Listen to “Rest In Peace Mrs. Perkins” by Fred Smith
Mrs. Perkins stepped out from her pew and walked down the aisle of our Baptist church to rededicate her life on a regular basis – almost monthly. It was a mystery to those of us who knew her to be one of the kindest and godliest people in the congregation. Sunday School teacher, model wife and mother, and a light in our dark adolescence, we were confused. In time, we figured out the pattern. Whenever the pastor ended the service with, “If you were to die tonight, would you know for sure where you will spend eternity?” Mrs. Perkins rushed to the altar. Even in her 80’s and a baptized member of the church her entire life, she had not resolved that question.
She’s not alone. More than that, it seems countries populated by people who have not resolved that question have the best economies.
In the early 20th century, the Swedish sociologist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that identified the close link between the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and calling to help explain the collapse of the traditional European economic system with the rise of capitalism. Since one could never be entirely sure of salvation, partial evidence of election was hard work and success in your calling. Only by living a morally good life in this world could one relieve the uncertainty called “salvation anxiety,” never knowing whether one will be saved. “Salvation anxiety explains the convergence of religiously driven motivation and economic productivity. Salvation anxiety motivates people to be productive, but more importantly, to be successful in their labors.”
In a new take on the relationship between wealth and religion, the authors of The Wealth of Religions explore the ties between religious beliefs, church, and the economy. While Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the strength of congregations in early America, and many others since have studied the relative steadiness of church attendance in the country, it turns out that, perhaps, it is not regular church participation that is as important for undergirding a growing economy as what people believe about heaven and hell. In fact, regular church attendance may even produce a negative economic result.
“Overall, what mostly counts for religion’s effect on economic growth seems to be believing relative to belonging. The belief in hell is a more effective economic motivator than a belief in heaven. That is, the stick from hell seems to work better than the carrot from heaven. Thus, our empirical results suggest that the distinctive and most productive feature of formal religion is its promotion of religious beliefs, such as beliefs in hell.” Strong beliefs about heaven and hell make a more economic difference than faithful attendance.
Church attendance, according to McCleary and Barro, is only a positive factor in economic growth to the extent it increases the belief in heaven or hell. Otherwise, the value of belonging only competes for resources of time, attention, and finances that would otherwise be focused on productivity. What matters most is not belonging or fellowship but whether the church instills the beliefs that drive economic productivity. Belonging is only useful as an economic tool when it supports the basic carrot and stick and keeps “salvation anxiety” from either cooling down or boiling over. The church is the thermostat for the economy.
Greater attendance and participation not increasing belief in the carrot or the stick is, ironically, a negative factor in economic productivity. Religion matters for economic outcomes primarily as a creator of important beliefs and not so much for its value of belonging. “If it is believing relative to belonging that promotes economic growth, the belonging part is productive only if its contribution to beliefs more than offsets its direct use of resources. The social-capital aspects of religion – communal services, rituals, educational classes – are productive in this framework only to the extent that they instill religious beliefs.”
When I think about this, I instinctively push back. I don’t want to believe that a healthy economy depends on and is driven by such a morbid fear of spending eternity in hell and needing to endlessly prove we are good enough for heaven or saved from hell. I would like to think with Dallas Willard that, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” I want to believe that religion is more than a goad and belonging is beneficial. I would rather hope a country can thrive economically with more carrot and less stick. Better yet with neither. But can grace and assurance motivate and encourage productivity as much or more than salvation anxiety? Can our insatiable desire to feed the beast of uncertainty be replaced by Paul’s deep contentment?
More than anything else I am asking this question: “When can Mrs. Perkins finally rest in peace?”
Sin and Salvation by Philip Herschel Paradise