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The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust: Chapter 1: A Revolution in Attitudes Toward Prosperity & Wealth

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The sociological and theological forces that shaped America attitudes toward wealth accumulation over the past several centuries.

The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust:
Chapter 1:  A Revolution in Attitudes Toward Prosperity & Wealth

According to ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible, human beings have long attempted to justify their accumulation of wealth as a sign of blessing by divine powers. During the medieval period, the church attempted to subject economic and political spheres to ethical and religious constraints.  Despite its own wealth, the church, at least in theory, promoted moral ideals in economics through policies such as "just prices" and "fair profits."  The church also, at times, urged the powerful to protect and act fairly in their commercial dealings with the less powerful and impressed on owners "a sense of their obligation toward those who were economically dependent upon them."  The writings of Thomas Aquinas reflect "the ambition of the medieval church to dominate [all spheres of] life of the nations."(4) However during the 16th and 17th centuries, spurred by the Protestant Reformation and the growing success of market capitalism, social thought in Western Europe evolved such that the virtues of religion and wealth accumulation became far more compatible than in the past.

The Moral and Economic Philosophy of Adam Smith

Adam Smith, most famous for his extensive 1776 treatise on the economic behavior of humans and societies, provided important foundations for modern religious attitudes toward wealth.  Smith equated the well being of society with individuals pursing the greatest return on their personal assets--be it labor, land or capital in the context of a competitive market system:
Every individual is continually exerting for himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command.  It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view.  But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.(5)

Importantly, in addition to his economic treatise, Smith was also a moral philosopher.  Indeed, he considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments  to be his most important work.(6) Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argues that Adam Smith came to replace Thomas Aquinas as "the moral authority of the commercial world."(6) Today's economists are quick to point out that in The Wealth of Nations Smith stresses the importance of appealing to the self-interest of others to gain one's own prosperity: " has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.  He will more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them."(8)

Rarely do these same economists consider how, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explores virtue and alternative systems of morality.  He outlines and contrasts in detail the virtue of prudence, which he sees rooted in our concern for our own happiness with the virtues of justice and benevolence that are rooted in our concern for the well being of others.  He is also interested in the sources of virtue.  He considers propriety, where he refers to how the "impartial spectator" (or divine being) encourages  one to moderation in behavior.  He cites a long tradition dating back to Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics for different perspectives for basing one's actions on judgments of right and wrong.  Smith contrasts propriety against systems of prudence which are rooted in the teachings of Epicurus, who believed that human pleasures, even of the mind, are derived from pleasures and pains of the body.   Epicurean thought sees temperance, bravery, justice and other virtues as utilitarian, being employed to the extent they lead to a future state of pleasure or lessened pain.(9)

Smith describes benevolence as both a virtue in itself and as a source of virtuous behavior.  Proponents of benevolence point out the many examples of how we are moved by feelings of sympathy for others, even when there is no benefit to oneself.  Smith, himself, considers such benevolent acts as worthy of praise and societal approval.  Nevertheless he concludes that only the Deity is capable of acting entirely out of benevolence and that it is unrealistic to expect the same of humanity: "But whatever may be the case with the Deity, so imperfect a creature as man, the support of whose existence requires so many things external to him, must often act from many other motives."(10) Smith mixes an optimistic view of human nature, shared by many other Protestant commentators, with recognition that humans retain a strong capacity for individual sin.

Smith seems to be reaching for a blending of the three systems of virtue.  His view of utility for example is that "virtue consists not in any one affection but in the proper degree of all the affections."(11) The Theory of Moral Sentiments moderates the single focus on self-love (self-interest) that underlies his The Wealth of Nations.  According to the notes found with a later edition, Smith urged that The Theory of Moral Sentiments always be read alongside The Wealth of Nations. (12)

Smith's "invisible hand" has been mythologized from the original intentions of its author to justify individual greed as somehow good for society.(13)  As noted above, Smith is adamant in attacking the "great fallacy" that "private vices are public benefits" and refutes contemporary arguments that societies need private vices to flourish.(14)  While Smith understood the tendency of humans to act based on self-interest; he continually advocated nurturing the virtues of benevolence and propriety.  However as subsequent generations embraced Smith's economic philosophy in The Wealth of Nations and forgot his more encompassing philosophy from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wealth became an increasingly unquestioned "good" for society.  And as capitalist enterprise flourished in Europe and North America, a Protestant ethic evolved that made wealth accumulation increasingly compatible with views of Christian morality.

Weber and Tawney on Religion and Economics

Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, is credited with first articulating a causal relationship between the emerging new religious ethics growing out of the Reformation that helped modern capitalism emerge in subsequent centuries.(15) Weber used the words "Protestant asceticism" to describe a change in religious attitudes toward worldly goods caused by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.  Because of a inner torment caused by uncertainty about whether or not one was among the "elect" chosen by God for ultimate salvation, members of many Protestant, especially Calvinist churches, placed great focus on the success of their vocational calling as a sign of God's election.  While Calvinist teachings frowned on any personal displays of wealth, more grievous were the sins of sloth and laziness in the pursuit of a righteous life.  The best measure of success in calling became the monetary gain achieved.  A gross summary of Weber's calculus about Calvinism would be:  Limitation on consumption plus the release of acquisitive activity leads to the accumulation of capital through the success of one's business and the ascetic compulsion to save.(16)  Weber saw this change in human psychology as an important ingredient to the growth and development of the modern capitalist system that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in parts of Western Europe.

There have been numerous counter arguments to Weber's thesis in the 100 years since his thesis was first published in 1904.(17) R.H. Tawney, a historian who was a contemporary of Weber's, sees more of a balance of influences in the development of modern capitalism.  Tawney believes that Weber overemphasizes the role of radical religion, when the reality may well be "the result of several converging causes,"  including economic movements themselves and political thought from the emerging Enlightenment.  Tawney asks:
Why insist that causation can work in only one direction?  Is it not a little artificial to suggest that capitalist enterprise had to wait, as Weber appears to imply, till religious changes had produced a capitalist spirit?  Would it not be equally plausible and equally one-sided to argue that the religious changes were themselves merely the result of economic movements?(18)

My interest is less about resolving issues around whether or not Weber was correct in understanding causality among religious, economic, political and other social forces at work after the Reformation, and more about his contention that the common attitudes toward wealth did indeed change dramatically during the 16th and 17th centuries.   Weber cites the writings of Baxter and other Puritans that God wants each individual to accept opportunities ("callings") that are most profitable because in that way one fulfills God's call to be a good steward.  Weber asserts this represented a radical change in Christian attitudes toward wealth from earlier times:
Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care.  But as a performance of duty in a calling it is to only morally permissible, but actually enjoined. (20)

Furthermore Weber recognized the challenge of wealth to the emerging capitalist. Since wealth could be used for self, Weber noted how "the idea of man's duty to his possessions...bears with chilling weight on his life.  The greater the possessions the heavier...the feeling of responsibility for them, for holding them undiminished for the glory of God and increasing them by restless effort."  While Protestant asceticism repudiated the consumption of luxuries, it served to free its followers from traditional ethics that had inhibited acquisition of wealth in general.  God willed the "rational and utilitarian uses of wealth."  Wealth became a sign of God's favor and blessing of the follower's calling:  "the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith."(21)

Here, Tawney is closely in step with Weber's view.  In his classic study on Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Tawney describes the amazing change in religious attitudes to things economic: "When the age of the Reformation begins, economics is still a branch of ethics, and ethics of theology; all human activities are treated as falling with a single scheme, whose character is determined by the spiritual destiny of mankind; the appeal of theorists is to natural law, not to utility."  He notes that in England at least, "religion has been converted from the keystone which holds together the social edifice into one department within it, and the idea of a rule of right is replaced by economic expediency as the arbiter of policy and criterion of conduct."(22)

Tawney believes the change in doctrine, namely that religion and economics form two separate kingdoms as revolutionary as the emergence of capitalism itself.(23)  As individualism grew during the emergence of the Enlightenment, Tawney sees religion (Calvinism) has having "abandoned the fundamental brain-work of criticism and construction" and instead as focusing on "providing succor for the non-combatants and for the wounded" of the new industrial systems.  Indeed, the church grew steadily weaker in asserting its authority as "an independent standard of social values, which it could apply as a criterion to the practical affairs of the economic world" with the inevitable result of the "tacit denial of spiritual significance in the transactions of business and in the relations of organized society."(24)  

This separation of religion and economics into separate spheres--"trade is one thing and religion is another"--was a critical development in American religious thought and practice.  This separation was never complete, however, and how they were reunited later in 20th century America is a profound story as we shall see.  But before turning to that phenomenon, let us explore some important themes that emerged in American society and religious thought during the 18th and 19th centuries.


4. Reinhold Niebuhr, Does Civilization Need Religion? (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), 83.
5. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Bantam Books, 2003 [based on fifth edition as edited by Edwin Cannan in 1904, originally published 1776]), 569-570.
6. Alan B. Krueger, introduction to Smith, Wealth of Nations, xxii.
7. Reinhold Niebuhr, 95.
8. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 23.
9. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006 [republication of sixth edition (London: A. Millar, 1790), originally published 1759]), 269-299.
10. Ibid., 304.
11. Smith, Moral Senitments, 305.
12. Hugo Beteta, "An Economy without Ethics Means a Continent without Development," envूo, June, 2004, 46.
13. Although widely cited, Adam Smith used the term "invisible hand" only once in his lengthy The Wealth of Nations.   And his use of the "invisible hand" metaphor was confined to a rather narrow and technical discussion of tariff policy.  Furthermore, Smith articulated a very broad view of self-interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he suggests we place ourselves into the shoes of another, what it must feel like for them.  Smith argues that our feelings will depend a lot on what we learn about the cause of the joy or grief of another; he says that our compassion is aroused when we feel the grief or pain is something we would share if it happened to us.
14. Smith, Moral Sentiments, 312.
15. "[Weber] is careful to guard himself against the criticism that he underestimates the importance of the parallel developments in the world of commerce, finance and industry." R. H. Tawney, foreword to Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), 6.  Although he criticizes Weber for overstating the causal relation from religion to capitalism, Tawney does acknowledge Weber's efforts to limit the scope of his argument.
16. Weber (1958), 172.
17. Anthony Giddens in his 1976 introduction to a republication of Talcott Parson's translation of Weber's work provides a succinct listing of the range of arguments raised by Weber's critics including: Weber's possible faulty characterization of Calvinist Protestantism, misinterpretation of Catholic doctrine, lack of empirical evidence for Weber's conclusions, misunderstanding when modern capitalism emerged and mistaking the nature of the casual relationship between Calvinism and modern capitalism. Anthony Giddons, introduction to Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge, 1992), xviii-xxiv.
18. Tawney in Weber (1958), 8.
19. "Despite the overstatements which have marked the rise of the theory connected with these names [Calvinism and capitalism], it is not possible to disagree with the fundamental contention that a close relation has existed in modern times between these two great social movements and that they have profoundly influenced each other." H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, (New York: Living Age Books, 1957), 79-80.  
20. Weber (1958), 163.
21. Ibid., 170, 172.
22. R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (1926; repr., Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1962), 278.
23. Ibid., xii.
24. Ibid., 188, 192-193.

For the rest of the thesis go to:

Table of Contents:



Chapter 1:  A Revolution in Attitudes Toward Prosperity & Wealth
  The Moral and Economic Philosophy of Adam Smith
  Weber and Tawney on Religion and Economics

Chapter 2 - America's Exceptional Individualism
  The Frontier
  The Religious Aspects of American Individualism
  New Thought Theologies

Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Protestant Ethic in 20th Century America      
  The Gospel of Success
  Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Theologies
  The Prosperity Gospel Today
  Related Ethical Defenses of Wealth Accumulation
  The Reach of Wealth Accumulation Defenses

Chapter 4: Toward Developing A 21st Century Faith & Money Ethic
  Introduction and an Historical Note
  Challenging the Spirituality of Accumulation
  Biblical Perspectives on Reuniting Faith and Money
  Ministries for Transforming Our Relationship with Money


Appendix: Faith and Money Resources


A M.A. thesis submitted in candidacy for the degree of Master of Arts in Religion and Theology
Copyright ښ 2008 by Michael Troutman} , 3156 Elliot Av
Minneapolis, MN 55407 - 612-822-6059
[Michael Troutman} , 3156 Elliot Av
Minneapolis, MN 55407 - 612-822-6059

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