October 13, 2008
Another 'God that Failed'
— Martin E. Marty"The Fall: Original Sin & Free-Market Capitalism," "After the Meltdown," and "Government Is Not the Problem: Thirty Years of Bad Economic Policy," by William Pfaff, Charles R. Morris and Jeff Madrick, in turn, highlight a single issue of the Catholic magazine Commonweal (October 10). Their articles are typical of the first round of religious responses to the epic or epochal shifts occurring in global economic life this autumn. There is no Schadenfreude, no joy in the misfortunes of others, in their and most of their colleagues' writings elsewhere in the religious press, because there are no simple "others" when "we" are all in the mix of disasters together. There is, however, some sense of theological relief and release in such articles because such thinkers are suddenly enabled to get some hearing when they "speak truth to power" on the economic front.
"Power" was symbolized in the devotion to, praise, even worship of free-market ideologies in economic, foundation-al, academic, national, and often even ecclesiastical circles by two generations of gifted, articulate proponents of non- and anti-governmental policies which were devoted to unregulated, often unmonitored, market practices and philosophies. During those decades one would hear muffled witness from some who were devoted to modern Catholic social thought, from often-derided mainstream Protestant inquiry, and from a mix of "free church" and evangelical go-against-the-grain sorts. One of the rare theological voices which got a hearing was that of Harvey Cox, whose widely-circulated March 1999 Atlantic Monthly article "The Market as God" shook some readers. The religious right mocked church leadership, claiming it was captive of the left, but such leadership was better known from the attacks on it than on what it set out to say.
The God of "The Market as God" turns out to have had clay feet. One recalls the book by Arthur Koestler, Ignatio Silone, and others, "The God That Failed" (1949), referring to the Communism to which these had previously devoted themselves. "The Nation as God" could signify occasional criticisms of overblown "civil religion" in the same decades. In favor, however, were the unquestioned defenders, often on theological terms, of the free market as God's intended or preferred way of arranging economic life.
To report as I am doing is to risk being seen as naïve or as moving from sulking to gloating. My writings would reveal little sulking about the main trend of economic life; tenured professors-let's not kid ourselves-live off many of its mixed benefits. I don't think anyone would find a trace of "socialism" in my work. I used to kid that socialism meant standing and waiting in long lines and being wrapped in red tape, and they are not for me and my kind. As for civil religion, nationhood, and patriotism, I hope I've always dealt with paradox, aware of the ironies of American power but celebrating its potential for good and many beneficial actions. What I hope will be seen is that here again we get those once-in-decades, if not -centuries, clarifying moments in which the "-isms" are shown to have been idolatries. And in clarifying moments people of good will and skill have a chance to contribute to critical reconstruction in society and personal life.
In one of Jesus' parables that comes to my mind daily, we read of an accumulator who built granaries and barns to store his treasures and made himself into a kind of god. Then he died, having built up those treasures, but not having been "rich toward God." What such richness might look like could be central in America's new spiritual search.
Read Harvey Cox's Atlantic Monthly article, "The Market as God", at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99mar/marketgod.htm.