Contemporary Research in Religion, Politics, and Economics

By Mitchell, Craig Vincent | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Research in Religion, Politics, and Economics


Mitchell, Craig Vincent, Journal of Markets & Morality


In June of this year, I spent two weeks at Boston University's Summer Seminar on World Religions. The host of this event was the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. While there, I had the opportunity to spend an hour alone with Dr. Berger. We focused on one primary question. I asked, "Milton Friedman always argued that economic liberty leads to political liberty. Does religious liberty have anything to do with these others?" He thought that this was a good question and said that, as yet, there had been no empirical study attempting to link these things. He did note, however, if what Friedman said was true, then how do you explain the situation in China? China is having considerable economic growth, yet political liberty appears nowhere on the horizon. (1)

In contrast to Friedman, Daron Acemoglu argues that political liberty, or rather democracy, leads to economic liberty and growth. (2) Like Friedman, Acemoglu does not consider the effect of religious liberty on economics and politics. Such is often the case among those interested in political economy. However, I believe that Acemoglu has an incomplete picture and that these issues must be explored.

Deirdre McCloskey is another example of contrast. She believes that religion is not a factor leading to economic growth or liberty and neither is politics. (3) Instead, a change in economic rhetoric resulted in economic growth. Economic liberty is something quite apart from religious and political liberties.

These thoughts have often occupied my mind as I have explored the relationship between economics and Christian ethics. In this article, we will investigate this issue in three different ways. The first part will explore three new fields in economics. More specifically, part 1 explains the significance of religion and the economics of religion. Further, it will relate the economics of religion to economics as a whole. The next section of part 1 will involve a survey of the new field of the economics of happiness. Finally, the last section of part 1 will review religious, economic, and political liberty from the standpoint of New Institutional Economics. Part 2 of this article will explore the empirical work that has been done to explore these relationships. The last part of this paper will draw some conclusions about how economic, political, and religious liberties are related.

Part 1: The Significance of Religion

According to Peter Berger, secularization theory is the idea that "modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion." (4) Contrary to secularization theory, the world has not grown less religious with modernity. It has in fact only grown more religious. The growth of both Christianity and Islam are testaments to the fact that religion has a huge influence on politics and economics. Thus, how do these religions affect political economy?

We inherently know that religion has some kind of effect on politics and economics, but we are not sure to what degree. Samuel P. Huntington asserts that "people identify themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against." (5)

The Significance of Religion to Economics as a Whole

Christianity and Economic Development

The sociologist Max Weber is famous for his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (6) in which he studies "the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labor, and even more the higher technicality and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant." (7) He believes that Protestant Christianity is responsible for the economic development of the Western world. …

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