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The American Exception: How Faith Shapes Economic and Social Policy

HISTORIAN R.H. TAWNEY famously explored the ties between Protestantism and economic development in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926). Now, nearly a century later, in a new book under the same title, Maier professor of political economy Benjamin M. Friedman undertakes a searching exploration of a different sort. Beginning from a simple question—“Where do our ideas about how the economy works, and our views on economic policy, come from?”—Friedman establishes that the revolution wrought by Adam Smith and others was not a purely rationalist, Enlightenment upwelling of secular humanism, but instead reflects ideas that have “long-standing roots in religious thinking,” and indeed in the new theological currents then swirling around Smith and his contemporaries.

Friedman’s final chapter, on “Economics in the Public Conversation,” turns to the ideas that underlie Americans’ views toward high-stakes economic policies. Why is it, political analysts want to know, that the United States has much less generous safety-net programs than other rich, developed countries? And why do lower-income Americans often vote against higher income-tax rates for the very rich, or inheritance taxes that only the wealthiest families pay? Looking beyond the purely political explanations that have been advanced, Friedman discerns a strong pattern of religious beliefs, particularly among evangelicals, that powerfully determines attitudes not only toward responsibility for ameliorating social problems, but also toward the possibility of effecting social progress (even the desirability of attempting to achieve it)—the underlying determinants of economic policymaking.

His narrative may help many readers understand the distinct worldviews shaping some of the divisions so evident in U.S. society today. Across the spectrum of beliefs, from progressive activist to libertarian, it may be productive for Americans—and those observing from abroad—to perceive the deep reasons why, as Friedman puts it, “religiously committed Americans of all faiths see less need for government services and government intervention than do most citizens of other high-income countries.” In that spirit, we present this excerpt from the final chapter.

~The Editors

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THESE CONNECTIONS between Americans’ views on matters of economic policy and their individual religious affiliation, especially among evangelical Protestants, no doubt reflect a variety of influences. Three, however, stand out.

First, the continuing influence of the historical turn away from pre-destinarianism, which laid the basis for the Smithian revolution in economic thinking in the eighteenth century, remains readily apparent in the American public’s attitudes toward matters of economics and economic policy. In Adam Smith’s day the most significant consequence for economics stemming from this change in religious thinking was an expanded vision of the possibilities for human choice and human action—under the right conditions, which Smith centered in competitive markets. By now the general public has largely absorbed that insight. In addition, especially among Americans, beliefs about the possibilities for individual economic success strongly conform to a non-predestinarian view as well. Most Americans reject the idea that some factor apart from their own ability and efforts—divine election in Calvin’s thinking, simple luck in the more modern secular vocabulary—determines their individual destinies. In today’s secularized context, the belief that anyone can achieve spiritual salvation has its parallel in the belief that anyone can get ahead economically through talent and hard work.

The predominance of non-predestinarian thinking, and its reflection in attitudes toward opportunities for individual economic success, are all the more striking in light of the continuing belief in a divinely intended destiny for America as a nation. Few Americans now speak of Manifest Destiny, and only a small fraction of Protestants belong to denominations that place predestination, in anything like the form spelled out in the Westminster Confession, among their creeds. (The largest ones that do are the Presbyterian Church (USA), with one and a half million members, and the Presbyterian Church in America, with fewer than 400,000.) Yet most Americans, including most Protestant evangelicals, do believe that the United States, with the country’s long-standing democratic political institutions and its historical tradition of civil freedoms, has a special role to play in the world. Many see this role as a divinely ordained mission to lead the world toward freedom and democracy—or if not that, then as the inspired consequence of some kind of historical Providence. On the eve of World War II, Harold Ockenga mused that “it is almost as though God pinned His last hope on America.” Forty years later Ronald Reagan spoke for more than just his own political supporters when he asked, in accepting his party’s nomination for president in 1980, “Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely?”

Read entire article at Harvard Magazine