Religion and Economics: A Review of AEI’s Common Sense Concept Series

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn more into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal.  Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominate voices in the Austrian School of Economics.  Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement.  This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion is harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy.  Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church.  Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant.  Representatives of the two disciples rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series.  They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics.  What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns.  Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation.  Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think all the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8).  Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.”  Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is.   To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.”  Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome).  Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential?  Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web.  Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it.  Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary.  They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it.  As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor.  Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life.  Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate rather than “lay aside the cares of this life” as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.



  1. Scott Pennington :

    “But this symphonia is impossible without ‘an educated citizenry.'”

    There is no symphonia in a Western style democracy. To pretend otherwise is to feed the beast. In Orthodoxy, “symphonia” refers to the symbiotic relationship between the Church and state; i.e., a real Establishment of Religion where the state and Church establish and defend a Christian social structure, encouraging and enforcing by law Christian moral teaching.

    Capitalism (or “free market” economics) may be compatible with Christianity. There have always been merchants in the Christian world. Though the governments of Christian societies often “interfered” in the marketplace, there were also larger economic organizations somewhat analogous to modern corporations in a sense.

    Speaking from a strictly economic point of view then, there is much to be said for Christianity and capitalism. But democracy gets thrown into this mix much too easily. It is certainly possible to have capitalism without democracy. The problem with democratic capitalism is that, though it may yield strong economic benefits (although it certainly commercializes religion too much and prioritizes women’s economic productivity over reproduction), the democratic part corrupts the morality of the Christian citizenry to such an extent that the mere allegiance to democracy is an endorsement of 1) tolerance of montrous evil and 2) the perpetuation of a moral system (democracy) that is always directly at odds with Christian morality. The voice of God is not the voice of the people. The demos becomes an idol, a source of public morality above and contrary to God. Much like communism and Naziism, democracy is a form of idolatry. This explains the holocaust of the unborn. Feminism has been adopted as a moral imperative by the false god of the demos and resulted in more murder than Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot perpetrated (if you count all abortions in all democracies).

    Moreover, the morals of the demos have been corrupted in other ways as well. The traditional patriarchal family simply no longer exists in Western democracies (outside, for example, Amish communities, which are not exactly democratic). Feminism, embraced by the demos, has resulted in high rates of divorce and high rates of unwed pregnancy and single parent “families”. Simply put, democracy has utterly destroyed the Christian social structure – – so much so that the younger generation today does not even have any memory of a normal Christian family or society.

    We should never forget this reality when casually discussing the “virtues” of democracy. That we would wish the people to choose otherwise makes no difference. They have not and will not so long as the ultimate standard is their own capriciousness and selfish desires. People who defend democracy in the face of its obvious evil remind me of communists who defend communism even after all the carnage that communism caused in the twentieth century. “Real communism has never been tried.” Perhaps. Perhaps democratic societies just need to exterminate a few hundred million more unborn lives before they finally mature.

    Or perhaps it is insane to keep pursuing the same foolishness and continually expect different results.

    The real task is not to defend democratic capitalism. The real task is to speculate and work for what comes next after democracy, like communism, finds its way to the ash heap of history.

  2. Becki Stevenson :

    What about Bulgakov? Here is an analysis of his alternative to the materialism of both capitalism and socialism/communism, in which are highlighted Bulgakov’s understanding of labor as priestly, and joyful, in its proper functioning, and the way of Christ as the ultimate economy. And it is not impractical, only difficult to do, as it requires setting aside the pursuit of self-ensconcing glitter and leisure time to be used for one’s consumption, rather than in pursuit of spiritual development. This vision of our life, labor, and leisure needs to be set before us, and given shape in practical form, so we may repent and truly go toward Christ.

    • Scott Pennington :


      Two observations:

      1. The article you cited describes an attitude toward participation in “capitalism”/a market economy, not a third way (i.e., a distict economic system). In that vein, except for some of the terminology and the reliance on the “Sophia” concept (something else could be substituted to replace that idea) it seems to be good advice as to how to think about our economic activity. Looking at our efforts to make a living in terms of service and participation in the life of the Trinity will certainly bless us in our efforts both externally and internally/emotionally and spiritually.

      2. Some considerable swath of Orthodoxy considers Bulgakov’s musings regarding Sophia to be heresy. I make no judgments in that regard but mention it to point out that some fine tuning may be necessary to mould Bulgakov’s idea into a form palatable to many Orthodox.

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