Reassesing the Economy’s Role as the Engine of American Life

This past summer, President Obama found himself the target of swift Republican rebukes after stating that “the private sector is doing fine” in a press conference called to address the nation’s economic problems. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney retorted swiftly, claiming the statement proved “an extraordinary miscalculation and misunderstanding by a president who is out-of-touch.” The back and forth quickly devolved into another familiar rhetorical exchange that featured Republican calls for government and deficit cuts and Democratic calls for additional public spending. This rhetoric defined much of the election season, and was a major issue for both the candidates and voters leading up to November 6.

However such debate seems increasingly silly considering its numbing unoriginality, the reality of recoveries following financial crises, and the global economic slowdown that threatens whatever policies Republicans or Democrats introduce. Given this, the half-a-decade long recession provides an appropriate and long-needed occasion for Christians—and society as a whole— to reexamine the meaning and goals of the economy as the engine of American life.

The economy, as evidenced by the rhetorical battles that characterized the presidential election, divides Americans like few issues can. Thus, agreeing on normative economic fundamental provides a useful starting point for Christians that are often as divided about the issue as the rest of society.

The norms most clearly governing human economic activity and institutions are that of justice and stewardship. The justice mandate flows throughout Scripture, particularly in the works of the Prophets, while the call to stewardship is grounded solidly in the creation mandate(s) found in Genesis 1 and 2. Bob Goudzwaard, professor emeritus at the Free University of Amsterdam, provides critical insight on these Christian economic norms in his “Norms for the International Economic Order.” (Additionally, he also lists a third norm, the “social” norm, which I will put aside for my purposes here, although it is certainly very important).

Stewardship, according to Goudzwaard requires the avoidance of waste, conservation, and urgency (essentially, meaning a focus on those matters most critical to fulfilling the creation mandate). Such thinking is comprehensive- it implies the need for wise environmental policies and protections, but also the cautious utilization of financial resources. When we specifically examine fiscal policy, this would suggest that this stewardship norm implies wisely utilizing the resources God provides to fulfill the mandates given to us in the creation narrative, a norm that dictates appropriate spending in accordance with the means of both individuals and states. Further, I would add that this call to stewardship- in both its environmental and fiscal forms- is directly tied to the second norm, that of justice.

In speaking of justice, Goudzwaard articulates a number of aspects that he grounds in biblical analysis. But at its root, justice, viewed in light of the demands of the prophets and the Mosaic law, demands attentiveness to the cause of the weak and oppressed, as well as respect for the dignity and worth of all people. And it is herein that lays the connection to stewardship, a connection implied in CPJ’s Guideline for Economic Justice. A failure to steward the fiscal or environmental resources available now robs future generations of their ability to develop in accordance with their God-given potential as beings made in God’s image. It deprives the next generation of resources essential to human flourishing, and most worryingly, it threatens most those who might need such resources for basic sustenance or as a pathway to opportunity.

These two norms, stewardship and justice, thus provide an interconnected and relevant biblical starting point to Christian economic discussions, in contrast to the false dichotomy so often presented to us- and on this point many, if not most Christians can agree. While differences may emerge regarding policy implementations and emphases, we can find wide and broad-ranging support for these ideas. Such principles necessitate the control of spending and reducing the federal deficit, but they also demand that economic debate shifts from a cuts vs. taxes paradigm to a normative-grounded approach that responds to the demands of both stewardship and justice- norms that needs not be set in opposition to one another.

-Aaron Korthuis graduated with a political science degree from Whitworth Univeristy in 2012 and is currently working for the Association for a More Just Society in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Photo courtesy of Paul Simpson.