The Theological Roots of Capitalism: A Conversation with Economist Benjamin M. Friedman

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Benjamin M. Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy. And he’s also the former chair of the Department of Economics at Harvard University. It was from Harvard, he earned his PhD. And there he’s had an active academic career in the field of economics and economic policy. He’s the author of more than 150 academic articles, the author or editor of 12 books.

His most recent book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, explores the crucial intersection between religious thinking and economics, even theology and economics, and deals with how religion shaped economic philosophy in the modern era. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is an important work and it’s the topic of my conversation with Professor Benjamin M. Friedman today.

Professor Friedman, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be with you.

Albert Mohler:

I found your book to be, frankly, a surprise. And I try to read a great deal of economic literature. But I haven’t seen anything in this generation by any major economic theorist or economic historian that has really dealt with what you take as the central issue here, and the title of your book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

Albert Mohler:

It’s a fascinating read. And it leads me to want to ask you at the onset, what led you to what had to be many, many years of prodigious research in order to tell this story? What interested you?

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Dr. Mohler, I’ve always been interested in the origin of ideas. Why do ideas come up when they do, where they do? What’s the motivation behind them? What’s the prod? Look, I’m an economist. I did not come at this from the, and I think this may be what you’re referring to.

I’m an economist. I did not come at this project from the side of starting with religious thinking and trying to trace out its consequences. I started from the side of wanting to know where my subject, by which I mean, modern Western economics, came from.

And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that the religious thinking and what were new and hotly contended ideas in the English-speaking Protestant world in which people like Adam Smith and David Hume lived, were very important spurs to the thinking of these people precisely about economics. And I think you’re probably right that this is unusual among economists. The book has a different interpretation.

The usual story of where modern Western economics comes from is all about the secular enlightenment. And it isn’t about religious thinking. But I eventually concluded the standard story is wrong, and that these religious roots, not only are important for where the subject came from, but also for where it’s gone in the 250 years since.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I appreciate you sharing that. I want to fast forward to something that’s near the end of your book, but it’s just one fact that simply begs for an explanation. And frankly, Professor, I had no idea of this until I read it in your book. But if you go to 1885, and the rather organized emergence of economics as a discipline with the formation of the American Economic Association, I believe you say the 23 of the 181 founding members were Protestant clergymen?

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes, there was a very close relationship between the economists who founded our association, which incidentally continues to be the flagship association for economists in the United States today. I’m a member. I would guess that every member of my department at Harvard is. I would guess that pretty much every member of the University of Louisville Economics Department is a member.

And the people who created our association had very strong ties to the, especially to the Protestant clergy and the social gospel movement of that time, many of these economists were people who had written articles and books with the word, church, in the title before they had ever written about economics. Some of them had intended to go into the clergy themselves before they changed their minds and went into economics.

So, it was very closely connected to the Protestant clergy, and many of them were quite explicit. One, the probably the most organizationally, the most important founder, Richard Ely, wrote a book about Protestantism, and actually he didn’t call it Protestantism, he simply called it Christianity. It was just assumed that that meant Protestantism. But he wrote a book about Christianity and economics in the very year after he founded the association. So, the connection goes right to the heart. But your word, 1885, I think the connections go back way beyond that.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. I wanted to look to that, because I think most Americans who have any imagination about economists would be shocked to know that when the AEA was established at the end of the 19th century, many of its founding members were actually clergymen, and that requires some explanation. And if I take your book, I see several parallel narratives. One of them is basically the emergence of economics as a science, especially in the United States, as a discipline. The other is an effective secularization of the intellectual field and economics as a part of that. Although most of that takes place, frankly, after the end of your book and the narrative you tell.

There’s another theological story that’s being told here. And to that, I certainly want to turn. But I want to begin with the groundwork that you lay. And frankly, I think, extremely well, in a way that surprised me in the sense that you felt the need to do this. But you’re trying to explain, I think, largely to a group of economists who otherwise might not think about this, that the world into which modern economics appeared, especially in the English-speaking world was a theological world. And reading the way you write it, you’re writing it in such a way that, by the way, is utterly convincing. But it appeared to me that it’s a point that you needed to convince readers of.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I think that’s right. People like Smith and Hume lived in a world in which religion, which for them meant Protestantism, was both more central and more pervasive and more multidimensional than anything we know in the modern Western world today. All educational institutions were religious foundations. Incidentally, mine was as well.

Harvard was famously a Puritan Foundation in the original days. But also, in the days of Smith and Hume, all patronage was church patronage in Scotland, because in 1707, the Scots had given up their status as an independent country. They had no Parliament left, but they had the church. And also, in those days, people fought over religious questions in a way that fortunately we don’t today.

We think of ours as a religiously contentious society. But remember, the 30 Years War on the continent had been bloodier compared to the size of Europe’s population than either World War I or World War II. The English Civil War was not between the Catholics and the Protestants. It was about what kind of Protestant people were supposed to be that had been fought within Adam Smith’s and David Hume’s grandfather’s lifetimes.

And even something like the Highland Rebellion, we read all these Walter Scott novels and we think of the Highland Rebellion as this marvelously romantic event with Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that. It was, again, about being Catholic or being Protestant, and who the King of England was supposed to be. And it was a bloody event.

And some of it was fought right outside of Edinburgh when Adam Smith was 22 years old. Religion was all over the place in a very major way.

Albert Mohler:

Well, and as you concede in the book, theological wars can become military wars in that era. And you just recited several that, if not almost entirely driven by theology then, at least, were largely brought about by a theological dispute.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

In those days, these were issues that men fought and died over.

Albert Mohler:

Now, early in your book, you do something else, laying some groundwork. And I found this also very interesting. You deal with the idea of worldview, a major concern of my own work. And you do so very helpfully. You point to Eric Erikson talking about all thinking individuals having an all-inclusive conception of life or reality.

You quote Gerald Holton talking about a thematic presupposition. The interesting portion of this section of your book is where you point out Einstein’s own thinking about this. And as you define Einstein, he argued that the worldview comes first, the scientific theories come subsequently.

And you’re really laying the groundwork for the fact that for many of the people that you’re writing about, certainly in the early years of the period you cover, the worldview came first, the economic theories grew out of the worldview.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

You’re right, Dr. Mohler, the challenge that I was taking up, and I felt it was important to do it right at the beginning of the book, is why these individuals, again, I point in particular to Adam Smith and David Hume, why these people would have been so influenced by the religious thinking of their time.

These men became international celebrities in their own lifetimes. And as a result, we know a lot biographically about them. And it would be absurd to claim that either of them was a religiously committed individual, self-consciously trying to bring religious beliefs to bear on his professional work. My fellow economists and other historians of the period would just laugh me out of the room on something like that.

David Hume, for example, was an outspoken opponent of any kind of organized religion. He used to refer to Church of England bishops as retainers to superstition. That was his phrase. He was never able to get a university appointment.

Everybody understood that he was the leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. But he was never able to get a university appointment because he was at the very least an outspoken agnostic. Probably, I think he was an atheist, actually. Adam Smith was much more private about his personal religious commitments.

He was probably something of the form of a deist, like the way we, Americans, would think of Benjamin Franklin from that era, or Thomas Jefferson Smith, there’s no evidence of religious commitment for him. When he became a professor, Smith asked to be exempted from the requirement to start every lecture with a prayer. Incidentally, his request was denied.

So, these were not religiously committed men. And there has to be a story, therefore, about why these religious ideas that were circulating all around them were influential. And the conception that I take up is the one that I associate with these figures like Einstein and Eric Erikson and others, about a worldview in Einstein’s original version of German, the Bild Der Welt.

It’s the idea that the world as a whole is just too complicated a phenomenon. Nobody can think clearly about the world as a whole. And so, what everybody does, is to form in his or her mind a simplified, what economists would call a model, what Einstein called a worldview, what one of the great economists who was my predecessor at Harvard, Joseph Schumpeter, called a Vision.

Schumpeter called it Vision with a capital V. The idea is that people have something in their minds, they don’t just sit down to do their work with a blank piece of paper or a blank slate for their minds. And Einstein was very clear that as he put it, scientific work comes out of pre-scientific thought. Schumpeter thought that economic analysis came from this pre-analytic vision, and all of these other figures thought the same thing.

So, this is my explanation for why even religious people like Adam Smith or anti-religious people like David Hume could have been influenced by religious thinking.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, and I appreciate how you laid that groundwork. And as a Christian theologian, by the way, it makes perfect sense to me, theologically, that no one begins epistemologically, in terms of knowledge from nowhere. Everyone has to begin somewhere. And the way I put it is similar in that is that we all inhabit an intellectual house, and it’s never totally vacant. There’s some furniture in the house.

And whether we recognize it or not, that furniture has a great deal to do with our understanding of reality. And the furnishings of the intellectual house of Edinburgh, for example, in the 18th century, it would have been explicitly Christian, such that the culture was Christian, even if the individuals were some form of unbeliever even to what would then have been called an infidel.

But then, it also raises another question and that is, in the totality of the intellectual flow here, I’m going to take Peter Gay’s argument that there wasn’t an enlightenment. They were enlightenments that is summarized as the enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment was a bit different than what took place elsewhere.

And at least one of the generalizations made about the Enlightenment in Edinburgh is that even though it was an emphasis upon rationality, it was never as radical a form of rationalism as would have been the case on the continent. Edinburgh itself is just a fascinating place during this era, the emergence of so many ideas, the coffeehouse culture, the literary societies that had given a fascinating place to live.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I agree. I think I personally would have enjoyed it enormously. But to come back to the theme that you’ve been getting at, and I’m absolutely agreeing with on the basis of my work, religion was integrated into this intellectual life. To take one example, you mentioned all of these literary societies and dining societies and part of the intellectual life of Edinburgh and Glasgow at that time.

Both Adam Smith and David Hume were members, original members, of the most distinguished of these dining clubs called the Select Society. One of the facts that I came across that quite interested me is that of the 31 original members, again, including Smith and including Hume, five of the 31 were Church of Scotland clergymen.

And that included this very interesting figure who was their close friend, William Robertson, who was simultaneously the head of the church. He was the moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly. And at the same time, Robertson was the principal, in our language, the President of the University of Edinburgh.

Well, think about that a moment. That would be as if the president of my university, Larry Bacow, were simultaneously the President of Harvard and also the head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Well, he’s not. Or it’s as if his predecessor, Drew Faust, had been President of Harvard and head of the Presiding Bishop over the Episcopalian Church in the United States.

Well, she wasn’t. But Robertson had both of those titles simultaneously. So, it was a very different world from ours, from the perspective of the integration of religion and religious thinking into the intellectual life of the time.

Albert Mohler:

Yes, I appreciate the fact that, and here, I’m going ahead of myself in the conversation, but I appreciate how much work you put into dealing with people even such as Francis Wayland, who is the President of Brown. And just to connect the dots.

This institution I serve founded in 1859 was explicitly modeled after Princeton, from the original documents of Princeton, but with the synthesis of Brown. James Petigru Boyce, who was the founder of this institution, was a graduate of Princeton. But before that, he was the prized student of Francis Wayland at Brown.

And I have in my office, Dr. Boyce’s copies of Wayland’s books that he had as a student at Brown. And he was the most prominent Baptist layman of his age and was the President of Brown University, teaching moral philosophy as presidents did at the time.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes. And when you say you have in your office, a copy of Dr. Wayland’s book, I’m guessing you mean the moral philosophy book, which was the best-selling moral philosophy text used at that time in the United States. But it’s important to point out that Wayland was also an economist.

And he also wrote just a few years later, what turned out to be the best-selling economics textbook in the United States before the Civil War. The moral philosophy book came out, I think, in 1835. The economics book came out in something like 1837. And from then until the end of the Civil War, it was the best-selling textbook in economics.

Wayland was very much an economist and very interesting character. He was an abolitionist, famously so. He was a free trader, famously so, and as a Baptist clergyman, he anchored those beliefs in his religious thinking. So, unlike Smith and Hume, and when we get to Wayland, here’s somebody who really was a religiously committed individual.

And in Wayland’s economics textbook, for example, he goes on at great length about how it would be wrong to impose tariffs in the United States. Remember, the tariff issue was the leading economic issue in the first half of the 19th century other than slavery, and he goes on at great length about how it would be wrong to impose tariffs on imports, because God wanted nations to trade with one another in order to promote amity among nations.

And his story was in part that that’s why God created the oceans. By this time, everybody understood that sea travel was a lot more efficient and cheaper than land travel. And so, the reason the oceans where there, according to Pastor Wayland, was precisely to facilitate trade among nations. So, his was a very religiously anchored argument.

And, of course, by virtue of being president at Brown, we know he was definitely a Baptist minister. He started his career here in Boston at a Baptist Church and then quickly moved to Brown where he became the great figure at Brown in the 19th century.

Albert Mohler:

Well, he was the personal model for the first president of this institutions, understanding of an academic leadership role. And so, there’s a genetic tie there. And the other thing that I would just add to what you say, is that Wayland and his colleagues would also have tied the existence of the oceans and the ability to have commerce and shipping and exploration is tied to missions, so then theology still very much there.

Economics and missions, just as economic and social betterment and the social gospel were tied very much together in mutual interest.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes. And that go goes back much further. And I give examples of people like Bishop Butler, Dean Tucker. These are Anglican religious figures in the first half of the 18th century. So now, were a hundred years before Wayland, and were in England instead of in the United States.

But the idea that trade is useful, in part, because it promotes missions, and therefore the spread of proper religion to the rest of the world was very much a part of the thinking of some people at this time.

Albert Mohler:

Now, the surprising turn in your book, certainly for a theologian reading the book, is where you follow through a great deal of preliminary material, which is all fascinating and takes us back to almost the end of the Tudor age, and certainly through the restoration later, and what was, as you will say, the decline of Orthodox Calvinism as the official theology of the Anglosphere.

And yet, you point to modern economics, and you define it in the title of your work as capitalism, as emerging from a great theological shift that was antecedent to it, and that is the decline of belief in predestination in particular. Now, these days, it’s hard to find many people in America who want to have any theological discussion, but you really jumped in the deep end of the pool here.

And not only that, you’re really making an argument that’s counter to the way the Protestant tradition had been understood as effecting the world of economics, both in terms of the economy and in terms of the study of it. So, I really invite you to lay that out, just in terms of the summary.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yeah. I’m glad to do that. I’m guessing that what you are referring to is Max Weber’s great book, called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s book and mine are different in a variety of respects, so much so that I think of mine as “Weber upside down.” And I’ll be explicit why.

The first difference is that Weber was looking at an earlier century. Weber was primarily looking at the 17th century, when belief in predestination was at its, not at its height, but pretty strong, and was looking… in effect, Weber kept thinking about all of these Puritans in Massachusetts walking around, suffering what he called existential anxiety about whether they were among the elect, and therefore desperate to have external signs.

They knew it couldn’t be causal, but they were looking for external signs of whether they were among the elect. And they persuaded themselves. This is Weber’s story. They persuaded themselves that if they were industrious and worked diligently at their calling, if they save their money, if instead of living luxuriously, they plowed their money back into their businesses, they were thrifty.

All of these would be comforting to them because they were external signs. Now, that was a story about people’s behavior, according to Weber. And it’s a story mostly about the 17th century. I’m interested in the 18th century because that’s when Smith and Hume and others of that era gave us modern Western economics, at least in its beginnings.

And also, I’m interested not in the behavior of ordinary individuals as Weber was, I’m interested in the thinking of the intellectual elites of the time. So, the two key differences I would point to is that Weber was looking at a period when a belief in predestination was added near its height. And I’m looking at the period when that’s going away.

And second, he’s looking at the behavior of ordinary individuals. I’m looking at the thinking of the intellectual elites. And what I argue enabled Smith and Hume to come to their conclusions. And here I point, especially to Smith, because I’m talking now about the substance of his great book, The Wealth of Nations.

What I think enabled him to come to these insights was a worldview based on the more expansive notion of the opportunities and possibilities for human choice, human action, human agency that came out of the movement away from belief in predestination. I think if he had still been laboring under the idea that there was nothing a person could do to affect his or her salvation, because that decision had been made not only before the person was born, but before the world had even been created.

I’m quoting now from the Westminster Confession. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for thinking that people can make important and worthwhile things happen by what they choose to do. And by contrast, by the time we get to Smith, and the whole new movement is toward believing that, yes, people can affect their salvation to use the words of John Tillotson, who was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed after the Inglorious Revolution in England in 1688.

People are able to cooperate, to cooperate with God in effecting their salvation. A very secularization of that idea is that people are able to do good in the world. People are able to tell right from wrong. People are able, just through their innate, inborn nature, what John Locke called the Candle of the Lord, it’s there, if we are only willing to make use of it.

People are able to make good things happen, and Smith was looking at the economy, and he said, well, how is it that people just acting on their own instincts can take actions which make other people so much better off? I think it’s an idea that came to him because he lived in this world of pushback and movement away from predestinarian belief.

Albert Mohler:

Well, you’re talking to a fossil here, because I am an Orthodox Calvinist and Augustinian, and a very much a believer in predestination, and a theologian. And so, I’m just going to speak back to you as a theologian from inside this world. And that is that, I think predestination and the sovereignty of God are often understood from the outside as a form of determinism or fatalism.

Whereas in our understanding, it’s rooted in a personal God, not an impersonal deity who relates to us in personal terms, and so there’s more to it than fatalism or some just kind of mere determinism. But still, there is no doubt that when you’re talking about unconditional election, you are talking about a divine decree that is unchanging and unchangeable.

But it is also interesting that if you go back to the 16th century and the 17th century, the great debate in many ways between the Protestants and the Catholics, and especially as you consider Luther and Calvin, was over the issue of assurance. And it was the Reformers who argued for the reality of assurance of salvation.

And the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Trent identified that as among the chief errors of the Reformation, which they condemned. So, when I first read Weber as a doctoral student, I’m reading him and I’m thinking he’s not entirely wrong. Where he is right is that if you look at the economies of historically Protestant Europe and the economies of historically Catholic Europe, you’re looking at very different economic patterns.

And Weber talked about the survival of ideas like thrift and investment and patience and those Protestant virtues as being a part of that work ethic. So, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong. I just have to say as a theologian, I don’t think he got the internal working.

And of course, he was in an intellectual milieu in the 19th century, in particular, in which there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding of Orthodox Calvinism in his circles. I appreciate the fact that you care about this. And I’ll let you respond. But I want to say that I think you’ve overstressed the predestination issue, but you really made me think about it.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Well, that is an interesting outlook. Now, in terms of what you were just talking about, Dr. Mohler, my book is not much about the Catholics versus the Protestants.

Albert Mohler:

Right, outstanding. Yeah.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I know a little about that, of course. But that’s not what the book is about. Because for purposes of the era that I’m looking at, again, to go back to earlier part of our conversation, the question is, what formed the worldview or the vision that was in Smith’s and Hume’s mind? The debate between the Catholics and the Protestants was history by that time. Now, that’s just isn’t what-

Albert Mohler:

Right. My purpose in raising it is to say that the Catholics recognize that on the Protestant’s side, there was an emphasis on assurance that they denied. And the point is, I think Weber misses that, this existential anxiety, etcetera. Not that there isn’t any, except I think he made more of that than is theologically justifiable. I understand what you’re doing.

And I want to throw this to you and ask you a different question because your book made me think about these issues in a way that no other previous book had. And that’s a privilege, by the way. I thank you for it. And I just want to thank you-

Benjamin M. Friedman:

No. Thank you for telling me, I feel honored in that case.

Albert Mohler:

Well, that’s I think what an author hopes for. And I think you’ve really accomplished it. And frankly, I think people are going to be talking about this book for a very, very long time.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Well, I hope so. Now, again, to finish off the previous thought, Weber in contrast to what I’m doing, Weber was very interested in the Catholics versus the Protestants. Weber was a German sociologist. He got into his subject because he had been hired to do a study of why the occupational structure in East Prussia changed when a political change took place and lots of Catholic Poles moved westward into East Prussia.

And so, what originally started his thinking is that he had been conditioned to think about how this movement of Catholic Poles into what had been a Protestant area changed the occupational structure. But then, he started thinking not only, as you say, about the occupational differences between the north of Europe and the south of Europe, but even the occupational differences within his own country because the north of Germany was then and is still predominantly Protestant.

Whereas by the time we get down to Bavaria, there’s a lot greater Catholic presence. So, even just looking at his own country, and then he expanded that further to being about Europe as a whole. He very much was interested in the Catholic thought versus Protestant thought. It seemed to me to matter less for my story. There were, of course, Catholics present in Edinburgh in the 1750s and 1760s, but it’s not obvious that Smith and Hume interacted with them very much.

Albert Mohler:

As I have read Adam Smith, and read a great deal, frankly, one of the questions has come to me is whether Smith is trying to explain economic operations as if God does not exist. And I hope that makes some sense. But that to me is one of the signs of a certain enlightenment realization here.

So, there’s a sense in which I wonder if the invisible hand that Adam Smith talks about that is anthropomorphic, in terms of economic operation, is a replacement for a sovereign God. And that points to my theological recalibration of thinking in your book, which is, I’m not convinced that the doctrine of predestination is the pivot in itself.

But to me as a theologian, it’s the larger question of the existence of a robust theism that includes any claim of divine sovereignty and divine intervention. So, does Adam Smith give us a way of understanding the economy that actually makes belief in God somewhat unnecessary, or at least in the strong theism of predestination, the Orthodox understanding of providence, divine interventionism?

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I suppose the question that would then you’d have to figure out is where human nature came from. Smith sees humans as endowed with various characteristics. In his first book, it was all about human’s social feelings, their sympathy, desire for fellow feeling among men.

In the second book, it’s all about the desire to improve our standard of living, in the Wealth of Nations, he has this marvelous passage in which he says that the desire to better our condition, is the way he puts it, to better our condition comes with us from the womb and stays with us till the grave, and in between there scarcely a moment when it isn’t acting on us.

Now, the question then, is where do these inborn human characteristics come from? Where does human sympathy come from in the first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Where does the desire to better our condition come from in the second book? He does not say. He does not say. In the first book, he sometimes talks about nature endowing people with these traits.

He sometimes refers to the Author of nature. And a capital A on Author. So, it’s easy to suppose that he is referring to God, but he is very careful. He does not say. But importantly, I would think also for purposes of your question, there’s nothing that denies that these are God-given characteristics of human beings.

And so, if a person of strong theistic bend wants to read Smith by saying, “Yes, Smith points out that all humans are born with these innate characteristics. And of course, they’re born with them because God gave it to them.” The text absolutely is consistent with that. There’s nothing there at all to preclude it. Now, if you want to make that argument, another route to doing it is to compare Smith and Newton.

What Smith and Hume were trying to do in their work was to create a science of man, which was comparable to what Newton had done three quarters of a century earlier for the physical world. And Newton was very clear that he saw his work as an element of natural theology. Newton wrote that he wanted his book, talking about the great book, the Principia Mathematica, published in 1687.

Newton was clear. He wanted people to read his book in order to understand the glory of God, that God had created the universe according to these principles. And by studying the universe, he had learned about the system, the mechanism that God had instilled. And he hoped that young men, he didn’t refer to young women.

That’s an aspect of the time. But he hoped that young men would be educated through his book to understand the Lord’s glory. Well, Smith doesn’t say anything like that. But Smith, in other respects, was very much modeling himself after Newton. And so, if you wanted to pursue that kind of theistic interpretation of what Smith was doing, I’d say the analogy to Newton would be very supportive.

Albert Mohler:

Yes. The little footnote here, there were Dutch thinkers at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. Abraham Kuyper would be one of them. Herman Bavinck would be another. And I’m very influenced by Bavinck in particular. And thinking about the fact that at some point, arguments are noteworthy for the fact that God is not necessary, it’s not that God is denied, it’s not that God is completely absent, it’s God’s not necessary.

And that’s the sense in which I mean, and I can document this in English-speaking thoughts in so many other areas. The difference between the 18th and the 19th century is about the end of the 19th century of organized unbelief in a way that was rare, it was not impossible, but it was rare in the 18th century. But everything began to change.

Speaking of everything changing, I have to tell you, my favorite part of your book is not the beginning but the end, the second half. And to that I’d like to turn because you really are then dealing with the American context. And what you see is two rival Gospels.

And here, again, I just want to give you credit for such deep investment in understanding. One footnote here: when you do predestination, thank you for rooting it, not in John Calvin, but in Augustine and the Augustinian tradition. And thank you for not doing a shortcut there. But you deal with-

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Augustine, and behind that, Paul’s letter to the Romans?

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely, absolutely. To that, I can only say, amen. But-

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Calvin did not make this up out of whole cloth.

Albert Mohler:

No. And frankly, didn’t believe he was innovating in the slightest. And by the way, people talk about Calvin without recognizing that Augustine, he often refers to him as the boss of Augustine, is actually quoted more than any other source and scripture. So, what you’re looking at what they saw as a continuation of a biblical truth here.

Fast forwarding into the 19th century just for sake of time, and here, you’re looking at the emergence of what would become economics as we know it, as a discipline in the United States. And you make two points I want to really come back to. But you tell a theological story there, too. And it involves eventually these two rival gospels, the gospel of wealth and the social gospel.

And you’ve done really good work there in terms of even the positions on the millennium and eschatology, but I want to back off and just ask you to tell what you think is most important about your argument at that point in the book?

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I think this is an interesting case in which the religious thinking is reacting to the economics. I should say right up front, that economists including me are very comfortable with the notion of two-way causation. Most of my book is about the way in which religious thinking affected economic thinking. That’s what I set out to do.

But I talk from time to time about how economic thinking affected religious thinking. And I think this is an interesting case in point. By the time our predecessors got to the 1880s, the American economy was growing at its fastest rate ever more than 3% a year rise in the average standard of living. This was pretty much unprecedented.

This was the high age of American industrialization. But by the time they got to the 1880s, people started to observe that lots of Americans were being left behind. I don’t make a thing of it in this book. I talked about it in my previous book. One of the most startling economic works of that time was a work that I think came out in 1879 by the American economist, Henry George, with the title Progress and Poverty.

Well, we don’t react much today, but in that time, the whole notion of thinking of progress and poverty going together, that was startling. People thought if the economy was making progress, it was going to eliminate poverty. And what they were learning was that it didn’t. Well, the question then was what were the Protestant clergy supposed to do about this, and some thought nothing.

Some thought the problem either didn’t matter. Dwight Moody thought the Protestant clergy should go about saving souls and leave the economy to itself. But there were others. I think of Washington Gladden, I think of Walter Rauschenbusch, I think of Josiah Strong, who strongly thought that there should be some national program to eradicate poverty, or at least to alleviate it in a way that the economy didn’t seem to be doing on its own.

And interestingly, they thought the Protestant churches should take the leadership in pushing for and helping to design this program. They knew they didn’t have the tools to design the program themselves. That’s why they were so supportive of founding the American Economic Association. But they did not want the Protestant churches to stand apart.

They thought the leadership, the inspiration, the energy for this nationwide movement should come from the Protestant churches. And this is what evolved into the Social Gospel movement, which then after the turn of the 20th century, eventually turned into the Federal Council of Churches, which is still here today, although the first initial is now an N. I think it’s now the National Council of Churches. But this is where all that came from.

Albert Mohler:

Right. Well again, I appreciate the fact you give so much attention to these issues. The 19th century was the great century of theological transition, perhaps, equal by the 20th century as a matter of fact. But the 19th century, whether you’re Karl Barth or Gresham Machen, and you mentioned Machen in your book, by the way, you would have thought that-

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes, very interesting figure.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. I have a portrait of him in my study. But either those figures, or Harry Emerson Fosdick, you also mentioned on the other theological extreme, they all would have agreed that the 19th century raised inescapable questions that would have to be answered, and they were trying to answer them.

But you’re talking economically about these two different gospels, the Gospels of Wealth, well, the Gospel of Wealth was not just a prosperity theology, there were those who would have articulated it, but it was also about human flourishing in their own vision.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Oh, yes, it very much was. The key figures that I point to are people like Henry Ward Beecher, this is not the father who created the Lane Theological. This is the son who was at Plymouth Congregational in Brooklyn. So, Henry Ward Beecher, Russell Conwell was at the Baptist Temple, Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Here in Boston, Bishop Lawrence, for example, to a certain extent, Bishop Brooks, and these people, in effect were echoing David Hume. Hume wrote a very famous essay, and famous in his lifetime and still today, in 1741, that I make rather a big deal of in the book.

Because I think it’s very important for the history of economics, arguing that progress in standard of living leads to moral and social and political progress, so that economics is not just a standalone thing that you aspire for on material grounds. And this is very much something that Hume gave to Smith. And in fact, my previous book called The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth is in effect a modern rendering of the Hume 1741 essay.

Well, by the time we get to the 1880s and people are observing the incredible economic expansion associated with this age of high industrialization. And not just high industrialization anywhere, but in this marvelous place where the country has the whole continent to spread out over, these figures like Beecher and Conwell understood that Hume was right.

And Beecher has all of these marvelous sermons about how the continuing growth of the economy is going to improve the level of civilization, the way he put it, in American society. Make Americans better people. Make America a better place. So, you are right, people might confuse it with the prosperity gospel of today, but it wasn’t that.

Albert Mohler:

No, it’s certainly not the same theological vision. It may have the same practical effects. You know, by the way, a little footnote here from American Church History, and this just might interest you, it makes your point. You deal with the differences in eschatology as having economic… you say it’s a two-way street, but nonetheless, it certainly shapes one’s worldview, and particularly the distinction between premillennialism and postmillennialism.

But among the premillennialists, this came down to matters of economics, too. And I’ll tell you one little anecdote, and that is that there was a rivalry of who was really the most premillennial institution between the Moody Bible Institute and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles that became BIOLA.

And at one point, BIOLA takes a shot at Moody, as Moody as a school not really believing so much in the imminence of the Lord’s return because they built buildings of stone and brick. And their point was premillennials don’t build with stone and brick; all you need is a Quonset hut in Los Angeles. So, I often raise it with students to say, even in institutional competition, theology and economics can mix.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes, that’s right. Well, I talked some about pre versus postmillennialism. And I think postmillennialism is interesting for economics because of the resonance between postmillennial theory and the theories of economic growth. Postmillennialism is a lot about technological progress, going back to, well, not Jonathan Edwards, himself, although I think of Edwards as a postmillennialist.

But people like Bellamy following Edwards, and then many of these great figures in the 19th century are postmillennialists. And they’re thinking of the technological progress as raising living standards. And then, they didn’t disagree with Hume about how this was making the world a better place.

But in effect, they then went, Hume went better because it wasn’t just about how this was improving the moral and political and social culture of society. By doing that, they thought they were helping to bring the second coming closer in time.

And so, in postmillennial thought in a way that I as an economist found very interesting, they believe that efforts to improve the economics of the country had religious value. It was helping to bring the Second Coming in the Millennium forward. So, it gave a theological flavor to economic efforts in a way that I hadn’t understood before.

Albert Mohler:

It is interesting, by the way, that postmillennialism, really, largely disappeared, not totally, but largely disappeared, from the theological landscape and Protestantism by the second half of the 20th century. It’s interesting that it is, I will not say it’s experiencing a resurgence, but it is certainly a reappearance amongst some.

And, again, that’s another issue for theological consideration, under what circumstances does postmillennialism appear to be plausible again? But it is interesting that this arrival of postmillennialism is not coming from a position of Protestant dominance in the culture, but rather of a Protestant displacement. To me, it’s interesting to watch, I’ll just say that.

I say this as a theologian, and not as a postmillennialist, but as a premillennialist. On page 350 of your book, you make a statement that I’m going to use insight over and over again. You say this: “As an intellectual discipline matures, its conceptual cord normally becomes less subject to external influence from worldly events, from thinking in other areas of inquiry.

From the culture of the day, fundamental thinking within a mature discipline more and more tends to follow its own momentum while the role of such outside forces becomes increasingly a matter of application and method.” It seems to me that that statement is a really apt summary of the secularization of disciplines, just speaking as a theologian considering the union and synthesis of faith and reason, the medieval world as compared to the present.

But it strikes me that that statement is really important. And I’d like for you to expand on it a moment.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Well, in the interest of honesty, let me begin by not taking credit for it, because what I was doing was paraphrasing, possible I was quoting. But at the very least, I was paraphrasing the idea of Thomas Kuhn, one of our era’s great historians of science.

And I draw in, given his thinking, a great deal, both at the beginning of the book and at the end, Kuhn had very interesting things to say about the way in which a new discipline and immature discipline is very subject to influence from outside in exactly the way that I’m arguing the Scots and others of the mid to late 18th century were when they gave us this economics was an infant discipline, not just young, infant.

But then, Kuhn’s idea is that as a discipline matures and gains, I don’t know if you think of it as gaining confidence, half-gaining, well, “maturity” is his word. Then, it progressively becomes less subject to influence from the outside in its fundamental thinking. And the application that I make of that idea in economics is that if somebody were to ask me where I see the new influence of theology today in economic thinking, I’m not sure what I would point to.

I mean, certain things are still there. As we’ve already discussed, I think the movement away from predestinarian thinking open the way for a new and more expansive view of the opportunities for human agency. That’s still there. That’s what we have. We still have economics is all about personal choice, personal action.

I think if you scratch any economist, you’re going to find a very benign optimistic view of the human character, not like Calvin’s utter depravity or anything like that. But I don’t think there are any new theological influences. By contrast, and here at the last chapter of the book is all about the influence of religious thinking in America today on people’s policy choices.

I mean, after all, the lay public doesn’t give a hoot about economic theory, why should they? They’re interested in the world in which they live, and economics is important to them. And therefore, to the extent that economics has something to say about real choices in the society in which we live, well, they’re going to pay attention to that.

And therefore, people in the lay public, not the educated economists are interested in the economic policy choices that we face. And what I do in the final chapter of the book is look at this interesting way in which people’s economic policy ideas depend very much on their religious affiliation. I’m not sure that’s anything people would have anticipated at the outset, but it sure happens to be true.

Albert Mohler:

It does happen to be true. Theologically, I think, I have an explanation for that. That’s at least plausible. But reading that section in your book, just one additional footnote here, it seems to me that you mentioned Thomas Frank and What’s Wrong with Kansas, etcetera, that whole argument. And you do not do in your book what he did in his. And that is, I think, basically, to insinuate that people don’t know what they really want. And I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think people are always-

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I don’t think that either. It’s just wrong.

Albert Mohler:

That’s helpful. I mean, people aren’t always consistent, but I do think they know what they want. And that includes voters in Kansas and people just about everywhere. In response to your book, Alan Wolfe in the New York Times pointed out that, just what you just said, there’s not much engagement between the fields of economics and theology today and the way that you so conclusively prove there was in the past.

I want to go to a statement that was made in response to your book by David Skeel in the Wall Street Journal. And David, by the way, is a friend of mine, a colleague of mine. He is Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, and by the way, a Presbyterian layman who knows Presbyterian theology.

But he responds by saying that you can sustain your thesis only by assuming as Max Weber did, that the theology influenced even those who weren’t thinking about it. And I just want to say, I think that’s right in the sense that I think they were thinking theologically when they didn’t know they were. And I think your book really helps to explain that.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yes. Yes, I haven’t seen that. What’s his name? Skeel?

Albert Mohler:

David Skeel, S-K-E-E-L, yeah, in the Wall Street Journal.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Yeah, I haven’t seen that review.

Albert Mohler:

He’s a very fine man, very keen thinker.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

I haven’t seen that review. But what he says is absolutely right. But you see, I think that was part of Weber’s point as well. That Weber did not want people to think that back in the 17th century belief in predestination spurred all of this behavior among believing Calvinist Puritans.

And then, once Puritanism faded, Calvinism was less prevalent, that the capitalist instincts that had been bred into people went away. And the great sign of that is that, and again, Weber was a sociologist and he has based his argument on what sociologists then and now called “ideal types.” And the great indication is that he chose as his “ideal type”, not somebody like Jonathan Edwards, which would have been the natural, but Benjamin Franklin.

And he chose Franklin precisely to make the point that you didn’t have to be conscious or self-conscious believer in order to have absorbed all of these Protestant ethic principles. And again, that’s exactly my argument in the book that Smith and Hume, I think, weren’t, certainly Hume wasn’t, but I don’t think Smith was a committed believer either. But you didn’t have to be.

These ideas were all around and it’s just part of the culture. And I think that’s very important, because here we are today, we live in an America in which increasingly people aren’t Protestant. We’ve always had Catholics, we’ve always had Jews, but now we have Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, have all sorts of things. But I think there is an American culture that has been shaped by these lines of thought.

And in the same way that Weber looked at Benjamin Franklin as his ideal type. I mean, I’m not going to do that because I’m not a sociologist, but I would be happy to pick economists who have no religious background whatsoever, or pick one of my colleagues who’s a Hindu, but who’s grown up in the United States and use that as the example. So, I think, Mr. Skeel got it exactly right.

Albert Mohler:

Professor Friedman, it’s been a privilege to have this conversation. I want to thank you for your book. Thank you for taking theology seriously in a world that often does not. And I’m going to commend your book to many.

Benjamin M. Friedman:

Thank you Dr. Mohler. I’ve enjoyed talking with you very much. It has been an honor for me to be here and I’ve enjoyed it as well. Thank you.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to our guest, Professor Benjamin Friedman, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you’ll find more than 150 of these conversations at under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.