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Politics and Religion Do Mix

Paul Marshall

This faith-drenched political primary season is enough to cause even an enthusiastic religious scholar like me to throw up my hands and contemplate joining the ACLU. I now harbor a hitherto unforeseen desire for the candidates to instead prattle on endlessly in Gore-like fashion about tradable differential carbon caps or obscure environmental guarantees in Latin American free-trade agreements, just so long as they let up on the God Talk.

But their habit will not go away — nor should it. The problem with our contemporary talk of faith and politics is not that it exists but that it is so often so very shallow. We live in an increasingly religious world in which faith and belief affect every dimension of our existence, so our politicians better talk about it.

One does not have to be a believer to accept this. The Chinese regime, still officially atheist, represses its believers in part because it believes that Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, and particularly John Paul II, were major factors in undercutting the Soviet Union. Because China wants to avoid the same fate, and because it believes that Christianity has been a major factor in the strength of the West, it is encouraging the development of departments of religion, and centers to study Christianity, in its universities.

Religion does not exist in isolation. It concerns and shapes our fundamental view of the nature of human life and how it is and should be lived. This realization has come home in politics, especially international politics. Obviously, when we are under attack by people whose ideology we cannot understand unless we delve into the history of Islamic law and theology, we must learn to take their religious doctrines seriously.

The future is likely to bring many more debates on how religion shapes not only politics but economics. Of course this question has always been around. Its locus classicus is Max Weber’s misunderstood work on the relation of Protestantism and capitalism. Sadly, Weber never finished this work. The famous title “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” refers not to a book actually written by Weber, but to a collection of his divergent occasional pieces on this topic.

But in what he did finish, Weber argued that the widely dispersed and theologically disciplined work habits encouraged by Protestantism were a factor, though only one, in the development of modern-age “capitalism.” We can argue about the historical details, but the question of how religious ethics can shape economic performance remains with us, and is being revived.

Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary of Harvard University have used the results of World Values Surveys to study the relation between religion and economic attitudes. They found that many religious beliefs concerning cooperation, government, working women, legal rules, thriftiness and the market economy are conducive to higher per-capita income and growth. Religion appears to have an effect on economic growth and development by fostering thrift, a work ethic, honesty and openness to strangers. This has lead to the notion of “spiritual capital,” analogous to human capital, which focuses on knowledge and behavior stemming from transcendent concepts and ultimate concerns.

Their model stresses the importance of freedom, not only in economics per se, but in religion itself. Religion most often has positive effects when it is free. This model is reinforced by the results of our recently concluded survey of international religious freedom. The countries with the worst religious freedom records, including Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have, unless they have oil, terrible economic records. Similar relations hold for those in the middle and for those with high levels of freedom: The highest 30 countries in rankings of economic freedom all scored highly on religious freedom.

Barro and McCleary’s work suggests that this is more than a mere correlation: There is good reason to think that religious freedom leads to good economic outcomes. The current evidence indicates that closed religious systems hamper economic development. Hence, if we want economic growth and development, we need to permit religious groups and people to follow their beliefs. In this case, economists should join political scientists in examining religion more seriously.

Whether we like it or not, religion is likely to remain central to politics, and even economics. This means that in the future, politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans, are likely to expand their talk of religion on the campaign trail. We should not dismiss this as if religion were a mere irrational prejudice or interest-group totem. We should instead demand that politicians address these fundamental issues in a serious, coherent and empirically grounded way. If they do not do so, they (and we) will misunderstand our all-too-religious world.

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