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Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as God and the National Economics Standards

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God and the National Economics Standards

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For some time now, evolution and sex education have been the curricular targets drawing the most fire from religious combatants in our culture wars, while all has been quiet on the economics front. So far as I know, there have been no lawsuits, no pitched school board battles, no polarizing direct-mail campaigns over economics textbooks or curricula.

And yet, as I read them, the national economics content standards and the standard economics textbooks are deeply hostile to religion. ("Voluntary Standards for Economics Released," Jan. 15, 1997.)

How so?

Before answering this question it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the relevance of religion to economics from within most religious traditions.

No doubt it would be anachronistic to suggest that the Hebrew and Christian Bibles or the Koran take positions on capitalism or socialism (creations of the 18th and 19th centuries), but over and over again they do take positions on wealth and poverty, work and stewardship, justice and human nature--all of which are very much relevant to economics.

What may be less familiar to some is the vast theological literature of the last century dealing with economics. Within Christianity, for example, this literature ranges from Pope Leo XIII's seminal 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, through the Protestant Social Gospel, Reinhold Neibuhr's Christian Realism, and liberation theology, to Pope John Paul II's recent encyclical Centesimus Annus. Most mainline Christian denominations and ecumenical organizations have official statements addressing economic issues.

Central to Scripture and this recent theological literature is the claim that we must employ moral and religious categories to understand economic issues, ideals, and institutions. As the American Catholic bishops put it in their 1986 statement on the economy, we must guard against a "tragic separation" between religion and our economic life. People cannot "immerse [them]selves in earthly activities as if [they] were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfillment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations." Indeed, economists, like all of us, must realize that "human dignity, realized in community with others and with the whole of God's creation, is the norm against which every social institution is measured."

So what do the economics standards and the texts say about human dignity, community with others, and God's creation? More generally, what do they say about religious approaches to economics?

Twice I've reviewed high school economics texts for their treatment of religion (in 1989 and again in 1997). If we string end to end all of the sentences referring to religion in the 10 texts I reviewed, we end up with about two pages--out of 4,400 altogether--and virtually all of these references are to the distant past.

The sole reference to religion in the 47 pages of the National Content Standards in Economics is to religious as one among several types of nonprofit organizations.

The standards and the texts ignore religion--and that is a part of the problem. But what they do say is also part of the problem.

The standards and the textbooks begin--and end--in the world of neoclassical economic theory, a world of competition for scarce resources by (essentially, if not entirely) self-interested utility-maximizers. Of course, no religious tradition allows self-interest to be accepted as normative. While neither the standards nor the texts insist that all action is self-interested, they show no interest whatever in altruism or compassion. When is it good to overcome self-interest? They aren't interested. (Generally speaking, neoclassical theory emphasizes individualism over community, while within virtually every religious tradition society is understood communally: We are born into webs of obligation with other people, with all of creation, and with God.)

Ever since Adam Smith, economists have believed that self-interest makes the economic world go round, and Smith's "invisible hand" is still to be seen (so to speak) in these standards and texts. Self-interest and competitive markets lead to the "wealth of nations" and the maximization of preference satisfaction. We might wonder, however, whether justice is served in all of this, but neither the standards nor the texts discuss justice.

Within neoclassical theory, economic decisions should be matters of cost-benefit analysis in which the objective is to maximize the satisfaction of preferences or wants; because economics is a "value free" science there are no right or wrong wants, and value judgments are essentially subjective. But all religions hold that some wants are intrinsically wrong--and that we have duties that are not subject to the kind of weighing that is integral to cost-benefit analysis.

The standards emphasize the value of specialization, but say nothing about the dangers of "overspecialization" that worried even Adam Smith, and they ignore the problem of dehumanizing work. From within all religious traditions, work must be understood in moral and spiritual as well as in economic terms; indeed, from within many religious traditions, work is regarding as a calling, as a way in which we fulfill our obligations to God by using our talents for the good of humanity. Needless to say, there is nothing of this in the standards or the texts.

The standards give no moral weight to the needs of the poor, yet virtually every religious tradition has placed special emphasis on compassion and the duty to help the poor and oppressed: God has a special concern for the widow and orphan, for the "least" of those among us. Almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Compassion is perhaps the fundamental Buddhist virtue.

Given the wealth and technological advantages of the Western industrial democracies, and overpopulation and poverty in the Third World, questions of international justice and the distribution of wealth are especially important religiously, and many theologians (not least Pope John Paul II) have spoken out forcefully regarding First World obligations to the Third World. The standards say nothing about these issues.

While some religious traditions (Catholicism and Buddhism, for example) have found special virtue in monasticism and vows of poverty, most have not condemned wealth per se, but rather the undue attachment to wealth that keeps us from God. But virtually all religious traditions condemn contemporary consumer culture for nurturing attachments to wealth and the material goods of this life. Our economic system thrives by encouraging acquisitiveness, by creating stronger (and new) desires for consumer goods, requiring that we devote ever more time, energy, and education to economic pursuits. The content standards and accompanying textbooks are silent about this problem.

Technology and economic growth are uncritically praised in the standards, and there is no discussion of their possible costs to, for example, the environment. Western theology has not been particularly sensitive to environmental issues until the last several decades, but discussions of stewardship and the sacredness of nature have become pervasive in contemporary theology. Again, neither the standards nor the texts address this as a moral, much less a spiritual, problem.

The way we teach economics contributes to the secularization and de-moralization of our economic life.

The problem isn't so much that theologians and economists take different positions on any particular issue; nor is it a matter of left-right politics. Rather, it's that economics texts and courses teach students to conceive all of economics in secular, nonmoral categories. In fact, as things now stand, schools don't teach the subject of economics--for subjects are open to various interpretations. Rather, they teach economics as a discipline, a particular way of thinking--that is found in neoclassical economic theory--and they do so uncritically, without informing students that there are alternatives.

In the introduction to the new National Content Standards in Economics, the editors tell us that the standards were developed to convey a single conception of the world of economics--the "majority paradigm" or "neoclassical model" of economic behavior. For, the introduction continues, to include "strongly held minority views of economic processes [only] risks confusing and frustrating teachers and students who are then left with the responsibility of sorting the qualifications and alternatives without a sufficient foundation to do so."

This is--need I say it?--a truly appalling statement, for what it means is that K-12 students should be indoctrinated in, rather than educated about, economics.

In the end, neoclassical economic theory may provide the best way of thinking about economics. Maybe. To make educated judgments, however, students must be able to think critically; they must have the perspective to assess contending ways of thinking about a subject. But we provide students no such perspective on the "majority paradigm" of economics. When we disagree, public schools should teach the conflicts. Indeed, to teach only one way of thinking about anything that is deeply controversial is profoundly illiberal.

If religious perspectives on economics were taught elsewhere in the curriculum--in a course in religious studies, for example--the parochial nature of the economics texts and content standards wouldn't be so dangerous, but there are no such courses. But even if there were, it would be incumbent on economists to relate their views to the alternatives. A good liberal education would put economic theories in cultural context, drawing connections and noting conflicts with other disciplines. Economics must not be an island to itself where students are uncritically taught to think in one particularly controversial way without ever learning that there are alternatives.

How should economics be taught? I'm not asking for equal time; I'm not proposing that economics texts become texts in moral theology. I do believe that at the very least, the opening chapter(s) of any economics text and the opening session(s) of any economics course should put the discipline of economics into broad historical and philosophical perspective. Students should learn that the ways of thinking about economics they will study are controversial, that there are secular and religious alternatives, and something about them. Most economics textbooks are less parochial than the standards document, in that they include chapters on Marxism and socialism. Why not say something about religious accounts of justice and economics as well? Economics teachers must know enough about religion to alert students when texts convey religiously debatable assumptions and claims and, ideally, use primary sources drawn from a variety of religious traditions to supplement texts in dealing with particularly important, religiously contested issues.

No doubt some educators will fret that this must be unconstitutional. But it isn't. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that it is constitutionally permissible to teach about religion in public schools so long as this is done objectively or neutrally. Religious views of history or nature or morality or economics can't be promoted or advocated, but they can certainly be studied. This isn't controversial.

Indeed, it might be argued that the study of religion should be required on constitutional grounds. Ever since its seminal 1947 ruling in Everson v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the government (and, therefore, public schools) must be neutral in matters of religion. As public institutions, they cannot favor one religion over others. Neither can they favor religion over nonreligion--or, for that matter, nonreligion over religion.

Of course, public schools do favor nonreligion over religion. They teach nonreligious ways of understanding every "subject" in the curriculum over the religious alternatives. This is not only illiberal, it is not religiously neutral--and as such should be recognized as unconstitutional.

What happens when we divorce economics from religion? The sociologist Robert Wuthnow has written: "Asked if their religious beliefs had influenced their choice of a career, most of the people I have interviewed in recent years--Christians and non-Christians alike--said no. Asked if they thought of their work as a calling, most said no. Asked if they understood the concept of stewardship, most said no. Asked how religion did influence their work lives or thoughts about money, most said the two were completely separate." The way we teach economics contributes to the secularization and de-moralization of our economic life.

In spite of our affluence and economic success, we find ourselves engulfed in a catastrophic environmental crisis, mindless consumerism, oftentimes meaningless work, nagging poverty, monumental problems of justice relating to the Third World and, even in the richest of countries, something that looks very much like a crisis of spirit.

Arguably, the most important issues relating to economics are moral and spiritual. Even if we disagree about this, it is important to understand why many people believe this. Alas, the economics standards and texts are oblivious to the moral and spiritual domains of life--as well as to the requirements of a liberal education.


Warren A. Nord is the director of the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (University of North Carolina Press, 1995) and, with Charles C. Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (ascd Press, 1998).

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 34,48

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