“The Market as God”: What Happens with a Theologian Starts Reading the Business Section?

“The Market as God”: What Happens with a Theologian Starts Reading the Business Section? March 9, 2017

MarketAsGodAlmost a decade ago, the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox published an article titled “The Market as God.” I was interested to learn that he recently expanded his idea into a book of the same name because I’ve read a lot of articles over the years, but this one stuck with me much longer than most because I have found the central insight helpful in understanding certain aspects of our contemporary world. The basic idea is that “free market economics” has come to function in many ways like the idea of God used to function in our society: a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful deity that will bestow its blessings upon us if we but put our unqualified faith in it.

Cox first became aware of this perspective when a friend suggested that he was spending too much time reading the front section (“National news”) section of the New York Times—and that, “if he wanted to know what was going on in the real world,” he should, “turn immediately to the business section.” As Cox began paying more attention to the world of finance, he assumed, as a professional theologian, that he would encounter a lot of unfamiliar territory. Instead, he says, it was like déjà vu.

He began to see many parallels between the contemporary business world and the history of religions:

Behind the descriptions of acquisitions and mergers, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow and the NASDAQ, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things go wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. Here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of over-regulation…and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt-tightening along the way for those economies that fall into the sin of arrears. I realized then that my many years of studying religion and theology had prepared me to approach this mysterious thing called the economy more knowingly than I could have guessed. (4-5)

But here’s the open secret: it turns out that with orthodox economic models—just like with orthodox understandings of God—when you pull back the curtain of how these ideas emerged in history, you do not find the “Great and powerful Wizard of Oz.” Instead, behind all the smoke and mirrors, you usually find that the source is someone (or someones) who are far from perfect and all too human (7-8).

Now, I’ll come back to that idea later. For now, I invite you to consider a few of the other ways economics has come to function like a religion for increasing numbers of people in our society. To quote another excellent book on this subject, At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy (Eerdmans, 2015) by the theologian Scott W. Gustafson:

Each day on Wall Street begins with a simple liturgy. A presider…stands at a podium and rings a bell. For the next eight hours exchanges occur that determine the well-being of the market for that day that bring either hope or despair to the participants in the ritual. This experience of a bull-market “heaven” or a bear-market “hell” is indistinguishable in effect from revivalist experiences of being “saved” or “damned.”… The day ends, of course, exactly as it began: with a ritual ringing of a bell. (10)

And just as religion has its sacraments (ways of experiencing the sacred), the economy also has a sacrament (an outward sign of whether one is blessed or cursed): money (109-110). The economy also has its priests, who interpret its mysterious ways—from the everyday economic priests of cable television stock advisors, to the inner circle of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, to high priests like the chair of the Federal Reserve, whose every word is parsed as closely as the oracles of old to divine our fate (12). Indeed, Fed chair Janet Yellen descended from on high last week to give signs that the interest rates will likely be raised soon.

If you will indulge me in a few more parallels, just as ancient religions had sacrificial festivals to curry favor with the gods and help ensure a favorable harvest season, so too we have the annual Holiday Shopping Season in which we seek to revive our god, the economy (15). Another High Holy Day of economic religion is Super Bowl Sunday—when advertisers try to convince us that commercials on this one occasion are a positive good that we should actively seek out (19). The truth, of course, is that all commercials—whether Super or mundane—are designed to create dissatisfaction and convince us to believe that we will be happier if we buy something (Cox 200). Such happiness is almost always elusively fleeting. “The economy giveth and the economy taketh away. Blessed be the name of the economy!”

 Whenever we take even a half-step backward to witness the ways that advertisers are trying to manipulate us, we can quickly see the absurdity of their claims. For instance, could anything be less of the “real thing” than Coca-Cola? If a manufactured concoction of water, sugar, carbonation, high-fructose corn syrup, caffeine, artificial caramel color, and various other ingredients is the real thing, then what would a “fake thing” be? I’m not trying to unduly hate on Coke, but from a philosophical and theological view, their tagline feels like an absurd caricature of historic debates from Plato to Kant about “the thing in itself” —and all the Eucharistic debates of the “Real Presence” (18). 

There are many other parallels, such as the way we take family pilgrimages to Disney World with the same dedication, sacrifice, and rapture that people used to experience only on pilgrimages to religious holy sites (Gustafson 28). But to cut to the more important parallel, there are so many ways in which the Market has come to function in our society as a god. If you take nothing else away from this sermon, I hope some of you will increasingly notice the ways that the Market is often described in terms akin to omnipotent (the Market is an “all powerful” force), omniscient (the Market is “all knowing” of how to be perfectly efficient in distributing wealth), omnipresent (the free Market needs to be completely free “everywhere”), and omni-beneficent (the way the Market distributes wealth is “all good” for everyone). We are told: if we will but put our faith in the market, “all manners of things will be well!” It is only our lack of faith which tempts us to regulate the Market, which prevents the Market from bestowing the fullness of its blessings upon us (Cox 8). We just need to be unquestioningly faithful to the Market.

I will say more tomorrow in a post on From “The Market as God” to “People, Planet, & Profit”.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles

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