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David A. Skeel, Jr.
We tend to take for granted that most Protestant evangelicals vigorously support capitalism and free markets. This is one of the reasons, of course, so many Americans assume that Protestant evangelical is synonymous with the Religious Right. But why are Protestant evangelicals so committed to markets? Where did this commitment come from, and how does it square with the repeated scriptural admonitions against wealth and greed?
Focusing on the first 70 years of America's existence, the essays collected in God and Mammon address these and many other questions about American Protestants' perspectives on finance. In a pair of fine essays at the beginning and end of the collection, Mark Noll links Protestants' support for a market-based economy to the absence of a state-sponsored church. "A move away from top-down monarchical, hierarchical, and colonial control in religion," he argues, "predisposed many evangelicals in the same direction economically, that is, toward localism and free trade." Noll also points out that the Protestant view of salvation—each believer must make a personal commitment to Christ—fits comfortably with an economic system that emphasizes individual decisions by individual actors rather than governmental intervention.
This is not to say that Protestants in the early Republic simply lined up behind market-based economics and never looked back. To the contrary, Protestant views on money and markets were every bit as complex then as they are today. Many ministers praised wealth obtained through diligence as a gift from God, for instance, but, as Richard Pointer notes, they also warned that "speculation threatened to turn men into 'practical atheists' by persuading them that their business fortunes were more dependent on their skill at exploiting current economic circumstances than on God's providence." These distinctions were not always easy to maintain, and the sometimes contradictory positions taken by Protestants make for some of the most fascinating ...