Economic history and the history of economic thought are two areas in my field where discussion of religion — as it affected events and thinking — is quite appropriate and hardly avoidable. Max Weber, both sociologist and economist, claimed over a century ago that a Protestant work ethic both animated and directed modern capitalism.
James Burke, the English writer and filmmaker, argues that non-conforming English Protestants were an essential component of the industrial revolution. He cites data indicating that although the Quaker, Presbyterian, Baptist, Unitarian, Congregationalist and other sects made up just 3 percent of the English population, they accounted for more than 50 percent of the late 18th- and early 19th-century industrialists. No mystery, according to Burke. These “dissenters” were excluded from university education, government and military jobs and most professions. So they took on the only job available to them: that of tycoon merchant-industrialist, one beneath the dignity of the snobbish Anglican gentry. Lucky for them and lucky for us.
Robert H. Nelson, a contemporary economist, divides his discipline into two camps: Those who believe scientific management of the economy is both possible and desirable, and those who are deeply skeptical of such propositions. He calls the first a Roman perspective and the second a Protestant perspective. The source of the division predates Christianity but was augmented in western European Christian history.
Although one is free to agree or disagree with any of these propositions, I don’t think examining them implies one is forcing religion on students. I suspect there are issues and topics in most disciplines that touch on the domain of religion. Although professors should clearly avoid using the classroom to convert students to his or her religious viewpoint, there is no reason to avoid topics that touch on religion. That too can be an academic sin.
Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.