Faith and finance

The argument that the current financial crisis was at least partly caused by the retreat of religion from the public square and by rising secularism will undoubtedly recur regularly over the next few years.  These are complex matters, and those propounding the godlessness thesis are far wiser and more knowledgeable than I.  I would like to offer just a few pieces of possibly countervailing evidence, with no presumption that they are correct. 

— Maybe thirty years ago, American culture could have been characterized as increasingly secular, but after the emergence of the Religious Right and the Bush Administration, I’m not so sure.  In 1978, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy noticed what he called the “’invisibilization’” of religion in America’s civic realm.  “Religious identities as such must not be pushy, elbowing themselves into contexts where they do not belong,” he wrote in No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste.  “If they do, they encounter an equivalent of the polite bureaucratic put-down, ‘You don’t belong here; I must refer you to . . . window 73B.’” 

Cuddihy’s observations remain valid within a centuries-long perspective;  even the most devoted acolyte of Jerry Falwell practices a religion that has been defanged and domesticated compared to the power-hungry, truth-monopolizing manifestations of religion throughout most of Western history. 

But compared to the 1960s and 1970s, religion today plays a far more assertive role in public life.  The Religious Right has weighed in on everything from the NEA to tax cuts.  Political religious rhetoric and influence increased during the Bush years, whether in state legislatures or in Washington.  Bush’s executive branch contained a number of publicly-professing Christians who made no secret of the role of faith in their public life.  Federal policies on embryonic stem cell research, foreign aid for contraception and abortion abroad, and other “life” issues mirrored the platform of the Religious Right.  I would not be surprised if President Bush’s evangelical speech writer Michael Gerson pushed for the greater liberalization of mortgage lending to minorities, on the ground that “compassionate conservatism” (read: his Christian beliefs) required it.  It was during this political religious reawakening that the credit markets evolved ever more arcane forms of risk-dispersion. 

–Christian culture is thriving.  A whole publishing industry pumps out titles like God Is My CEO and God Is My Success.  The proportion of Mexicans, who tend to be highly devout, has been rising nationally,  to the delight of establishment Catholics who welcome their numbers and their enthusiasm for saints and miracles, and to the delight of Pentecostals, who are also seeing an influx of Hispanics in their churches.  Many subprime borrowers who put almost no money down on their mortgage were Hispanics, probably many of them church-going.  Perhaps they were more punctilious in their financial statements than non-church-going borrowers; perhaps not. 

–Speculative manias have occurred during periods of nearly universal church-going.  Calvinist Holland staged the most famous bubble of all time, the seventeenth-century tulip mania, when 12 acres of prime real estate bought a single bulb.  Pious eighteenth-century Anglicans poured irrational sums into the slave-trading South Sea Co., leading to a financial bust in 1720. 

–As for outright financial fraud, this, too, has thrived during periods when atheists are even more closeted than today.  Nineteenth-century America contained an army of fraudsters, charlatans, and mountebanks; business dealings were cutthroat.  Today’s financial crooks operated within synagogues and churches, sometimes even professing themselves to be men of God

–I know of no evidence that more secular societies are less ethical in business matters.  As I have argued, a contract to build a highway is far more likely to be fulfilled without bribes in Sweden than in Mexico; the Swedish cement company CEO is more likely to pay his taxes than his Mexican counterpart.  (He is also less likely to be kidnapped at gunpoint for ransom, though that is not a business matter.)  Church-indifferent Denmark has suffered less dislocation from the subprime problem than church-attending America.  As for sub-Saharan Africa, with its frenzy of ancestor worship, voodoo, and ecstatic Christianity, contracts are not necessarily any more secure there than in non-zealous Norway.  Seattle has the least number of churches per capita of any American city.  It remains a hub of entrepreneurship and business innovation, all of which depend upon trust. 

–In sum, it looks to me like the financial instruments and lending practices that played so prominent a role in the financial crisis evolved during a period when American religion was more muscular and assertive than it has been in decades.  But I may well be missing more important evidence.