THE WORLD'S FREEST, MOST PROSPEROUS, AND most modern nation may also be the most religious. Secularists cannot get their minds around this fact, assuming that religion is a retrograde, primitive, authoritarian mindset that is the enemy of liberty and progress. So how do they explain the United States of America?
A group of economists is studying the role of religion in establishing free markets. The Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science sponsored a conference last month in Cambridge, Mass., on what they are calling "spiritual capital."
Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust (1995) demonstrated that religion is necessary for a civil society and a prosperous economy, neither of which can exist unless people are basically honest. If they cannot trust each other, economic transactions-which involve people making promises to deliver the goods and to pay for them-are not going to work. And if people steal, there can be no private property to accumulate or develop.
Much earlier, Max Weber, one of the founders of the discipline of sociology, argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that the Reformation-with its doctrine of vocation that gave meaning and value to human labor-played a major role in the economic revolution that brought unprecedented prosperity to Europe and America.
Spiritual-capital theorists should note that it is not just "religion" but particular kinds of religion that have brought free markets and free societies. Islam has, indeed, ruled over a golden age of cultural accomplishment, but its governments have almost always been authoritarian, with emperors holding untold wealth and absolute power over subjects whose economic status was essentially that of slaves. Hinduism has certainly shaped its culture, but its caste system, sanctioned by the spiritual karma of each individual in past lives, enshrined both poverty and privilege, making social mobility impossible.
Not even all brands of Christianity promoted freedom and prosperity, just the ones that cultivated a high view of Scripture (therefore emphasizing the necessity to learn to read it and thus be educated) and a high view of the gospel (stressing personal faith as opposed to oppressive, restrictive legalism).
Not that Christianity is all about mammon, as some say, or that other religions cannot shape their cultures for economic prosperity. Confucianism stresses this-worldly virtues that translate well into business. Other cultures with their own religious traditions often seem to be able to borrow elements from the West that ignite their business sense, even though they do not share the foundational religious assumptions, as we see in the high-tech entrepreneurs of India and Japan.
The effect of Christianity on economics continues to this day. On the mission field, for example, African Christians often have the reputation of becoming more prosperous and more successful than their Muslim or animist neighbors, sometimes sparking the resentment that can lead to persecution.
Nobel PrizeÐwinning economist Gary Becker told the Cambridge Conference, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, that the key to religion's beneficent social effects is competition. "Every religion, like every business, would like to be a monopoly," he said. "But the competition forces them to be more virtuous."
Where religions have to compete with each other, as in a religiously free society such as the United States, they must rely on persuasion rather than force and must actually meet the spiritual needs of their people. Religious monopolies-as in state churches, nationally mandated religions such as Islam, and cultural religions-can become oppressive, but they can also become weak, merely justifying the cultural status quo, and, like monopolistic businesses, losing their edge and relevance.
The danger, though, in religious competition is that faith can be turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. Religion is supposed to be about truths, but it can easily shift its concern to keeping the customers satisfied. When that happens, God and mammon get confused for each other, and religion no longer exerts an influence of any kind on the society.
But if there is such a thing as "spiritual capital," we are arguably running a deficit. Europe, once the center of "Christendom," now, thanks to its liberal state churches, hardly has a Christian identity anymore, with the most vital religion being Islam. America has thriving churches, but you would never know it from the culture.
America and Europe have been spending their spiritual capital. Instead of investing it and increasing their spiritual wealth, they have been frittering it away, like heirs of wealthy families who spend the family fortune until it all runs out.