Is there a role for the Church in the financial panic?

Most clergy are not trained in economics. And the last thing the country needs is well-intentioned moralistic advice from poorly-informed people. (See Sentamu, John.) Yet as the financial crisis in the United States deepens, and people lose money they had set aside for retirement, or for their loved ones’ college educations, it seems peculiar that neither the Christian left nor the Christian right has had much to say about the ideas and behaviors that brought about our financial panic. Obviously, there is a role for the Church in consoling people during times of loss and uncertainty, but does the Christian tradition provide any intellectual resources for times such as these? Greed isn’t great. But is that the best we have to offer?

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly broadcast this prescient segment last week. It includes the following exchange involving Jim Wallis, the Rev. Jim Martin and host Bob Abernathy:

Fr. MARTIN: … I still believe in the capitalist system, and as Adam Smith would tell you, self-interest is what motivates that. So I’m not saying that needs to be set aside. What I’m saying is that the capitalist system, as we’ve seen, is not perfect, and you do need regulation, you do need the government to step in and care for such things. You know, we look at education, and people are fine with the common good there. I think we have to expand our notion on what the government, on what society needs to do in terms of their responsibility to the poor.

WALLIS: I think government should encourage innovation, but it must limit greed. Self-interest and success is one thing. Losing sight of what is best for the common good is another thing. So capitalism run amok here is really what’s happening, and so restoring a sense of what’s good for all of us is, in fact, the best business model. So we’ve lost something here.

ABERNETHY: So, which is to say oversight by Congress and by the firms themselves?

Fr. MARTIN: Right.

WALLIS: Yeah, and social regulation is going to be necessary. But I would say self-regulation will, too. Jim is right. We’ve all got into this culture of greed, the culture extolling greed as a value. In D.C., property values have doubled in four years. So what do they say? Take your equity value and take a loan against that and buy another house, and then you can rent that and pay for your mortgage and then buy a third house. The prophets say you add house to house to house to house — the whole thing falls apart, and that’s what’s happened, from Wall Street right down to a lot of our own families.

Is their advice specific enough to be helpful?

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