Economic Theology

Religious language has a profound resonance on its adherents. When religion is put in the service of politics, you get political theology. When it is put in the service of economics, you get economic theology.

1. Political Theology

One of Carl Schmitt’s most famous books, probably second only in renown to The Concept of the Political, is Political Theology. The book takes its name from a basic theory that Schmitt advanced about the development of political science in European culture. Schmitt argued that concepts like sovereignty were religious in their origins but came to serve political power. A similar thesis was advanced in an earlier book, Political Romanticism.

2. Language

Language is the DVD of culture and the way people talk reveals what views are held inwardly (bit of a tautology but I wanted to make clear that inner thoughts expressed are revealed!!). So, following on from Schmitt’s methodology, I would like to assert that there is a phenomenon entitled ‘economic theology.’

Economic theology is a little bit different from political theology. Political theology emphasizes power and the unity of an entity. These are necessary for political power. Economic theology on the other hand emphasizes the sinfulness of the individual, his worthlessness, his contriteness. When I say ‘individual,’ of course, I mean those enmeshed in the lower economic classes. I am not referring to the well-heeled vanguard.

Terms like ‘moral hazard’ and ‘debt forgiveness’ reveal this economic theology. It is commonly believed that if a country or an individual is unable to pay their debts, they must starve or sell themselves or sell members of their families (or their own body parts) to escape economic ‘hell.’

3. Personal Story

Let me digress here and tell a personal story. My interest in politics started in 2008 after the Irish banking crisis. In Ireland we were given the message that we were bold boys and girls and needed to atone for our mistakes. Despite the fact that citizens had not shared in the profiteering that took place for much of the ‘noughties, we were expected to carry the burden of the losses that arrived on the national doorstep after 2008. We sinned, therefore we had to be punished. In fact, the word ‘pain’ was regularly bandied about … we needed to endure pain, go through pain to be born again… it was obvious that the Christian story of the crucifixion resonated economically.

4. Real Business

Many people would say that everyone should meet their debts. In fact, this is not true. You see, if someone invests in you seeking to make a profit they have made a business decision. Business involves risk. Don’t believe me? Try investing with your own money in a business. When things go belly-up, both the investor and the investee suffer losses. But this is not what happened in Ireland and other countries. Economic theology underpinned the arguments that called for, what Irish Times columnist Fintan O Toole has regularly classified as, the largest bailout in history in terms of proportionality.

5. Roots of Economic Theology

A final word on the evolution of economic theology. It has similar origins to that of political theology, namely the reformation of the late Renaissance. Puritanism, which exercised a profound influence on the direction of England and America, was the source of economic theology. Puritanism itself owed much to Calvin and Zwingli, who tailored their religion to fit the tendencies of commercial, urban societies. Switzerland is the spiritual home of economic theology and to this day Geneva and Zurich, the cities of Calvin and Zwingli, retain their eminent place in the world on account of their contribution to the political and economic structure of the modern world.

Colm Gillis has authored two book on political theory. His latest book is The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, which can be viewed here.

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