Does Religion Matter?
by Donald Devine
Issue 218– December 26, 2012
Why does it matter if America is a religious country? In the last issue, we used the same Pew Center study used by much of the mainstream media to claim that religion is declining in the U.S. to prove that it is still vibrant compared to any of the nation’s secular institutions. The reaction of many was “so what”? What difference does religion make?
Some claimed that religion actually makes things worse, although the Pew study itself found that even those not affiliated with religion believed it helps support a good society. In answer to this question, the religiously-unaffiliated author Tom Wolfe replied, “Anyone who thinks religion is bad for society is out of his mind.” Even Frankfurt School atheist Jurgen Habermas concedes that raw materialism is bankrupt and will probably have to rely on religion to restore a humane society. What do the historical facts show about the importance of religion or the lack thereof?
A recent book, After the Welfare State by Tom G. Palmer, makes the case that the early 18th Century secular enlightenment was the critical world event that led to modern prosperity, freedom and social order. He used the following scale created from the most reliable data available to demonstrate that was the period when the wealth per capita in the West exploded and provided the takeoff for its continuing greater wealth that still is visible today. The chart data do demonstrate this rise for Western Europe and the U.S. – shown in the top two trend lines – as convincing evidence for his conclusion that secular classical liberalism provided the intellectual and political inspiration for that time’s industrial revolution. Yet, as important as classical liberal ideas were to this crucial period, one of the theorists used to justify Palmer’s general position, Nobel winner F.A. Hayek, argued in his seminal work The Constitution of Liberty that the critical event for the West’s takeoff took place much earlier, during the Middle Ages.
The difference between the two authors is easily resolved. Dr. Palmer used too large a scale in his chart to catch the earlier rise. The “second” later industrial revolution he emphasized was so spectacularly successful it overwhelms the earlier first breakthrough shown below from the same data source relied upon by Mr. Palmer.
As now becomes clear with an appropriate scale for the times, the West economic takeoff did in fact begin much earlier, in the 11th Century, as is confirmed by modern scholars of medievalism such as Jean Gimpel who trace it to the invention of scientific agriculture and water-power manufacturing at Cistercian monasteries as recorded in the English 1086 Doomsday records, together with the rise of merchant banking in Italy at about the same time. Scholars like Hayek emphasize the importance of the earlier moral understandings that underlay the property and civil law essential to markets in creating economic prosperity. That moral system, as acknowledged even by such agnostics as Hayek himself, derrived from Judeo-Christian custom and law.
The social analyst Fareed Zakaria agrees it was Christendom that created the conditions for the rise of the West but that today “ the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures,” citing India and China as modern examples of growth without these values. So the religion of the West may have been critical to early growth but is not critical today. Yet, as the charts demonstrate, even with substantial growth from very low beginnings, both countries still lag very far behind the West in per capita wealth today. They have adopted some market reforms but they are still mainly poor and not very free. India is 128th on the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation worldwide economic freedom ranking, considered “mostly unfree,” and China is in the same category listed at number 138. More important, Mr. Zakaria’s quote has a major hidden qualification – it was not only accepting capitalism that was essential but also adopting the West’s “related institutions” – which very much include its moral system.
The twelfth highest rated economically free and prosperous nation is Bahrain which has free market elements but it is a centralized Sunni monarchy that called in Saudi troops in 2011 to quell a majority Shia uprising, which is still raging. Wealthy Hong Kong is under increasing mainland Chinese controls on its economic freedom. Singapore has only a quasi-free political system, threatened by Chinese, Malay and Muslim conflict. How long will these remain prosperous as their economic freedoms are threatened? Of course, there is no guarantee for the Western cultures either. One of the first European states to rise economically, Italy, has fallen to 92nd freedom rank and 0.4 percent growth. As a result of restrictions on contract rights in the Chrysler, GM and financial nationalizations, the U.S. has slipped in the rankings from “free” economically to only “partially free “ for the past three years.
As Harvard professor David Lands argues in his book Wealth and Poverty of Nations, “culture makes all the difference.” And religion is a central part of culture.
We would argue that America’s historic religion transmitted from Europe has been critical to the West’s spectacular rise as reported in the second table above and to its maintenance over a long period of time as demonstrated in the first for the same reason. To the degree America has lost its religious élan in recent years it also has become only partially free economically. To paraphrase Wolfe, it would be crazy to dismiss the decline of both as one possible explanation for our current stagnation and malaise.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.