Mises's Complicated View of Christianity
Last week, I talked about Mises and moral relativism, and in doing so I suggested a fundamental rule for understanding Mises. He always tries to defend the free market and his style of praxeological economics from any attack by other types of thought. Although he was a scholar of great learning and says interesting and valuable things about many different subjects, he is not trying to defend a particular philosophical system. This week, I’ll extend the discussion to one aspect of religion and theology. Once more, the same principle applies. Mises wants to deflect any attacks that come from these quarters. I’m not here attempting a comprehensive account of the religious thinkers who influenced Mises or of his views about religion. For those interested in these topics, I recommend Guido Hűlsmann’s monumental biography of Mises, The Last Knight of Liberalism. My discussion is confined to Mises’s response to critics of the free market who claim that the church can prescribe economic policies in a way that interferes with the operation of the free market. Also, my discussion will be an account of Mises’s position, not an assessment of it.
Many churches and theologians have recommended measurers that interfere with the free market. They think that class conflict is inevitable unless capitalism is replaced by socialism. “Such is the almost universally accepted social philosophy of our age. It was not created by Marx, although it owes its popularity mainly to the writings of Marx and the Marxians. It is today endorsed not only by the Marxians, but no less by most of those parties who emphatically declare their anti-Marxism and pay lip service to free enterprise. It is the official social philosophy of Roman Catholicism as well as of Anglo-Catholicism; it is supported by many eminent champions of the various Protestant denominations and of the Orthodox Oriental Church. . . they all agree in the fundamental thesis that the very existence of the capitalist system harms the vital interests of the immense majority of workers, artisans, and small farmers, and they all ask in the name of social justice for the abolition of capitalism.”
Mises doesn’t think that all theologians share this view. He wrote for Christian Economics, edited by Howard Kershner, and was a colleague of Edmund Opitz at FEE. Both of them strongly supported the free market. But the general anti-capitalist trend concerns him. For Mises, it is a scientific proposition, not a value judgment, that the free market promotes peace and prosperity. The Marxist doctrine of class conflict is false, regardless of who promotes it.
A natural way to deflect these attacks from church groups is to argue that true religion is a matter of an individual’s relation to God, and this is the path that Mises takes. He quotes William James: “It would, however, be a serious mistake to conclude that the sciences of human action and the policy derived from their teachings, liberalism, are antitheistic and hostile to religion. They are radically opposed to all systems of theocracy. But they are entirely neutral with regard to religious beliefs which do not pretend to interfere with the conduct of social, political, and economic affairs. . . we must not confuse the two things, religion and theocracy. William James calls religious ‘the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.’. . This characterization of mankind's religious experience and feelings does not make any reference to the arrangement of social cooperation. Religion, as James sees it, is a purely personal and individual relation between man and a holy, mysterious, and awe-inspiring divine Reality. It enjoins upon man a certain mode of individual conduct. But it does not assert anything with regard to the problems of social organization. St. Francis d'Assisi, the greatest religious genius of the West, did not concern himself with politics and economics. He wanted to teach his disciples how to live piously; he did not draft a plan for the organization of production and did not urge his followers to resort to violence against dissenters. He is not responsible for the interpretation of his teachings by the order he founded.”
Again and again, Mises follows this strategy. He isn’t against religion, and he criticizes the logical positivists for rejecting religious speculation as meaningless. To the contrary, Mises says, it’s inevitable that human beings think about “the nature and destiny of man,” in Niebuhr’s famous phrase. But nothing in such speculations can contravene the scientific findings of praxeology. Here we are dealing with science, not speculation. Further, if God exists, his nature is totally different from ours.
Guido Hűlsmann has points out that here Mises was in accord with the teaching of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who also held that God is “wholly other.” In The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises says “With regard to the doctrine that God is wholly other than man and that his essence and nature cannot be grasped by mortal man, the natural sciences and a philosophy derived from them have nothing to say. The transcendent is beyond the realm about which physics and physiology convey information. Logic can neither prove nor disprove the core of theological doctrines.” But it isn’t clear to me that Mises takes the phrase “wholly other” from Barth. It’s also found in Rudolf Otto’s famous book The Idea of the Holy, and you can find the concept even earlier in Kierkegaard. Also, whether Barth took his doctrine of the wholly other to mean that Christianity has nothing directly to do with politics is at best highly controversial.
Mises isn’t a theologian or a philosopher of religion. He is an economist who always seeks to defend the free market.