NOVEMBER 5, 2001
Testing Faith in the Market God
-- Martin E. Marty
Theologian Harvey Cox's article "The Market as God" (The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1999) puckishly and pointedly showed how much "market talk" matched theological talk, how often " the market" was being given attributes that usually were given to God, and how frequently the language of capitalism matched the languages of dogma. Some chuckled, others seethed. Cox was doing what prophetic critics do. He was calling into question the approved and unquestioned assumptions by which a society lives.
When Cox wrote his article, the market was all that there was, according to many examining the evidence. Communism as a system had imploded. Socialism was generating nothing like the prosperity offered by the market. Since nothing available could top it, one heard, why not sing the virtues of "the market." Since it's reign would be eternal and undisputed, why not revere it, adore it, and substantiate it with dogma?
Today, no new 'ism' has come along to challenge those who offer devotion to the market. But with the rapid descent from the heights of 1999, and spreading concern that the downturn may last longer than many highly-touted technology start-ups, faith in the market is no longer so simple. The global trauma that comes in the context of terrorism has fewer thinking of the market as God, or as God's final and only instrument for arranging human economic life.
In "European Converts to Laissez Faire See the Rush to Intervene as Heresy." (New York Times, 25 October 2001), Alan Cowell and Edmund L. Andrews deal with ironies. Just when America's market evangelists had won converts in Europe, they note, America (necessarily) switched its dogma and called in the feds. Note the persistence of theological language in the article. Free trade "was a creed that grated on many, but it found fervent believers in Britain. . . " In France, Elie Cohen, economist: "The Americans had been teaching us the gospel of free markets," but when Americans face the same problems as others, "they seem to forget the universal laws of the market." And European leaders say the American administration "has undermined decades of American preaching just as the sermons were winning converts."
The two writers document the American switch by reference to government intervention in respect to airlines, insurance, Cipro tablets, and many other cases. Realist theologian Tony Blair once said "Markets where possible, government where necessary." No one expects Americans to sort out all these new relations. But the upheaval does permit, indeed, many would say, demand reexamination of such relations. In all cases, there are moral questions. Elaine May once jabbed, in respect to some topic, "It's only a moral question. I'm interested in real questions." Here moral, real, and religious questions all come together, on the mixed scene where, months before, the market had been God.