Where do our ideas about how the economy works, and our views on economic policy, come from? Critics of contemporary economics complain that belief in free markets, among economists as well as many ordinary citizens, is a form of religion. The foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by the hotly contended lines of religious thought at that time within the English-speaking Protestant world.
Beliefs about God-given human character, about the afterlife, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under scrutiny in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived. Even today, those long-ago religious debates go far in explaining the puzzling behavior of so many of our fellow citizens whose views about economic policies—and whose voting behavior—seems sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit.
This panel featured:
Benjamin M. Friedman, the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. His newest book is Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, a fundamental reassessment of the foundations of current-day economics showing how religious thinking has shaped economic thinking ever since the beginnings of modern Western economics and how this influence continues to be relevant today especially in the United States.
Michelle Sanchez, the Associate Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. Sanchez received her doctorate in the study of religion in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Her first book, Calvin and the Resignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology, was released by Cambridge University Press in 2019.
Devin Singh, the Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on modern religious thought in the West, philosophy of religion, and social ethics. He is also a faculty associate in Dartmouth’s Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality. He is the author of Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford 2018).
CHARLES STANG: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. And it is my pleasure to welcome you to this afternoon's event, a panel discussion of Ben Friedman's latest book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. This event is a collaboration between the CSWR and the Committee on the Study of Religion in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
I'm here merely to welcome you and to introduce my colleague, Catherine Brekus, who will introduce our three panelists and moderate the discussion. Catherine Brekus is the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School and the Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in FAS. Her research focuses on the relationship between religion and American culture with particular emphasis on the history of women, gender, Christianity, and the evangelical movement. Currently, she's writing a book about the relationship between American nationalism and Christianity.
Catherine, thank you for hosting this event. And thank you for proposing this event. Very, very happy to collaborate. Catherine will now appear to introduce our three panelists, but let me take this opportunity briefly to welcome them personally. Ben, Michelle, Devin, thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedules to take part in this important event. Catherine, over to you.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you so much, Charlie. And thank you so much for hosting this event today. I have been looking forward to this. I am really delighted to host this conversation about Ben Friedman's superb new book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. I hope everybody has gotten to see this book. This is a beautifully written and massively researched book that will become a landmark book in the history of both religion and economics.
This book is organized around a central question, where do our ideas about how the economy works and our views on economic policy come from? Professor Friedman's answer in a nutshell is that the rise of capitalism was deeply influenced by religious thought, particularly Protestant thought. So I'm going to introduce Professor Friedman now and ask him to give us an overview of his book.
Professor Friedman is the William Joseph Mayer Professor of Political Economy and formerly Chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. He received both his and his doctorate in economics from Harvard. And he joined the Harvard faculty in 1972 Ben loves Harvard. Professor Friedman is a nationally renowned expert on economic policy, who writes for two audiences. He has published several books aimed at the general public, including Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which we'll be discussing this afternoon, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, and Day of Reckoning-- the Consequences of American Economic Policy under Reagan and After. He's a frequent contributor to general audience publications, such as the New York Review of Books.
Professor Friedman has also written or edited 14 other books and more than 150 articles in professional journals, aimed primarily at economists and economic policymakers. Much of this work has focused on economic policy, and in particular, on the role of the financial markets in shaping how monetary and fiscal policies affect overall economic activity. Specific subjects of this work have included the effects of government budget deficits, guidelines for the conduct of US monetary policy, and appropriate policy actions in response to crises in a country's banking or financial system.
Professor Friedman serves as a director of the Private Export Funding Corporation, a trustee of the Pioneer Funds, and a director of the Council for Economic Education. He was also a longtime director and member of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Among other distinctions, he has received the George Eccles Prize, awarded annually for excellence in writing about economics, the John R. Commons award given every two years in recognition of contributions to economics, and the Medal of the Italian Senate.
So Ben, welcome. We are delighted to have you here. And I invite you to give us an overview of your book before we begin the conversation.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Thank you, Catherine for that very generous introduction. And let me take the opportunity to thank you and your colleagues more generally at the Divinity School for hosting this event and also for being so generous to me along the route of my writing this book. As people might well guess, theology and religious history do not constitute my native terrain. But as a foreigner trespassing on this area, I've just received enormous welcome and support throughout the project from the Divinity School. David Hempton as Dean has been very supportive. Other friends, David Hall, Sarah Cokely, when she was at the school. Erik Nordbye of the Divinity School, in effect, served as my private tutor, educating me in all sorts of things I didn't know about.
And even going back to an earlier period, my great friend at the Divinity School, Bill Hutchinson-- well, I can't quite say Bill was the inspiration for this project. But he and I certainly talked about it an enormous amount while he was still living. It always felt to me as if-- and I told Ginny when Bill died that it felt to me as if Bill was my teacher. He wasn't, but it felt that way. So I really appreciate all the support of head from the Divinity School.
Now, Catherine, as you mentioned, the subject of the book is trying to understand where our modern Western economics comes from. For this purpose, I take as the centerpiece of modern Western economics what we in the field often call the first fundamental welfare theorem. And that is the proposition that individuals acting on nothing more than their own self-interest with no hint of altruism involved can and under the right circumstances, will end up taking actions that make other people, in addition to themselves, better off. Now, in economics, we simply take this for granted. But especially for people say at the Divinity School or for those who are not economists, if you pause to think about it, that is a very interesting and fundamental idea.
Now, we all know, of course, that Adam Smith and David Hume and the other great figures who came from the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid to late 18th century are the ones who were primarily responsible for this line of thinking. And I don't disagree with that. What I do disagree with is the standard presumption that because economics, as we know it, is a child of the Enlightenment, it therefore follows that economics has nothing to do with religious thinking. The usual presumption is that economics is therefore a part of this enlightenment movement away from notions of a God-centered universe toward what we in our modern vocabulary would call secular humanism.
Now, I argue that that's simply wrong. And I argue that what gave the inspiration to Smith and Hume and these other great figures to think along the lines that developed into our first fundamental welfare theorem was a line of religious thinking that, in the Scotland of their day, was not only new and contentious, but hotly contended. These were issues that people argued over, that men died for.
And while as people in the Divinity School community surely know, and I had to trace out at great length in the book, the history of this movement was a kind of rolling affair. It was at its height in England in the latter part of the 17th century. It was at its height in Scotland in the early to mid decades of the 18th century, right when Smith and Hume were coming into their young adulthood, and therefore forming their image of the world. And it was at its height in America in the latter part of the 18th century, not coincidentally when our founding fathers were forming the American Republic. Although, that's a different story.
Now, what piece of new theological thinking do I have in mind? Specifically, I have in mind the movement away from predestinarian Calvinism. Again, at the Divinity School, I would expect people will know. In England and Scotland, this predestinarian thinking arrived it gained strength it reached its height in the 1640s and 1650s under the Puritan ascendancy and the Cromwell Commonwealth. And after the restoration in 1660, it started to go out. And by 1700s, it had pretty well gone from the Church of England, but it was still there in Scotland. And to repeat, during Smith and Hume's lifetime-- really not their lifetime, but their young adulthood-- this debate was at its height in Scotland.
Now, this is important because we all know a lot about Smith and Hume biographically. These men became international celebrities in their own lifetimes. And we know that they were not religiously committed individuals. The story that I tell is one rather having to do with what Einstein famously called their world view, the simplified view of the world that they formed in order to do their analysis. This is a familiar idea in economics as well. In my argument, in short, is that because they lived at a time when religion was more central, more important, more pervasive, more multidimensional than anything we know in our current modern day Western world, Smith and Hume and the other thinkers of this period incorporated this new religious thinking into their view of the world from which they proceeded to do their economic analysis.
And I argue, in particular, that the movement away from predestinarian thinking gave them a more expansive view of the possibilities of human choice, human action, human agency. And it was this more optimistic, more benign, more expansive view of human agency that led them to think in the way they did about the role of competitive markets. I stated the first fundamental welfare theorem a moment ago as the idea that individuals will, under the right circumstances, wind up taking actions in the economic sphere that make others better off. The great contribution that Smith made in The Wealth of Nations was to show that the right circumstances for this to hold were competitive markets. And to work out in great detail, indeed in Newtonian language, to work out exactly what it was about market competition that enabled this to be so.
And so the first major element of the book that I want to emphasize is this religiously based story about where our modern Western economics comes from. Second, I argue in the book that this was not just a matter of the 18th century. That right down through the 19th and the 20th centuries as the economy changed, and of course, therefore, as the questions that economists were asking and seeking to answer changed along with it, this from the bottom up influence of the religious thinking on the economic thinking persisted. It was there in the first half of the 19th century in America when our predecessors debated free trade versus protectionism. This is, of course, incidentally very important to my department because we first had a free trade economist at Harvard and then we had had a protectionist economist at Harvard. And well, if you have two, that's called a department. That's where my that's where my department came from.
The religious influence was at its most obvious, I think, in the latter part of the 19th century when a period really very much like today, when people became aware that economic growth and improvement in advance did not necessarily carry everybody along with it. It was not true, neither then nor now, that the rising tide lifts all the boats. And the great question was what if anything we ought to do about that. The religious figures of the day divided into the social gospel according-- associated with these great figures like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, Josiah Strong. And on the other side were people that we think of as associated with the gospel of wealth, people like the younger Beecher, like Russell Conwell, here in Massachusetts, Bishop Lawrence, here at Harvard, Phillips Brooks.
And while these people understood, even the social gospel, people understood that they wanted to have the Protestant establishment of the day lead the way in correcting the poverty of the time. They understood that the churches were not able to do that. And they look to government to have programs. And they look to the economics profession to design what the program should be. And it turns out that this looking to the economics profession by the religious establishment of the day had an enormous impact on economic thinking. And then again, focusing here in America on into the 20th century, I argued that this religious influence on economic thinking had a lot to do with the reception of Keynes. Had a lot to do with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. And it continued on through the middle and into the latter decades of the 20th century with the reaction in both the religious community and the business community to the existential threat of world communism.
The third and final aspect of the argument in my new book that I will mention before stopping has to do with the relevance of religious thinking for economic thinking in our own time. Now, in the book, I follow Thomas Kuhn in believing that as any intellectual discipline matures, the subjectivity of its core theoretical thinking to external influence atrophies. And I think that's happened in economics. But the subjectivity of its practical applied thinking doesn't. And here, I think we see the effect of religious thinking most obviously in our public conversation about economics in America, in our public debate over economic policy.
One of the great puzzles that both in the popular press and intellectual circles has attracted the attention of many people is the tendency of so many of our fellow citizens today to vote in ways that seem to run counter to their economic interests. Why is it that so many citizens of states like Mississippi and Kentucky, where reliance on food stamps and supplemental income and public housing are way above the national average-- why is it that these citizens are voting consistently for candidates and for the party that would like to roll back or even eliminate those programs? Now, the standard answer from our political science colleagues, not just here at Harvard but elsewhere, emphasizes two features of American democracy. Both of which are correct, and both of which are relevant.
The idea is that we live not in direct democracy, but a representative democracy. We don't vote directly for policies, we vote for candidates and for parties. And second, in our system, we have way too few parties, namely only two, to represent the full range of combination of policies. And so the standard political science explanation for this puzzle says, well, what about those people who would benefit from food stamps and similar programs, but who like conservative positions-- on social issues. They're opposed to abortion. They don't like same-sex marriage. Where do they go? And the political scientists have given us a lot of reasons why they would be attracted to vote Republican.
I regard that explanation as, at best, seriously incomplete. And the reason is that while it's true that we don't get to vote on a standalone basis for policies, we have plenty of evidence from public opinion surveys of what they think, what people think, on a standalone basis on policies. And it turns out that many of the people, whom the political scientists are puzzled by, actually do oppose government aid to the poor. They oppose government regulation including regulation for corporations who are doing things that might harm them. They oppose higher taxes on other people. They oppose higher taxes for corporations for which they do not work and whose shares they don't own.
And it turns out that people's views on these policy issues are very highly correlated with their religious belief and religious affiliations. And again, I'm guessing, it will come as no surprise to people in the Divinity School community that the people who really stand out in America in this regard are Protestant evangelicals, especially those evangelicals who self-identified their denominations as traditionalists. This is not something that comes at all within the purview of the standard political science explanation. But I think the line of historical argument that I developed in my new book showing how right from the very beginning religious ideas have been formative for purposes of modern economic thinking goes a long way to explaining the puzzle.
So those are the three key elements that I would emphasize from the book. I'm very grateful to Devin and to Michelle for taking time, in the first instance, to read the book but also then to think about it. And I'm very much looking forward to what each of you has to say. So thank you in advance for giving me your thoughts.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you, Ben, for that marvelous survey of overview of your book, which I think is very helpful for anyone in the audience who hasn't been able to read it yet. One of the many things I appreciate about this book is your willingness to be so interdisciplinary. We, at the University, tend to end up in sort of our own silos. And the research that you have done on religious history is really very impressive.
So our first respondent this afternoon is Devin Singh. Professor Singh is Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. He studies religious thought in the modern West and insights of colonial encounter with attention to the Christian tradition and its interaction with economy and politics. His first book, Divine Currency-- the Theological Power of Money in the West, examines the ways early Christian thinkers made use of monetary and economic concepts as they created Christian doctrine and how this close relationship between theology and money has lent a sacred aura to economics as it developed in the West.
Among other distinctions, he is the recipient of the Lautenschlager award from the University of Heidelberg. And he has been awarded fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, the Luce Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the Louisville Institute, and the Forum for Theological Exploration. Welcome Evan. Thank you so much for being with us today.
DEVIN SINGH: Thank you, Catherine. I'd like to express my appreciation and gratitude for the opportunity to read and respond to Professor Ben Friedman's book. I'm very happy to be a part of this conversation. Thanks especially to Professor Friedman for this work, the research it represents, and the contributions it makes.
In this book, Friedman provides an accessible and engaging story of how certain key concepts in modern economic thought, such as the market mechanism competition and comparative advantage, were shaped in part by the ferment and religious thought initiated by the Protestant Reformation. He argues for both explicit and direct, as well as implicit and residual links between doctrinal debates about divine Providence, human sinfulness, or the possibilities of social progress and these new economic ideas. Friedman's investigation has two center points. One is the thought in context of Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations remains a touchstone for the field of economics. The other are the so-called clerical economists of the 19th century in America, who combine their theological convictions with visions of manifest destiny and economic growth that shape the trajectory of this nation.
In telling this tale, Friedman takes us from the 16th century continental reformers and French jansenist, for instance, all the way to the 20th century political divide in America between conservative defenders of unregulated free markets and liberals advocating better state market interaction. He threads this tale through the English Puritans, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the American colonial project, and all its religious diversity. Friedman's central claim is that a rejection of the reform doctrines of predestination and total depravity meant instead with an affirmation of free will, human goodness, and the possibility of human happiness and progress were the key religious drivers shaping modern economics in the US as the site of experimentation for such new economic thought. In this way, Friedman hopes to challenge some of the truisms in the discussion of religions role in the ascendancy of capitalism.
There are two parts to my response today. First, I want to situate Friedman's book within the broader scholarship and conversation on religion and capitalism. This will help to highlight the contributions he makes should be useful for framing some of our conversation today. And may I hope be helpful for those in the audience interested in exploring this topic further. Second, I want to situate the periods and themes covered in Friedman's book within a longer arc of history around this question of religions relationship to the economy and economic thinking. They should also be useful in highlighting the significance of his claims and evaluating the way he places on the connections he makes. And I also hope this will raise for us questions of periodization as we think about making historical and genealogical arguments about the influence of ideas across disparate times, cultures, and geographies.
So first, in terms of the scholarship on this topic, the first book that will come to mind for many here is Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Of the many claims in Weber's book, most memorable is this assertion that the reform doctrine of double predestination helps generate entrepreneurial activity by the anxious quest to confirm one's status as elect. As already noted, Friedman takes Weber's claims head on, arguing instead that it was the theological rejection of predestination and associated views of depravity that influence the economic models of market society. The deism of natural theology and the optimistic activist energy of Armenian Methodists, for instance, have left more of a mark on Modern economic thought and activity. There is, of course, much more to Weber's thesis and much that remains compatible with Friedman that we can of course discuss.
Another landmark book in the religion and economics conversation is Albert Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests, which traces how Christian concerns about subduing desire informed early modern conversations about using self-interest to tame and redirect the passions. The result was a vision of business and commerce as pacifying and unifying with the market forming the basis for a new social polity, after religion and monarchy had failed. Friedman's book extends and reiterates Hirschman's claims, but now, this time into the American context. And it's remarkable to see the continuity of thought between 17th century continental thinkers and 19th century Americans.
For instance, Hirschman cites Jacques Savary's influential 1675 textbook, The Perfect Merchant, in which Savary claims that, quote, "Divine Providence has not willed for everything that is needed for life to be found in the same spot. It is dispersed its gifts so that men would trade together and so that the mutual need which they have to help one another would establish ties of friendship among them." Here, Savary expounds the idea that God willed the interdependence of peoples and nations through commerce and distributed resources around the world to force humans to cooperate. This view would get taken up and emphasized by Montesquieu in his theory that commerce brings a civilizing influence to society.
In Friedman's story, we encountered the American Episcopalian economist, John McVickar, whose influential 1830s economics textbook asks and answers similar questions, quote, "For what other reason do you suppose has God given to different countries such different soils and climate and production? But that they should freely exchange with each other and thus be happier and all the more comfortable." Friedman thus gives us a sense of how continental ideas propounded by the likes of Montesquieu, ideas very much enmeshed in French jansenist and reform debates about the place of self-interest in charitable society come to inform American visions for blessed commerce two centuries later.
A third founding text in this field of religion and capitalism is RH Tawney's 1920 work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, whose title should sound familiar. Tawney's main focus was on the commercial revolution in England. And he centered on the Puritans as inheritors and transformers of both medieval Catholic and continental reformed attitudes toward wealth and Work Friedman's tale takes up word Tawney's ends, focusing on Smith, Hume, and the wider Scottish Enlightenment response to an English mercantile society already well in motion.
An additional interesting set of studies within the field of religion and economics are focused on the theological background to Smith and the presence or lack thereof of implicit theology in his work. Paul Oslington and Lisa Hill are among those who have intervened to claim that Smith's invisible hand cannot be understood without reference to theological views of Divine Providence. In other words, Smith's claim about market equilibrium and the positive net benefit of individual self-interest rely on more fundamental and unquestioned assumptions about irrational ordered universe established by God.
Friedman weighs in on this debate too and claims two different things that are certainly not contradictory but are in some tension. On one hand, Smith was indeed the product of his time, a time saturated in natural theology as well as orthodox Calvinism, and its more liberal variants. Smith cannot be fully grasped without understanding this context. And Friedman goes to great lengths to provide the rich history of doctrinal debates that inform Smith's milieu and help us understand some of his motivations.
But on the other hand, Friedman claims Smith's invisible hand references are decidedly non-theological. This is noteworthy because at least on the surface, it would seem to help Friedman's overall thesis about the importance of understanding Smith's religious context if he were to side with interpreters who view some implicit theology at work. But Friedman takes pains to argue that the uses are nonbiological. And I think more importantly are varied depending on the work of Smith that is in question.
Related to the forces shaping Smith's outlook, Friedman mentioned Smith's condemnation of the frivolity of the rich with their consumption of useless trinkets and Bubbles Smith acknowledges that such consumption is generated for the economy, but his is really more of a moral argument that is very much in line with the Puritan ethic and resonates with the asceticism that Weber highlighted. Combined with his affirmation of the value of work, Smith rejection of useless luxury places him squarely within the Puritan ambit, his ostensible deism notwithstanding.
This image is accentuated when we consider the contrasting picture painted by Charly Coleman in his recent book, The Spirit of French Capitalism. Coleman retrieves a set of themes from French Catholic theology in the 18th century that focus on divinely willed abundance and luxury in ways that make consumption and leisure central engines of capitalism. Coleman reminds us that the Protestant aestheticism may not be the only or essential factor driving the rise of market society. And here, Smith's Calvinist and even Puritan background comes to the fore.
A final book that I'll mention is Eugene McCarraher's recent intervention, The Enchantments of Mammon, which makes great reading alongside Friedman's text. McCarraher recounts a similar tale but with a different purpose, to argue against the secularization thesis and the idea of the economic disenchantment of the world. He attempts to show instead that economic thinking remains infused with notions of sacramentality, divine presence and purpose, and even alchemical and mystical sensibilities.
In his view, a romantic ethic also very much shaped the trajectory of economics. His claims are worth thinking together with Friedman's to see what extent this romantic ethic coincides with Friedman's retrieval of optimistic post millennialism and faith in human progress. It also raises a question of whether Friedman's tale means that theological residues remain and continue to matter for economics, or whether something like the secular has fully gained sway in the field, as most economists assume.
And I want to turn to a second set of comments about the place of Friedman's story in the longer tale of this relation between religion and economics. Of course, Friedman's purpose was to focus on the influence of Protestant thinking on capitalism. And so it makes sense for him to focus on the scope that he did. But just as the Armenian thinking he highlights was a reaction to reform thinking before it, so is Protestant thought itself a reaction in response to medieval Catholic thought that preceded it. Of course, in telling history, this is always the case, and it's unavoidable. But it raises questions about what it means to account for the traces that remain of what is opposed or reconfigured in previous thought and practice, and to what extent we need to include consideration in our analysis. And I know three examples here.
The first is this notion of commerce bringing divinely ordained peace and stability, as I noted in Friedman's extension of Hirschman theme. But the link between Friedman's 19th century American economist and Hirschman's 17th century French philosophers extends back even further. Hirschman cites the Princeton economist, Jacob Viner's work on the role of Providence in theories of social order. Viner himself trace this idea of divinely ordained commerce back to the fourth century. The theologian Erik Peterson has argued that we find some evidence of this view among certain patristic thinkers. Eusebia [INAUDIBLE], for instance, writing in the 300s appeared to see the peace and stability brought by a Roman imperial integration, infrastructure, and economy as divinely ordained.
So what does it do to the significance of 19th century American economic thinking to see forms of continuity and to be sure discontinuity with a 1,500 year old view of God-ordained economic interdependence and peace? As a second example, Friedman looks to Adam Smith as the true formulator and perfector of the theory of the market. Of course, Friedman acknowledges earlier notions of market exchange and thinkers such, as Pierre Nicole and Bernard Mandeville, for instance. Nevertheless, in this view, the model of the market is quintessentially modern.
And while I think it is right to say that the ancient world had no conception of the market as such as historians, such as Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley, have claimed, we do find evidence in medieval thinking about the market in abstract. As Joel Kaye has shown, scholastic thinkers and the 13th and 14th centuries revealed sophisticated theories of prices, supply, and demand, long distance trade, equilibrium, and other market forces that exceed human attempts at governance and control. The Latin term [INAUDIBLE] was already being employed to speak of the market as such.
The point with both the example of providential commerce and ideas of the market is not to diminish the contributions that Friedman highlights. Rather, they are at once in a sense relativize and heightened in significance. The 18th and 19th century developments are now seen as iterations on themes almost two millennia old. This places them in a narrative that makes them less unique or seen as bolts out of the blue, but also as making their own transformations within a much larger story, able to draw from it and be elucidated because of it. Friedman's work helpfully shows how that longer arc extended into and shapes our US context.
My third and final point about the larger historical context around Friedman's tale feels the most weighty to me. In setting stage for the market dynamics that Smith would reflect on, Friedman mentions the rise of mercantile society in a passing and passive way. As he writes on page 48, quote, "Britain's economy, still mostly agricultural, evolved toward an ever greater role for commercial markets. Subsistence farming had long since ceased to be the norm, if it ever was. Most farmers now look to markets and increasingly so for their economic existence."
So the use of terms, such as "evolved" and "farming having long since ceased," both in the passive voice risks portraying the processes as natural and inevitable, even as ones whose drivers are unknown and unclear. But we do know many of the reasons why Britain shifted in this direction-- violent dispersal of peasants off the land, the end of poor laws and rights of gleaning and gathering, the closing of the Commons, privatization, the creation of vulnerable independent proletarian wage labor and the like. It's also motivated by the internationalization of trade, in part shaped by chattel slavery, indigenous enslavement, and the colonial extractive project.
Sure, this isn't the history Friedman is telling. But here's why I think it matters and bears mention. Economics is frequently and, I think, rightly critiqued for portraying economic change, which is always also political, cultural, and social change, in abstract ways as if markets emerge spontaneously and will find the most efficient means of exchange if left to their own devices. Most of the story Friedman tells resists this. And on the whole, his work is a laudable example of showing why non-economic factors matter for the history and development of economics.
But in this crucial moment, the view of the inevitable and natural market evolution rears its head and not insignificantly, for it sets the stage for Adam Smith to now encounter a market society, reflect on the market in the abstract, and project the market as an ideal type for all to aspire to. In so doing, Smith will describe the perfections of the market in Newtonian terms, drawing on the language of physics to suggest that market relations might just resemble natural physical laws, and therefore, reflect the deeper grain of the universe. In so doing, this historically contingent and agonistically constructed a set of social relations takes on a metaphysical weight, that in turn takes on the aura of an eternal truth or at least a deep structure of reality.
Smith will certainly use and be influenced by theological debates as he creates this market model as Friedman beautifully describes. What we miss are the theologians who argued for the closing of the Commons and the value of impoverishment and suffering to redeem and refine the character of the poor. For instance, George Herbert 1652 text, the country Parson extols the virtues of, quote unquote, "improvement" of both private land and of the souls of laborers forced to till it.
We also missed the theological protests of Gerrard Winstanley and The Diggers, who mount theological arguments against the emerging markets and argue for divinely ordained notions of communal property and shared ownership. In other words, there is an actual and contentious theological construction of the market society well before Smith that will provide the material reality and fodder for his abstract theorizing. Of course, Friedman cannot include all history here, but I suggest that this important piece of history is of a piece with the idea of Smith develops. Including it would also help remind us of the varied role of theology used for and against markets and used to create economic relationships, as well as the theories about them.
Having wrestled with the relation between religion and economics for the past 25 years now, and really for far too long, I've become persuaded that all theologies generate economics and all economics contain implicit, if not explicit, theologies. What is unique or striking about a theological movement is not the fact that issues in or shapes economic thought and practice. What is noteworthy is the constellation of theological ideas, political currents, cultural affinities and economic factors that propel any particular assemblage into prominence and lead to its dissemination and enforcement.
Friedman has decisively shown how a discrete set of Protestant theological claims came to exert sway on the field of economics and on American economic thought and practice. He shows why understanding this religious background is essential to grasping the force and sway of these ideas, and may thus be relevant for their transformation. And for all this, we are in his debt. Thank you.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you so much, Devin. So our next respondent is Michelle Sanchez, Associate Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. Professor Sanchez received her doctorate in the study of religion in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard with a focus on theology and historical and contemporary contacts. Her research interests include the Christian movements of reform, and complicated legacies of Protestantism, and the complex interrelationships between theology, politics, and rapid social change that marked 16th century Europe.
She also studies ways of reading theology that are attentive not only to the traditions themselves, but also to how theological writing responds to concrete historical conditions and general human concerns. Her first book, Calvin and the Resignification of the World-- Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology, offers a close analysis of Calvin's 1559 institutes that places the text in conversation with contemporary theorists of religion, ritual, secularization, and political theology. She's currently writing a book examining how Christianity was reconfigured as a worldview in the 20th century with special attention to the role of 19th century Calvinist theologians.
Thank you so much for being with us here today, Michelle.
MICHELLE SANCHEZ: Thank you, Catherine, for the introduction and for the invitation to be here. I am so honored with this opportunity Thanks also to Charlie and the CSWR, and Ariella Ruth for organizing, and to Devin for his great comments. And of course, biggest thanks to Professor Friedman for writing this really monumental book. I found it thoroughly fascinating. And I really can't overemphasize how much I learned from it.
I just think it's such an incredible accomplishment to bring together so much research in such a readable and compelling way. And I also really appreciated the introduction that you gave, Professor Friedman. It gives me an opportunity to say that what I'm going to do is kind of hone in on part one of your book. But I think although, I won't say much about part three, as you summarized it, I think we could discuss that more in the Q&A.
But I'll say, I think the central argument of this book as I read it is that, as people have already said, economics has been influenced by religious ideas from its inception, first by the moral philosophers and political economists whose religious worldviews shaped the discipline, and second in the ongoing religious shape of public opinion. And to my mind, the book unequivocally succeeds at demonstrating this.
And of course, when one is presented with such a huge archive, there is a huge amount to unpack. So because I can't unpack everything I would like to, I'll just add a few kind of very quick summary points of questions I had along the way. And then I'll pick up on one. So one question that is obviously with me as a scholar of religion is, what is religion in this book? What are its qualities? What are its boundaries? Obviously, for good reasons, the religion we're looking at here is primarily Protestantism. But even within those constraints, is religion a record of beliefs that people hold? Or is it a record of ways that institutions have organized beliefs? Is religion the same thing as a worldview, which is another term that gets used a lot across the book?
The book continually reiterates Einstein's definition of worldview, which is a simplified and easy to survey image of the world that helps people make sense of fragmented experience. But if religion is a worldview then how easy is it to distinguish religion from other discourses on anything from theological or philosophical anthropology theories of perception and cognition, or say discourses on racial and cultural difference that you can find produced by many of the same figures the book covers, Hume, Smith, Cotton, Mather, Josiah Strong. Of course religion involves all of this and more, and scholars inevitably will need to isolate aspects of religion for analytical reasons.
So the bigger question the book poses is how best to approach and constrain the category of religion for the purpose of understanding its relationship to other realms of life that our University disciplines treat as different like economics and politics. What parts of religion should we isolate to tell that kind of story.
Now I'm really interested in this question but since what I do is theology and that's my role in the Division of Labor here, I want to spend the bulk of my time thinking with the book's big theological claim, that the rise of capitalism in England and the United States correlates with the rejection of predestinarian thinking and orthodox Calvinism that predestination is largely incompatible with a religious disposition that supports the pursuit of happiness, moral self-improvement, the ability to choose and build a better society.
Now to be clear, there is no doubt truth to this correlation. The record shows it and it's also completely intuitive. The book acknowledges also that the rejection of individual predestination doesn't mean that some form of predestination won't reappear on the collective level and I think this is absolutely right. Yet I still wonder if the idea that less predestination equals more positive emphasis on human activity doesn't end up putting a little bit too fine a point on the power that predestination holds even in our current ideological landscape.
So let me explain and I will begin not surprisingly with Calvin. Like others who have spent an unhealthy amount of time with Calvin's thinking I'm often struck by the gap between Calvin's own ideas and the way people summarize them. So to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the book is inaccurate in its account of how people have treated orthodox Calvinism, the book is just the messenger on this front. But the experience of this gap is so common that it's a huge matter of debate within Calvin studies.
What do we do with the fact that the Calvin you meet from a close reading looks a lot different from the popular perception of Calvin as a joyless theocrat? And what does this mean for the way we argue about the impact of Calvinism on the modern world? In other words, which Calvin do we take as significant for a study like this one? And there are obviously good reasons for taking the later Calvin brand as more relevant to the shape of modern life. That's the version of Calvinism that so many people have taught and heard and fought over.
But I want to suggest that it's still worth paying attention to the details of Calvin's own thinking, mostly because I'm convinced that this more complex network of ideas has its own afterlife beyond the bounds of those who claim the Calvin brand. Getting familiar with this network of ideas can help us become better perceivers of just how theology continues to influence social theory and identity formation today.
And in any case, I hope that spending a few minutes thinking about this will help us appreciate the importance of the questions that this book poses. Now of course I didn't know Calvin personally and I'm sure I wouldn't have much like to live in Geneva but I do know that Calvin was a French humanist who was a great admirer of the Roman stoics. He believed throughout his life that well ordered laws were necessary to cultivate a public good beyond the bounds of the church. He was also invested in the power of rhetoric to stun and accommodate human perception and his writings show that he pursued something like stoic philosophical exercises to train the reader to better perceive the world and respond to challenges, including challenges posed by our own depravity.
When Calvin talks about depravity he's using the Latin term pravitas which just means crookedness. And for him it's never utter depravity, it's always total depravity which means that no part of the human is left untouched. So it doesn't mean that we're all utterly evil just that we constantly miss the mark. As an aside missing the mark is an archery metaphor obviously, but it's more than that. Calvin was among those humanists who popularized a model of perception that reappears in Montaigne, as well as Hobbs.
According to this view the world of experience is characterized by perceptible marks that cognition comes to understand as signs and that's where the interpretive work happens. Missing the mark then has to do with the human inability to be certain about what one sees. So while Calvin's thinking on sin is obviously indebted to Augustine and the whole Christian theological tradition and a very strong view of it, it can also be understood in the context of rising skepticism soon to be embraced by fellow humanists including Montaigne and Hobbs.
In fact, the first part of the Institutes to be translated into English and distributed in England, was Calvin's chapter on the Christian life with instructions on how to bear suffering joyfully. It critiques but also follows stoic practices. And here's my point, it did not seem to occur to Calvin that predestination or depravity would be an impediment to human efforts at self-improvement.
In fact, when he argues that Divine Providence actively wills everything that happens, and make no mistake he is a very strong view of the Divine Will, he nevertheless writes, and I quote "We are not at all hindered by God's eternal decrees either from looking ahead for ourselves or from putting our affairs in order but always in submission to his will. The reason is obvious for he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care. God has provided means and helps to preserve it. God has also made us able to foresee dangers so that they may not overwhelm us unaware God has offered precautions and remedies. Now it is very clear what our duty is, if the Lord is committed to us the protection of our life it is our duty to protect it."
So part of the difference here is that Calvin thinks the knowledge of God is intertwined with the knowledge of ourselves, meaning that all knowledge of God is also useful and beneficial to us in a really robust way. If you do a word search on use and benefit in the e-book at the Institute that I know you all have, you will get a lot of hits. So Calvin actually thinks that the knowledge of Providence and predestination is precisely what enables the most useful and beneficial kind of human action. We won't be happy or motivated to act unless we have some confidence that something good or meaningful is going to come from our action. And that's what Calvin thinks God's decree offers to us.
Now I say all of this not because I have any real interest in defending Calvin's true you, but rather because reading Calvin so closely has helped me to appreciate the subtle and shape shifting power of his teaching. And I think it remains powerful in a way that can be counter intuitive. As much as people seem instinctively to hate the idea that they're not in control of their own destiny, the realization that we operate within conditions not of our own choosing can also provide profound moral and therapeutic effects.
If you find yourself on top of the world, maybe you've moved up several ranks of social class and earned the admiration of peers and a comfortable living situation, it might be tempting to say you did it all yourself. But there are good moral reasons for acknowledging all of the factors that helped along the way, such as the support of others, grace, dumb luck. And it's therapeutic too, because there's nothing that provokes anxiety quite like the sense that everything depends on you and your ability to plan and control for every contingency and every little detail, and that one bad choice might destroy everything.
When I was working my way through the middle chapters of this book, especially the chapter on the clerical economists, I couldn't help but think how the rejection of predestination might be very bad news for anyone who struggled, for anyone who was born, as we say today in the wrong zip code. John McVickar might not call you totally depraved but he would call you a machine out of order. And even good old Abraham Lincoln might not invoke predestination to categorize your soul but if you remained a laborer all your life it might be because you quote "Have a dependent nature which prefers it."
If you find yourself on the wrong side of progress it's not always clear which approach represents the more horrible degree, the idea that material progress is the meaning and end of life and that's your fault you failed might be worse than the idea that God's mysterious will determines who is in and who is out. I say this because I'm trying to think with the book's claim that the rise of capitalism is correlated with the rejection of predestination, and yet I wonder if some of the power of that doctrine isn't still driving the way we imagine and justify economic distribution today.
I've already said that Calvin presents divine Providence as something that should motivate human action and bring happiness and comfort. The idea that God is in control can relieve decision anxiety and provide hope that everything isn't mere chaos. And some of what Calvin says is actually quite in line with the law of unintended consequences that, for example, a human can act out of an evil will but God will direct it to a good result. But what about predestination in particular, the idea that God chooses some and rejects others.
It was Calvin himself who first called this the horrible decree but he still promoted the idea for a number of reasons. He-- it's in the Bible, it was taught by his theological hero Augustine, he thought it made us humble, but one big reason that he continued to teach the idea is the perennial problem that I'm guessing we can all relate to on some level, how come not everyone sees things in the same way? Why don't people agree on facts? How come ideas that might disgust me are attractive even to members of my own family? There's a sense in which Calvin simply sees predestination as an empirical fact, a matter of obvious experience. Some people hear the gospel and are converted. Other people hear the gospel and nothing.
While it's true that Calvin did sometimes speculate on the proportion of the elect to the reprobate, he did also teach that you can only know your own election and that should act as if everyone is elect because hey, they might convert tomorrow. You don't know. But the bigger question remains with us. Some people do all with little, other people squander what they do have, some countries thrive, other countries struggle. And I'm certainly no economist but I am aware of the claim that capitalist success is often predicated on and continues to reproduce the exploitation of others.
I wonder if some secularized version of predestination doesn't still operate to sanctify the status quo of success stories while everyone who's failed is merely a faulty machine. This effectively postpones a reckoning with things like the ongoing legal and material effects of enslavement and colonization. So the doctrine can be tempting for its explanatory power whether we call it predestination or a broken machine or dependent nature or something like cultural determinism or civilizational inferiority.
But then there's the flip side, the fact that the doctrine also holds a powerful appeal to those who want to achieve recognition or upward mobility. Because how often do Americans fall for the chosen one narrative, Neo the unfulfilled office worker who finds out he's the one. Fill in the blank with just about any superhero who learned his or her destiny from suffering conditions not of their own choosing. It's no accident that when Calvin decides to adopt a very strong version of predestination he's living as a refugee outside the bounds of recognition afforded by both church and state. And he's writing for a community of refugees, giving them a path to know themselves not only as legitimate but as chosen by God for a special purpose.
I was fascinated by the extent to which the book showed the relationship between the rejection of predestination and the adoption of post millennial-ism, especially in the form of manifest destiny or the continuing idea of America's special calling. The idea of a chosen covenant community with world saving ambition is common within historical Calvinism, a tradition that began with a diaspora of refugees and religious minorities many of whom then became settlers. It should not be surprising that those on the deck of the Arabella or those leaving to settle in the West may have reached for the idea that God chose them for such a task and would see them through the hardship, which of course included assuming violent authority over peoples who essentially filled the reprobate slot.
The book greatly argues that predestination was rejected on an individual level only to reappear on a collective level. For Lyman Beecher the world needed quote "A new creation who was free to take action." And the new creation was the collective person of the nation assumed as the book notes to be white male, and Protestant. According to Beecher, "The history of our nation is indicative of some great design to be accomplished by it." And according to Herman Melville, "We Americans are the peculiar chosen people the Israel of our time. We bear the arc of the liberties of the world. God is predestined, mankind expects great things from our race, and great things we feel in our souls. Long enough we have been skeptics about ourselves and wondered if the political Messiah had come but he has come in us if we would but give utterance to his promptings."
As the book demonstrates, this kind of language signals a transition away from individual predestination to collective chosenness. But can those two things really be separated? Consider the christological imagery in these quotes, for the Apostle Paul, the saved our new creation because they no longer live through Adam but through Christ, and when we're talking about Christ there is no contradiction between work and predestination and salvation. It is Christ's work that saves those who Christ chooses. But here the role of Christ is filled by us, the representative race that acts and makes decisions on behalf of others.
Clearly a lot of Americans rejected what they understood as the orthodox Calvinist doctrine of predestination but did they fully reject Calvin's web of ideas or just adapt them? I'm suspicious. Theologies in my experience have a kind of ecosystem, big ideas about God, humans, the world, and relationships between them become vivid and compelling when they make possible a kind of life. Ideas change along with times and circumstances but unless you successfully shut down the question itself, for example, the question of why some people see a truth that others simply don't, the idea that resolves the question will just pop out somewhere else.
I suspect that what we see in these disavowals is not a secularization by subtraction by getting rid of predestination but a secularization by transference. The kind of human who rationally acts for their own glory is representative of the good is not predestined but is the predestinator, a secularized Christ. Let me be clear, especially for anyone here who hasn't read the book yet, one of its great contributions is to document precisely the many re-configurations of Protestant Christianity that share a symbiosis with economic ideas. And as someone who is similarly engaged by these questions but who comes at them from the theological side of the University, I want to close with a very quick reflection on methodology.
I think what this study offers is something beyond mere correlation. It's an invitation to think diagnostically about the fluctuations of doctrines alongside the fluctuations of life and position. Theologies don't just change to reinforce or resist contemporary projects, they absolutely do this and can be mobilized to do so with the right set of practices and relationships. But theologies also reveal something about the concerns, fears, aspirations, and social locations of the groups who animate this web of ideas in their own time and place. So it's not just about leaving predestination behind, I think it's also about looking how and where it might reappear and what that tells us about the conditions of our current social landscape.
So thank you again professor Freedman for putting together such a helpful record that advances our ability to think about these things.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you Michelle. Ben I'm going to give you a few moments at least to respond to these, to both Devin and Michelle if you would like to share some of your thoughts.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Well thank you Catherine and my main response is to thank both Devon and Michelle for these extremely thoughtful and rich and deep and thought provoking comments. I look forward to pursuing these ideas with each of you I hope. I've learned an enormous amount just from what you each were able to say within the limited amount of time that you had and I look forward to learning more from you. So let me just offer a couple of comments on Devon. In your review of other writings on this subject you raised the of course relevant question of how what I wrote relates to what Weber wrote and I thought about that, too. So let me take just a moment to explain my thinking on the subject.
There are clear points of tangency, one of course is the relevance of religion, theology, for economics. Another is the idea that religious thinking can be a form of catalyst in the chemical sense that the effect is still there even after the initial religious impulse has atrophied. But I think there are two key differences that I would like to emphasize because I have been asked whether I think of my idea as incompatible with Weber's and I don't.
The first difference is that Weber was a sociologist and was seeking to explain the behavior of ordinary people, including those who save, those who worked industriously, those who began a business, that sort of thing. I'm not a sociologist. I'm an economist. And I suppose I'm not really doing economics here I'm doing intellectual history but I'm doing the intellectual history of my subject. And so I'm not interested here, I'm interested of course, but I'm not interested here in the effect of religion for the behavior of ordinary people. I'm interested in the effect of the theology on the thinking, the thinking. And while I'm not uninterested in the effect on the thinking of ordinary people, what we have is the thinking of people who wrote it down.
So in effect I'm interested in the thinking of the intellectual elite, the Adam Smith's, the David Hume's, in the course of the conversation people have mentioned McVickar or others, people whose names one would recognize as economists. So that's a difference. The second thing is that Smith and Hume lived a century after the period that Weber was most interested in. Weber was interested in all of these 17th century Puritans walking around under what he thought of as a situation of existential anxiety over whether I'm among the saved or not.
Smith and Hume lived a century later. And at least in my interpretation that's not what people were thinking about at the time. The new thinking that affected them was this movement away, so that, that's-- I think that was worth thinking. Incidentally, I was very glad that you mentioned Albert Hirschmans book, The Passions and the Interests, Devon which very much influenced me. Albert was also very helpful to me and he's no longer with us alas, but Albert was very helpful and very supportive along the way.
I found especially interesting Devon your comments on the placing my ideas and arguments in the context of this broader historical arc. I'm of course very aware of Viner and something about the scholastics. And I thought the most interesting and challenging subject that you raised was the whole notion of not just the fact that Smith lived in an increasingly commercial society which he did, but how that came about. And you pointed to the enclosure movement, you pointed to other things, you pointed to slavery incidentally. And it's well known in economics but it's not obvious people at the divinities school would know, Adam Smith was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He thought slavery was not only wrong morally but inefficient economically. So it's interesting that these two figures who lived at the same time, Smith and Wesley, were both outspoken abolitionists.
So I thought the third part of what you were saying Devin was really very interesting about thinking, thinking more about where the commercial society of the 18th century came from and not just the historical fact of what led to it but what were some of the implications of those facts for social relations and so forth. I thought that was very interesting. So thank you for all that.
Michelle I learned enormously about what you said. And I really don't have anything to say in the way of response but I hope I can pursue it with you more. Incidentally the whole notion of a tension between Calvin and the Calvinists is something that will resonate for economists because we talk endlessly about the tension between Keynes and the Keynesians and the extent to which the Keynesians did something different from what Keynes did. Unlike Calvin, Keynes in his economics was not a good writer. And so it's very murky figuring out what Keynes actually said. It's a great tragedy because Keynes in his popular writing was a magnificent writer but when he wrote economics it was unbelievably murky in the way Calvin isn't. So I thought that was very interesting.
You raised a good question, and it's possible to get some evidence and I don't have it right in front of me, the question, interesting question would be whether Smith ever read the Institutes. I don't know we have some evidence on what Smith read. We have a complete listing of what books were in Smith's library at the time of his death. And one of the things that I'm going to do quickly, prompted by you, is to check and see whether the Institutes was in Smith's library. I do not know. But that would be an interesting, that would be an interesting question.
What I had in mind was that Smith was influenced by the Calvinists, to put it in your way, not by Calvin in the same way that American economists of my generation were influenced by the Keynesians, not by Keynes. Even though we were in those days forced to attempt to read to read Keynes.
But I found enormously interesting in your view, and I tried in the book to get at this interesting business, that people who didn't believe in predestination as an individual matter nonetheless accepted ideas like manifest destiny and the special role for America. Our late colleague [? Sek ?] Van Berkovich had this marvelous phrase in which he claimed that the Puritans were really Zionists who somehow sailed in the wrong direction and they were they went, they went West instead of South and then East and that's why they wound up thinking the way they did. But it's broader than that. And I think you raise all sorts of extremely interesting questions.
So to repeat thank you Dave and thank you Michelle. I've already learned enormously from you and I expect and hope to learn more. Catherine back to you.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Well, thank you. If I can take the prerogative of a first question, I'm really struck reading this book by your methodology and by what you have said today where you're an economist but if I'm reading you correctly, you're suggesting that the catalyst for the rise of capitalism lies in the history of ideas, in religious ideas, and not in changes in material circumstances. Am I reading you correctly and if so, could you just reflect on your understanding of the role of ideas versus the role of material forces.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Well look, economists are very comfortable with notions of multiple causation, that gives us no problem whatsoever. So was the fact that Smith lived in an increasingly commercial society and he was a very observant man, was that influential? Yes, of course. He lived in Glasgow, he lived in London, he lived in Edinburgh, he knew merchants in all three cities. So did that matter? Yes, of course. Was the fact that he was trained in Newtonian thinking, was that important? Yes, and that's one that I emphasize a lot in the book.
But I chose to write a book not about those because I think everybody understands those, that's part of the standard story. What isn't a part of the standard story is the role of the influence from the new theological thinking in the English speaking Protestant world in which he lived. So do I mean this to be a mono-causal explanation for the thinking of Smith and his contemporaries? No, I don't. Again as an economist it doesn't occur to me to think that things have to have only one cause. But I certainly want to claim that the influence of the religious thinking was important because in economics it's also-- it isn't enough just to rattle off an infinitely long list of causes for any phenomenon. We want to figure out what's the most, what are the most important causes.
I mean just to take an example, I'm concerned with the rising inequality in the United States. There are many causes but for purposes of policy it makes no sense to address 15 causes all equally. It makes sense to identify what are the two or three or possibly four or five causes that are most important and attack those. Well similarly, I'm arguing that the influence of the theology was one of the few very important causes that led this line of economic thinking to appear when it did and where it did.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you. We have a question from the audience that is for Devin and Ben together. And the question for Devin is would you be able to further describe what you mean by saying that economics carries implicit theology. And then Ben do you agree with this assertion that the field of economics carries an implicit theology? So Devin you first.
DEVIN SINGH: Sure, thank you for the question. I think in part of what I would claim I think resonates with this notion of world view that Ben has already asserted, that economic assertions take place with background assumptions, background conditions, many of which involve assumptions about human nature, about what humans desire, about human notions of ultimate concern, et cetera. So I think a lot of economic assumptions that maybe trade as being objective or neutral might have similar assumptions, even something as one might take as simple as utilitarianism or a notion of rational choice and utility maximizing individuals, has assumptions about what humans are like and how they make decisions and the kinds of horizons of the good they might gesture towards.
And so that's generally what I mean, is that there are even in highly reified and kind of abstract representations, I think there are often assumptions that are social, cultural, political as well as in many cases theological in terms of what gives those claims a certain coherence.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Well I certainly agree with what Devin just said absolutely. The example or aspect of the religious content that we've been talking about all afternoon and it's for the good reason that that's what I wrote the book about, is the way in which theological ideas led economists and lead economists today to think that there are these enormously positive consequences of letting individuals act on their own instincts and in what they think is their own self-interest. What I described as the first well fundamental welfare theorem remains today, that's the absolute centerpiece of our analytical apparatus.
But I'll give you another example, too that confirms what Devin has to say. Economists do not like models in which initial conditions are determinative of final outcomes. So one of the things that we do frequently, we write down a model either with equations or geometrically in which if an individual is born into a particular kind of family or into a particular neighborhood that individual is necessarily going to come to either a good outcome in life or a bad outcome in life.
Or in development economics if a country starts off with certain circumstances that country either is going to succeed economically or is not. The analytics behind that kind of model-- and any sophomore year undergraduate knows how to write down a model like that. We do not like those models. Writing down a model like that is like having the chalk squeak on the blackboard. We don't like those.
Now why is it that economists are so resistant to models in which initial conditions are determinative of final outcomes because we like to think that individual choice and action matters. And then we go on from there to talk about well what kind of action? If you have a country that starts off in some set of circumstances what can you do about it? If you have an individual who was born is, I think Michelle said born into the wrong zip code, well that's tough for the individual to do but now we're at a level what can public policy do about that? That's the bread and butter of what we do all day long in economics. And I think it's not an accident that we approach the world that way. So I absolutely agree with Devin.
CATHERINE BREKUS: So we have a question about whether you see an implicit theology at work in Trump's economic policy and/or in Biden's economic policy. And I think this is really a question for all three of you, so any of you who have thoughts.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: I'll let my two colleagues go first but then yes, I have a-- I have thoughts.
MICHELLE SANCHEZ: It's probably a little bit easier for me as a non-economist to speak about Trump and what we saw in that, those four years of that administration because I think there was a lot of debate happening around how these-- how the various components of his persuasion were interlocking. You know there was a kind of classic debate playing out between is he appealing to people's economic insecurity, is he appealing to a kind of racialized notion of the national person, are these two things together, is one thing sort of a fig leaf for the other thing.
And I think part of what I had in mind with my remarks, which were basically saying that Calvin has this complicated tapestry where all these things fit together and appreciating the complications of that tapestry can sort of help us see the complication of the tapestry in the present where predestination doesn't look like it looked in the 17th century, but it still might operate in a certain way. About this question in the book that I think is really provocative about why do people vote against their own interests, why are evangelicals disproportionately against the death tax, et cetera. And I think so much of what's already been said helps to make, helps resolve some of those puzzles with regard to what Trump did sort of boldly and explicitly which was to link together a kind of hierarchy of the way society should look that appeals to this kind of implicit worldview so to speak of a lot of people that had to do with the kind of opportunity for economic improvement.
Although at least from what I've read, the grand majority of people who voted for Trump are not the most economically vulnerable people in the United States at the time. So there's kind of a desire for a vision of upward mobility but that gets indexed on to a certain kind of American life that he constantly would appeal to, a certain kind of racialized gender hierarchy. So I think it, this kind of approach, thinking about the relationship between religion and economics as a kind of worldview can help us see how people are really voting for the vision of the hierarchy rather than for their own specific individual self-interest.
DEVIN SINGH: My thoughts went to the way that Ben traces the distinction between the gospel of wealth and the social gospel in America which in many ways at first is a tale of what is happening within liberal theological circles. And as one reads it one wonders what about the fundamentalists, what about the conservatives, but then Ben masterfully weaves them back in. And I think one of the things that's really interesting is how the gospel of wealth, which emerges as this optimistic, post liberal or post-millennial liberal movement migrates to conservative circles.
But this time I think weds with stronger notions of human sin and total depravity et cetera. And I think there's something that we can see in Trumpism that is activating this aspiration for wealth as well as I think Michelle's mention of hierarchy I think is important. This notion of the need for power, order, law, discipline, that trade on assumptions of human sin and depravity, right. So there's a justification for marshaling the violence of the state to reign in human sinfulness. But then also justifying a certain kind of wild West capitalism that is supposedly the best channeling for our selfish interests. So I think we see both of those things and Ben's work helps us to understand that.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Well I have a slightly different take on this and then that I do want to address the part of your question Catherine on Biden. On Trump I think it's very difficult for an economist to say anything serious about Trump's economics because it was so incoherent. And was Trump in favor of government interference with the economy? Well, how would you know? What would you, what would you point to? Was Trump in favor of individual initiative? How would you know that? So I think the whole-- I mean there were to be sure systematic aspects of Trumpism, racism, xenophobia, all sorts of unattractive things like that, but were there systematic elements of the economics? I don't think so. So for that reason I find it difficult to trace any roots.
Now I think Biden is rather different. I think it is easy to see the theological roots of Biden's economic program. I think Biden is shaping up as a reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt. And as I think I mentioned before, FDR and the New Deal was the high point in the United States of the social gospel. This is not an accident incidentally, there's a nice biography of Roosevelt that emphasizes that by James Woolverton, and traces out the relationship between Roosevelt and Reverend Peabody. Roosevelt famously was a student at Groton.
The founding headmaster of Groton School, Reverend Endicott Peabody, was still there when Roosevelt was a student. And Roosevelt and Reverend Peabody remained closed for the remainder of Roosevelt's life. So I think Roosevelt quite self consciously, and again Reverend Peabody was very much a part of the social gospel and that's what he tried to impart to Groton students of that era. And so I think in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt was self consciously an embodiment of the social gospel in his economics, I think it's going to turn out that Biden maybe not self consciously, but Biden will be as well.
CATHERINE BREKUS: Thank you. We are at 6 o'clock and I apologize to all of you out there who asked wonderful questions that are still waiting in the Q&A. We will make sure that Professor Freedman at least gets to see all of these so that he knows the sorts of issues you brought to the conversation today. But I just want to take a moment and say thank you so much to the three of you. To Ben for this wonderful book which I will definitely be teaching in future seminars at Harvard Divinity School. And to Devon and Michelle for your very thoughtful responses today. So thank you so much. Thank you to all of you who came and I hope that you'll join us at a future Center for the Study of World Religions event.
BENJAMIN FRIEDMAN: Thank you Catherine. And thank you to the Harvard Divinity School. And Thanks to Devon and to Michelle as well. Thank you.