It’s a Moral Meltdown, Too

Religious leaders and communities have responded to the financial crisis with strong voices and offers of support, write Sally Steenland and Sarah Dreier.

Religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (left), are speaking out about the deeper moral issues at play in the current financial crisis. (Flickr/sj0m0)
Religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (left), are speaking out about the deeper moral issues at play in the current financial crisis. (Flickr/sj0m0)

The meltdown of global financial markets is more than an economic crisis. It is also a moral crisis that exposes the fatal flaws of unfettered capitalism and rebukes the worship of free-market forces whose excesses are having brutal consequences for everyday Americans.

As politicians and economists offer proposals for what should be done, religious leaders and communities are speaking out as well. They are criticizing the immoral culture of greed and lack of regulation that led to this crisis. They are providing assistance for those in need. And they are offering a prophetic voice for economic justice and the common good, as evidenced by the sampling of responses that follow.

Leading religious thinkers and activists examine the moral underpinnings of the financial crisis. Here are their voices:

“Behind all this, though, is the deeper moral issue. We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies…We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make…And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the financial crisis, September 27, 2008

“…credit and debt are religious issues. Jesus plainly thought so, to the point where he physically disrupted the largest national bank in Israel during the height of its Passover practices of ripping off poor and even more affluent pilgrims. Temple practices that hooked the poor on high interest credit and drove them into debt were the target of Jesus’ anger.”

Susan Thistlethwaite, Professor at Chicago Theological Seminary in the Washington Post On Faith Blog, September 16, 2008

“The obeisance that our whole culture pays to the financial markets, to their ‘self-regulating’ wisdom and beneficence, bespeaks a kind of mass enchantment or mass superstition….There is more than free market ideology in play here. I name it religiously, as market idolatry.”

Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, September 29, 2008


“But the basic religious economic premise was not just about being nice to poor folks. It was about the flow of God’s abundance that must move through the whole society, not get stuck in the pockets of the rich. When the flow gets stuck, the clumps of super-wealth become an embolus. They stop the flow of healing blood, the arteries choke up, the heart stutters and stops—and society keels over.”

Arthur Waskow, Rabbi, founder and director of The Shalom Center in the Washington Post On Faith Blog, September 22, 2008

“There’s something about the current economic crisis that is trying to tell us our way of life is insane and unsustainable. Too many experts want to “fix” the crisis without learning what it is trying to teach us.”

Speaker and author Brian McLaren on the Sojourner God’s Politics blog, October 1, 2008

“Christians can influence the issue of CEO pay through the clout of faith-oriented institutional investors. …‘the gap between rich and poor should trouble’ Christians, and [they] … should keep a watchful eye over companies where their churches have some clout’.”

Excerpt from Good Intentions by Bob Smietana and Charles North

Faith leaders and activists urge policymakers to protect those in need during the bailout period and beyond. Here are their petitions:

“We call on Congress to put in place proper and effective safe-guards to make sure that the taxpayers are reimbursed for this large investment into the American business sector. We want a guarantee that when these assets are sold that the profits would be ploughed back into education, health care and human service sectors.”

Rev. Anthony Evans, National Black Church Initiative Press Release, September 2008

“As Congress moves to stabilize the economy through a massive bailout of the financial industry, it must protect the interests of Main Street, not just Wall Street, by making sure that any final legislation addresses the root cause of the crisis—the rising tide of home foreclosures.”

PICO National Network Petition, September 23, 2008

“This crisis involves far more than just economic or technical matters, but has enormous human impact and clear ethical dimensions which should be at the center of debate and decisions on how to move forward. Families are losing their homes. Retirement savings are at risk. People are losing jobs and benefits. Economic arrangements, structures and remedies should have as a fundamental purpose safeguarding human life and dignity.”

Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, September 26, 2008

“An economy is more than just a secure credit market. An economy is also….people who suffer foreclosures, people who wonder about losing their jobs and live paycheck to paycheck, people who go to bed hungry.”

Rev. David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World, September 25, 2008


Faith–based communities assist those in financial distress and advocate on behalf of the most economically vulnerable. Here are their actions:

“The $700 billion bailout program could put those in poverty into an even deeper economic hole….This is a defining moment for the church and this new generation of Christian voices… Will we ignore the suffering going on around us? Or, will we bravely respond to and comfort the poor and hungry in our communities?”

Jason Crosby, Relevant Magazine, October 3, 2008

“There’s financial tumult all around and people are thirsty for answers. Across America, religious leaders prophesy and preach about ways to deal with the roller-coaster crisis. And they counsel congregants who have deep questions, unquenchable anxieties.”

Linton Weeks, National Public Radio, October 2, 2008

“Since the mortgage crisis hit, faith-based groups have taken on a variety of roles, some familiar, some new. They have been providing financial counseling and resources to help families struggling to meet their mortgage payments to stay in their homes, or to lessen the impact of a foreclosure. They are providing temporary cash assistance for food or utility bills, so people can use other funds to pay their mortgages. They are advocating for relief from government. Some have become primary lenders for new affordable housing projects. Others are purchasing properties at bargain prices, with the hopes of providing homes for low-income residents in the future.”

Claire Hughes, Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, June 10, 2008

With Brooklyn and Queens accounting for 40 percent of New York State’s home foreclosures last year, pastors in Catholic churches in the two boroughs started seeing a sharp rise in parishioners with mortgage problems last fall.

As a result, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has put together the largest coordinated financial counseling effort since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, focusing on the most vulnerable neighborhoods, in eastern Brooklyn and Queens.

Jennifer Lee, New York Times Blog, February 20, 2008

“We set a moral tone for big business. They need someone there who is holding up that flag of morals. Even if the business executives don’t believe in prayer, they want someone around them who believes in prayer and will pray for them.”

Ashley Gipson, Religion News Service, September 22, 2008

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative