependent on the ethical system derived from Christianity. But there’s strong evidence that this is the truth – and that economies are fundamentally dependent on ethics like trust for growth. There’s also strong evidence that a secular economy, like we see emerging in Europe and America, is weaker and more stagnant. (See for Harvard President Larry Summer’s “The Age of Secular Stagnation.”)
On a personal level, there’s also strong evidence that teaching my kids reformation-era hymns is not only good for their souls but also for the world. A brief point of application: Let’s start sharing songs that affirm God’s activity in creation, his provision for our needs, and the gift of work. Here’s a good place to begin.
Discussion: Would you leave your favorite creation-affirming or work-affirming hymn or contemporary song in the comments section below?
On July 16-19, I will be presenting a brief paper at the Christian Economic Forum in San Francisco entitled, “The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America: Three Economic Challenges and What Christian Leaders Can Do.” The CEF Leadership collated the conference papers into a book, and kindly provided a PDF of my paper for distribution. The content of the paper is below, and the PDF can be accessed by clicking the link above.
The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America
Three Economic Challenges and What Christian Leaders Can Do
On August 1, 2007, the I35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis looked like any other bridge in America. Commuters stuck in rush hour were waiting impatiently, talking on their phones, and assuming they would get safely to their destinations. Yet at 6:05 p.m., a strange noise was heard underneath the bridge. Suddenly it collapsed, sending 111 vehicles and 18 construction workers plummeting 115 feet into the river. In total, 13 people were killed and 145 injured in an unexpected tragedy.
In the same way, on the surface the American economy looks healthy. The Dow Jones is now over 20,000, unemployment rates are low, and economic growth is strong. But there are signs that the support system under the bridge of the American economy is beginning to wobble.
There are three worrisome signs that our economic support structure–the American workforce–is beginning to unravel:
This essay briefly explores each of these three challenges to work in America, in addition to what Christian leaders might do to heal these fissures in American life.
Men Without Work
There is a silent army of able-bodied men in America who have dropped out of the workforce. Nicholas Eberstadt’s new book, Men Without Work, shows that from 1948-2015 the percentage of prime age men in the workforce dropped from 85.8% to 68.2%, a rate lower than it was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.[i] Today there are 10 million men ages 25-54 who are either unemployed or have stopped looking for work altogether.[ii]
Perhaps more overwhelming is the fact that these men tend to have no college degree, no wife or children, and live in economically depressed parts of the United States such as Appalachia, the Rust Belt, or the Deep South. Books like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America from 1960-2010 show that the white working class is no longer the virtuous “blue collar America” of political lore. Murray notes that less than a third of children grow up in households with both biological parents, men claim disability benefits at alarming rates, and church-going rates have plummeted.[iii]
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis has pulled back the veil on what it’s like to live in white working class America. Raised by his Mamaw (grandmother), Vance grew up with a host of father figures, a drug addicted mother, and in a culture of hillbilly honor, often retaliating at every slight, especially toward outsiders.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that among America’s white working class–many of whom were the key swing voters for Donald Trump–suffering and resentment is rampant. Among this group, cirrhosis of the liver is up 50%, suicide has increased 78%, and drug and alcohol poisonings have skyrocketed 323% since 1999.[iv]
“There is indeed a gap in this country, and it has now led to a political revolution, a significant realignment in American politics,” Brooks writes. “But the relevant gap wasn’t income.” For blue collar America that has seen manufacturing jobs go overseas and real wages decline, the relevant gap was a loss of dignity.
The Splintered Career
Another factor impacting the American economy is that the age of working for a single employer for a career is long gone.
Today, we live in the “gig” economy. In 2015, freelancers in the US labor force numbered an estimated 54 million, or as much as one third of the workforce.[v] Researchers have dubbed this the “precarious” economy as they describe the massive shift toward temporary, part-time, or contract work. Today, the average job tenure is less than 4 years (and closer to 18 months for millennials) and a young worker can expect to have 11-12 careers over a lifetime.[vi]
Both low-income and middle class workers have entered new territory. The challenge for the poor is trying to cobble together a variety of part-time jobs to support their families, most of which pay no benefits. Sociologist Allison J. Pugh found that many low-income families struggle to stay afloat financially as they try to navigate constantly changing social ties, relationships, and employers.[vii]
For the middle class, the challenge is to “reinvent yourself” constantly, learning new technologies and skills throughout a lifetime. A college degree 20 years ago is no longer enough. The job you prepared for at university may no longer exist today. Technology is transforming the professions as much as it is the trades.
The challenge for both groups is to find a sense of vocational identity and social location in a community amidst constantly changing careers. “What do you do?” is now a hard question to answer at a dinner party. Even harder is trying to figure out what you might do for a paycheck tomorrow.
The “Big Me” Culture
A final worrisome sign of trouble in American workforce is that we now live in a work culture that prizes individual achievement and personal gain over sacrificial service.
“We have seen a shift,” says The New York Times columnist David Brooks, “from a culture of humility to what you might call the Big Me.”[viii] In his book, The Road to Character, Brooks explains that since WWII America has shifted from a culture that was realistic about sin and personal limitation to one of self-centeredness, personal achievement, and “belief in yourself.”
As the positive psychology movement advanced in post-war America, the doctrine of sin was replaced with a doctrine of self-esteem. Today, fueled by social media, we tend to see work as the chance to make a mega impact or to build our LinkedIn profiles. Humility has become a lost virtue.
This view of work tends to have three economic consequences.
First, sustainable businesses (and economies) are built on trust and the ability to serve the long-term needs of their customers. Business practices fueled by short-term thinking and personal gain can damage entire economies, as we saw in the Great Recession of 2007-2008.
Second, healthy economies need a robust civil society to provide for core social needs apart from government aid. In The Great Degeneration, historian Niall Ferguson shows that numbers of volunteers have plummeted in the past generation, putting more pressure on governments to pay for socially beneficial programs.[ix]
Third, our aging American population is fast becoming an enormous economic liability. As Baby Boomers retire yet live longer–often for 20-30 years drawing on pension benefits–the economic stress on state and federally funded pension plans is fast reaching a tipping point.[x]
In each of these circumstances, when work is about personal benefit rather than contribution to the community, we see increasing stress put on the wobbly beams of our economic bridge.
Three Tasks for Christian Leaders
Considering these three trends–men without work, the splintered career, and the culture of the Big Me–what can Christian leaders do? I believe three things will help rebuild the structures of our shaky economic bridge.
Photo credit: Union Workers.
[i] Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016).
[ii] Derek Thompson, “The Missing Men,” The Atlantic, June 27, 2016, accessed at: http://theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/the-missing-men/488858/
[iii] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America from 1960-2010 (New York: Crown, 2012).
[iv] Arthur Brooks, “How Donald Trump Filled the Dignity Deficit,” The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2016, accessed at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-donald-trump-filled-the-dignity-deficit-1478734436
[v] Louis Hyman, “The Rise of the Precarious Economy,” The Hedgehog Review, 18, no. 1, (Spring 2016):18-32.
[vi] Josh Bersin, “The Future of Work: It’s Already Here – and Not As Scary As You Think,” Forbes, September 21, 2016, accessed at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2016/09/21/the-future-of-work-its-already-here-and-not-as-scary-as-you-think/print
[vii] Allison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[viii] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015).
[ix] Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (New York: Penguin, 2013).
[x] Tyler Durden, “’This is Going To Be A National Crisis,’ – One of the Largest US Pension Funds Set to Cut Retiree Benefits,” April 20, 2016, accessed at: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-04-20/going-be-national-crisis-one-largest-us-pension-funds-set-cut-retiree-benefits
[xi] Zeynep Ton, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014).
[xii] Elton Trueblood, The Common Ventures of Life: Marriage, Birth, Work, Death (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949).