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In Markets We Trust

Today's post is from Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles. He is the author of Getting On Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel

On the US Dollar bill: "He favors our undertakings."

The Great True Faith of our times may have been badly shaken in recent days; but faith that is shaken remains, at its core, a matter of blind devotion.

And while Merrill Lynch is gone forever, that big bronze bull still flares its massive horns down at Bowling Green Park, a few blocks south of Wall Street. The sculptor parked his four-ton creation right in front of the New York Stock Exchange immediately following the 1987 crash. He thought the symbol of a robust market might bring needed good luck, and to this day traders will sneak by and rub the behemoth's testicles to aid their fortunes.

Just a harmless superstition, you may say. Yet the obeisance that our whole culture pays to the financial markets, to their "self-regulating" wisdom and beneficence, bespeaks a kind of mass enchantment or mass superstition. Surely there was something delusional in the huge bets that money managers were placing on financial instruments (credit default swaps, exotic derivatives) that even they and even the ratings agencies didn't understand. Surely there is something equally delusional in the idea that covering these bad bets with taxpayer money will "fix" the problem.

There is more than free market ideology in play here. I name it religiously, as market idolatry. We in the United States don't just accept markets as a necessary evil or even as a neutral mechanism that accomplishes certain needed functions. No, we worship The Market, we offer our burnt offerings before the shrine of the Golden Bull, we tremble and wait for the cult's great oracles (Buffett, Greenspan, Cramer, etc.) to stammer a few syllables.

What else but unquestioning devotion to the cult would have blinded so many to all of the ways in which Kevin Phillips' "bad money" people (investment bankers, analysts, accountants, and the actual front-line mortgage hustlers) pushed out NINJA loans (no income, no job, no assets) by the millions? What else but fervent commitment to a creed would make so many now believe that one of the cult's most eminent high priests—Henry Paulson—can intone the right words and devise the right rituals to calm things down and restore equilibrium?

Allow me introduce a reasonably value-neutral term for what I have described as, in essence, a religious cult. That term is economism: the notion that every part of human life is governed by economic considerations and that everything that happens—or at least everything that matters—is reducible to human monads pursuing their rational self-interest.

As a comprehensive belief system, economism has all that a vital cultus needs for thriving. It has saints and patriarchs, high priests and seers, rituals and cult objects, yeshivas and seminaries (think prestige B-schools and top college economics departments), even designated schismatics and heretics (Joe Stiglitz and Ben Stein come to mind).

What interests me most about economism understood religiously is how we manage to accommodate it without even seeing how its core values militate against the core values of the faiths we ostensibly cherish (here I am thinking primarily of the Abrahamic faith traditions).

To wit:

  • Economism promotes, even celebrates, the disposability, replaceability, and fungibility of everything and everyone, whereas the great faith traditions all stress the uniqueness and irreplaceability of individual members of the human family, as well as other beings and things within the natural world.
  • Economism invites and encourages greed, envy, and competition; it honors as "virtuous" behaviors based on these values; the faith traditions, in contrast, emphasize cooperation, commonwealth, and restraint in relation to personal material accumulation.
  • Economism valorizes exploitation—specifically, it approves of treating other human beings as mere means to your private ends—whereas the great faith traditions abhor and denounce such anti-human instrumentalism.
  • Economism encourages and spurs a profound restlessness in the cupidity of acquisition and consumption; needing us to lose ourselves in overwork and consumption, economism corrodes narrative and defeats memory. The faith traditions, in contrast, invite us to honor Sabbath rest, contemplation, stability, remembrance, and storytelling.
  • Economism is a true totalizing system (Margaret Thatcher's "There is no alternative!"): it cannot abide any other way of seeing the word or ordering our common life, as evidenced in the brutality with which its agents—the World Bank and IMF—actively work to starve out nonmarket economies and regimes around the world. Authentic faith traditions warn against such Babylonian presumption and the oppressions it breeds.

With less than a month to go before an epochal national vote, we will be hearing a lot about the religious faith of candidates for high office. I'm not interested in hearing their professions of Christian piety. On the other hand, I would be very interested to hear them share with us the extent of their faith in markets and in privatized for-profit solutions to every social problem.

For example: What have they to say about the iron grip maintained by Big Pharma and the insurance companies over our bloated and broken health care system? Do they think it's cool to have a 1:1 ratio of private contractors to military personnel fighting America's 21st century wars? How do they really feel about the progressive personal income tax? About privatized schools and jails and (yes) consumer product-testing labs? About the payday loan sharks operating right inside our U.S. military bases, the better to prey upon our young soldiers, sailors, and Marines? About the fact that two-thirds of the profitable companies in the United States usually pay no income tax at all, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office?

Are they good with a CEO-to-average worker pay differential of 250:1 or with the fact that the top .01 percent of rich people doubled their share of the national income in the past 15 years?

And here is an acid test to separate political sheep from goats: What would they do to limit the capacity of corporate lobbyists to shape and even dictate public policy across a whole spectrum of vital issues, not just in Washington but in every state capital?

These are all religious questions and should be treated as such.

I contend that we have all been made poorer and dumber as a result of corporate domination of every aspect of our lives, and as a consequence of our blind subservience to the cult of markets and private wealth. We have already lost most of our self-respect, and we are now in actual danger of losing what remains of democracy itself in our unseemly desire to enshrine the money-changing cult at the very center of the temple.

This past summer I took much pleasure in reading Jack Beatty's Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900. Beatty's meticulously researched volume reminded me that the money changers have attempted to seize democracy's temple before—that by the late 1880s the railroad barons in particular could work their will with little or no resistance in Congress and the state legislatures. The difference then was that everyday people fought back, and they fought back from a religious center. They were righteously affronted by the anti-democratic pretensions of the Goulds and Armours and Rockefellers. And as much as it may bother our pluralistic sensibilities today, William Jennings Bryan's 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech struck a powerful chord precisely because it used a core religious image to evoke the violence of unjust power.

Lacking much authentic religious mooring, we today also lack anything like the capacity for righteous anger exhibited by our forebears. We mostly watch the crucifixion of this economy's many victims with indifference. Sometimes we even seem to offer ourselves for crucifixion. Or to switch the image just a bit, we think that big bull stands for optimism and exuberance. We completely forget the Minotaur.

This post originally appeared in slightly different form at Religion Dispatches.