De-Mythologizing the Myth of Economism

[1] On the corner of Lexington and 54th Street in New York City you will find Saint Peter’s Church. You can enter this granite marvel–architecturally conceived by Hugh Stubbins and W. Easley Hamner in the 1970s—on street level and then either descend to the worship center or ascend to the library and coffee room. Rising immediately above St. Peter’s sanctuary for 915 feet is the headquarters of Citibank. Whereas the church’s sanctuary holds 360 worshippers devoted to the Creator of the Cosmos, the CitiCorp Center towering above it is one of the ten tallest skyscrapers in New York, with 59 floors and 1.3 million square feet of office space. The church attached to CitiCorp looks like a fly riding on a Clydesdale.

[2] Today, the Christian religion–right along with all other religions and worldviews–finds itself enveloped by, and towered over by, another more dominant religion. That omnipresent and nearly omnipotent religion is economism. Homo sapiens on Planet Earth have entered the Econocene era, so to speak, the stage in human evolution where human minds, beliefs, daily aspirations, institutions, and measurements of history are filtered and framed through a single dominating lens, namely, the economic narrative regarding what constitutes reality. Economism provides the twenty-first century with its conceptual set, its worldview, its myth through which we understand ourselves and interpret the course of both personal and political events. Because of the totalization of the economic worldview, economism functions nearly invisibly as the religion which unites the world across national and ethnic boundaries.

[3] In what follows I would like to describe economism, especially in America, and add a prophetic analysis. Like a carpenter putting a roof on a house, I’ll build on a structure already begun by my teaching colleague at the University of California and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, economist and ecologist Richard Norgaard. Norgaard’s Great Transition Initiative seeks a cultural revolution that will bring down the religion of economism and replace it with a single planetary society governed by human care for one another and care for the ecosphere which nourishes and sustains all life. Whereas the religion of economism estranges the human race from the Earth, Norgaard’s vision of an as-yet-unnamed global moral renewal readies us for a reformation, or better, for supersession.

[4] I want to augment Norgaard’s description of economism as a religion. Although treating economism as a religion already illuminates some aspects of the phenomenon, adding the term, myth, shines a brighter light on the subject. The term, myth, provides more direct access to the near invisible manner in which economism frames, if not governs, today’s social thought. I recommend we think of economism as a myth, as a cultural mind-set, as a frame of interpretation which heavily influences our view of reality.1 My employment of “myth” overlaps largely though not exhaustively with Norgaard’s term, “religion,” and I hope it adds something.

[5] The myth microscope will reveal just how economism masters our minds. As a myth, economism becomes subject to de-mythologizing, to an interpretation that exposes its existential and moral underframe. Because of the value of the religion metaphor, I propose to add the myth metaphor, not substitute it.

How did economics become a religion?

[6] Why might we even suggest that economics could be compared to religion? After all, economics deals with the material things whereas religion deals with spiritual matters, right? Economics is just an academic theory, whereas religion is an institution with members and worship and such, right? Economics is based on science, whereas religious people live out of faith, right? No, this is not right. In fact, all these assumptions provide a handy smoke screen to hide the invisible religious character of economism. Here is how Norgaard describes economism.

[7] Our concern here is with economism as a widely held system of faith. This modern religion is essential for the maintenance of the global market economy, for justifying personal decisions, and for explaining and rationalizing the cosmos we have created. This uncritical economic creed has colonized other disciplines, including ecology, as ecologists increasingly rely on economistic logic to rationalize the protection of ecosystems. More broadly, economism often works syncretically with the world’s religions even though it violates so many of their basic tenets. A Great Transition is needed to replace economism with an equally powerful and pervasive belief system that embraces the values of solidarity, sustainability, and well-being for all.2

[8] Even though economism is most dominant in the United States, Norgaard concludes that economism has reshaped diverse cultures to become for the planet its “modern secular religion.”3

[9] My own treatment of economism will follow the method of public theology enhanced by Langdon Gilkey’s hermeneutic of secular experience. With this method I have for several decades been analyzing the structure of myths that model reality for modern and emerging postmodern culture. The hermeneutic of secular experience identifies hidden or disguised dimensions of ultimacy which lurk below the surface of secular practices or ideologies, dimensions of ultimacy which interpret reality in such a way that they enlist faithful adherence.4 It then de-mythologizes the myth that governs social and cultural thinking. The concept of myth with which I work is based on that provided by Gilkey.

[10] Modern societies, scientific and secular, liberal or communistic, in comprehending and dealing with their historical existence depend as much as did traditional religious societies upon a fundamental mythical structure symbolically expressing…ultimacy and the sacred….myth represents the symbols through which the religious substance of a culture or a community’s life in historical passage expresses itself.5

[11] The hermeneutic of secular experience focuses the spotlight used by the public theologian, even the political theologian. Political theology seeks “to illuminate our own political experience,” says Yale Law School professor, Paul Kahn.6 Demythologizing political self-understanding–in this case economic self-understanding–turns on a pivotal insight: “Political theology begins with the observation that many of our important political concepts come to us as secularized versions of theological concepts.”7 By applying this observation to economism, I intend to make this hidden fact visible. By making visible what is partially hidden, the public theologian as political theologian takes on the prophetic role of cultural critic.8

[12] The hermeneutic of secular experience takes place from within the bird cage, not from an external or objective perch. As Carmelo Santos makes clear, “The work of theological and ethical reflection is done by particular human beings in specific circumstances, imbued by the ethos and pathos of the Sitz im Leben in which they have been formed and in which they live, think and write.”9 Interpretation is inescapably self-interpretation.

Our Money Mind and the Dimension of Ultimacy

[13] As a public theologian employing the hermeneutic of secular experience, I turn now to the culture within which we live and move and share our self-understanding, economism. Our objective here is to uncover its mythical framework through which existential and moral questions get posed. That we are dealing with the dimension of ultimacy is clear when we recall the rise of the discipline of economics over the last century. One of the founders of the market-oriented Chicago school of economics, Frank Knight, already in 1932 declared that economics would have to become the equivalent of a religion with basic tenets hidden from public view. “There must be ultimates, and they must be religious” contended Knight. He went on to contend that if someone were to question the purported “objectivity” of economic tenets the questioner should be treated as if in violation of what is sacred. “To inquire into the ultimates behind accepted group values is obscene and sacrilegious,” he added.10 We can see how nearly a century ago the discipline of economics was taking on dogmatic status with an authority that relegates criticism to heterodoxy.

[14] Ordinarily, dogmas distinguish sharply between what is orthodox and heterodox. This does not exactly apply to economism, however. What turns economic theory into the religion of economism is not outright dogma; rather, it is the power of its myth to formulate the questions society asks. Economism’s presupposed conceptual set functions to filter language and ideas in such a way that our mental assessments and values become pre-structured, so to speak. Relentless economic discourse fogs our minds with interpretations of reality offered hourly in radio, television, and internet communications. The televised Sunday morning worship services of the 1950s have been replaced with stock market reports, economic projections, and investor handwringing. Hunting bear has been replaced by bear markets, and milking cows with bull markets.

[15] One example is the relationship between nature, land, and property. Economism has changed nature into land, and land today has become property complete with for-sale signs, mortgages, ownership, and property taxes. Property belongs to individuals, not to the common good or to the planet. The very concept of belonging has become reversed: whereas our ancestors belonged to the land, now the land belongs to some individuals but not others. Theological ethicist Mary Gaebler uncovers the invisible logic: “Property law in the United States…divide[s] natural systems into independent entities, but it makes nature particularly vulnerable to human greed and mistakenly sets individual benefit against the common good.”11 By living in this mythical mental structure in the twenty-first century, human beings today have become estranged from the shared natural domain which gave us birth and still, indirectly, sustains and nourishes all creatures.

What are the tenets in the religion of economism?

[16] At least two competing schools of thought contend with one another in the broad field of economics: the totally unregulated market school versus the government regulated school. Both speak the one language of economese, and both contribute to the social myth.12

[17] Within this more comprehensive culture of economic thought, we find the specific sect Norgaard identifies as economism: namely, the exclusively market-oriented neo-liberal school of economics. As Moses is to biblical religion and Gautama to Buddhism, Milton Friedman (1912-2006) at the University of Chicago is to the religion of economism. Friedman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976 and became chief economic advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Friedman has not revealed the equivalent of Moses’ Ten Commandments or Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, yet the faith of economism has become creedal and its tenets identifiable.

[18] Each tenet–what I call a mythologeme or plank in the myth’s platform–begins with a surface faith statement accompanied by a somewhat cynical shadow side. In public debate, the missionaries for economism jockey to keep their faith tenets in the light so as to keep the shadow out of sight. Below are seven tenets of economism which illustrate the faith at work.13

[19] 1. Freedom and the market require each other. “Economic freedom is…an indispensible means toward the achievement of political freedom,” trumpets Friedman.14 In the econocene era, we experience our freedom most dramatically at the shopping mall or when searching for good deals on the internet. Existentially, we construct our self-identity through consumption, by purchasing merchandise which identifies us with an economic class, with in-group fashion, or World Series champs. Because we experience choosing what to buy, this convinces us that we have freedom of choice. Further, those who protect the market become viewed as the champions of freedom. Lurking in the shadows, however, is the dim awareness that even though we can choose what to buy we cannot choose what is put up for sale. Such awareness reveals the difference between consumers and producers. By selling freedom of choice to shoppers, what the public is surreptitiously buying is unencumbered freedom for the producers.

[20] 2. Freedom is individual. Freedom belongs to the autonomous individual who needs to be liberated from dependencies on government, family, tradition, and even neurotic self-limitations. “Cooperation is strictly individual and voluntarily provided.”15 Because fashion shops offer such variety and because we assume that choice is individual, our purchase choices either reinforce our family identity or liberate us from it. We become self-made through what we buy. The shadow accompanying individual freedom is denial of our inescapable interdependence not only with human community but also with the natural world. The question–should we value the natural domain as a common good?–cannot get asked. There is no room for the common good in economism.16

[21] 3. Cost-Benefit analysis applies to every dimension of living. Everything has a price. If we can’t afford it, we become defined by our socio-economic limits. If we can afford it, we believe we can enhance our freedom to become what we choose to be. This quietly persuades us that the value of all things is determined by their price. Even the environment has a price: we purchase a healthy environment by sacrificing jobs for workers. The high priests of economism tell us: the health of our ecosphere is something to be purchased if the price is right. Any other value system which might treasure beauty, knowledge, health, longevity, or moral integrity becomes folded into the only means of evaluating exchange, cost and benefit. What frustrates Norgaard is that within the myth of economism one cannot get enough traction to combat anthropogenic climate change on behalf of the future of our planet. Roman Catholic Pope Francis, who adheres to a religion other than economism, can say flatly what needs to be said: §23. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”17

[22] 4. Personal transcendence is achieved through greed. Greed is the gasoline that runs the global economy. The human person understood by economists as homo economicus is engaged in a never-ending competition for resources. Allegedly, the competitive greed of all the individuals put together produces a well oiled and harmonious global machine that spits out advancement, achievement, wealth, and meaning. Greed becomes morally justified because it contributes simultaneously to one’s own material advance as well as the growth of the world’s wellbeing. An Invisible Hand, according to Adam Smith, transmutes individual profit motives into economic health for the entire society. “Every individual…intends only his own gain, and he is…led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”18 The unrecognized shadow is that greed is a form of sin, which means that at any moment it could, like a sleeping dragon, rise up to destroy whatever has been built. The ever lurking potential for destruction is due to greed’s insatiability, something Martin Luther points out. “Sir Greed is such a jolly guest that he does not let anyone rest. He seeks, pushes, and hunts without stopping, so that he cannot enjoy his precious property for a single hour.”19

[23] 5. The American Dream is attainable by anyone who works hard. Freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success in terms of upward social mobility regardless of one’s status at birth. Historian James Truslow Adams gave this faith a name, The American Dream, in 1931: life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.[20] The American Dream is made up of two components. First, the dreamer must be deserving of reward. Hard work is the purported criterion by which virtue or merit is measured. Second, the economic system–the market–can be relied upon to distribute rewards to the deserving. Whereas premodern religion relied upon the judgment of God to reward virtuous lives or meritorious works, in modern economism the market has taken over God’s role. The shadow side is that the American Dream can become a frustrating nightmare for the undeserving. For an African American designated “undeserving” by a racist ethos, the market cannot deliver its blessings. “I have seen that dream all my life,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways.”21 But, this dream is limited to those of the deserving race. “The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a man.”22

[24] 6. Growth is our savior. Continued and uninterrupted economic growth belongs to our destiny and will over time provide all that the human race needs: good health, financial security, maximum freedom, national dominance, and luxury. The idea of uninterrupted growth becomes a smokescreen that covers up current economic injustice; growth promises the eventual overcoming of poverty. The alternative to growth would be immediate distributive justice which appeals to a morality that transcends the economy. Distributive justice would necessarily be the responsibility of a government-influenced economy, because the market cannot on its own create or sustain justice. Without a government committed to justice, believers in economism must trust in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” which, some day, will hand the poor among us the same wealth we see touted by the billionaires in today’s daily news.

[25] 7. Government restriction on freedom of production is evil, plain and simple. “To the liberal,” writes Friedman referring to the libertarian, “the appropriate means are free discussion and voluntary cooperation, which implies that any type of coercion [especially governmental coercion] is inappropriate.”23 The question is not whether government restrictions are wise or fair; rather, the mere existence of government channeling of the means of production is to be denounced. “He who governs least governs best.”24 Today’s economism is a holdover of the laissez faire capitalism of the nineteenth century robber barons. The shadow side is this: once government removes itself from governing, the robber barons will immediately reappear.

[26] These tenets are faith commitments, Norgaard says. They do not rely upon reason or historical precedent, nor do they adhere to any ethical theory which envisions a future oriented toward the common good of all creatures. Quite obviously, these tenets express the faith of the rich and those who aspire to be rich.

Does the “invisible hand” show up as a secular phantom?

[27] In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower put a name to the invisible hand, God. “In God We Trust” became printed on U.S. legal tender. But, then, perhaps “invisible hand” was only a renaming of God in the first place. After nearly two centuries of unemployment, God found a job again.

[28] Whether named “God” or “invisible hand,” trust in the market is a key tenet in the economist’s faith. Even so, this trust in the market is not the firm faith of every economist. Not by a long shot. Rather, my point here is that trust in the market belongs to the myth through which the wider society interprets its experience. It is a secularized form of trusting God, as President Eisenhower could plainly see.

[29] Where I employ the term myth, Charles Taylor uses social imaginary. With this term, Taylor intends “something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode…rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.”25

[30] According to Taylor, what we have been calling “economism” is one such social imaginary which surreptitiously imports a theological commitment into the underframe of its secular articulation. “The crucial thing in the new conception is that our purposes mesh, however divergent they may be in the conscious awareness of each of us. They involve us in an exchange of advantages. We admire and support the rich and well-born, and in return we enjoy the kind of stable order without which prosperity would be impossible. God’s design is one of interlocking causes, not of harmonized meanings.”26 The invisible hand, even with the divine head severed by the secular guillotine, keeps functioning as a phantom limb on the body of economism.

There are two ethical questions the myth of economism cannot ask.

[32] Here are two ethical questions that cannot be asked within the mythically structured language of economism: (1) Should the rich help the poor? (2) Does a vision of the common good compel a human response? Because economism functions as a myth in contemporary society, economism invisibly admits into public discourse only selected pathways to thinking while excluding others. These two questions are systematically filtered out by the myth of economism.

[33] Our economized social order which we internalize within our own souls has become, in the words of Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, a “structure of evil.” She employs the term, evil, because economism tacitly justifies without critical leverage the ongoing violence against the poor while risking planetary ecocide. “Ecocide and economic violence…are not the most brazen manifestations of systemic evil in our day. Greater still are their seductive guise as ‘good’ to many who ‘benefit’ materially from them. People of economic privilege live and breathe as players in a great ‘masquerade of evil’.”27 The myth is a masquerade. To unmask the myth, we need to pose such unaskable questions.

[33] Regarding the first question–should the rich help the poor?–the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is free to ask about the poor, because the church does not interpret reality through the lens of the myth of economism. In a document, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” this church body asks the question of the poor and answers with a moral commitment.

[34]… we commit ourselves as a church and urge members to:

  • address creatively and courageously the complex causes of poverty;
  • provide opportunities for dialogue, learning, and strategizing among people of different economic situations and from different regions who are harmed by global economic changes;
  • give more to relieve conditions of poverty, and invest more in initiatives to reduce poverty28

[35] Our second question–does the vision of the common good compel a human response?–is frustrated by the myth of economism because this myth locks out the question of the common good. The responsibility of a just society is to pave the highway to distributive justice aimed at a vision of the common good, and the free market on its own is unable to do the paving. “Distributive (or ministering) justice refers more expansively to what the whole, acting through its government and other centers of power, owes to its parts in addressing the rights and needs of citizens and in supporting their access to common and high goods,” is the assessment of William May.29 In short, access to the common good–the high good–requires guidance by a government or other center of power apart from the market.

[36] In addition to the common good understood as an abstraction, we may also consider common goods (in the plural) as concrete items which the human race should hold in common. The question of common goods is inextricable from the question regarding justice for the poor, as the World Council of Churches makes clear.

[37] “Common goods in economic theory are described as goods which are nonexcludable but are a subject of rivalry (i.e. when they are offered nobody can be excluded from accessing them), however, people compete for them because there is not enough of this good to satisfy everybody’s needs (so-called tragedy of commons). In our paper the above criteria are not fully respected and common goods are identified as all that is essential for a life in fullness and dignity for all God’s creation. Examples of common goods include: land, water, air, health, education, shelter, energy, transport, peace, human security, information, knowledge, solidarity and freedom…. social justice is when people enjoy universal access to common goods. It is when ‘peace and justice kiss’ ” (Psalm 85).30

[38] If the myth of economism will not permit asking questions regarding the poor or the common good, then we ask: should we reframe our myth?

How might a prophet critique economism?

[39] The problem with economism is idolatry, and idolatry cannot help but be self-destructive. The market now functions as a substitute god. Pope Francis identifies the problem posed by idolatry as he struggles to lead our planet toward a new vision of the common good, a vision of Earth as our common home.

[40] “§56. In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, ‘whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule’.”31

[41] In short, what stands in the way of a healthy relationship between the human race and Planet Earth is the idol, the deified market.

[42] In their opposition to idolatry, prophets are in the business of projecting a vision of a transformed future which renders judgment against the unrealistic delusions governing the present. A vision of God’s promised future is lifted up by the prophet Isaiah in the passage we’ve come to think of as the “Peaceable Kingdom.”

[43] Isaiah 11:6-9: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (NRSV)

[44] Norgaard similarly envisions a peaceable kingdom in the future, a kingdom which will arrive beyond the transition he is calling for. The success of this reformation of the religion of economism “will depend on a diverse collection of efforts, including urging negative population growth, supporting sustainable consumption and degrowth, promoting the commons paradigm, working with religion to foster an ethic for an equitable and sustainable planet; furthering justice, improving the sciences; promoting agroecology; facilitating local markets, encouraging progressive forms of corporate ownership, governance, and practice, and warning of limits, and the possibilities of tipping points.”32

[45] The vision of Isaiah and the vision of Norgaard both recognize that the desired future differs markedly from the present. How will we get there from here? Isaiah’s answer: God will send a messianic king who will turn things upside down and establish the peaceable kingdom as a gift of divine grace. Norgaard can only cross his fingers and hope that the very generation which has worshipped at the altars of economism will repent, reform, and transform. Norgaard yearns for what Isaiah has previously promised. Perhaps it is because of the prophet’s promise that we can discern what is lacking or perverse or destructive in the hegemony of economism.

[46] What we learn from the prophet Isaiah is that the peaceable kingdom is God’s will, God’s plan and our destiny. The prophetic vision stands in judgment over the city of Jerusalem or the world driven by homo economicus. The prophet renders judgment against the present on the basis of the future, a judgment against the self-destructive propensities of the present on the basis of a vision of a healed and harmonious future.

[47] If the Christian church worships at an altar other than the market, then the church can become an independent community of moral deliberation.33 Christian moral deliberation includes two tasks, the prophetic task and the constructive task. The first task–the prophetic task–is to declare judgment against economism in the name of a divinely inspired vision of a healed kingdom. The second task–the constructive task–is to enter the public fray and attempt to reform economic structures and governmental structures in light of a future vision. Here is the way the ELCA puts what I elsewhere call proleptic ethics.34 “For believers, it is hope in God’s future, not in an idealized past, that inspires participation in God’s changing, open, and inexhaustible creation. Christians believe that God’s promised future includes the transformation of the whole creation” (Romans 8:19-25). Guided by this vision, Christians anticipate and live out the values of God’s promised future concretely in the present.”35

Is there one common good for both Earth and Galaxy?

[48] Even though the religion of economism does not overtly propound anarchy, its emphasis on individual freedom (or the household) as the primary economic unit removes any moral support for the common good. Before we can be happy or prosperous or even survive as individuals, we must draw our very life sustenance from the life-giving power of our planet, which in turn is inextricably related to the sun and the stars of the Milky Way. Even though we are dependent upon the global economy to deliver Earth’s sustenance, as no one would deny, we must counter the doctrines of economism which render the common good invisible.

[49] Pope Francis provides a rival religious view, a moral alternative to economism. His version of the common good is Earth as our common home. With the ethical principle of subsidiarity, Francis protects individual freedom while contextualizing that freedom within the common good. §196….“the principle of subsidiarity…grants freedom to develop the capabilities present at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power.”36 Daniel Smith connects the dots by offering a middle axiom between the common good and practical action, namely, ecological ethics. “Ecological ethics means speaking out on behalf of public policies that protect creation’s integrity and limit humankind’s sinful overreach in terms of neo-liberalized, global free market economy.”37

[50] Even more can be said. The ecological health of Planet Earth ought not to limit the scope of our moral responsibility. Earth too is contextualized within a larger whole. Earth belongs to an interdependent network of suns, moons, planets, and stars. Even though our generation is beset with do-or-die challenges due to climate change and related ecological terrors, any surviving generation will have to add to our ethical agenda our responsibility to what happens in space. With this in mind, Boston University theologian and ethicist John Hart reformulates the common good to become the cosmic commons. “The cosmic commons is the spatial and local context of interactions among corporeal members of integral being who are striving to meet their material, spiritual, social, and aesthetic needs, and to satisfy their wants….The cosmic commons includes the aggregate of goods which, beyond their intrinsic value, have instrumental value in universe dynamics or as providers for the well-being of biotic existence. In the cosmic commons, goods that will eventually be accessible on the moon, asteroids, meteors, or other planets should prove useful to humankind, to other intelligent life, and to biokind collectively.”38

[51] Where Hart employs the term “cosmic commons,” I prefer “galactic commons.” Beyond our Milky Way galaxy the distances are so great as to forbid communication let alone interaction. Within the Milky Way, however, communication and perhaps moral reciprocity is conceivable. Hence, I recommend the term, galactic commons. Even though at this point in history we human beings on Earth have only minimum capacity for influencing what happens on other planets, we would do well to conceive of our own planet’s common good in terms of the more inclusive galactic commons.

[52] The common good, the common home, or the galactic commons will not snuff out individual freedom on behalf of some more inclusive good. Yet, whatever value we place on individual freedom cannot declare independence from our ecological or cosmological context let alone our moral responsibility toward the good we share in common with the rest of God’s creation.

[53] This implies that the religion of economism needs a reformation if not a supersession. The market needs to be removed from its sacred pedestal and put to work by extra-market forces in the service of distributive justice. The entire economy needs to be pressed into the service of a healthy planet which will be sustainable for future generations, for the unborn who are now unable to purchase benefits from our market. The first step in this reformation will be to modify the myth. Or, to say it another way, the myth through which we interpret reality and which frames our moral responsibilities needs re-orientation, re-direction, and refinement.


[54] Norgaard has provided us with a protean metaphor when describing economism as a religion. Like St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, “Churches and other places of worship, with spires reaching toward the heavens and names commemorating important religious figures, now cower beneath skyscrapers named after corporations and their founders.”39 We immediately feel the drama of Norgaard’s point: the economic mind-set is so powerful that traditional moral thinking is dwarfed and squashed and even discarded. Economism is not only a force in the world but also within our soul.

[55] The problem economism poses is found in both its form and substance. The moral form of economism is found in the categories it imposes on our thinking: everything becomes subjected to cost-benefit categories, thereby marginalizing the tender values of intimacy, caring, sharing, and building. Similarly, the moral substance of economism fosters just the opposite of what the Christian religion advocates: greed instead of charity, individual freedom without responsibility for the common good, anarchy without unity. If economism is in fact a religion, then it needs at least a reformation if not a supersession.

[56] After having said this, in my judgment, the term myth more accurately describes what Norgaard is talking about. With the term myth I refer to a conceptual set, a set of presuppositions which frame the suppositions of a theoretical or existential scheme. The myth frames data that reinforces an assumed worldview, perspective, or ideology. According to this definition, a myth is not a story per se. Rather, it’s a commitment held at the level of presupposition rather than stated. The myth of economism has become the myth of America, the myth of the worldwide media, the myth within which national and international questions are formulated and decisions are made.

[57] What the prophet–in this case, the critical public theologian–needs to do is demythologize. Recall how Rudolph Bultmann employed this term when referring to biblical exegesis. “Its [de-mythologizing] aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them. It is a method of hermeneutics.”40 Rather than demythologize scripture, I recommend we demythologize economism. (Maybe even demythicize economism?) This is to say, our prophetic task is to take the myth apart, examine its pieces, select what is salvageable, and then re-contextualize all of this within a healthier worldview that draws its meaning from a vision of the common good. This would constitute the reformation of economism.


1 I distinguish this use of myth in Chapter 7 of Ted Peters, God in Cosmic History (Winona MN: Anselm Academic, 2017).

2 Richard Norgaard, “The Church of Economism and Its Discontents,” Great Transition Initiative (December 2015), (accessed 4/8/2016).

3 Ibid.

4 My method is a form of public theology. “Public theology advocates for a constructive public role for religious discourse in a pluralistic society, neither suppressing religious expressions nor dismissing democratic values such as human rights, tolerance, and equality,” Hak Joon Lee, “Public Theology,” The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology, eds., Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 44-65, at 44. Public theology is close to but not identical to political theology in the sense this term is used by followers of Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, tr., George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). To my knowledge, there does not yet exist a correlative economic theology.

5 Langdon Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Seabury Crossroad, 1976) 151. Developed from the work of Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey, the hermeneutic of secular experience was the method I employed for uncovering the structure of myth as a conceptual set of presuppositions. See: Ted Peters, God in Cosmic History: Where Science and History Meet Religion (Winona MN: Anselm Academic, 2017) Chapter 7.

6 Paul Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) 8.

7 Ibid., 106.

8 As cultural critic, the prophet becomes a public theologian. According to Robert A. Kelly, the public theologian “will need to present arguments that count as public rather than private in a secular society. We will not be able to argue points from Scripture or other purely Christian sources but will need to develop arguments using a rationality generally accepted as objective; but a functioning public sphere could not by definition exclude any who have a rational, informed, publicly accessible argument to present.” ” Public Theology and the Modern Social Imaginary,” Dialog 50:2 (June 2011) 162-173 (170).

9 Carmelo Santos, “My Theological Journey,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 16:4 (April 2016) (accessed 4/11/2016).

10 Frank Knight, “The Newer Economics and the Control of Economic Activity,” Journal of Political Economy 40:4 (1932) 448-476 (455); cited by Norgaard.

11 Mary Gaebler, “U.S. Property Law Reconsidered in Light of the Lutheran Finitum Capax Infiniti,” On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issues, eds., Ronald W. Duty and Marie A. Failinger (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016) 79-101 (85).

12 Within the one language of economese, considerable idol slinging takes place, according to Ronald Duty. “Democratic Liberals suspect Conservatives of–in effect–idolatry of unregulated markets, while Republican Conservatives accuse Liberals of–in effect–idolatry of government action which Conservatives see as by nature economically inept and an inherently direct threat to individual liberties and to free markets. The more expansive our liberty has become, it seems, the more our desires multiply and the more our anxiety over limits or threats to our desires, liberty, and lives grows. Our anxieties and our inordinate desires feed each other.” Ronald Duty, “Testing the National Covenant: A Covenantal Political Ethic for Lutherans?” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (July 1, 2012) (accessed 4/9/2016).

13 I have benefited in part by a different list of economism’s tenets offered by Richard B. Norgaard, Jessica J. Goddard, and Jalel Sager, “Economics, Economism, and Ecological Crisis,” in the Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology, eds., Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (London: Routledge, 2016)

14 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, 2002) 8.

15 Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 14. Freedom is not for everyone. “Freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals. We do not believe in freedom for madmen or children.” Ibid., 34. The individualist understanding of freedom, from the perspective of theologian John Cobb, is inextricably tied to solidarity with the entire human race. “We are individuals, but we are individuals who participate in one another and cannot be saved in isolation.” John B. Cobb, Jr., Process Theology as Political Theology (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 1982) 96.

16 “As liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements.” Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 13. In Friedman’s theory, the basic economic unit can be the household, not necessarily the individual. Be that as it may, the libertarian autonomy of each economic unit implies political anarchy, according to critic Andrew Chrucky. The very idea of independent individuals or households at liberty to initiate economic relationships could at best apply to pre-modern rural economies, not a modern industrial economy where every sector is already in interdependent relationship. Friedman “cannot be talking about any present industrial society: there are no societies with independent households in the industrialized world; all such societies are found in primitive, i.e., unindustrialized communities. So, he is imagining either a primitive society, an ideal one, or a purely fictitious one.” Andrew Chrucky, “Milton Friedman’s Hidden Anarchism in Capitalism and Freedom” (April 8, 2008) (accessed 4/8/2016). Friedman would defend himself by advocating that government is needed to enforce law. “The consistent liberal is not an anarchist.” Capitalism and Freedom, 34.

17 Laudato Sí.

18 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) cited and discussed at (accessed 4/10/2016).

19 Martin Luther, “The Sermon on the Mount,’ Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vols. 1-30, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing Company, 1955-1967); Vols. 31-55, edited by Helmut T. Lehmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1955-1986) 26:16 (hereinafter abbreviated, LW). It is by no means a detour to remind ourselves that premodern European Christianity had not yet adjusted to what is so common to the myth of economism, namely, usury for mutual benefit. Luther writes, “in the first place, it is certainly true that the interest trade, as it has been popularly practiced up to now, is unchristian. Second, it is quite improbable that it would ever be entirely legislated and brought into good use, since the whole world is greedy and always seeking after the self. The single, best and only way to solve it is its eradication, and it would be a noble, Christian work if the princes and lords would work together to abolish it.” LW, 46:176. Modern Lutherans can, in principle, engage in lending and borrowing at interest under the assumption that loans lead to the benefit of all parties involved. Because of the secular faith in the growth of the entire economic system, one party’s profit does not require the other party’s loss. Even so, Hans Wiersma observes, “it is clear that Luther was keenly aware of the economic burdens, tensions, and challenges experienced by Christians who lived in a world where most people did not lend as Jesus would have had them lend—expecting nothing in return. “Luther on Lending: A Pastoral Response Regarding the Subject of Usury,” Word and World 30:2 (Spring 2010) 191-199 (198).

20 James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Simon, 1931).

21 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015) 11.

22 Ibid., 60.

23 Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 22.

24 Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs believes, to the contrary, that government provides a necessary benefit to economic health. “Governance and higher incomes to hand in hand, not only because good governance raises incomes, but also, and perhaps even more important, because higher income leads to improved governance.” Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2005) 312.

25 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) 171.

15 Ibid., 177.

27 Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013) 4.

28 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 13:10 (11/1/2014) (accessed 4/8/2016).

29 William F. May, Testing the National Covenant: Fears and Appetites in American Politics (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011) 101.

30 World Council of Churches, “Ecumenical Chronicle: Social Justice and Common Goods,” The Ecumenical Review 63:3 (October 2011) 330-343 (332). Economist Robert Reich decries the deterioration of what he dubs “public goods” in an American economy where the rich have bought political influence through Super PACS, leading to a system that favors the rich to the detriment of the middle class and poor. “Much of what’s called ‘public’ today is increasingly private. Tolls are rising on public highways and public bridges, as are tuitions at so-called public universities and admission fees at public parks and public museums.” Beyond Outrage (New York: Vintage Books, 2012) 28.

31 Pope Francis, “Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home,” (accessed 4/8/2016).

32 Norgaard, “Church of Economism.”

33 On the church as a community of moral deliberation, see: Roger Willer, ” Community of Moral Deliberation and an Emerging Responsibility Ethics,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (4/1/2014); . “In discussing public issues affecting society, churches and religious ethicists of all types can appeal to their unique and distinctive religious aspects.” Charles E. Curran, “How Does Christian Ethics Use Its Unique and Distinctive Christian Aspects?” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 31:2 (Fall/Winter 2011) 23-36: 28.

34 Ted Peters, GOD–The World’s Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 3rd ed., 2015) Chapter 14.

35 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Sexuality” Social Statement, 2009. .

36 Laudato Sí. In this spirit, “Commitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation.”[36] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 285.

37 Daniel R. Smith, “A Lutheran Theological Response to Climate Change,” Theology and Science 13:1 (February 2015) 64-78 (73).

38 John Hart, “Cosmic Commons: Contact and Community,” Theology and Science 8:4: 371-392 (November 2010) 377.

39 Norgaard, “Church of Economism.”

40 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958) 18. I prefer the modern method of “demythologizing” over the postmodern method of “deconstruction,” because the latter limits itself to exposing power interests while avoiding the existential meanings uncovered by demythologizing. I believe Paul Chung gets me right when he notes, “Peters’ approach to a postmodern holism is differentiated from postmodern deconstructionism in the fashion of Jacques Derrida. Rather, holistic postmodernism aims at recovering meaning, not its deconstruction or dissolution.” Paul S. Chung, Postcolonial Public Theology: Faith, Scientific Rationality, and Prophetic Dialogue (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2016) 131.

Ted Peters

Ted Peters is an author, professor, and pastor. He is Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS), the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), and the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California.