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The New Economy

Debt, deficits, and American morals

Behind the impasse in Washington over debt and deficits lies a moral, even religious, problem. How should a Christian respond to the economic debate?

By Gary MooreContributor / August 13, 2011

This is an Adams National Historic Park handout photo of a painting showing President John Adams. He once wrote that the Constitution was 'made for a moral and religious people.' The current impasse in Washington over debt and deficits stems from flawed moral thinking.

Adams National Historic Park/AP/File

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John Adams once wrote: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that if one is to be dogmatic, he should be so in religion rather than politics, because compromise is essential in a democracy. And the great theologian C.S. Lewis said sick society would focus on politics as a sick man focuses on his digestion.

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After a momentous two weeks in which the United States has tottered near default, brokered a weak compromise, seen the stock market seesaw wildly, and had a credit rating agency downgrade US debt for the first time in seven decades, things certainly look unhealthy. It's easy to point fingers: Take your pick. Most Americans trust Washington as much as Wall Street, which ranks just above used car dealers. But before we blame others, consider what those three great moral thinkers are saying.

Would they suggest in today's turmoil that we look to our own moral character – take the log from our own eyes, as Christ Jesus put it – before demonizing others?

I have a degree in political science, have spent three decades on Wall Street, and have written five books on the morality of political economy. So I am fascinated by the connections among the private, public, and independent sectors of our economy. Despite the cynicism toward Washington, I believe our true problem reflects the flawed thinking that has created the impasse between those who believe that government is the answer and those who have faith that "capitalism will save us," as Steve Forbes has written. Strange as it may seem, the heart of this economics debate is moral, even religious, particularly among cultural elites.

Each year, UCLA conducts a study of incoming freshmen to our universities. Before the late 1960s, when the influence of religion was stronger, most said they were attending college to master a meaningful way of life. Relatively few, the business students perhaps, said they were coming primarily to learn how to make money. The lines representing those percentages crossed during the early 1970s.

Today's baby boomer elites, regardless of profession, seem preoccupied with obtaining wealth. They read magazines like Money and Self, something inconceivable to their grandparents, who read newspapers with religion sections larger than today's business sections. This cultural shift in values is part of what sociologists term post-modernism. Broadly, the term means we no longer believe in a single Truth.

The Judeo-Christian ethic that virtue and altruism are to be valued more highly than material accumulation has largely been replaced by the post-modern belief that there are many truths. A Christian's idea of moderation in all things coexists with the $10-million-a-year athlete and the CEO's mantra that he should be paid what the market will bear.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, "there is only one ethics, one set of rules of morality, one code, that of individual behavior in which the same rules apply to everyone alike," writes management consultant Peter Drucker, who once taught theology. "And this fundamental axiom business denies.... Business ethics assumes that for some reason the ordinary rules of ethics do not apply to business."

Similarly, the Judeo-Christian ethic mandates the personal care of neighbors, which is in tension with the view of those elites who believe it's government's responsibility.

These multiple truths complicate politics. When held dogmatically, they make it nearly impossible to find common ground, which Tocqueville said is crucial to civility and prosperity in a democracy. As a result, politicians in a post-modern world spend a lot of time talking past each other.

What’s different today is the rise of the tea party on the far right end of the spectrum. Libertarians want radically limited government. One extreme strand of this ideology, in particular, has been gaining influence: the notion that no one needs to care for the poor – and that government definitely shouldn't. This reflects the moral philosophy of Ayn Rand, a dogmatic atheist who thought CEO-types would save us.

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