Illustration of a large Uncle Sam standing above smaller figures


Good Samaritans in a World Economy

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri

Today’s economic crisis presents new and complex challenges for religious ethicists. A few years ago we initiated a year-long colloquy on Christian faith and neighborly obligation in a global economy. Including economists, ethicists, theologians, and business leaders, our discussions centered on the relationship between real market practices and moral ideals for human solidarity. We framed the relationship in light of the temptations to overconsumption, inequalities of income and wealth in expanding markets, and the dangers of American commercial power to developing regions. We recently published our essays in a volume, Global Neighbors, in which we offered a Christian ethical perspective for such a world economy.

However, new conditions have reframed the economic context, and they call for further reflection on near and distant moral obligations. Now we are faced with constricted markets and underconsumption, devastation of an investor class and the consequent loss of jobs (that is, a decline in income and wealth across all classes), and the dangers of American financial demise to Asian and European economies. The most vulnerable people in this time of crisis are those who were already impoverished: the almost three billion people earning less than two dollars a day, and especially the one billion people—those in extreme poverty by the global standard—earning less than a dollar a day. These are the persons with the least room for error. They are the first casualties of the cruelest kind of trickle-down economics: the loss of economic opportunities, public services, and jobs.

President Barack Obama’s February 24, 2009, speech to Congress offers one occasion to reformulate our economic dilemmas. Obama certainly infused his speech with mandates for a national economic recovery. The massive scope of his proposed plan demanded the invocation of a peculiar American narrative. “History reminds us,” he claimed, “that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. . . . It is time for America to lead again.” Obama assertively stated that “[t]he answers . . . exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.” Obama’s use of American exceptionalism allowed him to argue that the chief intent of government intervention into our financial crisis is to reestablish a prosperous economy in America.

Yet, more is at stake than American interests. Economic prosperity here not only funds a distant and disparate struggle against terrorist violence; it also provides the social confidence and financial anchor for economies throughout the world. The collapse of the American market system would mean the demise of capital markets everywhere, and global calamity. As Obama put it, “[T]he world depends on us to have a strong economy, just as our economy depends on the strength of the world’s. As we stand at the crossroads of history, the eyes of people in all nations are once again upon us—watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead.”

The idiom of “the eyes” of all nations watching America evokes an oft-quoted passage from John Winthrop’s 1630 speech to English Puritans about to embark for the New World.1 That speech, titled “A Modell of Christian Charity,” also was about America, in a sense, and especially about American economic leadership. For Winthrop, the settlers of Massachusetts Bay fulfilled their mandate to the extent that they instituted just economic practices (no bribery in the courts, fair allotment of land, equitable treatment of Native Americans), avoided usury, and shared resources among themselves in a spirit of charity. Puritan founders looked to the settlement of the New World as an experiment designed (by God) to reform England and, by extension, all of Protestant Europe. Their heirs in the late-colonial period reconfigured the notion of this errand into the wilderness: as an extension of the British nation, whose commercial prowess served to spread liberty and Protestant virtue throughout the Atlantic world.

U.S. Citizens with a commitment to global neighbors must communicate their concern for those hardest hit by the economic crisis.

The notion of American economic exceptionalism continued to develop and spread through the long history of the nation’s expansion, the American Civil War, and the period of industrialization. As Daniel Walker Howe has so thoroughly shown, nineteenth-century Americans who built the transportation inventions, communication devices, and market networks that integrated the nation did so fully confident that providence had selected the United States from all nations to be a force for godliness.2 So, too, we can recall other iterations of the Redeemer Nation, from Woodrow Wilson through the postwar NATO alliance and Ronald Reagan’s evocation of the “city on a hill”—also a crib from Winthrop’s speech. Throughout, American exceptionalism has been tied by its proponents to American economic prosperity.

At the same time, there is a deep tradition within Christian ethical thinking that would eschew such nationalistic agendas. The dream of the Social Gospel was not, ultimately, for only an America so prosperous that there was no poverty; rather, it was a dream for a peaceful world lifted up by industrial and technological progress. Indeed, the German American Walter Rauschenbusch died despondent, crushed by World War I’s trenches filled with German and American bodies. Reinhold Niebuhr may have accepted, in a fallen creation, a cold war ethic based on countervailing national powers, but he never lost sight of the Christian call to a less violent world. His brother H. Richard, of course, had a more skeptical view of nationalism and a greater dependence on a sovereign God who would act, often despite human actions, to bridge divides. And, in distinctive ways, liberation theologians and Christian communitarians today warn of the dangers of American hegemony, and they call Christians to live in more just and humane communities in contradistinction to political power.

Should Obama have avoided the flag-waving? The answer is complicated. Protecting the interests of the United States is in his job description. The president is charged by U.S. citizens to further American interests. Of course, as Terry L. Price has argued, leadership motivated by political interests runs a high moral risk precisely because patriotism appears to be more noble than individual self-interest. Political group identity can, if misused, justify inhumane policies.3 Still, it would seem strange, in our system of nation-states, for a leader not to be partial to the interests of his or her followers.

Those very followers, however, especially if informed by a Christian global conscience, might understand their own interest to be inextricably linked to the needs of the economically vulnerable—in the United States and abroad. Adam Smith argued 250 years ago, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that it is a mistake to see the self-interest of individuals as independent from that of other individuals: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”4 Because of the nature of their office, leaders may have less flexibility than citizens in expressing concern for people beyond their own borders. For their part, though, citizens might well communicate that they want their leaders to address international needs. In such cases, it becomes that leader’s obligation, being responsive to follower interests, to take action, say, against global poverty.

There is little danger that any level of commitment to supporting a global “safety net” would create serious conflicts with necessary expenditures to stimulate the U.S. economy, even if that commitment rose to a flurry. Leading economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that the cost of global aid to free all people from absolute poverty and meet all basic development goals is in the magnitude of $200 to $300 billion annually, and the figure would decrease toward zero by the year 2025.5 This is real money, of course. But shared among all industrialized nations, it would mean that the United States would need to contribute only 0.7 percent of our national income, the international standard long agreed upon for foreign assistance.

Ethicists should recognize that we are not talking about an either-or trade-off between U.S. economic stability and the wellbeing of the global poor. Obama was right to state that the United States depends on the world economy, and the world depends upon ours. Yet an obligation to global neighbors requires more than mere trickle-down benefits to the poor. Our economic bail-out and stimulus plans should include targeted stimulus and social support for those with the greatest needs in U.S. and global markets.

The citizens of the United States, particularly those embracing a commitment to global neighbors, must continue to communicate their moral concerns—especially for economic support for those hardest hit by the crisis—to Obama and their other leaders. For we face another danger in the current moment: placing too much trust in any one person or institution. We see a real temptation to invest too much hope in the current administration to solve all of our problems, from religious and racial bridgebuilding to the global economy. From Max Weber onward, scholars of charismatic leadership have chronicled the liabilities when followers lose their critical edge and cede too much authority to the leader. Though we share the enthusiasm of many for Obama’s reengagement with the world, among other priorities, we want to emphasize the importance of accountability and citizens’ continued participation.

In the current economic crisis, we evaluate the case for American exceptionalism as an ambiguous one. Applying an ethic of global neighbors in this context calls us neither to “baptize” American self-interest as a Christian priority nor to condemn a president for appealing chiefly, albeit not exclusively, to America’s special status. A Christian vision of global neighbors invites people to engage their social realities, systems, and leaders always in an effort to create more humane economic and political conditions for persons in various parts of the world. Consistent with the parable of the neighborly Samaritan, it requires particular attention to people in need. In the coming months and years, the task of Christian economic ethics will be to align that neighborly attention to a complex economic crisis. We will have to interpret the meaning of this reality carefully, since global economic well-being will depend in large part upon American economic recovery. What appears at first blush to be merely a nationalistic agenda may help create the conditions for a more humane economic order, even for our neediest local, national, and global neighbors; but it is up to those of us with global ethical commitments to advocate persistently for those neighbors.


  1. In the Winthrop Papers, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Meier Schlesinger, et al., 6 vols. (The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-1992), 2:295.
  2. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  3. Terry L. Price, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  4. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Clarendon Press, 1776 [1759]), 9.
  5. Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin, 2005), 288-308; Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin, 2008), 246.

Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri are the editors of Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy (Eerdmans, 2008). Hicks teaches leadership studies and religion at the University of Richmond and Valeri is an American religious historian at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

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