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Economics and Religion: Are They Distinct?

At a time when the Christian Coalition is an increasingly important actor on the political scene and the rational choice perspective is ever more prominent in the sociology of religion, in short, at a time when the boundaries between the sacred, the profane and the disciplines seem to be eroding, it is an act of courage to publish a book which asks "What is the relation between religion and economics [p. 6]?" Happily, Brennan and Waterman have shown that although this question is far from simple, progress can be made in becoming clear about what is involved.

In trying to become clear the editors devise (chapter 1) a nine-fold classification of different meaning combinations of economics and religion, and then focus on the one which identifies economics with positive analysis and religion with theology [p. 10]. Further refinement results in the question which the book most directly addresses, namely, "How sensitive is economics to theological considerations [p. 13]?"

In order to address this question seven case studies are presented (chapters 2-8) which range from the Pentateuch to Keynes, and which form the background for seven interpretative essays (chapters 9-15) and a summary (chapter 16). The approach of Brennan and Waterman is "unashamedly inductive [p. 13]."

The seven case studies will form the most interesting part of Economics and Religion for those who want to draw their own conclusions. The late Barry Gordon leads off with "Theological Positions and Economic Perspectives in Ancient Literature." This paper is especially noteworthy because the writers in question were not trying to do economics. In particular it shows that the "Yahwist" or "J" writers of the Pentateuch (who stressed God's immanence) gave rise to "sustained economic analysis [p. 21]," whereas the "Elohist" or "E" writers (who stressed God's transcendence) gave rise to none. In this and other examples Gordon illustrates that "different positions on theological issues help account for different perspectives on aspects of economic life and its organization [p. 39]."

The remaining case studies are: Waterman on the methodology of Richard Whately (who was the only economist to move directly from a chair in economics to an Archbishopric); John Henry on the work of J. B. Clark (which was influenced by the Social Gospel movement); Inn Steedman on Philip Wicksteed (who was a Unitarian minister from 1867 to 1897); Ross Emmett on the writings of Frank Knight (in which God's absence was a constant theme); Richard Wagner on ORDO liberalism (whose Ordnungstheorie seems to be congruent with the Christian faith and that of nonbelievers); and T. K. Rymes on John Maynard Keynes (who was influenced by G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica). Taken together these studies show that sophisticated economic writers of the last two centuries have been influenced by and dealt with religion in a variety of different ways. One hopes that readers of Economics and Religion wild be inspired to produce their own work - the interpretative essays following the case studies (by Brennan, Cramp, Dow, Harcourt, Heyne, Nelson, and Vaughn) suggest ways to proceed.

Brennan and Waterman, as expected, raise far more questions than they answer. In fact, they explicitly "resist the temptation to draw any inference either from the studies or from the essays [p. 255]." So what began as an act of courage ends in an act of prudence. Such an end is disappointing, notwithstanding the implicit promise of more to come [p. 257].

In looking back over the work of Brennan and Waterman one can see that any understanding of the relation between economics (viewed as positive analysis) and religion (viewed as theology) requires clear notions of the nature of man and the nature of God. As different notions of the nature of God were virtually unexplored in the case studies, more attention to theology would have enhanced their value.

In light of the above it is surely true that (1) economics is distinct from religion and (2) economics is sometimes sensitive to theological considerations. But when it comes to understanding human behavior, economics and religion both have a role to play.

Bruce Larson University of North Carolina at Asheville
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Author:Larson, Bruce
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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