The free market and American Christianity

In my last post, I summarized Mark Noll’s (America’s God) belief that American evangelicals in the early 19th century generally accepted the developing free market, which brought great economic and social change to the new U.S.  I thought that Noll’s fuller explanation deserved an extended quote:

European Protestants, who for the most part maintained the ideal of Christendom, regularly thought in terms of all-encompassing models of life-as-a-whole, including economics, [sic] But since the United States’ disestablishmentarian evangelicals had given up earlier ideals of Christendom, they often found themselves reacting to changes and circumstances in the economic arena over which their ancestors had once tried to exert self-conscious control.  In their choice for voluntary spiritual suasion, they set aside self-conscious attention to the structures of society.  American evangelicals largely stopped trying to construct complete worldviews; in practice, their pietism drove them to a function division of life into a sacred sphere, which received comprehensive and self-conscious attention, and a secular sphere, which did not…. By limiting the goals of their activity [to transforming society through religious revivals, which were successful], the evangelicals also increased the likelihood that dimensions of society they now neglected would influence them unself-consciously. (224)

Today, when politically conservative American Christians talk about a “biblical worldview,” the free market seems to find its way in as nearly an article of faith.  (Please correct me if I’m in error about this.)  Don’t get me wrong: a compelling Christian case can be (and often has been) made for free market capitalism governed by Christian ethics, and it’s a system that I think is the best, even with its flaws.  But I don’t buy the idea that free market capitalism is the only logical economic philosophy that one can draw from the Scriptures.

Noll writes in the footnote to the passage that I quoted above that American Christians did not begin to write in a disciplined way about  “political economy” until the 1830s and 1840s.  The new market system had developed for several decades by that time.  Noll’s explanation might help to explain the entrenchment of the free market in American Christian thought.


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