An earlier version of this post appeared as part of the editor’s introduction to the Fall 2020 issue of Faith & Economics.
In my work as an economist over the last couple of years, but particularly at the last national academic economics conference I attended, I was struck by the wide disagreements that Christians have about the most basic questions of justice in economic life. These deep disagreements are, of course, heightened by a political polarization that has become more potent in recent years. Some of my peers argue forcefully that the growing scope of the government in the economy is more dangerous than ever others argue for a dramatic expansion of government. There are arguments about race and sexuality that mirror those in our national politics, and disagreements about what role economists should play in public debate. And yet, despite wide polarization and disagreement, there appear to be some common themes that run through Christian writing about economics. This common ground is not large, but I believe that it does constitute an important set of guardrails against the worst excesses of ideology; or at least, that has been my operating assumption as a Christian scholar for some time. Our faith should offer us some unity in thought.
What might that common ground be? One place to start looking might be the authoritative documents that make up Catholic social teaching or the classics of protestant social thought. In my own reading, I decided to reach back thirty years to the Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics, in which more than 100 participants from around the world and across a wide disciplinary and ideological spectrum collaborated to craft a consensus statement. Faith & Economics published the declaration in the Spring of 1990, with commentary on the process and content of the statement appearing in that issue and the following Fall issue as well.
The declaration details principles and recommendations around four major themes: (1) creation and stewardship, (2) work and leisure, (3) poverty and justice, and (4) freedom and government. In each area it includes a series of short declarative statements followed by an explanation citing scripture. In reading the statement today, I would argue that it stands up pretty well after thirty years. It has many rich insights that distill a lot of solid Christian theology. At other places, however, the statement seems to exude a kind of moderate “third-way” politics characteristic of the period that followed the end of the Cold War. This might be necessary for a “consensus statement,” but we should never equate a moderate position with a real consensus or common ground. There are too many specifics built into the Oxford Declaration for it to operate as a rallying document for those who otherwise disagree. There is so much in it that everyone, it seems, is guaranteed to find something there to dislike. Reports on the statement and the conference that produced it indicate some disagreement and frustration, despite the strong rhetoric about consensus. Sadly, it does not appear that the statement has become authoritative in any important respect, nor have I seen it used as a resource in Christian scholarship anytime in the last decade.
Something We Can Agree On?
If Christianity has anything authoritative to say about economics, it should be able to say something that will have all thoughtful, educated, and faithful Christians nodding in agreement. It should also be something that really matters. I think there is such a consensus, and I think it is an important starting point for conversion and learning. To illustrate, let me offer five propositions, all of which are reflected in the Oxford Declaration. I think each warrants wide agreement among Christians, has a strong basis in Christian theology, and can be a foundation for moral standards:
- Every person is made in the image of God, and thus has a basic dignity that should be respected.
- Each person is entitled to the same consideration in the law.
- We have an obligation to respond to poverty.
- Property, wealth, and the non-human creation are subject to God’s ultimate ownership and purpose.
- Church, family, work, and rest, all have a real value that goes beyond their strict economic function.
Upon reading these, you might be struck at what is not included. I include nothing specific about wealth creation, pollution, minimum wage laws, redistribution, regulation, or the electoral college. Those are important topics but they are areas of legitimate disagreement. Of course, if we agree that we have an obligation to respond to poverty, we are only agreeing on a kind of moral goal. We will disagree substantially about what that obligation requires of us, and what it implies for government action. So, I ask you to put this necessary vagueness aside for a moment and consider the kind of positions that these statements rule out.
There are plenty of people who have, even in recent history, argued that we do not have obligations to the poor, or that such obligations extend only to those of our race, or those in our country. I do not think Christians can hold these kinds of positions, and I do not think I have heard any thoughtful Christians make such a case. The pages of Faith & Economics over the years have been full of disagreement about how to address domestic and global poverty, but at the same time, the amount of attention we have paid to poverty outweighs almost any other economic question. I believe that focus stems from the fact that Christian economists really can rally around this kind of baseline moral principle, and it has been reflected in the topics that Christians have chosen to research and write about. Similarly, in a culture that glorifies, in turn, a slavish devotion to productive work and a hedonistic celebration of leisure, there are plenty of pitfalls awaiting Christians. The Biblical story clearly resists both of these mistakes, in part because they are two sides of the same mistaken materialism. We all might fall prey to these temptations, but, nevertheless, Christian economists have spoken with almost one voice against this materialistic impulse at the individual level and at the systemic level. We do not believe that either work or leisure trump the other purposes for a human life.
Resisting Ideological Polarization
I engage in this short thought exercise not merely to comment on the literature we are building in this journal, but also because we live in a dangerous moment. The kind of ideological polarization and distrust that we are experiencing in the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years has, in my view, begun to undermine our ability to speak truthfully with one another about politically contentious issues. Disagreement is too often taken to signal that those we disagree with have bought into a whole worldview that should not be tolerated. I reflected on this polarization and its impact on the academy in a post last year, and I have continued to think about how to lean against these trends within my own circles.
For my part, I am interested in pursuing two goals. First, the academy needs to be a place where we can hear out and consider the most thoughtful versions of the big arguments of the day. Second, the Christian faith should help unify us, not further divide us. Unification requires certain virtues, including humility, honesty, and charity. It also requires that we build on some common ground. In practice, I think this common ground already exists, as I have noted here. At least among Christian economists, we should be able to see that we do have some common high-level agreements that are more fundamental than our divisive politics would otherwise suggest.
I also believe that Christian academic institutions should work to push against political and ideological polarization. Colleges and universities can do this, but journals like Christian Scholar’s Review and Faith & Economics also have parts to play. These can be places where we practice these virtues, publishing arguments from a variety of perspectives and hosting a kind of broad, and charitable, conversation.