The best books on economics, religion, and society

Benjamin M. Friedman Author Of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
By Benjamin M. Friedman

Who am I?

I’m an economist, now in my fiftieth year as a professor at Harvard. While much of my work has focused on economic policy – questions like the effects of government budget deficits, guidelines for the conduct of U.S. monetary policy, and what actions to take in response to a banking or more general financial crisis – in recent years I’ve also addressed broader issues surrounding the connections between economics and society. Several years ago, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, I examined the implications of our economy’s growth, or stagnation, for the social, political, and ultimately moral character of our society. My most recent book explores the connections between economic thinking and religious thinking.

I wrote...

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

By Benjamin M. Friedman,

Book cover of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

What is my book about?

The conventional view of the origins of modern Western economics portrays the subject as a product of the Enlightenment, having nothing to do with religion. On the contrary, I think religion exerted a powerful influence from the outset. I show that the foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics, beginning in the eighteenth century, was decisively shaped by what were then hotly contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world. Beliefs about God-given human character, about the after-life, and about the purpose of our existence, were all under scrutiny in the world in which Adam Smith and his contemporaries lived.  I also show that these long-standing influences of religious thinking on economic thinking help explain the sometimes puzzling behavior of so many of our fellow citizens today whose views about economic policies – and whose voting behavior too – seem sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit. 

The books I picked & why

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Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia

By E. Digby Baltzell,

Book cover of Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia

Why this book?

Everyone knows that the Puritans settled in Boston and the Quakers settled in Philadelphia. What I found surprising is Baltzell’s argument that the two cities’ founding religions shaped their respective character for hundreds of years afterward. And, he says, the difference between Puritanism and Quakerism explains why Boston and Philadelphia played such different roles in American history.

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

By Daniel Bell,

Book cover of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Why this book?

Bell, one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth century, argues that having the right culture is essential for capitalism (or any other economic or political system) to flourish – and I certainly agree. But he goes further: he worries that over time the economic gains that capitalism delivers end up undermining the cultural conditions that allow capitalism to flourish in the first place. His book is about the role of culture more broadly, not religion in particular, but religion certainly fits within the overall argument.

The Kingdom Is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch

By Christopher H. Evans,

Book cover of The Kingdom Is Always But Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch

Why this book?

One of the most significant episodes in the influence of religious thinking on economic thinking in America was the emergence of the Social Gospel, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. And one of the most powerful advocates of the Social Gospel was the Baptist minister and university theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Evans’s biography vividly tells the story of the Social Gospel movement as well as Rauschenbusch’s leading role within it. Of the many clergymen about whom I write about in my own book, Rauschenbusch is perhaps the one whose ideas I most admire.

The Age of Reform

By Richard Hofstadter,

Book cover of The Age of Reform

Why this book?

A classic book by one of our country’s most eminent historians, The Age of Reform traces the interplay between American politics and the clashing forces within American society from the time of Jefferson to the time of Franklin Roosevelt. In between, the great social movements – pro-and anti-slavery, populism, progressivism, the New Deal – all play out on a vast canvas. Religion is not the centerpiece of Hofstadter’s narrative, but it’s there throughout, sometimes on stage and at other times in the background. I’ve been recommending this book to my students for years.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

By David S. Landes,

Book cover of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor

Why this book?

Why do some economies prosper while others seem never to make progress? Landes’s book – with its title a deliberate echo of Adam Smith’s famous work – emphasizes the role of culture in either enabling or retarding productive economic activity, throughout history and across the world. What Landes has in mind is culture in the broadest sense, including our most fundamental presumptions about human relations and the human condition. That, of course, means religion too. Some years ago, reviewing someone else’s book for The New York Times, I referred to David Landes as “a living national treasure if there ever was one.” Alas, Landes is no longer living, but I stand by that assessment.

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