06/01/2010 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Faith and Financial America's Moral Compass

A century ago, hell froze over: American socialists were getting elected to local office, with the help of Christian voters.

In some precincts, socialism attracted American voters as a biblical model of economics. Success was conspicuous in farm states like Oklahoma, where socialist aldermen and sheriffs won election in rural counties struggling in a terrible economy. Blame for the ruin of farmers was placed on corporations, big landowners and extortionist banks.

The gospel of Mark and the dialectics of Marx came together: Socialist preachers hailed Jesus as a great labor leader, the heaven-sent friend of the yeoman farmer. Bankers were the enemy Jesus drove out of the temple. Socialism, not capitalism, represented Christ-like values of peace on earth and Golden Rule. (See the remarkable book Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920 by Jim Bissett, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.)

But momentum was short-lived. Pro-war hysteria during World War I crushed this Protestant-flavored grassroots movement, which opposed the "capitalist" war. It never rose again.

What's most startling about this little glance at history isn't even the reminder that socialism was once a player on the American electoral stage. No: what's startling is the prospect that organized religion could claim a clarifying, galvanizing role in a modern debate about everyday economic life and destiny.

That role is dramatically diminished today. American Christianity seems to have made its peace with market volatility and consumer values, no matter how bad the financial news. It largely stays out of arguments about economic behavior. Church leaders had little to say publicly about the causes of the latter-day financial cataclysm -- little comment about the extravagant personal debt, the corporate casino climate, the regulatory incompetence.

The economic mess has been customarily boiled down to a failure of personal responsibility, a lack of transparency, a dearth of discipline, all combined with lust for easy profit. Such phrases sound like spiritual language to me.

Hebrew prophets worried about what a fair and righteous society should look like. Jesus used images from daily business life in his parables. Reformers John Calvin and John Wesley warned against excess wealth and competition. Successive popes have proclaimed the necessity of a humane economy and the rights of labor. Presumably, the house of worship down the street is a moral counterculture that calls on its own wisdom traditions to push back against delusional utopias and concentrations of power. Presumably, the house of worship down the street tells a story that differs from supercharged individualism. The religious narrative says: doing good matters, other people deserve respect, divine forces are bigger than us, and we're all in this together.

Yet for decades congregations by the thousands abandoned ancient wisdom's suspicion of the ego's impulses of faulty judgment, self-deception and self-destruction. Afraid of looking un-American, they made no protest against naïve policies that asserted financial markets will police themselves, and technology will save us, and vast accumulations of personal wealth are an incorruptible blessing.

A pulpit chorus of praise elevated free-market ideology to biblical stature. The noise grew louder under the confident sponsorship of the old Moral Majority in the 1980s. The habit intensified in the 1990s after America's exhilarating Cold War victory over communism. Prosperity gospels and go-go capitalism made an easy fit, as long as Jesus' sterner warnings about accumulated riches went ignored. The sins of government abuses received crisp theological scolding. The sins of the market economy -- the Enron-style criminality, the billionaire entitlements -- were passed over. When the Great Recession arrived, and business-as-usual excesses were laid bare, those spiritual leaders had little to say.

Some of the silence was understandable. Churches were busy counseling and reassuring the newly unemployed in their ranks. Congregational staffs were preoccupied with their own financial damage control, tending the fiscal wounds done to budget or endowment.

Still, the lack of public religious critique of our money attitudes, business ethics, and tax policies was conspicuous. The lack of religious argument for economic fairness and moral imagination was puzzling. It's as if the fierce spirit of atheist Ayn Rand had become a welcome guest of honor in the Sabbath sanctuary, and pivotal religious leadership equated unfettered, no-rules individualism with gospel virtues.

From a certain viewpoint, all this is well and good. No one is pining for a resurrection of blue laws, Prohibition, or Puritan enforcement of town morality. But the evaporation of a moderating moral vocabulary from public life is turning the nation into something harsh, overheated, and delusional. Not so long ago, American society had no truck with casinos or usury. Such practices were thought to corrupt personal habits and exploit people: religious institutions provided theological reasoning for civilized norms. Now high-interest loans and highly promoted lotteries are solemn doctrines of daily business and public policy. No wonder a Gallup Poll in late 2008 said religion's social influence is waning. Two-thirds of Americans said religion is losing sway. Three years before, it was about 50-50.

All is not hopeless, of course. Discussion of a Christian anthropology -- a tough-minded realism about human frailty and human possibility, based on the theological conviction that we are flawed creatures in need of redemption -- still stirs.

Theologian Sondra Wheeler of Wesley Theological Seminary believes an old word, sin, remains robustly relevant to any discussion of market abuses and personal failings. A realistic view of corporate and private economic behavior must be clear-eyed about our damn-fool talent for exaggerated self-importance, tribal arrogance, wishful thinking, and the thousand little daily self-justifications that lead to destructive, unintended consequences. The sneaky treacheries of sin offer a better analysis of our financial condition than does the economics-departmental fantasy that regards people as rational profit-maximizers all day long.

"Hardly anybody gets up in the morning and says, 'Gee, I think I'll be wicked,'" Wheeler said during a conference in May on religious values and the economy at Yale Divinity School, which brought together economists, theologians and ministers for conversation and panel discussion. (Webcasts of the "Money and Morals After the Crash" conference will soon be available at

"That's not how it happens. ... People rarely fall in an instant. They fall by increments."

Only an ethos of accountability, diligently nurtured, can stand up to the impulses of corruption and egotism, Wheeler suggests. Otherwise, we can depend on sin keeping its daily rounds. Her advice: "Shun unaccountable power."

Time and again in the wake of the Great Recession, free-market denizens and other would-be Masters of the Universe expressed dull surprise that the rational self-interest of lending institutions was not enough to protect their shareholders' wealth. Invincible rational self-interest wasn't running the vast machine after all. Other, higher-octane human factors -- irrational exuberance, reckless positive thinking, breathtaking contempt for the public good -- were fueling the coming disaster.

It turns out that Paul of Tarsus, despite no ready access to the sermons of Glenn Beck and the novels of Ayn Rand, had a more sophisticated view of economic behavior. In his Letter to the Romans, he wrote: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

American religious history shows that congregations have a citizenship role in making secular culture more humane and just. Mainline religious values helped discredit slavery, racial segregation, slumlords, child labor, and sexual discrimination. Fueling this public-spirited spiritual confidence was mindfulness of the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount, the prophets, providence, the arts of hospitality, the beauty of the created world, the face of Jesus in others. There was also a willingness to live with outrageous human paradox: the persistence of frailty and yet holiness too, a drama that unfolds in the necessary interplay of individual motivation and community accountability.

People of faith are the last people standing with the power to inject spiritual realism into the financial conversation. They need to find their bearings again, fast. Otherwise, the soulless emerging paradigm of bullying hysteria and conquest will prevail.