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Divinity School faculty reimagines economic structures through a Christian lens

Examining economies through the lens of Christianity could highlight ways economic structures can be redesigned to better align with Christian values, according to research by Distinguished Professor of Theology Joerg Rieger at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

This is particularly relevant as policymakers grapple with economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Wall Street movements, and pressure to increase the federal minimum wage. Rieger’s research, “Capitalism and Christian Theology,” was published in the February 2020 edition of The Religious Compass and builds on his work in several books, including No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009) and the recent co-edited volume Faith, Class, and Labor: Intersectional Approaches in a Global Context (2020).

“Theology that is formed in relation to labor, both past and present, can help shape economics and provide alternatives to capitalism,” Rieger explains.

It is traditionally held that the ethos of Protestant Christianity gave rise to modern capitalism. But Rieger wants to analyze whether it is capitalism that is, in fact, shaping contemporary Christianity.  “My interest in asking this question comes from a desire to analyze alternative economic systems and structures,” Rieger said.

Rieger identifies eight capitalist ideologies and analyzes their impact on Christian values. For example, contemporary capitalists advocate for a free-market economy, a belief that is often echoed in conservative Christian circles. Rieger wonders whether the free market is currently functioning, as advertised, raising questions from an alternative Christian perspective. “Is the notion of invisible hand of the market a sign that the market is trusted to a degree that only befits trust in God? Can we have confidence that the interests of sellers and buyers balancing each other out works in a capitalist world where some corporations control more money and power than some countries?” he asked.

Rieger also points to a lack of discourse around labor and religion, noting that neither of the two seminal works in this field provide a perspective of God from the lens of working people and thus often miss their contributions to the economy. Rieger says that Christians often espouse a “Protestant work ethic,” but he critiques the connection between valuing people only for the production of profit and core Christian beliefs.

By analyzing critiques of capitalism from a religious lens, Rieger highlights the possibility of redesigning economic structures in alignment with alternative Christian values and practices. “Theology still needs to recoup not only labor’s constructive contributions for the well-being of the community but also the power of workers to promote change in capitalism,” Rieger said. Rieger’s studies engage intersections between faith and labor communities through the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice, which he directs at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.