Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Religion and the Market: Opposition, Absorption, or Ambiguity?

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Religion and the Market: Opposition, Absorption, or Ambiguity?

Article excerpt

Abstract This article addressed the complex relationship between religion and the market by proposing three basic paradigms, and then applying them to contemporary Christian social thought (or social ethics). The first conflicting model, following Max Weber and Karl Marx, views religion and the market in opposition, which results in greater secularisation. The second, following Emile Durkheim, proposes a 'functionalist' model of society, in which the market itself becomes sacred. The third, following Karl Polanyi, claims the two are more dialectical, in that both are affected by the power of the other; they remain in an ambiguous relationship. The author argues that the third model is the most coherent description of this complex relationship as well as the one most consistent with the convictions of Chrstian social thought.

Keywords: Secularisation, dystopian, Hom. economics, functionalism, dialectical, double movement

Since the publication of Max Weber's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958 [1905]), the precise interplay between the market and religion has remained a vibrant topic in Christian social ethics. Are religious beliefs and practices altered by the secularising influences of market structures, as Weber presumes, or do they provide substantive checks and alterations of economic behavior? In Christian social thought, the precise answer to this question often depends on underlying commitments to particular economic and political ideologies. Hence, the "market" and "religion" are understood differently within the logic of Christian neoconservative (democratic capitalist), mainstream liberal (democratic socialist), and liberation (Marxist-Christian) viewpoints (Weber 1958). [1] These ideological commitments often force Christian ethicists to make emphatic Yes or No judgments about particular economic systems before providing a thorough analysis of how market/religion interaction occurs in so ciety. So, in its worst form, this logic leads to a kind of ideological (economic) reductionism and "thin" analysis of society, which invariably distorts descriptions of both the market and religion. Given these concerns, this essay presumes that Christian social thought should begin with a "thick" description of market/religion interaction before moral judgments about particular economic theories are pronounced sacrosanct. [2] Indeed, it advances a narrative (non-ideological) paradigm that presumes a synchronic and diachronic structure of market/religion interaction in society. [3] For this we need some historical perspective.

In Albert Hirschman's classic essay, "Rival Views of Market Society" he concludes there are four successive theories of market/society interaction, which began in the eighteenth century and continues to the present time:

According to the doux-commerce thesis of the eighteenth century...the market and capitalism were going to create a moral environment in which a good society as well as the market itself were bound to flourish. But soon there arose, in counterpoint, the self-destructive thesis, which asserts that, to the contrary, the market, with its vehement emphasis on individual self-interest, corrodes all traditional values, including those on the basis of the market itself is functioning. Next, the feudal-shackles thesis demonstrates instead how capitalism is coming to grief, not because of its own excessive energies, but because of powerful residues of precapitalist values and institutions. This thesis is in turn contradicted by the demonstration that calamitous results follow from the absence of a feudal past. This is the thesis of Louis Hartz, which can also be called the feudal-blessings thesis, as it implies that a feudal background is a favorable factor for subsequent democratic-capitalist development. Thus we end up position that is in obvious conflict with the initial doux-commerce thesis; for, in the latter, the market and self-interested behavior are viewed as a benign force that is in fact destined to emancipate civil society from 'feudal shackles. …

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