The Moral IS the Story

In the (rambling) discussion thread to Sunday’s post, commenter Dom gave us a quote from Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest:

He quotes a scholar from the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences “We were asked to look into what accounted for … the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion. Christianity.”

Over at Mangan’s, our friend Dennis has taken up this passage in an interesting post of his own, The Curiosity Deficit of the East. I left the following comment:

When I read this I wondered if the Chinese scholar himself had said any more about why this should be so: about what, exactly it was about Christianity that they thought best explained. As it turns out, the next line of the quoted passage reads (my emphasis):

“The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

It is very interesting that a representative of a state-sponsored academic institution of the Communist and officially atheistic People’s Republic of China would come to this conclusion, and even more interesting that he would be permitted to express it publicly.

I’d still like to know more. In what way, specifically — by what mechanism — did these scholars think that Christian morality accounted for the West’s flamboyant (and flamboyantly capitalistic!) success?

There are two parts to this. First, the “emergence of capitalism”. What about Christian morality uniquely fosters capitalism?

Then there’s the “transition to democratic politics”. Implicit in this is the remarkable assertion (for a Chinese scholar to make in public, at least) that democracy is a key factor in our global domination. And of course Christianity explicitly distinguishes between God and Caesar. But again: why do you suppose the Chinese Academy of the Social Science concluded that Christian morality is more conducive to democracy than to collective socialism?

Any thoughts?


  1. All I can say is: Jesus saves. Moses invests.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  2. JK says

    I’d only ask then TheBigHenry, why is it Jesus has to turn water into wine while Moses can give a Promised Land?

    Jesus would get arrested if he turned water into wine in certain counties of North Arkansas and Moses would get in heaps of big trouble if he tried that on either Wall Street or in a Tea-Party Congress.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:44 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    They’d both be serving jail time under IRS rules.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  4. It’s an old joke, JK.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  5. Dom says

    I thought the “transition to democratic politics” bit was particularly interesting. The idea, as I took it, was that democracy, or at least the transition to democracy, is not really possible without a free market. Friedman and Hayek both make that point. Like you, I find it astonishing that a Chinese scholar would reach the same conclusion, and that he thought a Christian foundation was necessary for a free market.

    I suppose the last part of that may be true. Of the religions that I know, Christianity and Judaism are the two that empowers the individual and ask for a free acceptance of their rules. But the rise of the west is probably more due to the fact that it came so late. Other institutions, banking and the military, for example, were already built up when the western renaissance came.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    FWIW, I suspect that the main influence of Christianity on the development of western civilization has less to do with it’s ethical content than the institutional structure of the RC church. A plausible case can be made that the RC church was the first “modern” institution, and served as a model for other western institutions. That’s where I’d look for clues about it’s role in “the rise of the west.”

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Dom,

    Well, I can see that a free market is arguably necessary for democracy, but I’m not so sure that democracy is necessary for a free market.

    What in your opinion makes Christian morality so conducive to democracy? Democracy did, after all, flourish in pagan Greece, and Christianity flourished until modern times in monarchies and autocracies.

    What the quoted passage says is very interesting. The first part of it makes it look as if, after considering our military, political system, and economic system, those were rejected as explanations for our success, and that Christianity was sufficient in and of itself.

    But then the next passage, which I found only later, makes it clear that yes, those were in fact the “efficient causes” of our success (i.e. capitalism and democracy beat the Chinese system!) with Christianity simply providing the right conditions for the other factors to arise.

    Perhaps the scholars were able to get away with saying all this because they were seeking to explain the West’s ascendance over the old Chinese system.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    That’s an interesting comment, Bob. What do you see as the principal differences between the Church and other hierarchical institutions and political command structures?

    (It’s worth noting, as an aside, that the word “hierarchy” itself arises from the Latin for “ranked divisions of angels”…)

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    I don’t have an actual theory about this stuff, but I suspect it has something to do with how power was distributed through the hierarchy, to limit the ability of (even) popes to turn institutional authority into personal power. To be sure, there were popes and other “higher-ups” who tried to amass power in their persons (and immediate families…), but with limited success. But I’m operating with guesses here.

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  10. I think that embedded in Christianity — it’s there in the foundational texts — is a distinction between the sacred and the secular, and thus religion and state, in which the secular is allowed its legitimate place, a distinction that enabled the development of secular laws not subject to religious control, and therefore amendable according to what would work pragmatically, the long-term result being the rise of a powerful, free society that rested upon religiously based legitimacy and was therefore free from religious challenge . . . in principle.

    How do other religions compare?

    Islam is surely the prime example of a religion that refuses legitimacy to the secular, and look at the results.

    Even Confucianism — let’s take it as a religion — imposes a morally based system of ritual upon all of society, including the state, from which no detail escapes.

    I leave a full comparison to these and other religions as homework.

    One might object that this analysis implies that not Christianity, but rather its absence, is responsible for the power of the West. That objection fails to grasp that this outcome was the consequence of a deeply Christian principle, the already noted distinction between God and Caesar.

    Or so I think . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted April 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *