Religion & The Origins of Capitalism: Interview with Mark Valeri

 “Economic reality confounds economic theory,” said Union Theological Seminary (Richmond) Prof. Mark Valeri to the Boston GlobeThe Globe interviewed him Aug. 1st about his new book, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.

For 250 years, scholars have argued about which drove the rise of capitalism: religious transformation – the Reformation and its offshoots – or economic change?  The question may seem arcane, maybe specious.

Obviously the two worked together. Chicken and egg and all that….  Also, what possible relevance can the question have to today’s imperatives – global warming, a broken global financial system, etc.

I would argue that understanding the reality of the change that brought about capitalism is necessary to addressing today’s challenges.  Does change come from altering religious/moral beliefs or from reorganising economic structures and systems? Yes, they go together.  But they are separable elements, necessarily separable elements.

I believe the moral precedes and drives the economic. I take that view from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).  Many others have made the same argument.

This discussion allows me to recommend, once again, R.H. Tawney, Religion & the Rise of Capitalism (1925).  Like Smith, one can argue Tawney is fatally dated.  But no one – Smith included – has written more provocatively, more compellingly, more literately on this great social transformation.

And, do take a look at Michael Fitzgerald’s interesting interview with Mark Valeri.