Market Fundamentalism

Where money is an idol, being poor is the greatest of sins.

by Sharon Delgado

When Marie's house was foreclosed upon, auctioned off on the steps of the county courthouse, she wandered through the rooms of her home for two days. "I felt like I did after my divorce," she said. "I felt so lost, so humiliated. Ashamed." She added, "It affected my faith. I felt like God had abandoned me."

in-god-we-trust1Home foreclosures in the United States have been steadily rising since the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007, with over 1 million homes foreclosed upon in 2010 alone.(1) Since public policy prioritizes corporate profits over the needs of homeowners, this is no surprise. Nevertheless, many who lose their homes experience it as personal failure and are left feeling humiliated and ashamed. This makes sense in a culture that glorifies financial success and promotes market-based solutions to social problems.

In a society that holds these values as primary, the wealthy become role models. Those who lose their jobs, homes, or healthcare may blame themselves and may even be judged by others. As William Stringfellow says, "The idolatry of money means that the moral worth of a person is judged in terms of the amount of money possessed or controlled…Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin."(2)

Results of the Baylor University survey The Values and Beliefs of the American Public, released in September 2011, show that 20 percent of people in the United States believe that God controls the free market. This belief system merges faith in unrestrained free market capitalism with an overtly religious worldview. According to sociologist Paul Froese, coauthor of the survey, "They say that the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work."(3)

20 percent of people in the United States believe that God controls the free market.

This is an extreme example of what has been called "market fundamentalism,"(4) the belief that minimally regulated, laissez-faire markets provide the greatest possible prosperity and social well-being. This economic ideology has dominated economic discourse in the United States for three decades.

What is new, however, is the merging of this secular ideology with an overtly religious worldview. This merger presents grave personal, social, and environmental implications.

To view the market as the work of God is idolatrous. It sets up money as a god.

Personal implications—moral distortion

To see God as in control of the market implies that money and goods are allocated according to a divine plan. This is a form of economic determinism, with God meting out reward and punishment in monetary terms. From this perspective, to regulate the market is to interfere with the purposes of God.

At a personal level, this strangely syncretized(5) religion can produce ethical confusion and moral distortion, because it exchanges spiritual for worldly values. The core values of free-market capitalism, such as greed and self-interest, become virtues. Wealth becomes a sign of God's favor. Individuals who understand God in this way may care about the needy and contribute to charities but at the same time oppose government policies that could alleviate suffering, improve social equity, or redistribute wealth or income, on the grounds that such policies go against the will of God.

People without money become expendable, since they fall outside the purview of the market. They may become scapegoats. The poor and declining middle class who internalize this worldview may blame themselves for their economic misfortune and may even see it as a sign that they are under the judgment of God.

Social implications—torn social fabric

The ideology that underlies unrestrained free-market capitalism rationalizes unjust and unsustainable policies and practices. To claim that this ideology is aligned with God's purpose turns traditional religious beliefs upside down.

The market does not measure the value of other sectors of society upon which the formal economy rests: unpaid household work, volunteer labor, government-supported infrastructure, cultural resources, or the foundational gifts of the natural world. The market does not measure human need but only supply and demand based on what people can afford to buy. In addition, those with economic and political power manipulate the market, creating advantages for the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of small businesses, the middle class, and the poor. The market leaves those without money behind. This is a far cry from any traditional understanding of God.

When the values of unrestrained free-market capitalism dominate public policy, economic relationships take priority and the social fabric is torn apart. Politicians, funded by profit-driven corporations, can call for "less government" while invoking the name of God. This provides a religious cover behind which politicians, CEOs, and others in positions of power can hide when putting corporate profits above social and environmental needs.

Environmental implications—desecration and sacrilege

Market fundamentalism knows nothing of the intrinsic value of God's creation. Its view is purely utilitarian, based on turning plants, animals, land, and even water into commodities to be bought and sold. It reduces the value of everything to the economic value of the bottom line. This ideology desacralizes life and creates a framework that allows creation to be exploited for financial gain.

In current economic measurements, all expenditures, whether they have positive or negative effects on people or the earth, contribute to the Gross National Product (GNP), creating a distorted view of progress and ignoring alternative economic measurements that take account of economic, environmental, and social well-being. In economic terms, an old-growth forest is an "under-performing asset." It shows up as an addition to the GNP only after it has been harvested and sold. Standard economic measurements ignore "externalities," the social and environmental costs that come about through the process of extracting resources and producing, packaging, and transporting consumer goods. Climate change, toxic pollution, habitat destruction, species loss, and other environmental damages are not reflected in the costs of doing business or in the prices we pay.

To claim God's blessing on this ideology is a travesty. To despoil the earth, pollute the air, and contaminate the water is a desecration and sacrilege. To knowingly and willfully do so is sin.

To claim God's blessing on this ideology is a travesty. To despoil the earth, pollute the air, and contaminate the water is a desecration and sacrilege. To knowingly and willfully do so is sin.

The merger of market fundamentalism with blatant religiosity implies that the market has ultimate value, which it does not. The market is not omnipotent, omniscient, or infallible. It is not a worthy object of faith in which to place our confidence and hope. The market is created, supported, and maintained not by the hand of God but by policy choices enacted by fallible, and often self-interested, human beings.

To anoint market fundamentalism with the blessing of God is idolatry. It places money at the pinnacle of values and relationships, and discounts human, social, and environmental needs. What we clearly need is a public discussion of values that go beyond profit and self-interest and an exploration of policies that can lead to a transformed economics and world.

The Reverend Sharon Delgado is a retired United Methodist minister, founding director of Earth Justice Ministries, and author of Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization (Fortress Press, 2007). Learn more.


  1. "Foreclosure Filings in US May Jump 20% From Record 2010 as Crisis Peaks," by Dan Levy and Prashant Gopal, Bloomberg, Jan 13, 2011.
  1. Stringfellow, William. A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann (Eerdmans, 1994).
  1. "Baylor Religion Survey reveals many see God steering economy," by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, September, 20, 2011.
  1. Soros, George, "The Crisis of Global Capitalism."
  1. syncretize—"to attempt to unite and harmonize especially without critical examination or logical unity; syncretism—The combination of different forms of belief or practice"… definitions from Webster's Dictionary, page 1268.
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2 Responses

  1. Chip M. Anderson says:

    While certainly agreeing with many, if not all written here, my concern for the critics of the free market (or capitalism) is the lack of a critic of other available economic systems and a critiqued alternative. Additionally, this critiqued free market is actually being used to market your critique. I'd like to see a posted system that does not include more government centrality which has been at all times and in every place harmful to the poor and beneficial to the elite and rich. Idolatry is way too often in the eye of the beholder. Peace, @WastedEvanglsm

  2. Mark Ruybalid says:

    I agree with the concern of Chip Anderson: what is the systemic alternative? I have considered a genuinely democratic socialism that maintains the libertarian values found in the Bill of Rights as a possible starting point. After all, the rights and freedoms of people stuck in poverty are in many ways of little value when shelter and food are the primary concerns; whereas, to be enabled to see oneself as a part of a democratic social and economic project intended to lift all boats on the same wave of prosperity rooted in community would bring greater meaning and purpose to every individual. While it would mean limiting the "rights" of wealthy elites to control the economy and get richer still, the goal of a society without poverty and all its ills is of greatest importance. Quoting God through the prophet: "Is not this what it means to know Me" (to do justice, care for the poor, etc.).

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