The Religious Roots of Anglo-American Open Society

by Roger Alford

Part Three of God and Gold focuses on the question of how the Anglo-Saxons were able to put together the economic and military resources that enabled them to defeat their enemies and build a global order. Mead argues that the decisive factor in the success of the English-speaking world was that they came from a culture that was uniquely well positioned to develop and harness the titanic forces of capitalist. Anglo-Americans have been consistently among the best performers at creating a favorable institutional and social climate in which capitalism can grow rapidly. The roots of this aptitude can be found in the way the British Reformation created a pluralistic society that was unusually tolerant and unusually pious. The English-speaking world reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things. (pp. 14-15).

The English Reformation was unusual in that it steered a middle course between the unacceptable extremes of scriptural literalism and Roman Catholicism. Tradition, they concluded, could provide an unerring guide to the worst perplexities of the religious controversies of the day. (p. 212). Some leading Englishmen—most notably Edward Gibbon—rejected both scripture and tradition and turned to the third alternative of reason. But in the end, English society recognized that reason cannot be separated from interest and passion and reason alone could not stand as the basis for human society. The excesses of the French Revolution—supposedly based on reason and logic—fortified this impression. (pp. 216-19).

Juggling scripture, tradition, and reason, the English-speaking world embraced an open society in which religion constantly adjusted to the demands of social and economic change. The prevailing Anglo-American view came to be Adam Smith’s: “that religion, even fanatical religion, is necessary to the health and happiness of society, and that free competition among religions is the best way to achieve the benefits of religion at the lowest possible cost.” (p. 228). The history of the Anglophone world suggests that the most vigorously open society, the society that presses hardest and fastest toward the West, is a religious society. Societies that marginalize religion and that are based purely on reason are less flexible, less open, and less dynamic. (p. 230).

Mead also underscores the religious roots of the Anglo-American embrace of change. The Anglo-American version of Protestant Christianity is particularly oriented toward Calvinism, which reinforces God’s grace working through people. It is not just that Calvinists are running from fear of a hideous fate, they are reaching out toward something positive: a transcendent calling. Embracing change is not a necessary evil; it is a religious sacrament in which the pursuit of change is the encounter of the meaning of life. As such, each person’s calling becomes a type of project to achieve, and that plan manifests itself in the broader society. Over the course of centuries, millions of Anglo-Americans have adopted this mindset to improve their personal forturnes and make society a more suitable medium for capitalist development (pp. 240-47).

One Response

  1. And it wouldn’t hurt if we compare that “mindset” to the portrait and teachings of Jesus one finds in the four Gospels: talk about a gap between what “is” and what “ought” to be!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.