Faith and Economy

07/18/2011 01:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

While health needs in poor communities grow, the wealth gap between rich and poor in the United States is now greater than several developing countries in Africa and Asia. Such startling statistics are documented in Jeff Madrick's new book, "The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present." Given this chasm and the prevalence of extreme poverty around the world, what does our religious faith say about economic and political state of affairs? What inspires Americans to cherish impoverished people, and the soil and water systems we depend on?

First, some good news. Through marches, organizing, and investor activist stands, citizens everywhere are confronting the inviolate power of mining industries: silver and gold in Latin America; semi-conductor metals in Africa; and coal and natural gas in the United States. Internet searches yield enormous evidence of human and environmental tragedy, as well as growing political resistance. For example, to learn more about the stakes of a people's stand against gold mining in El Salvador, see "the mysterious death of Marcelo Rivera" on Youtube. Salvadorans are mobilized and they help spotlight harmful forces in luxury demand and the high price of precious metals. In the U.S., Appalachia Rising is a new coalition of rich and poor, liberal and conservative, challenging the coal industry's commitment to remove America's mountains and poison its waters for profit. (And this while members of the House and Senate portray the EPA as the devil for doing its job.)

Now some bad news. In the United States, the painful lessons of financial meltdown in 1986, 2002, and 2008 seem almost completely forgotten as 80s-style trickle-down economics--an ideological Hydra if ever there was one--return again and again to divert attention away from corporate lobbying and corporate welfare to "government spending." And the irony is how intertwined these are. Industries have their way with chemicals and explosives and land permits. Fouled waters and the erosion of soils and biodiversity have become commonplace, more or less accepted. Yet, with so much ecological devastation and consequent human suffering, what is most frustrating is our continued seduction to the sirens of "economic growth" and stock prices. Decades later, do we still glorify greed, or are we plain masochistic?

Consider the current debt crisis and the looming threat of National default. While I defer to experts like Madrick in helping us understand historical context and long-term solutions, an imagination exercise could shed some light on what an alternative course the past thirty years may have offered today's economy. What if, instead of allowing elite financiers to run the show, we gave political power to God's laws in areas of biodiversity, ecology, and community? The 1980s began a massive exodus of U.S. manufacturing, favoring "cheap labor" and lax environmental standards overseas, thereby converting our economy predominantly to service sector employment; for example, fast food and box store retail. If corporate financial power had not become so powerful relative to earth science, America's inventiveness, and start-up business, the balanced, productive (and fruitful!) green economy may have begun decades ago.

Primarily, I am attempting to make a faith argument, or religious argument, not an economic or political one. Whatever we preach from the pulpit on weekends about money and the value of community or environmental stewardship, Monday's economic podium has long held a different message, and far more amp-ed at that. Ultimately, Sunday faith and Monday faith serve the same God in relative peace and harmony, or, we endure the messy societal results of our own discord. Our holding dual value systems may be nearing the end however. The moral and political consequences of unsustainable practices, financially and environmentally, can be delayed for only so long. Serious international concern over our debt situation is just partial evidence of this.

To whatever extent we are aware of the interconnectedness in all things secular and spiritual, religious faith is imbued profoundly in political and economic power. Not to sound redundant, but religiously, we handed over the purse strings. We failed to trust in good science. We shrank from real community. We believed more in big finance, big housing, and big government.

Fortunately, and hopefully none too late, there are abundant intersections of political forces: science and faith, economy and sustainability, religion and earth care. In these redemptive corners, we have the best chance for finding the motivation and nourishment needed to develop real structural solidarity with our most impoverished brothers and sisters, and save our country in the process.