The Invisible Hand

A Joel Osteen stage show, Glendale, Arizona, January 2014 (Kevin Schraer / Flickr)

The Market as God
by Harvey Cox
Harvard University Press, 2016, 320 pp.

The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream
by Chris Lehmann
Melville House Books, 2016, 368 pp.

In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul counts “forbearance” among his fruits of the spirit. Perhaps this can explain why my student-loan providers always offer it with a note of holy benevolence. Several times over the last decade, certain stretches of paucity have forced me to dial up Citibank or FedLoan or Discover with the hope of procuring an extended period of grace. I suppose it says something dark about our current economic climate that these loan providers are listed among my smartphone contacts. But once I’m patched through to customer service, something strange always happens. I’m soon greeted by a genial human voice—attentive, empathetic, almost always female—who assures me that, despite my abysmal credit, all will be forgiven. I thank this woman effusively, imagining her not as an underpaid operator in the catacombs of some corporate office, but as an envoy of providence in a gold-plated headset, saving one cash-strapped millennial at a time.

The administration of student-loan debt isn’t the only way the economy has become an ethereal presence. Because the fates of financial markets rely on arbitrage and shorting, corporate profits can soar while the condition of the real economy plummets or remains unchanged. The health of the market thus exists in an untouchable realm, and to endure the jolts and tremors of finance-dominated capitalism is to feel the erratic whims of an angry god, the logic of a supernatural being who defies human reason.

Granting such powers to the market has been denounced as idolatry by no less a spiritual authority than Pope Francis. In his apostolic exhortation of 2013, the pontiff inveighed against the guardians of “the deified market,” arguing that any defense of trickle-down economics “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” More recently, this sentiment was interrogated by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, who joins the ranks of scholars who have been engrossed by the totem powers of faith and the market. But unlike someone like Max Weber—who argued that the austerity of mainline churches nurtured the origins of capitalism—Cox instead views the free market as its own autonomous religion, a bewildering system of codes and myths that steers the behaviors of its adherents. In his recent book, The Market as God, he sets out to demonstrate that this religion is as comprehensive as any major faith, complete with sacraments (advertisements), prophets (Adam Smith), and even eschatology (Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History). But the book also veers into a host of arcana that seems, at best, tangentially related to his the...

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