Morality and the marketplace: balancing God and greed in public policy

The 2008 financial crisis, coming in the midst of a presidential campaign fueled by faith-based rhetoric, gave Americans a chance to reconsider economic policies in the light of religious beliefs. Many do not often think of the relationship between economics and religion — they are often viewed as seperate entities working in different worlds — but the recession stimulated much thought on how the two interact.


The view that the economy is a secular mechanism for the common good approach has shaped debates in Washington for the past 30 years. It has been challenged by two developments:

• The economic crisis is prompting theological reflections on morality and the marketplace from religious thinkers who support a hands-off free-enterprise system and those who want faith to help shape a more activist economic policy. In this debate, some cite greed as the culprit in the crisis, some the free-market system, while others point to failed government policies — or some combination of these factors.

• The second development is the effort in recent years by liberal Christians — the so-called “religious left” — to persuade policymakers and believers to see the economy in moral terms that would call for certain economic policies.

Party Platforms

• The Republican Party platform for 2012 details the party’s economic positions and philosophy in a principal section Restoring the American Dream:Rebuilding the Economy and Creating Jobs.
• The Democratic Party platform for 2012 can be read online. There are many pages at the front of the document dedicated to the economy.

Why it matters

Despite recent financial travails, the United States remains the global economic engine whose condition affects the daily lives of billions of people, especially the poorest in America and elsewhere. But the role of the United States is also changing as other economies — in East Asia, Russia and the European Union — adapt to a globalizing marketplace. Experts say decisions by policymakers in the coming years are likely to have an impact on economic growth and economic justice — or suffering — for years to come.

News articles and research

National Sources

  • Liaquat Ali Khan

    Liaquat Ali Khan is a professor of law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. A native of Pakistan, he focuses his research on terrorism and conflict in Muslim societies. He has written extensively about Islamic law and in 2008 wrote an article for The American Muslim about Islamic perspectives on the economic meltdown.

  • Rebecca M. Blank

    Rebecca M. Blank is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in economics and social policy. She is a past dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and former co-director of the National Poverty Center. Blank is co-author of Is the Market Moral?: A Dialogue on Religion, Economics & Justice. Contact through the Brookings communications office.

    Contact: 202-797-6105.
  • Daniel Finn

    Daniel Finn is a professor of theology and economics St. John’s School of Theology-Seminary in Collegeville, Minn. He is the author of the 2006 book The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims About Markets and Justice. He wrote an article in the Sept. 26, 2008, edition of Commonweal magazine, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free-Market Theology.”

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • Laurence R. Iannaccone

    Laurence R. Iannaccone, (pronounced “YAWN -uh – cone -ee”) director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society and professor of economics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., is a leading authority internationally on the economics of religion. He heads the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture and developed the Consortium for the Economic Study of Religion.

  • Robert T. Miller

    Robert T. Miller is a professor of law at the University of Iowa and a former associate professor at the Villanova University School of Law. He wrote an article for the First Things blog titled “A Conservative Case for the Paulson Plan,” arguing for the $700 billion bailout package.

  • Wilfred M. McClay

    Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also a professor of history. He is a widely published author on issues related to religion in America. He co-edited Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America. He is also a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak, philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, is the author of Questions about Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, 1991). He argued that by the late 1980s, liberation theology was in danger “of slipping into a backwater” because it had done very little to help the poor. He is also author of The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Many consider his book on sports and religion the first and best on the topic.

  • Eduardo Peñalver

    Eduardo Peñalver is a professor at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches property, land use and a course on Catholic social thought and the law. He writes frequently about the economy and justice. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, and he is a blogger at Commonweal.

  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is a Christian author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on policies related to race, immigration and other religion-related issues. Arrange an interview through Meredith Brasher.

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • Christian Answers

    Christian Answers is a mega-site the provides biblical answers to contemporary questions. Contact through the website.

  • Michael Lerner

    Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and founder of the Tikkun Community, a peace and social justice movement. He is also a co-founder The Network of Spiritual Progressives.

    Lerner opposed an immediate economic bailout, saying that the crisis presented an opportunity for society to engage in “ethical and spiritual reconstruction.”


  • Council for Ethical Leadership

    The Council for Ethical Leadership is an association based in Columbus, Ohio of leaders in business, higher education, religion and other professions working together to try to strengthen the ethical fabric of business and economic life.

    Contact: 614-236-7222.
  • Ethics and Public Policy Center

    The Ethics and Public Policy Center is a conservative, Washington, D.C.-based think tank and advocacy group. Founded in 1976, the group describes itself as “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy” and advocacy of founding principles such as the rule of law. The EPPC’s president is Ryan T. Anderson.

  • International Business Ethics Institute

    The International Business Ethics Institute is a  private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1994 in response to the growing need for transnationalism in the field of business ethics. It is based in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-296-6938.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • David Skeel

    David Skeel is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an evangelical Protestant. His courses include one on Christian perspectives on law.

    Skeel has blogged about some theories on what caused the financial crisis.

In the South

In the Midwest

  • Robert Sirico

    The Rev. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s also a Catholic priest. He has argued that marijuana legalization could lead to some social benefits, like a reduction in illegal drug trafficking.

In the West

  • Jim Balassone

    Jim Balassone directs the business ethics programs of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. The center “brings scholars and business people together to address key ethical challenges and develop best practices for building ethical organizational cultures.”

  • Pamela K. Brubaker

    Pamela K. Brubaker is professor emeritus of religion at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. She wrote the article “Making Women and Children Matter: Feminist Ethics Confronts Welfare Policy” for the Journal of Poverty (1999) and the book Women Don’t Count: The Challenge of Women’s Poverty to Christian Ethics (Scholars Press, 1994). [email protected]

  • Anthony Gill

    Anthony Gill, professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle, researches church-state relations from a microeconomic perspective. He teaches a course on religion, politics and economics. His books include Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Church and the State in Latin America. Gill conducts research on community efforts to restrict the property rights of religious groups. He wrote a paper on the subject for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

  • John Mark Reynolds

    John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School. Dr. Reynolds is a senior fellow of humanities at The King’s College in New York City. He is also a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He was also the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute.

    He has blogged about the economic crisis and the tendency to “pile on” about Wall Street greed. Reynolds likens such critics to the friends who blamed Job when troubles beset him.

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