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June 4th, 2010
02:00 AM ET

My Take: The market has become God

Editor's Note: Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners and author of "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street — A Moral Compass for the New Economy."

By Jim Wallis, Special to CNN

It was a difficult May for “the market.”

On May 6, the stock market plunged nearly a thousand points before recovering to close a few hundred points down. By month’s end, stocks had experienced their worst May in 70 years. It’s more evidence of a broken system - and that the market has become the end rather than the means. If we don’t rewire our values, our losses will have been in vain.

The cultural messages over the last several decades have clearly been: greed is good; it’s all about me; and I want it (all) now. Not ruthlessly following these maxims has become a sign of weakness and deficiency – or of being stupid for not looking out for “number one.”

Over the past 30 years or so, the market has become like an invasive species, devouring everything in its path. This is what idols often do. The rituals of consumption have replaced the practice of citizenship. And the identity of the consumer has replaced the identity of the citizen - even in the strategy of political campaigns, which are now just marketing blitzes to sell candidates.

When you divorce morality from economy, the moral health of society is the first casualty. And then we all begin to worry about where all the values have gone. When economics comes before values, we have idolatry. If the market ultimately defines what gets our attention, we will be defined by the moral limits of the marketplace.

Let me be clear. Performing necessary roles and providing important goods and services are not the same things as commanding ultimate allegiance. Idolatry means that something has taken the place of God. The market can be a good thing and even necessary, but it now commands too much, claims ultimate significance, controls too much space in our lives, and has gone far beyond its proper limits.

In what became a prophetic essay, the Harvard Divinity School’s Harvey Cox wrote about what was happening to the economy, without any moral or theological reflection, in a 1999 Atlantic Monthly article.

Called “The Market as God,” the piece said that there have always been a variety of different types of markets. But meaning or purpose for life, society, and all of civilization always came from different centers of society.

It has been a slow growth over the past 200 years, and an accelerated growth over the past 30 years, that has elevated “The Market” to a godlike status with godlike qualities. That is why all of this bears some religious reflection: The market now has all the godlike qualities - all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, even eternal - unable to be resisted or even questioned.

But this crisis presents us with an opportunity, not just to be smarter and more prudent about our economic lives, but to change something much deeper - to reject the idolatry of our market worship, to expose the idols that have ensnared us, and to reduce “The Market” to simply “the market,” asking the market to again serve us, rather than the other way around. Indeed, it could be that the religions of the world might help lead the way here, challenging the idols of the market and reminding us who is God and who is not — a traditional and necessary role for religion.

Christianity and Judaism, in the Psalms, say that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.” These things do not belong to the market.

Let us also remember that human beings are merely stewards of God’s creation, not its masters. And we humans are the ones who preside over the market, not the other way around. Despite our differences, the religion of the market has become a more formidable rival to every religion than they are to one another.

But together, we could challenge the dominion of the market by restoring the rightful worship of God. The market’s false promise of its limitless infinity must be replaced with the acknowledgment of our human finitude, with more humility and with moral limits - which are essential to restoring our true humanity.

The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of a loving God. And the first commandment of The Market, “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictums of God’s economy; namely, there is enough, if we share it.

The crisis of the Great Recession could do more than prompt a reset of our economic life. It could restore a sense of right worship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jim Wallis.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Leaders • Money & Faith

soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. Susan

    The Dow has become the Tao. I've seen it coming for years. I would like to think people can unite for the common good, but it keeps getting harder to keep that hope alive.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  2. Mike K

    Wow! What a great article. We should all have enough humility and honesty to publicly speak about where we are as a society. It's too bad that many of the comments are so rude and judgmental.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  3. Jackalope

    For decades I've been referring to "free market" ideology as "free market theology". I don't think it's a coincidence that the segment of our society that identifies most closely with Christian fundamentalism is also the segment that proselytizes most vehemently for "free market theology"

    As you might expect, as they do with their religion, they also carve out exceptions for themselves with their economic dogma when it is to their advantage. Once a hypocrite, always a hypocrite.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  4. clark

    The whole premise of the Wallace article is preposterous. Presumably God is omniscient (all knowing) or he is not God (or is he? a question for another day). The market is nothing but a trading system, albeit much abused. As an inanimate swirl of trading and traders supported by exchanges, the "market" itself knows nothing; not even for a nanosecond. I know I should not take his imagery too literally. He is just blathering about worshiping something other than God. Although I do not worship the market, at least I do not have to rely on blind faith that it exists.

    June 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  5. Carol J

    Read Revalation 16.... possiblely because there too many and too much happens in the world seem time near for Jesus's coming! Because world become uncontrols. Much suffers, much angry, much greedy and corrupts, too much immortals and defys that to make God's eye on us. It's time! We feel like to screaming its over with pains right?

    June 4, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  6. Mark

    what I find amazing about all of this discussion about how this country was not founded upon a basic belief in God. To all those that say go read the history books and you will see that God had no part in the formation or foundation of this country, I ask, what histories are you reading??? This country in its founding had men and women of various faith traditions come together under the common banner to "form a more perfect union". If God was not a vital part of the lives of the Founders then why is He named in our documents?

    June 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
    • Tastyfish

      Revisionist history is all the rage these days, atheists would rather have 'in walmart we trust' on our bills.

      June 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  7. Goatboy

    Wow.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  8. Danyael

    "They broke their backs lifting Moloch to heaven." Howl, Allen Ginsberg. I suppose Allen could have substituted Mammon in this line. I have no gods, not even one but I can be certain that people have spiritual needs. Those needs are real and I've never seen the amount of money that could fill those needs.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Jerome

    Not God but The Big Casino. Investment used to be about long-term quality, now it's become short-term (micro-seconds even) trading, aka gambling. 'Greed is not good.' Greed is greed. We almost had a 2nd Great Depression. Three strikes and you're out should never happen. Market capitalism may have become the rope that hangs itself.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  10. JW Tucker

    Wall Street has been overreactive and of knee-jerk behavior with fear. It is now based on FEARS. Fear of other country's debt problems; fear of terrorism, fear of the next hurricane, and fear of just about a pin dropping and people want to sell out. Corporations need to quit relying so much on their stock to carry them. They need to focus on quality services and products, hire good people, pay good wages. On another note, good'ol U.S.A needs to start manufacturing things again. We need to make things here and quit delicating the process of it elsewhere. By doing that it brings jobs back and keeps the economy strong. That won't happen, though. Sadly, it won't.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  11. Pockets

    I am so lucky to be an atheist that is hard to describe. It was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders not to have that nonsense in my head any longer. My wish or hope is that science and 'reasoning will make others see that we are primates and evolved to this point.
    Money is definitely not happiness, but you cannot get along without it. Each of us come to some conclusion about it sooner or late, just hope its sooner and the right conclusion.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  12. nansei

    there are over 1000 billionaires in the U.S. They have, say, 2 trillion dollars worth of power in a 14 trillion dollar economy. why do you think we are so confused about god and the market? these 1000 guys are calling the shots, running the media, the oil companies, the banks. i say convert 1000 billionaires into 1 million millionaires, and then ask the question again. we should be upset about our predicament. but we can do something about it.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  13. mike

    They should require investors in the stock market to pay for losses as well as receive money for gains. That's the way it used to be. Make investors responsible for losses as well as profits, and then you'll see smarter investors.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  14. mike

    If you want to know what it's like to invest in the stock market, go and give five dollars to a complete stranger and say, "please make money for me." Yep, it's about that dumb. You're relying on other people to make money for you. SO, the solution: Invest in your own market. Start a business, buy real estate, etc. Don't rely on others. By the way, if you read Forbes Magazine, you'll see that most millionaires and billionaires made their fortunes in real estate, not the stock market.

    June 4, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  15. Rithro

    Windrider, don't forget that Bill Gates & Warren Buffett, two of the richest people in the world, are going to divest themselves of their wealth. Perhaps the Gates Foundation's sponsored research will find a way to cure malaria. I don't defend wealth for wealth's sake. Harvard minister Peter Gomes has concluded that "Wealth is a problem for those who have it and for those who desire it." Who among us does not desire more money? This cannot be a "us vs them" kind of deal. We all want the things that come with "enough" money.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • Mike M

      Yes that is true Gates and Buffett will divest themselves of all their wealth. But the funny thing is that's not happening until their long gone. You think their going leave themselves with only a few million before they go nah no way. Gates is only leaving his children 30 million each I think and donating the rest. Geez what are they going to do?

      June 4, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
  16. JW Tucker

    "Money isn't everything, Jett."

    "Yeah, when you got it," replied Jett.
    – from the movie GIANT

    June 4, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  17. jeff

    Atheism is in overdrive and eccelerating.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  18. BMR

    We idolize ancient middle eastern myths. Those have become gods. So why not the market?

    June 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  19. KD

    If you don't believe in god than you can't be an idolator.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • UnknownSpeculation

      But I'll bet the half of my portolio that's left you'll be judged by one of the self-righteous types. Funny how they never seem happy either.

      June 4, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Randy

    Well, I think there is at least one similarity in that the financial world goes into hysterics or euphorics when the market does something volatile, and grasps round mystically for explanations of that volatility.

    The Enlightenment and its manifests, be they economic, scientific or otherwise, propounded the illusion that we understand stuff, so that if one Man, through understanding of himself, can control himself, then Society as a whole, through understanding of the world, can control and command itself. This has not worked out. We don't cower in fear and trembling when it thunders anymore, but we do when the economy goes into recession.

    One genius of the Enlightenment (Voltaire?) said that if God did not exist it would have been necessary to create him. The same could be said of the markets. Religion has been laid low, and these days it is the economists and the scientists who are soggy with hubris. Then the market drops 1000 points or an oil well explodes, and these arrogant men, too, are humbled. Is this God at work? Or is it just the indefeasible stupidity of impotent man, flailing tearfully at his cruel, unknowable world like a flaccid todger?

    June 4, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Randy

      Dude, you're a freaking genius.

      June 9, 2010 at 8:29 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.