Markets, Morality, and the Common Good

By John Gehring 3-20-2009

Not long ago, those who demonized government and preached the gospel of free-market fundamentalism with evangelical zeal had few worries. The titans of corporate America were glorified on the cover of Fortune, "trickle-down" economics justified obscene wealth disparities, and a bullish Wall Street even gave working stiffs a piece of the action.

But things fall apart. Decades of deregulation, crass decisions at the highest levels of business and government, and a consumer culture that celebrates materialism are catching up with reality. One in 10 Americans -- nearly 28 million -- now depend on food stamps. Catholic Charities USA reports that 62 percent of its agencies have seen an increase in middle-class clients seeking help. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts that the ranks of the poor, now at 36 million, could soon increase by as many as 10 million if the unemployment rate hits nine percent.

The financial crisis is also a moral crisis that requires a profound shift in values. Our nation's diverse religious communities have a proud tradition of speaking prophetically about economic justice, and the need to temper the cruel vagaries of the market with collective responsibility to care for our neighbors. Catholic social teaching, in particular, has a long history that warns against putting profit before human dignity. Amid another global economic collapse in 1931, Pope Pius XI affirmed a positive role for government and the obligation to pay workers a living wage. At a recent meeting of the Confederation of Italian Labor Unions, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that finding solutions for the global financial crisis requires "a new synthesis between the common good and the market, between capital and labor." Franklin D. Roosevelt drew heavily from Catholic social thought in shaping the New Deal. This social justice heritage can help us think anew about applying these values to current economic challenges.

Disgraced Wall Street baron Bernard Madoff and the banking executives dragged before Congress recently would not want to meet the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who thundered against the greed of powerful kings enjoying lavish lifestyles while so many suffered around them. Those who trumpet a holy trinity of tax cuts, unfettered markets, and a savage brand of corporate capitalism serve narrow ideologies hard to square with the teachings of Jesus, who preached "good news to the poor" and kicked the money-changers out of the Temple. While the American ethos of "rugged individualism" and self-reliance often chafes against Judeo-Christian notions of solidarity with the poor, the scope of the economic crisis offers an historic opportunity to rebuild our economy to serve all Americans, not simply the privileged few.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required bearing witness to the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His "Poor People's Campaign" brought together whites, blacks, and Latinos united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us. A culminating march on Washington calling for an economic "bill of rights" fizzled after King's assassination in 1968. People of faith will revive this unfinished legacy in April with the Mobilization to End Poverty, an event organized by Sojourners that will bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims for lobbying days on Capitol Hill. President Obama, who pledged to help cut poverty in half within a decade, has been invited to speak at the event.

The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis remarked that we can have democracy or great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but not both. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now own 20 percent of total national income. Nearly 40 percent of U.S children grow up in poverty. These are moral and political failures unworthy of a great nation. Our country has always been strongest when we are united by a sense of common purpose and a commitment to shared prosperity. If the American dream is more than an empty slogan, it's long past time to make economic justice for all a reality.

John Gehring is a senior writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. This article was originally published by Religion News Service. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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