Kevin DeYoung|6:08 am CT

The Practical Divide Between Religious Leaders and Entrepreneurs

A good admonition from Acton’s Robert A. Sirico, in The Entrepreneurial Vocation, about the faulty notions religious leaders often have about wealth and the world of business:

In addition to an intellectual or academic gap, there is frequently a kind of practical divide between religious leaders and entrepreneurs in their understanding of market operations. This is because the two groups tend to operate from different worldviews and employ different models in their daily operations.

Notice how these differences are typically manifested.

On Sunday morning a collection basket is passed in most churches. On Monday the bills are paid, acts of charity attended to, and levies paid to denominational headquarters. However, when the collection regularly comes up short, making it difficult to pay the bills, most ministers will preach a sermon on the responsibility of stewardship. In the minds of many clergy, economic decisions resemble dividing up a pie into equal slices. In this view, wealth is seen as a static entity, which means that for someone with a small sliver to increase his or her share of the pie, someone else must necessarily receive a somewhat small piece. The “moral solution” that springs from this economic model is the redistribution of wealth, what might be called a “Robin Hood” morality.

Entrepreneurs operate from a very different understanding of money and wealth. They speak of “making” money, not of “collecting” it; of producing wealth, not redistributing it. Entrepreneurs must consider the needs, wants, and desires of consumers, because the only way to meet their own needs peacefully—without relying on charity—is to offer something of value in exchange. These people, then, view the world of money as dynamic.

In referring to the free market as dynamic, however, it is easy to get the impression that we are describing a place or an object. However, the market is actually a process—a series of choices made by independently acting persons who themselves place monetary values on goods and services. This process of assigning subjectively determined values is responsible for producing the “wealth of nations,” a phrase that is typically associated with the title of Adam Smith’s classic eighteenth-century work but was actually first employed in the Book of Isaiah (60:5). The creative view of economics taken by business people is also illustrated in Scripture.

Unfortunately, the preceding argument may be misconstrued as urging that religion adopt a bottom-line, profit-and-loss mentality with regard to its mission, but this would be a grave distortion. I agree that there is a significant place for the sharing of wealth and resources within Christian practice—indeed, a mandatory place. With their transcendent vision, communities of faith recognize that some matters cannot be placed within the limited calculus of economic exchange or evaluated solely in terms of money. It is equally true, however, that to maintain credibility in the world of business and finance, clergy must first understand the inner workings of the market economy, for only then will such moral guidance be helpful.

But there is another, if somewhat misleading, factor that contributes to the hostility toward capitalism that one frequently encounters in religious circles. Many religious leaders spend a great portion of their lives personally confronting the wretchedness of poverty. Poverty saddens and angers us, and we want to put an end to it. This sentiment is entirely proper, not to mention morally incumbent upon Christians. However, a problem develops when this sentiment is combined with the economic ignorance described above. When this happens, the just cry against poverty is converted into an illegitimate rage against wealth as such, as though the latter created the former. While this reaction is understandable, it is nevertheless ill-informed and can lead to overreactions. Persons who react in this way fail to acknowledge that the amelioration of poverty will be achieved only by producing wealth and protecting a free economy. (10-12)

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