David Brat’s interests in economics and Christian values received attention from Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for The Washington Post (article titled “David Brat’s Victory Comes with a Rise in the Crossroads of Religion and Economics,” June 14, 2014, Local Section of the Post). She observes that Brat’s victory over now former House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor has brought greater attention to the work of Christian economists, especially conservative Christians who are interested in thinking about economics from an overtly Christian perspective. There are, however, some inaccurate or, at the very least, partially correct statements made in the article about economics and religion.
As I noted in my previous post, Boorstein is right to report that religion hardly receives attention in the field of economics. But this does not mean that religion and economics has not been studied at all—it’s just that the study of both has not established a foothold in mainstream economics. What is curious, however, is that Boorstein quotes a couple of economists who claim that the study of the intersections between religion and economics did not start until the 1990s.
Well, there may be truth to that claim depending on what one means by the “study of religion and economics” or the “question of how religion and economics influence one another.” On the one hand, the claim may very well be true if we’re talking about the study of religion and economics by academic or professional economists, especially conservative Christian economists who are doing economics explicitly from a conservative Christian identity. I have no reason to doubt that kind of inquiry began in the 1990s, at least on a factual basis that I know of.
On the other hand, it would be incorrect to say that religion and economics have not been the topic of serious, sustained study by Christians generally speaking, particularly Christian theologians and ethicists. In this case, Christian theology and ethics has been engaged in economic issues and questions for quite some time, especially among progressive, mainline Protestants since the social gospel movement of the early 20th century. In contemporary Catholicism, at least at the level of papal teaching, religion and economics has been a focal point since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). Indeed, as Boorstein’s article states, the current pope Francis has made many high profile statements regarding economic matters (poverty, nature of work, inequality, etc.), but apart from his willingness to speak overtly about it and emphasize the Church’s teaching on such issues, his message is in many respects consistent with what the Church has been saying since Leo XIII. (And, let’s be clear, modern Catholic teaching on economics has been more than reluctant to embrace free market capitalism. Even John Paul II! How else to interpret his reflections on solidarity [Solicitudo Socialis], the dignity of work [Laborem Excercens], and many other letters he penned throughout his pontificate?)
But the larger issue that continues to occupy my attention is not when the subfield of religion and economics began, or whether conservative Christians should be more interested in engaging economics (alongside traditional conservative cultural concerns), or whether conservative Christian economists should engage their work as economists and conservative Christians. The larger issue is: to the extent that Christian theologians and ethicists have been reflecting on economic questions and issues for some time now, why don’t they receive more attention in mainstream economic research and discourse? Moreover, why don’t they receive more attention in mainstream media? Why has mainstream media coverage on economics generally ignored those engagements with economics by Christian theologians and ethicists? Perhaps mainstream media doesn’t even realize there is such a field of study as Christian economics ethics (i.e., Christian theological and ethical reflections on economic trends, theories, methods, etc.)! Whether that is the fault of mainstream media or Christian theologians and ethicists is a question I will not venture into now. But it is a question worth pondering, for it may end up telling us a lot about the nature of Christian economic ethics (whether Christian theologians and ethicists are thinking about economics in the most “useful” way). It may also tell us a lot about the way the media, as well as academic economics, perceive Christian theology and ethics.