Turning Max Weber on His Head

A review of Benjamin Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
by edward tenner

Tenner Edward Friedman Book

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
By Benjamin Friedman
Knopf, 2021

edward tenner, a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University, is currently a visitor in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Published March 9, 2021


For over a century, journalists and academics alike have found the possible linkage between religious faith and national economic success irresistible. In 1905 the sociologist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, seeing the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (the limitation of grace and salvation to divinely pre-selected souls) as motivation for a frugal and productive lifestyle. Since then, Weber’s ideas, originally offered in a tentative spirit, have been embraced, modified, discredited and (coming full circle) resurrected.

The linkage between the spiritual and the material is not confined to the West. Scholars assert that the Buddhist concept of kaizen, originally translated as self-improvement, is a key to Japan’s deserved reputation for high-quality goods and constant product refinement. On the flip side, others — notably, the economic historian Timur Kuran, the author of Islam and Mammon, have blamed the economic malaise of much of the Middle East on the influence of aspects of Islamic law.

Who’s on First?

In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Benjamin Friedman, the former chair of the economics department at Harvard (and a longtime friend), does not attempt to document Weber’s alleged causality. Quite the contrary: just as Karl Marx argued that Hegel’s dialectic was standing on its head (and he, Marx, had turned it right side up), Friedman has rotated Weber’s idea 180 degrees. He argues that it was the abandonment of the concept of predestination by 18th-century Scottish clerics that paved the way for the conceptual revolution led by Adam Smith, and thence to societal support for free-market capitalism.

Divinity faculty in 18th-century Edinburgh, it is important to note, were not segregated in separate schools as they are at the leading American private universities that maintain divinity schools today. For example, Adam Ferguson, Smith’s contemporary, who was a licensed Church of Scotland preacher as well as a professor of moral philosophy, was a writer on economics, too.

In this period, Edinburgh’s theologians were beginning to question the pessimistic assumptions of predestination, especially the orthodox Calvinist notion of innate human depravity. The clergy that Smith and his older and much-admired friend David Hume encountered belonged to the Moderate faction that took a new and more optimistic view of human nature as open to cooperation and mutual benefit.

The Moderates were successors to a line of thought that had originated in French Roman Catholic circles — namely, the paradoxical belief that fallen men and women pursuing their own self-interest could build mutually beneficial communities. Without completely abandoning the idea of original sin, they rejected the concept of total depravity that implied that people were unable to make wise choices.

Their ideas indirectly helped Smith substitute the principle of sympathy, a natural capacity for cooperation and benevolence. Rejecting the more cynical celebration of self-interest espoused by the Dutch-born physician Bernard Mandeville in his satire Fable of the Bees, Smith argued for a society based on mutual advantage. To this theological and ethical assumption, Smith added the elegance of natural science as epitomized by Isaac Newton’s demonstration of how the universe, divinely created, could be systematically understood by humans through the discovery of its simple laws.

American Particularism

At this point Friedman changes his focus to the United States, which in the 19th and 20th centuries was as exceptional in terms of religious ferment as Scotland had been in the 18th. The latter had only a handful of major religious currents. By contrast, the young republic visited by Alexis de Tocqueville was a cauldron of old and new creeds, immigrants of every faith, born-again revival preachers, and the kinds of spiritual entrepreneurs who have been with us ever since. Friedman shows that here, too, some of the earliest economic writers were clergymen.

The New England colonies of Smith’s time, Friedman explains, were originally a stronghold of the Calvinist orthodoxy already waning in England and immortalized in theologian Jonathan Edwards’ terrifying sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But multiple forces were sapping this citadel by the time of the American Revolution: the evangelism of John Wesley, the influence of Scottish Enlightenment theology, and the ascent of natural theology that saw God’s hand in the universe and held out promise for human harmony as part of the divine plan. Deism’s model of God as an impersonal divine watchmaker, inspired by Newton, was also gaining favor, along with liberal Protestant Unitarianism. And the growing spiritual diversity of the colonies at independence promoted the beginnings of a common civil religion transcending creeds.

We are left to conclude that the Scottish enlightenment, rejecting strict predestination in favor of an optimistic view of human capabilities on earth, actually gave birth to both sides of our political divide, one trusting to policies designed by professional experts, the other seeking to restore the primacy of individual, church and local self-reliance.

Americans were heirs to generations of European writings, including those of the philosophers John Locke and David Hume regarding human history as the story of progress driven by population pressure. This pressure led successively from hunting and gathering, through herding and then agriculture, and ultimately to the division of labor. Ideas of progress through the accumulation of knowledge helped create new forms of millenarianism, continuing into our own time. Think of the artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near, which predicted, in the author’s website summary, “the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

One expression of the fusion of religious zeal and national aspiration were the writings of Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister whose role as president of Brown University called on him to teach moral philosophy to college seniors. In his lectures, he argued that free exchange among nations was part of God’s plan for human harmony and improvement. Wayland was the first economist anywhere, Friedman notes, to propose the possibility of endless growth through technological innovation. By the late 19th century, disputes within major denominations revolved around the Gospel of Wealth — the philanthropic duty of the new millionaire class — and the Social Gospel — the imperative of public action to combat the slums, malnutrition and epidemics plaguing the new industrial order and its cities.

Ultimately, the most dynamic Christian movement turned out to be “dispensational premillennialism,” preparation for Christ’s imminent return to reform earth inaugurating a new era before the Last Judgment. Inspired by the Chicago publisher and revivalist Dwight Moody, it rejected all social reform movements in favor of the redemption of individual souls. In the 1920s it remained marginal, out of step with Jazz Age modernist optimism and apparently discredited by William Jennings Bryan’s pyrrhic victory in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.

Friedman shows how it nonetheless surged during the Depression, born of harrowing losses at home and the rise of Communism and Nazism in Europe and then compounded after World War II by the threat of nuclear annihilation that quickened end-time thinking. In the 1930s, fundamentalist evangelical professors began to secede from old-line Protestant seminaries. New divinity schools and universities, supported by wealthy conservative opponents of the New Deal, are still helping to shape much Christian opinion in the 21st century. The technocracy of professional economics and economic policymaking, as introduced by John Maynard Keynes in England, was anathema.

Very Loose Ends

This is the background of a paradox that marks the end point of Friedman’s account: the opposition of so many middle-class Americans to measures in their economic interest, such as higher marginal rates of income tax on the wealthy and the federal inheritance tax (cleverly renamed the “death tax” by its foes). Convincingly rebutting notions that these views result from false optimism over personal prospects, or by distraction created by hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Friedman argues that they actually reflect longstanding rejection of the welfare state in favor of voluntary mutual assistance in local communities of believers. 

We are left to conclude that the Scottish enlightenment, rejecting strict predestination in favor of an optimistic view of human capabilities on earth, actually gave birth to both sides of our political divide, one trusting to policies designed by professional experts, the other seeking to restore the primacy of individual, church and local self-reliance. What the Moderates of Edinburgh would have thought of the religious aspect of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, God only knows.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is a virtuoso synthesis of ideas and issues from the Renaissance to the resurgence of the American Evangelical right. And like other important books of its genre, this study raises intriguing further questions.

If economic conservatism is at least indirectly linked to rejection of strict predestination, why has the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church in Michigan been so prominent in conservative circles, represented in the Trump administration by the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, daughter of the self-made Dutch-American billionaire automobile parts manufacturer, Edgar Prince? 

Were rank-and-file white Evangelicals necessarily opposed to higher taxes on the rich during the Depression? Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, Franklin Roosevelt’s most determined critic on the populist left, rallied his devout rural followers with biblical rhetoric. While Long’s potential national appeal as a rival to FDR has been debated, perhaps the role of religion in politics — as Donald Trump showed in 2016 — may depend as much on personalities as on doctrines.

How do rural opponents of the Deep State reconcile this antipathy with government with their communities’ disproportionate dependence on federal largesse? To progressives, their rhetoric is sheer hypocrisy. But is it not possible that this very reliance on government makes them uncomfortable for failing to live up to their own ideals? And that they resolve this feeling by redoubling their conservative allegiance? (Think cognitive dissonance.)

A related question: what accounts for the paradox of greater white Evangelical Protestant influence on economic and political ideas at a time when the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as Christian (including Protestants of all denominations) has been declining “at a rapid pace” according to the Pew Research Center? Friedman correctly emphasizes Americans’ unusual religious commitment among the richest nations, but that distinction seems to be waning. Could this be part of the answer — that the perceived threat of losing influence and a way of life can galvanize action more effectively than growth in their numbers?

Whatever the answers, Benjamin Friedman has breathed new life into the great tradition of political economy.

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