During the Lenten season, we’ve had a series of Wednesday night courses at church. I took a course based on a DVD series produced by a nonprofit called Poverty Cure. This series spends little time looking at the causes of poverty and instead focuses on the conditions necessary for prosperity.
As we watched this series, I was bothered by the fact that most of the poor countries studied had populations that were mostly brown-skinned. This troubled me because in my heart I know that every human is created in the image of God, so skin pigmentation cannot be the cause of poverty.
The series highlighted this important point: economic growth, at either a national or individual level, requires protection of property rights, both real estate and intellectual property. It also requires that people and nations have access to free markets.
Dr. William Jeynes has made an interesting observation: there is a correlation between the spread of Christianity and economic growth.
As I pondered these matters, I realized that many of the richest countries in the world have two things in common: They are historically Christian, and they tend to be European in origin.
At one time, China was an enormous force in the world, despite having neither of these factors in play. Even now, the Chinese economy is growing rapidly, and its overall GDP is second only to that of the U.S.
But gross domestic product is a very rough way of measuring a country’s wealth, and many of China’s people still live in poverty. A more accurate measure is per capita GDP, and when you make that calculation, China falls to the middle of the list, between Iraq and Maldives.
Top of the list? Luxembourg and Norway. The U.S. is No. 10. Of the top ten, seven are European or European-founded Christian countries.
What is going on here? I don’t think it’s European or Christian exceptionalism, although Max Weber proposed ages ago in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that the Protestant work ethic caused Western culture’s prosperity.
There may be something to that, but to say that Christians create more wealth reeks of the prosperity gospel, so I’m not willing to go there. In too many places, Christians are just as impoverished as their neighbors. I think there’s something deeper going on.
Countries with low per capita GDP are mostly brown and totalitarian. Even when they are not presently totalitarian, such as Haiti, they have a long history of totalitarianism.
In many places, colonies that were once British outperform those that were not. Compare Jamaica (former British colony, per capita GDP US$5,290) with Haiti (former French colony, per capita GDP US$820).
Go back to the Middle Ages, and Europe was crushingly poor. Only with the collapse of the feudal system and an increase in the ability of the people to own property and have their rights protected did the economy take off in the Renaissance. As freedom increased, wealth increased.
Britain rose to power as a constitutional monarchy when other European countries had absolute monarchies. America, as a democracy, rose to even greater power than its British parent.
To Weber’s point, it is true that Christianity dominated Europe, pushing out the earlier pagan faiths. Christianity has not been that pervasive in Africa and the Middle East, where it contends with native tribal religions and Islam.
So my theory is that the combination of political liberty, a free market economy, and Christian ethics allowed Europe to dominate the world. The problem is that where Europeans dominated indigenous peoples—most notably in Africa—they became totalitarian, breaking down local economies instead of building them up.
We can’t preach “everyone should be Christian because that creates wealth.” The life of the apostle Paul disproves that argument. But what can we say? What is it about our faith and our history that produces the strong economies we see in Europe and North America? Here’s what I see:
- Liberty: Governments protect without oppression; the populace has self-determination.
- Equality: Each person has an equal standing before the law and equal access to free markets.
- Hope: People believe that diligence can improve one’s circumstances.
Totalitarian governments destroy liberty. Caste systems prevent equality. Fatalist religions and deterministic philosophies lack hope.
So to fight poverty, I believe we not only need to encourage entrepreneurship and free trade. We also need to encourage equality and democracy, and we need to give people hope for the future. As Christians, we know where true Hope comes from.