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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is God the Invisible Hand?

A Baylor University survey on religion and economics reveals something that may be distinctly American, culturally speaking. According to the survey results, about “one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and [advocates] the free market as a matter of faith.” Specifically, those Americans believe that the “invisible hand” of a competitive market is actually God at work. That is, the economy “works” because God wills it to by intervening directly in the market mechanism. Government regulation, in diverting economic supply and demand from “the invisible hand,” is thus sinful. Regulating the economy challenges God’s omnipotence by interfering with God’s intervention in our daily lives via the operation of the market mechanism. This can explain why the Tea Party contingent can be so set against compromising with Democrats who push for a more activist government in the economy.

A problem for Americans who view God as actively intervening in Creation in general and through the market mechanism in particular concerns a market equilibrium short of full employment wherein there are unemployed people who would starve without government assistance. Would an interventionist universal deity allow so much innocent suffering, particularly when Jesus is said to advocated caring for the poor. Lest the “interventionist” Christians point to charity (derived from caritas, which is higher-oriented human love), it could be argued that non-profit institutions cannot be relied on to feed and house people who need sustenance assistance on a daily basis.

A more fundamental problem facing the “divine interventionist” crowd concerns their standing as finite beings in being able to have knowledge that the invisible hand is indeed that of God intervening in Creation on a daily basis. In other words, is it not impious to view God’s ways in terms of our ways—our artifacts such as the market? In other words, the “interventionists” might resist government regulation under the presumption that they cannot be wrong.Innocent people could suffer needlessly as a result. The confluence of the “interventionist” theological belief and a political/economic ideology is a red flag that self-idolatry is in the mix, or perhaps even the determining force.  Most (81%) political conservatives say there is one ultimate truth in the world. The question is perhaps whether they believe that they know that truth and furthermore cannot be wrong about it.

At the opposite end, another one in five Americans don’t  believe that God intervenes in their daily lives. Rather than viewing God as the “invisible hand,” these people are wont to rely on government intervention to protect people in the economy from getting harmed as a result of the wanton greed of others. Rather than believing that God directs greed to good material ends through an “invisible hand,” the theologically “non-interventionist” Americans favor the human use of government to mitigate economic harm by reducing economic inequality. Such Americans who favor government intervention while not believing that God intervenes in human life tend to believe that there is no one ultimate truth.

Believing that God intervenes regularly in one’s life is typically associated with a belief that there is one ultimate truth. Whereas this confluence carries with it the risk a lack of compassion for people who are suffering, the view of God as non-interventionist and truth as multifarious risks a spiritual void into which a political-economic ideology, such as economic equality, can be taken as truth. In other words, faith itself can come to be identified with a particular economic structure. Furthermore, relying totally on government regulation, particularly to take from those with means to capture the governmental representatives through campaign contributions, can be risky because no truth-based normative constraint on greed is admitted to exist or to be possible. In other words, greed may get the upper hand if religion itself is eliminated as possible a constraint. A normative bulwark based solely on an ethical principle may not be strong enough to constrain the basic desire for more (i.e., greed).


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Religion Colors Money Views,” USA Today, September 20, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/MONEY/usaedition/2011-09-20-God-Economy_ST_U.htm

On the history of Christian thought (actually going back to Homer and running through the Puritans) on wealth and profit-seeking in relation to greed (and justice as love and benevolence as a possible constraint on greed), see the book,  Godliness and Greed.