Religion & Liberty Online

Providence and Prosperity: We Are All Beggars

Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.

Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?

In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”

The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.

The ‘Protestant Ethic’ still works for Americans, and American politics
By David Gibson — ENInews/RNS

Washington, D.C., 22 September (ENInews)–In 1905, Max Weber’s landmark treatise on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” argued that a Calvinist belief in God’s plan for the saved was crucial to the rise of capitalism because it inspired individuals to work hard and earn money as a sign of divine blessing on their lives.

More than a century later, new research shows that whatever its merits, the Protestant ethic is thriving among American believers, Religion News Service reports. That’s especially true among evangelicals who are driving today’s economic conservatism, and the idea goes a long way toward explaining the political disputes that are dividing the country and shaping the presidential campaign.

According to the Baylor Religion Survey released on 20 September, nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that God has a plan for their lives, and those who hold strongly to those beliefs — about four-in-ten — are much more likely to embrace the sort of conservative economic philosophy that would make right-wing Tea Party activists proud.

In fact, believers who say God is directly guiding our lives and endowing the United States with divine blessings are much more likely than other Americans to agree that “the government does too much.” They are more than twice as likely as all other Americans to say that success “is achieved by ability rather than luck.”

The Baylor study, based on interviews with more than 1,700 adults last fall, shows that black Protestants are most likely to espouse these God-driven ideas (71 percent), followed by evangelicals at 55 percent. Catholics and mainline Protestants are well behind, at about 42 percent, trailed by unaffiliated believers and Jews, who come in at around three percent.

Baylor sociologist Paul Froese noted that today’s economic Protestantism seems to channel the free-market ideas of Adam Smith, the 18th-century moral philosopher who developed the theory of an “invisible hand” of competition, and the more recent libertarian views of the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.

One major caveat emerges, however: Froese noted that American believers add an important religious gloss to these market-driven theories by arguing that God is actually tipping the scales — in their favor, of course — as long as they are hard-working true believers.

This kind of economic theology is being trumpeted most effectively by the Republican party, especially presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. “Political candidates can promote economic conservatism and a lack of government regulation merely by referring to an engaged God,” Froese said. “It works because many rank-and-file voters believe that a lack of government regulation and lower taxes is part of God’s plan.”

This approach also works politically because, contrary to what one might expect, Americans with lower incomes and less education are more likely to believe that God has a plan for their lives, and that when it comes to the economy, the best government is that which governs least. (African-American Protestants are an exception to the trend, believing in both God’s guiding hand and a strong role for government.)

For example, 41 percent of respondents said they “strongly believe” God has a plan for them, but just 17 percent of respondents with incomes of more than $100,000 held those beliefs.

That kind of populist optimism, in spite of today’s deepening economic misery, was also demonstrated by a recent Associated Press-CNBC survey that found that two in 10 Americans think they will be millionaires in the next decade. That conviction increases the further one moves down the economic ladder — and thus the lower one’s actual chances of achieving such financial nirvana.

Critics view these attitudes as a kind of magical thinking that opens the most financially vulnerable people to the pitches of “prosperity gospel” preachers who use cable television pulpits to solicit donations that they say will bring their viewers economic blessings.

But the popularity of this “gospel of wealth” could also play out in the budget showdown in Washington as President Obama tries to win re-election on a platform of economic “fairness” (read: higher taxes on the wealthy along with budget cuts).

Republicans, on the other hand, are raising the red flag of “class warfare” in opposing the president’s plans — in effect defending the wealthy at a time of near-recession and growing economic inequality.

That message could yet work for the Republicans if enough middle- and working-class Americans believe that they, too, will be in that upper-income echelon sooner rather than later, and that God will help them get there — as long as Washington doesn’t get in the way.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.