The Best Policy

Thousands of miles of Florida highways have gone dark. The white stripes that are supposed to reflect light aren't doing the job. After months of investigation, state officials have finally uncovered the culprit: business fraud. In an underhanded scheme to save money, the company that supplied the paint left out an expensive chemical ingredient that makes the stripes glow in the dark. Now the state will have to tear up the stripes and replace them-at taxpayers' expense. The people of Florida will have to shell out $10 million because of a company's unethical decision. The moral of the story is that economic questions cannot be considered in economic terms alone. An economy is not just a matter of dollars and cents and GNP. Our economy depends on the kind of people we are. And that, in turn, is shaped by our beliefs and values-what we call "culture." As Cal Beisner argues in his book Prosperity and Poverty, "Culture . . . is the most powerful influence on economic productivity." And "religion," he adds, "is the most powerful influence on culture." Religion is the major reason the West rose to become the most prosperous civilization in the world. Too often we forget how unique it is for nations to be wealthy. But if we look at the broad sweep of history, for millennia most civilizations lived at the subsistence level. In the Middle Ages, Europe was like a modern Third World country, with little education, widespread poverty, and recurring famine. Medieval Christians thought of holy living as something required only of a spiritual elite-just as the Bible belonged only to an elite, the priests and monks. The common people felt little moral imperative to be honest or industrious. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says, complex business transactions were impossible because so few people were honest with money. But the Reformation changed that. The Reformers taught that all believers are called to live holy lives-just as all may read the Bible. Every vocation can be a calling, a way to serve God and the human community. As Adam was called to till the ground, so everyone is called to use his or her God-given talents to develop the latent powers of creation. As a result, the Reformation stressed an ethic of honesty, diligence, and thrift-what has been called the Protestant work ethic. It had a profound effect economically. Modern business practices became possible; prosperity blossomed. As sociologist Max Weber has pointed out, the moral imperative of hard work, coupled with a frugal lifestyle, meant the proceeds of work were invested back into the business-which made it possible to innovate and improve. Today we have nearly forgotten that the foundation of our economy lies in the Christian moral vision. We have allowed profit making to become an end in itself. And as a result, we are seeing our economy dragged down by dishonesty and fraud-whether the road paint fraud or the savings and loan scandal, which our economy is still paying for. Churches across America need to revive the moral teaching of the Reformation. Christian discipleship requires it-and our nation's economy desperately needs it.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary