America's fading faith in Christianity and capitalism

Without moral guardrails, capitalism exacerbates the rich-poor divide, says author Gary Moore. The decline in organized religion is fostering faltering trust in capitalism, which will continue until Americans look beyond their financial interests and consider their social responsibilities.

Andrew Burton/Reuters/File
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators protest rising national student debt in New York in 2012. Surveys suggest Americans are losing faith in capitalism because of the widening gap between the rich and poor.

A Pew survey of religion this past spring said Americans who claim “none” as their religious affiliation are now among the largest and fastest-growing segments of American faith. Last month,  The Wall Street Journal featured a story headlined, “A Fading Faith in Capitalism.” I believe there are direct connections between these fading faiths. Understanding them could be the key to the spiritual and financial wealth of our grandchildren. 

The Journal story detailed a new global survey that said only 14% of Americans now believe “the next generation will probably be richer, safer and healthier than the last.” America was the most pessimistic of the seven nations surveyed. The article concluded that while life is getting better in the US, "55% of Americans think 'the rich get richer' and 'the poor get poorer' under capitalism. Sixty-five percent agree that most big businesses have 'dodged taxes, damaged the environment or bought special favors from politicians.' … For today’s pessimism about capitalism to be overturned, people must think that the same rules apply to everyone" [emphasis mine].  

The Journal is hardly alone among economic publications when saying America’s future is threatened by selfishness on the part of today’s corporate elite. The Economist magazine recently featured a story entitled, “Reinventing the company.” It said: “After a century of utter dominance, the public company is showing signs of wear. One reason is that managers tend to put their own interests first. The shareholder-value revolution of the 1980s was supposed to solve this by incentivizing managers to think like owners, but it backfired. Loaded up with stock options, managers acted like hired guns instead, massaging the share price so as to boost their incomes.” The current joke on campuses is that MBA now stands for, “Me before anyone!”   

Deeper than corporate greed 

The problem goes deeper than the selfishness of corporate leaders. Church leaders have also abandoned the field of economic morality.

Two days after the Journal story appeared, The Gospel reading at my church was from Mark 12: 38-44. As is typical with many of the clergy during “stewardship” season, my pastor ignored the first part of the passage, where Jesus condemns leaders of the temple for their religious pretenses while devouring the houses of widows. One would have never known that Jesus also severely chastised temple leaders who “give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty” (Matt. 23:23 Good News Translation). That’s crucial today as many of the worst financial frauds are conducted in churches or by those most obvious about their faith. I’ve personally known three who have gone to jail. I even served on the board of a major ministry with Ken Lay, the CEO of perhaps history’s most notorious corporate implosion.

Instead, the pastor offered the more familiar second part of the reading about the generosity of the widow who gave her last two mites in the temple, leaving the impression that Jesus might look fondly on our gifts to the church. But the Matthew Henry Bible Commentary says she actually dropped her coins in the box destined to support the poor. Church leaders often confuse such compassion with paying our churches’ bills. Empty Tomb, a Christian service and research organization, has detailed for years that our churches pass on a very tiny percentage of our national income to the poor. We seem to have increasingly shifted such “social responsibilities,” as we would call them today, to governments. But true Christianity is always about neighbor as self, or about balancing personal responsibility with social responsibility. A church that can’t get that straight about money won’t help Wall Street and Washington get it straight.   

We should also understand the clergy’s inability to speak to businesspeople about moral wealth creation is largely due to our educational system’s departmentalization that serves capitalism’s specialization of labor, which results in compartmentalized elites. When Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton, conducted a major stewardship study, his book "God and Mammon in America" concluded: “When we asked pastors to talk to us about stewardship, we encouraged them to tell us how they understood it in the broadest possible terms. Repeatedly, however, we found the church was their only frame of reference. They immediately talked about serving the church, doing church work, and giving money to the church.” Most seminaries today consider the many teachings of the Bible and church tradition concerning economic justice, environmentalism and so on to be the third rail of religion. Most unwittingly create the false impression that there is “God’s money” and “our money.” Clergy therefore usually feel that if they touch “our money,” they die. Most laity have been quite happy with that arrangement. The clergy may simply be giving us what we want.

In his book "God the Economist," Doug Meeks calls industrialist Andrew Carnegie “the most influential theologian” in America as he convinced us (wrongly) that God is only interested in our charity, not how we co-create and manage the Creator’s wealth. Carnegie was a great philanthropist, of course. He famously taught that a man who dies rich dies disgraced. But Theodore Roosevelt said that while he’d “tried hard to like Carnegie, it’s difficult to like a man who makes a god of mere money-making.”

Business to the rescue of clergy? 

That is why I have grown to believe the church will never regain a holistic understanding of moral wealth management, and lead our cultural elites toward it, until a few socially conscious business leaders in each church make it happen. It is simply more realistic to expect businesspeople who go to church each week to learn stewardship theology than for clergy who are in church all week to learn business principles.

Dr. Wuthnow’s insights into our reductionist view of stewardship should help us understand the roots of the crisis in our political economy. Our church, political, and financial leaders’ current tendency to care for themselves by caring only for their organizations rather than society at large is killing the golden goose, a point John Bogle made with this quote at the opening of his recent book "Enough!": “The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal. Over the past thirty years, much of that has been shredded.… The country’s moral guardians are forever looking out for Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.”

As prosperity theology has infiltrated the church, even some of the most respected and conservative Christian business leaders are concerned that after declining for decades, the percentage of wealth going to and held by the so-called “1 percent” has risen to the level it was in 1929. B.C. Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, observed, “The 1929 breakdown was at its roots, a moral breakdown. We were not living right. We had become extravagant. We had become intoxicated by the alluring notion that the royal road to riches did not lie through sweat but speculation. We discarded and scorned old-fashioned virtues.”  

Perhaps such cycles are inevitable. But some hopeful prophets have told us they need not reoccur, assuming we are humble enough to listen.         

For example, legendary management consultant Peter Drucker wrote: “Ethics, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is the affirmation that all men and women are alike creatures.... 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 [emphasis mine]. And this fundamental axiom business ethics denies. Business ethics, in other words, is not ethics at all, as the term has commonly been used by Western philosophers and Western theologians. Business ethics assumes that for some reason the ordinary rules of ethics do not apply to business.”    

Peter, as Dr. Drucker humbly insisted we call him, was famous for teaching that no CEO should earn more than 20 times that of the average employee. CEOs listened reverently to his counsel about managing for greater efficiencies. But like the rest of us reading our Bibles, they apparently ignored his counsel about their own pay. As he had once taught theology, Peter had a biblical sense of selfish human nature. So 20 years ago, he left us a vision of the future entitled Post-Capitalist Society. In chapter five, he argued the self-centered capitalism of recent decades would fade away as we grow weary of our cultural elites taking care of themselves rather than the needs of society, meaning the rest of us. That populism is even evident in GOP politics today.

Wall Street goes sustainable 

As usual, Peter was prophetic. A recent Wall Street Journal contained a story detailing how major Wall Street investment firms are catching his vision. It said, “Wall Street has jumped in with sustainable investing [another term for socially responsible investing, values-based investing, biblically-responsible investing, and so on] divisions that create products for key demographics, like millennials, who are eager to align their values with their investments.” Such investing considers things like CEO compensation, reducing products that are harmful for the public, building opportunities for the needy, environmentalism, and so on. The head of Morgan Stanley’s division explained 1 in 6 dollars is now managed by integrating values, up from 1 in 9 before the Great Recession, as “sustainable investments tend to be less volatile and perform better than their traditional cousins.” So such investing is growing considerably faster than investing in general.   

If Peter was still alive, I expect he would tell us it is unlikely our moral and financial crises will pass until we again look beyond our financial interests and consider our social responsibilities as well. After all, while Americans gave $350 billion to charity last year, Bain & Co. has estimated there is over $600 trillion of more or less permanent capital flowing around our world each day, which will grow to $900 trillion by the end of this decade. We’d better pray it grows more socially responsible. As Robert Bartley, the legendary editor of the Journal's editorial page once wrote, “Rather than denigrating Christianity and religion in general, socially conscious elites ought to be asking what the religious impulse might teach us.”

A version of this story originally appeared on the Financial Seminary website

– Gary Moore,  a former senior vice president of Paine Webber, is an author and founder of the Financial Seminary, a nonprofit group that aims to build bridges between the financial and moral communities. Several of his books are about his mentor, Sir John Templeton. 

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