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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. Eric G.

    Wow. As an atheist, previous posts have said that I should be "erradicated", "terrorized" (and, my personal favorite) "BURN IN HELL FOR ETERNITY WITHOUT END!!". These posts said these things should happen to Atheists, not that these things should happen to Atheism. Atheists don't hate believers. We don't hate what they believe in. To me, it seems the only ones preaching hate are the believers. The fact that people hate each other does not supprise me. We are humans, and humans hate. What bothers me is believers who use their religion to justify their hate. To hate an Atheist because he does not believe in your god is like hating a non-stamp collector because he does not collect stamps. It is the "believer" that hates, not the god they believe in. Thank you to the hateful believers posting here for proving my point.

    June 10, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  2. JJ

    Religion, God and prayer is a joke. It simply does not exist. It was all made up to give the churches our money and keep people under control. It's time we grow up and accept the truth or maybe Santa or the Easter Bunny will come make me feel better about death and the big bad world.

    June 10, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  3. Snotgrinder

    I'm an agnostic. I cannot definitively say that God exists nor can anyone else. However, God, religion, prayer is a chance for hope when no hope is there. People often find God in the most desperate of times...being near death being one of them.
    And through this hope, we may find an inner strength to surpass the insurmountable, whether God exists or not.

    If this does not apply to you, then don't condemn it. Condemning the beliefs and uniqueness of others is the problem with the world in general. And one needs to read no further than this website to know this truth.

    June 9, 2010 at 10:59 pm |
  4. LLB

    I have to say this – even if the market were to crash and burn, people are resiliant. They would find a way to survive and rebuild. The market is NOT God, never will be God, and could never be God. If there is a God, He/She surely would find this article both foolishly amusing and insulting. Lets find other things to write about.

    June 9, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  5. Robert

    Those with the writer's viewpoint beware: if you aren't careful, you may set yourself up for tyranny. The market is NOT really its own thing that can be controlled (at least not without unreasonably radical efforts). People need to realize that the market is *what the people as a whole want and choose.* If you try to define and contain that, you have a dictator that takes away your freedom. Think about it. The choices of the masses being controlled is tyranny and not freedom. Do not think the market is something it isn't.

    June 9, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  6. Joe

    It's true, and the sad fact is that almost no one even knows what the "market" is. The dow is reported endlessly, yet Warren buffet says he never pays attention to those numbers – he says he has no idea what the Dow numbers represent. But to the 99.9999999999999% of the people who know nothing about the "market" the Dow is everything. All the pronouncements about why the dow changed on a given day are nearly always just random speculation. It could just as likely be that tiffany wore pink slippers today, or maybe a dog sniffed someone. Who knows? Meanwhile, the market is driven primarliy by ignorant speculation and sheep-like investors who have absolutely no idea what they are doing or why they are doing it. A true casino!

    June 9, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  7. rahnbj

    The "Market" is a reflection of us, a snapshot of out collective (or at least our collective investing class) conscious. It is a reflection of how the investors "feel" at the moment, and it's very fleeting. The word "greed" comes to mind. Individually, many are still concerned with their fellow man, and care about the world around them. But taken collectively we are lumped in with the "Market" and it's self obsessed, never enough, me first culture. I see this discussion has degraded at some level into a "God or No God" debate, but that's not the point. I feel like the Author is establishing at the onset that there IS a God, in the form of whatever we care about most deeply, and lately that's become less etheral and more material. His hope would seem to be that we adjust our priorities and focus less on worldly possesion, and more on that which we can not touch but touches us. For me that manifests itself as time spent with family and friend, for others it is a connection with a higher power, but whatever it is to you shift your focus more to that end and we might all be better for it. And of course:
    Share Everything, Play Fair, Don't hit others, Clean up after yourself, Don't take things that aren't yours, Say your sorry when you hurt others.....IMHO

    June 9, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  8. Emmitt Langley

    Religion is not divisive, as some have surmised. In fact, the only people who have a problem with religion are atheists. In America, people from various faiths get on quite well. You don't have to think exactly like another person to get on with them, a fact most militant atheists refuse to acknowledge.

    The truth is atheism is the terror that must be eradicated. Atheistic socialist regimes were responsible for more deaths in the 20th century than all religions in all of human history combined. You can choose to let your prejudices keep you in ignorance or you can look at the facts.

    Once you throw away your belief in God, you throw away morality. You can reason your way into anything...whether it be killing Jews, or the unborn, or the religious as the socialists did in France and China.

    June 9, 2010 at 6:48 am |
    • Randy

      I don't think atheism should be eradicated, but I do welcome the growing social awareness that atheism is simply another religion.

      IMHO it is not throwing away God that throws away morality, but throwing away faith. And atheism throws away neither faith nor morality – it but merely condemns God and pretends to condemn faith. It equates morality with reason and equates evil with what its (its own limited definition of) religion. That's where they get the "all the evil in the world is caused by religion" business.

      The problem with this that reason created slavery, feudalism, the blunderbuss, the atom-bomb, Zyklon-B, the oil well, and many other things that represent evil or have caused or enabled evil, and place reason under the same indictment of human suffering as religion. Atheists must reject atheism's responsibility for these evils, but can only do so by taking it as an article of faith that reason is always moral and science is always good.

      June 9, 2010 at 8:42 am |
    • Mark

      Emmitt – really? Atheists are responsible for more deaths in this century than any religious civilization throughout history combined? That's a pretty broad, unsupported claim and you'll have to show your math here. Just using our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples, Bush claimed it was God's will that we bring democracy to their countries. Hitler grew up Christian but that didn't help anymore. What atheist regimes are you referring to?

      Religion is dangerous because we use it as justification – it's ok to burn these girls at Salem because they're witches. It's ok to go to war because because God wants us to spread our faith to our enemies. Now look at what you're saying – "atheism is the terror that needs to be eradicated" – and this is right after you claim religion is NOT divisive. Really???

      Ethics and morality exist independently of religion. Any religious person can be good or evil, and any atheist can be good or evil. I grew up Christian but I've been atheist for about 4 years now. I don't really care if you believe in a higher power or not. But it's extremely insulting when you hear people make broad claims like atheists have no morality and need to be eradicated. Think about what you're saying and see if it matches up with what Jesus actually teaches.

      June 9, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • Joe

      "I do welcome the growing social awareness that atheism is simply another religion"

      No, that is false. A true religion is based on dogmatic beliefs that cannot be challenged. For instance, religions call people who deny their dogma heretics and usually excise them from their "faith" or kill them, depending on how extemest they are. Athiests don't have a dogma and don't excise anyone, and in fact, don't organize anything arourd any dogma. They simply recognize the absurity of believing in a supernatural being and using supernatural explanations to explain the natural world. They generally accept scientific explanations for natural phenomenon and, of course, any scientific theory can be challenged and changed if new evidence is found to condratict existing evidence. That is not a religion, it is simply rational thought. Something religious people put aside when "practicing" their religious dogma. In fact, athiests are happy to have religous people challenge the athiest contention that there is no supernatural being controlling everything. All the religionists have to do is prove it. None have, and of course none ever will. Of course athiests cannot prove there is no god. All they can to is point out that there is no proof that there is a god, so until some comes to light we have to assume there is not.

      June 9, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  9. abcdef12345

    Religion is an emotion, not a philosophy. Believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc believe everything and nothing. 25% of all Christians believe in reincarnation. Some Muslims believe that Jesus was never crucified; it was Judas disguised as Jesus. Some Christians believe that only 144,000 people will go to heaven and the rest of us will go to hell.

    But they all experience the wonderful emotion of religiousness, of being spiritually connected. WHAT they believe is an accident of history. What they FEEL is the point of religion. It evolved in us, somehow, and some people need to feel religiousy while others do not have such a need.

    June 8, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Gary

      agree,,,,its a state of mind.

      June 8, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • Emmitt Langley

      I respectfully disagree. A belief in God is based on more scientific evidence than atheism is. In fact, you've given no evidence to back up your claims...all you've done is pose an argument based on emotion.

      The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, proton decay, and even Einstein's General Relativity all point to the fact that the natural universe had a beginning. And since something can't be the cause of itself, naturalism can't have caused the universe. Something supernatural had to proceed it. That supernatural Cause is God. You don't like it, but that argument is sound and valid.

      What *LAWS* of science support your beliefs?

      June 9, 2010 at 6:54 am |
  10. Mark

    All I'm really getting out of this article is that the economy will fix itself if we pray hard enough. Jim Wallis, you're a CEO, is that how you solve problems in your company?

    June 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  11. Unreal

    I wish everyone would please stop equating socialism with secularism. Anyone using the examples of socialist nations like the USSR, North Korea, China, etc. being proof of secularism's inferiority are using glaringly bad logic. Communism in particular is an ideology that specifically prohibits religion; secularism does not advocate socialism or communism in any way. By saying that since all communists are secular, and therefore all secular societies are communist, you're basically failing at one of the most basic tenets of logic. Secularism is not tied to any political ideology whatsoever, in fact, other than being the polar opposite of theocratic ideology.

    June 8, 2010 at 11:20 am |
    • Kate

      Communism doesn't have any relation to atheism. It's an economic process, not a governing system. There are plenty of religious communes flourishing in every country. Marxism has an 'anti-theistic' plank to it, but mostly due to not wanting to share power with churches. Marxism is not communism and it's not about atheism either.

      June 11, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  12. brand

    In the end, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that "Jesus Christ is Lord".....so, go ahead and fight back and forth for now....many will be very surprised.....and....I hope those people like the dark....eternally.......

    June 8, 2010 at 9:48 am |
    • Gary

      Brand its obvious you worship hell and satan. It excites you to damn folks for eternity you are a servent of satan..

      June 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
    • Mark

      What's interesting is that Jesus himself was jewish, and jews don't believe in hell. They don't even believe Jesus was a divine being, just a normal guy.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  13. Eric G

    Thank you to everyone who responded to my post. I am glad it sparked debate. Just want to clear up a few things about the responses I received.
    1. Most of the founding fathers were Deists, not christians.
    2. Nazi's were mostly christian.
    3. Stalin's USSR and North Korea are structured as religions. (worship and thank the "supreme leader" for everything)
    4. Communism is not atheist. Communisim is a economic theory. Atheism has nothing to do with it.
    5. Atheism is not a religion and is tolerant of others. Here is proof. If I don't believe in Jesus, christians say I will go to hell. That is a threat. Atheists don't threaten believers because they believe. Religions threaten atheists because we don't.

    June 7, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • ImNoExpert

      Eric G., I'm gonna have to disagree with you about Atheists being tolerant and religious people being intolerant.

      One's beliefs (or lack of beliefs) do not always influence the disposition they have towards those who do not share their views. I've met plenty of intolerant Atehists and tolerant religious folk. The group as a whole cannot be characterized by a disposition such as "tolerance" or "intolerance" since that is an individual trait.

      So in the future, if you meet someone that is hostile to your views, don't hate them for being a member of Group Whatever; hate them for being a jerk.

      June 8, 2010 at 9:29 am |
    • Kate

      Atheists are people and some are tolerant and some are not. It's been my observation that most religionists are well invested in victimhood, but not honesty. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a god and by nature must be more tolerant than belief which would dictate lack of tolerance for lack of agreement.

      Simple logic.

      June 11, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
  14. Rick McDaniel

    Greed is the market creed, and corruption is the watchword to live by.

    June 7, 2010 at 8:25 am |
  15. Robert

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

    Finally someone who can put into words the way I have been feeling about this world and its morals for so long. I don't know when business went from being a means to an end to being the end itself, the thing that governs human lives rather than supporting it but it has.

    This 'credit crunch' has highlighted this issue very clearly, for those who wish to see.

    June 7, 2010 at 1:46 am |
    • Mark

      If you want to talk morality, I'd like to talk about Salem witch trials.

      June 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  16. Jim has a point.

    Ya know what? I agree with Jim – for too long people have worshiped money and the very concept of gaining it that they've stopped caring about each other. Those with money (but not everyone to be clear) destroy those who have none!

    Let's remember what's important – decency and respect towards our fellow man!!

    June 7, 2010 at 1:34 am |
  17. Coherent1

    First and foremost, most people don't understand that their choice to believe or not believe is their God given choice. Religious people must understand that they can't force their beliefs on others and naysayers likewise. The issue becomes who's right or wrong. It's hard for believers to understand those who have no faith or purpose. Likewise it hard for non-believers trust anything they can't see or control. Now as far as the market is concerned, it can be a good thingm however where there's good, evil will lurk. There will always exist, the insatiable want and the desire to be on top or the best at everything. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of someone else's loss. Where there's gain on one end of the market, there has to loss on the other. This is what keeps some people motivated to be on the gaining end which ultimate leads to greed. It promises greatness therefore those that participate are seeking that financial greatness, even though they are, by design, the actual losers. It is a game of chance. When the market crashes, a great number loses; a miniscule amount of people profit from their loss. It is smoke and mirrors; your gain only exists when you cash in on it. At the same time, you are encouraged to leave your money in longterm, the chances you take on gaining is just as great as losing. The point then is no one really cares if you've gained a lot or lost your life's savings because, you know, it the choice you made and the chance you took. So whichever God you serve, be it the market or the Creator, you get exactly what you chose.

    June 5, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  18. From "Where the Bible Belt Begins" (Virginia)

    This "non-profit" evangelist may have one thing right: the accelerated market dominance in the "last 30 years." That would be Reagan's first term, when hordes of businessmen and their lawyer-allies got posted in government specifically to decimate it. "The Man Who Sold the World," by William Kleinknecht, details this sea change in D.C. pretty well.

    I'm no Economist, but I do grasp that The Market doesn't equal The Masses. Yes, we have supply-and-demand influence, but behind the curtain are those with the money, political power, and advertising savvy to get what they want and direct our demands and needs. It was true of British businessmen who bankrolled the Mayflower for the Puritans; true of the robber-barons of the Gilded Age; and especially true of today's Superclass with no loyalties toward employees, nations, even their stockholders. Shifts in societal whims and federal regulations, while not always good, have served as brakes on the train; and right now, we have no brakes.

    I don't see God as the solution. I left the near-bankrupt Golden State in '08, having lived twenty years in the back yard of religious Reaganism and CountryWide. I recall one guy thanking God for his new house, which he'd barely purchased with a flexible-rate mortgage. Barely scraping by it seemed, he was ex-lead singer in a church whose singles group dissolved because its pastor was laid off – because the church was struggling with all its"wealthy" believers to make payments on their massive evangelist barn. Heck, $300K barely pays for a new condo in SoCal; and I payed under $1000 rent for a studio only because I'd "grandfathered" it 15 years. A senior, laid off from K-Mart with no local family, slept on the mall benches, where it does get cold in a SoCal winter. At least one church in Santa Barbara now hosts the homeless in its parking lot.

    How did it get that way? Too much regulation, not enough business? No. Californians are always trying to keep up with the Jonses, but that's just part of it. Thanks to cheap overseas/over-border labor and Walmart, and Greenspan's lowering the boom on interest rates, so many in the middle class believed that chase was possible – or was just par-for-the-course in the American dream. Yet Americans didn't say (directly), we want our toys or car parts from China. Corporate executives of Walmart, GM, etc. did directly say so to American suppliers: get it made in China, or your stuff is not on our shelves or in our cars. The media talks as if technology made this completely inevitable. Was it so that we have CEOs who can use their Parachutes and make more bank than a small country no matter what The Market does – that same Market now playing volleyball with so many retirement futures?

    Yes, thanks a bizzare mix of Edward Teller and Star Wars, defense cronies, Ronny, Gorby, Thatcher ("There is no society, only individuals and families"), a great Pope, brave servicemen and women, and stand-up common citizens, we still have the warming Earth – that's the Good News.

    Now we have to ask, not whether we're better off than four years ago, but are we better off than in 1980, with a stable economy and bright, secure, affordable futures for ourselves, our children, and theirs? If you cannot own or run your own business, who controls your American Dream – you, or The Market?

    June 5, 2010 at 12:34 am |
    • LOL

      Nothing is stopping you from being one of those CEOs with a very pretty parachute. Quit hating and start praying.

      June 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Goodw/ogod

      @LOL
      "Nothing is stopping you"?? The boot-straps ethic is so pathetically antiquated (and not to mention WRONG). I'm so sick of this liberal dogma. And whats more, I sincerely doubt that most people would actual understand the term liberal in this context... that is how flimsy our habituation has been.

      June 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  19. TM

    GOD is the equation of all existence in the whole universe. Our existence in this part of the universe is a gift from God. The global problems: environment, economy, social, political and anything to do with human existence are here because we made it happen. We were given a rich world to live in since the beginning of time. We are given a place to live productively and abundantly but history shows that we have advanced, prospered, and attained all levels of success in science and technology and yet to what end. To the destruction of our home given to us by our Divine Creator...is it too late to do what is right? Never too late, because if we do make it right, at least we are not giving up and we are trying. Every facets in life has to be aligned in GOD'S WAY... LOVE AND RESPECT FOR THE GIFT OF LIFE.

    June 4, 2010 at 11:12 pm |
  20. Knucklehead

    Wow....this really degraded into a religious argument in no time. Kind of proves the point, doesn't it? Instead of discussing the merits of the author's points it got sidetracked into a yes-there-is-a-God/Oh-no-there's-not argument. I think what can be taken away from what the author was saying is that we need to find some values somewhere besides the Almighty Market or what I would call our new State Religion: The Economy. We can't sign on to the Kyoto agreement because it will adversely affect our economy, we can't do this, we can't do that. We now live to serve the Economy. We are catagorized as either "employed" or "unemployed." This has become significant since the population's have migrated to the cities and are dependent on the Economy to provide for them. When everyone had a couple chickens in the yard and could bake a loaf of bread and roof the house themselves then what went on in the broader Economy was less important. Before long they will be asking for our first born for the Economy....oh wait...that's what Iraq was all about wasn't it? Oil for your boys...

    We must first become aware that we live under bondage before we can break free of it.

    June 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm |
    • righteous-in-Christ

      Well said!!! We need to become aware that we live under bondage before we can break free of it, but it will take Christ to break it.

      June 4, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
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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.