Thinking about God, Marx and Adam Smith


American Christians ... must rethink our loyalty to the free-market system as a holy grail beyond moral critique, Parham writes.
A newspaper blog headline "Marx, God and Faith in the Markets" grabbed my attention last week and introduced me to Reinhard Marx, who is unrelated to the much more famous Karl Marx, although both are connected to the German city of Trier and offer a vigorous critique of capitalism gone bad.

 

Karl Marx was born in Trier in 1818 and wrote "Das Kapital" (1867). Born in 1953, Reinhard Marx was the former Catholic bishop of Trier, now the archbishop of Munich and the author of a book that has been on the German best-seller list for nine weeks "Das Kapital: A Plea for Man" (2008).

 

Archbishop Marx spoke at a session titled "Restoring Faith in Economics" at the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, although news stories in English about his remarks appear unavailable.

 

Before the annual meeting of the captains of industry, global bankers and government officials, the forum issued a report "Faith and the Global Agenda: Values for a Post-Crisis Economy."

 

The report's preface stated: "The current economic crisis should warn us to fundamentally rethink the development of the moral framework and the regulatory mechanisms that underpin our economy, politics and global interconnectedness. It would be a wasted opportunity for all of us if we pretended that the crisis was simply a momentary hurdle."

 

The 77-page document added, "If we want to keep society together, then a sense of community and solidarity are more important now than ever before. The most fundamental question today is whether we can adopt a more communitarian spirit or whether we will fall back into old habits and excesses, thereby further undermining social peace."

 

Marx was one of the report's 16 faith leaders who contributed a column about the development of the needed moral framework.

 

Reminding readers of Pope John Paul II's 1991 warning that the collapse of communist governments "could lead to the spread of a 'radical capitalist ideology,' which forgets that the market 'needs rules and morals,'" Marx wrote that "there is no alternative to the market economy as an economic system. Price determination by supply and demand, competition and free enterprise are and remain the best preconditions for a prosperous economy."

 

He swiftly added, "But that is not the whole story. The type of market economy we want and how we go about re-establishing the global economy is not predetermined. There are plenty of different variations (and indeed 'extremes') from which to choose."

 

Marx favored a "market economy" with ground rules, instead of "capitalism" that is only concerned with "maximizing returns."

 

Such capitalism "has been a mistake as an ethical and economic path," he exclaimed.

 

Drawing on Catholic social teachings, Marx underscored the centrality of love and the Christian belief in human beings created in the image of God and called to treat others as equals.

 

While he acknowledged that self-interest and striving are important human motivators, the archbishop wrote that "we are not puppets who do good only because there are incentives. It is exactly this false view of humanity that has encouraged the economization of every area of life, which has in many ways gained currency over the last few years, especially in the radical ideology of a primitive capitalism. A system concerned only with interests and opinions, with advantages and power calculations, will not be able to create a world in which humanity is central."

 

Marx expressed hope that the current crisis will provide an opportunity for a new course into the 21st century based on "fundamental common values," one focused on "the interests of humanity."

 

The archbishop rightly notes that human beings are more than economic puppets. For those of us who are Christians, we are called to see others as equals who deserve good and just treatment. When the prevailing economic system fails, harming vast segments of the global community and freezing in poverty billions of people, the economic system must be challenged and changed.

 

American Christians, specifically white evangelicals and conservative Protestants, must rethink our loyalty to the free-market system as a holy grail beyond moral critique. We need to repent of our commitment to the false doctrine that Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" is part of the biblical canon and the invisible hand is part of the Trinity.

 

We must return to and rely on the biblical witness' vision of community, instead of the mantra that what's good for business is good for America, a mantra that rests on the belief that profits for a few are more important than people.

 

Christians, however, are not the only ones thinking about the morality of the market. Across the globe, people of faith and no faith are apparently thinking about the market in moral terms.

 

According to the "Faith and the Global Agenda" report, 75 percent of respondents to a new poll of more than 130,000 residents in the United States, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey say the current economic crisis is a crisis of ethics and values.

 

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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