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Economy, Poverty, and the Earth: A Reformed Perspective on Neoliberalism

On his first day in office, President Biden sat at the Resolute Desk and signed a flurry of executive orders, many of them intentionally reversing his predecessor’s most contentious policies. With the swift stroke of the pen, permits to construct the Keystone XL pipeline were revoked and the U.S. was back in the Paris Climate Agreement. Reactions to these two environmental actions were varied, with some hailing them as an enormous win for the environment and others denouncing them as reckless. Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-California) voiced the concerns of many when he urged Biden to put America first, saying that, “Americans want a free market where we can thrive based on our ingenuity and desire… [They] are pleading for their way of life and prosperity to be defended.”[1]

Free market. Prosperity. America first. These ideologically laden buzzwords and the neoliberalism that underlies them are often confined to political and economic spheres and absent from theological conversations about the wellbeing of humans and the rest of creation. Yet, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, as disadvantaged groups of people suffer disproportionately from climate hazards, and as other species and natural resources are threatened by extinction, pollution, and depletion, theological analysis of the human economy and the non-human environment has never been more urgent.

That the theological import of economic and ecological analysis has largely been ignored by the church is problematic. A pervasive neoliberalism, which idolizes unrestrained economic growth, not only threatens God’s more-than-human creation, it betrays human identity, agency, and empathy. Furthermore, it supplants the divine with a totalizing worldview in which the free market is god. In this essay, I examine the lies of neoliberalism, the idolatry of neoliberalism, and the heresy of neoliberalism and proffer a Reformed resource to lead the church to “break the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6).[2]

With Max Weber’s characterization of John Calvin as a primary source of “the Protestant ethic,” the Reformed tradition has shouldered much of the blame for America’s unfettered capitalism, which has created a gulf between the rich and the poor.[3] Despite its persistent popularity, Weber’s well-worn thesis is highly problematic. First, it is reductionist in that it resorts to a monocausal explanation for hypercapitalism. Second, it misconstrues Calvin, who was clear that vocation is inextricably linked to love of neighbor. Through our union with Christ, Calvin says, we are united with others in a koinonia, or fellowship of love, in which “God wills that there be proportions and equality.”[4] Therefore, “each man is to provide for the needy according to the extent of his means so that no man has too much and no man has too little.”[5]

Given Calvin’s insistence upon “proportions,” “equality,” and providing “for the needy,” it should be of little surprise that in the late 20th century Reformed Christians raised a call to critically examine neoliberal capitalism and globalization. This task was taken up by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), a Reformed ecumenical body that subsequently merged with the Reformed Ecumenical Council in 2010 to become the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the third largest Christian communion in the world behind the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Seong-Won Park recalls that the WARC’s process of reflection on faith and economy, which began after the demise of the Communist Bloc, was conducted through a series of consultations in Manila (the Philippines), Kitwe (Zambia), San José (Costa Rica), and Geneva (Switzerland).[6] “The participants in the Kitwe consultation suggested that the Alliance consider a declaration of status confessionis on economic injustice and ecological destruction. What became clear through the regional consultations and the debate in Debrecen [the WARC General Council site in 1997] was that economic injustice and ecological destruction are not merely ethical or moral questions, but a matter of faith – a question of confession.”[7] That said, the WARC’s General Council in Debrecen stopped short of declaring the issues status confessionis, that is, a situation that requires a confession because the church’s unity is threatened by heresy and its witness to the gospel is at stake.[8] Rather, in the drafting and eventual adoption of the Accra Confession (which took place in Accra, Ghana, in 2004), the WARC acknowledged that while not all member churches considered the matter a status confessionis, they could commit together to a processus confessionis, that is, a process of “recognition, education, and confession.”[9] Recognition, education, and confession of what? A false neoliberal ideology that perpetuates lies, idolatry, and heresy.  

The Accra Confession begins by “reading the signs of the times”—signs that illustrate a growing disparity between the wealthy and the disadvantaged and a natural world increasingly marred by consumption, deforestation, soil depletion, and climate change, among other forms of destruction. Although almost two decades ago, and for a global context, these warnings could not be more relevant for the current U.S. context. From 1989 to 2016, the wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled.[10] In January 2020—just as the first Covid-19 cases were being discovered in the U.S.—the Pew Center reported that the “The wealth divide among upper-income families and middle- and lower-income families is sharp and rising.”[11] The pandemic has only exacerbated these disparities, producing the “most unequal recession in modern history.”[12]

That those who suffer disproportionately from eco-disaster, economic disparities, and now the pandemic, are people of color and the poor has been borne out by researchers and scientists. In the early summer months as the pandemic raged on, I was on a call with a Harvard scientist who authored a groundbreaking study which found that people with Covid-19 who live in regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas. I went to school in the Bronx (New York City), which suffers from the highest air pollution rates and asthma rates in the U.S. Not coincidentally, some of the highest death rates from the coronavirus have been in the South Bronx, particularly among people of color who comprise the majority of the population in that part of the borough. It is not difficult to see how race, socioeconomic status, and ecological distress intersect to produce the deadliest outcomes.  

So what is at the root of these disparities? The Accra Confession identifies neoliberalism as a principal cause. Now, unless you have had a robust education in economics (I have not), you might be wondering what they mean by neoliberal economic globalization.  Here is what the confession says. Neoliberal ideology presents the following false theses:

  1. Unrestrained competition, consumerism, and unlimited economic growth and accumulation of wealth are best for the whole world.
  2. Ownership of private property has no social obligation.
  3. Capital speculation, liberalization, and deregulation of the market, privatization of public utilities and national resources, unrestricted access for foreign investments and imports, lower taxes and the unrestricted movement of capital will achieve wealth for all.
  4. Social obligations, protection of the poor and the weak, trade unions, and relationships between people are subordinate to the processes of economic growth and capital accumulation.[13]

One might wonder, don’t unrestrained economic growth and wealth accumulation benefit everyone? In reality, economic growth based on unregulated production and consumption does not benefit the poor but undermines their wellbeing. Consumers’ insatiable hunger for cheap products and low-cost food has produced a market in which producers of goods—from diamond miners in Sierra Leone to factory workers in China to migrant workers on farms in southern California—are paid meager wages, with humans and the earth being used merely as a means to profit. Hypercapitalism, born of neoliberalism, strips us of our empathy for indigenous peoples whose sacred lands are transferred to mining conglomerates or excavated for the Keystone XL.[14] Neoliberalism persuades us to sacrifice our care for the poor and the earth for the good of the market. The biblical call to justice and concern for the poor, found for example in the prophet Isaiah’s warning to those “who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2) is eclipsed by the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Far from beneficial for all, or even benign, neoliberalism produces lies that bear serious consequences for “the least of these” and the earth.

Another concern of the Accra Confession is the way in which the current “culture of rampant consumerism and the competitive greed and selfishness of the neoliberal global market system” is tied to “economic, political, and military empire, which subverts God’s sovereignty and acts contrary to God’s rule.”[15] To put it another way, neoliberal globalization has resulted in idolatry, with the market as idol and profit taking priority over God’s justice. Furthermore, hypercapitalism has become a totalizing worldview in which humans have been reduced to consumers or producers. Consider, for example, the ubiquity of advertising. Ads are wallpapered on luggage carousels, subway turnstiles, elevator walls, along escalators, and inside public bathrooms and hotel rooms; they are splashed on the exterior and interior of busses and trains as well as on crosswalks, garbage cans, and even manhole covers. Magazines, television shows, social media, and even internet news sources are inundated with marketing. According to cognitive scientist Mark Changizi, advertising tactics work because “they tap into our non-conscious mechanisms… hijacking them for selling a company’s products.”[16] The false ideology of hypercapitalism is peddled in insidious ways and coopts our worldview. Ads hoodwink us into thinking—if even for just a few seconds—that it’s normal to buy brand-new SUV’s for yourself and your partner as Christmas gifts.[17] Neoliberal ideology is insidious, unconscious, totalizing, and unchecked. 

In another bold theological move, the Accra Confession makes a forceful statement about neoliberalism that equates it with heresy. Like the Belhar Confession, the Accra Confession includes a litany of affirmations beginning with “We believe,” followed by repudiations introduced by the phrase “Therefore we reject…” Among its repudiations is the declaration, “We reject any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation, and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all. We reject any teaching which justifies those who support or fail to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”[18] While the Accra Confession does not specifically name such “teaching” (or doctrine) heresy, the assertion that it is a false gospel suggests that it is so.

The doctrinal concerns here are twofold. First, neoliberal ideology thwarts the flourishing of God’s creation, putting the market before the more-than-human world and thereby corrupting the doctrine of creation, in which God declares all living things “good.” Second, unfettered consumerism and a free market economy dispossess humans of their status as imago dei (creatures made in the image of God) by reducing them to homo economicus, homo consumuns, and homo dominons.[19] According to neoliberal economic theory, humans are above all autonomous, competitive, and consumeristic, ordained to dominate the natural world using it as they please. This prevailing model of globalization perverts the doctrines of creation and theological anthropology (what it means to be human). It also stifles the human capacity “to make decisions and take actions other than those that serve the utility of the market.”[20] Human agency is constrained as we acquiesce—even unconsciously—to its false narrative.

That said, our agency, is not eliminated. After a litany of affirmations, repudiations, and admissions of complicity in supporting sinful economic structures, the Accra Confession ends not with hopelessness but with a reminder of the covenant by which we are bound to each other and to the God who calls us to act justly. In its closing section, titled “Covenanting for Justice,” the Accra Confession declares that this confession “binds us together to work for justice in the economy and the earth both in our common global context as well as our various regional and local settings.”[21] In response, Reformed churches are called to “deepen our education and move toward confession.”[22] We are also exhorted to “commit our time and energy to changing, renewing, and restoring the economy and the earth, choosing life, so that we and our descendants might live (Deut. 30:19).”[23]   

Despite the Accra Confession’s urgent call to recognition, education, confession, and just action, few Reformed churches have entered into a processus confessionis. This is especially true for churches in the U.S., where criticism of a free market economy is perceived as a threat to the “sacred” American belief that wealth is synonymous with happiness. Among those who have more deeply engaged the Accra Confession are our Caribbean neighbors, who have produced a resource book based on their own experiences of economic and ecological injustice. One contributor urges us to consider that, “if the whole world wished to consume resources, for instance at the level the United States has done… we would need by conservative estimates over five planets like the earth to support this pattern of life.”[24] The threat to our global neighbors, other species, and future generations is very real. On the other hand, it is difficult to confront and transform an ideology and system that seems as American as apple pie. That said, we are not powerless in the face of such immense challenges because God is our power.  As Carter Heyward reminds, “God is our power in relation to each other, all humanity, and creation itself. God is the bond which connects us in such a way that each of us is empowered to grow, work, play, love, and be loved.”[25] May the love of neighbor—human and non-human—and Jesus’ intention that “all may have life” guide our economic choices as we live into this covenant of justice for the economy and the earth.


[1] https://lamalfa.house.gov/ Accessed January 24, 2021.

[2] This text (Is. 58:6) was a point of reflection for the WARC in the drafting of the Accra Confession, and is cited in the introduction of the piece.

[3] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1958).

[4] Calvin writes in his first catechism that, “there could be no sharper goad to arouse mutual love among us than when Christ, giving himself to us, not only invites us by his example to pledge and to give ourselves to one another, but as he makes himself common to all, so also makes all one in himself.” I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 35.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on 2 Cor. 8:13-14.

[6] Seong-Won Park, “A Journey for Life: From Debrecen to Accra and Beyond” Reformed World 55:3 (2005), 192. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ulrich Möller, “The Accra Confession and its Ecclesiological Implications,” in Reformed World 55:3 (2005), 208.

[9] Accra Confession, paragraph 1.

[10] Katherine Schaeffer, “Six Facts about Economic Inequality in the U.S.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/07/6-facts-about-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s/ Accessed January 24, 2021.

[11] Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochar, “Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality,” https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/ Accessed January 24, 2021.

[12] Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam, Alyssa Fowers, and Leslie Shapiro, “The Covid-19 Recession is the Most Unequal in U.S. History.” September 30, 2020.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/business/coronavirus-recession-equality/ As the Brookings Institution found, “The costs of the pandemic are being borne disproportionately by poorer segments of society.  Low-income populations are more exposed to health risks and more likely to experience job losses and declines in well-being. These effects are even more exacerbated by the deprivations and vulnerabilities of those left behind by rising inequality but its fallout is pushing inequality higher.” https://www.brookings.edu/research/tackling-the-inequality-pandemic-is-there-a-cure/ Accessed January 24, 2020. As evidence of this conclusion, Brookings cites the following articles: Heather Boushey and Somin Park, “The Coronavirus Recession and Economic Inequality: A Roadmap to Recovery and Long-Term Structural Change,” Center for Equitable Growth, August 2020; Brown, Caitlin, and Martin Ravallion, “Inequality and the Coronavirus: Socioeconomic Covariates of Behavioral Responses and Viral Outcomes Across U.S. Counties,” NBER Working Paper 27549, July 2020; and Furceri, Davide, Prakash Loungani, Jonathan Ostry, and Pietro Pizzuto, “Will COVID-19 Affect Inequality? Evidence from Past Pandemics,” Covid Economics 12: 138-57, May 2020.

[13] Accra Confession, paragraph 9.

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/16/sacred-native-american-land-arizona-oak-flat Accessed January 24, 2021.

[15] Accra Confession, paragraphs 21 and 19. Emphasis added.

[16] “Effects Of Unconscious Exposure To Advertisements,” Science Daily.  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125828.htm Accessed January 24, 2021.

[17] Robert P. Sellers, “I Saw Two Americas This Thanksgiving.” https://baptistnews.com/article/i-saw-two-americas-this-thanksgiving/#.YA3qs-lKi9Y Accessed January 24, 2021.

[18] Accra Confession, paragraph 25. Emphasis added.

[19] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 59.

[20] Ibid, 46.

[21] Accra Confession, paragraph 37.

[22] Accra Confession, paragraph 38.

[23] Accra Confession, paragraph 42.

[24] Rogate R. Mshana. “Addressing the Global and Economic Crises: Alternatives and Challenges for the Ecumenical Movement,” in Power to Resist and Courage to Hope: Caribbean Churches Living out the Accra Confession, edited by Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Caribbean and North America Area Council),17-18.

[25] Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982), 6.

Monica Schaap Pierce

Monica Schaap Pierce received her Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Fordham University (NYC) in 2018, where she wrote on Calvin, the Holy Spirit, and ecological theology. She teaches at Calvin University and represents the Reformed Church in America in national and international ecumenical settings, where she works with other Christians to pursue unity, justice, and peace.

8 Comments

  • Elizabeth Estes says:

    God bless you, Monica, for this thorough, clear, full and amazing application of plain old theology to neo-liberal values!

  • Travis West says:

    This is really helpful, Monica, and a clear and compelling critique of neoliberalism, as well as an insightful primer on the Accra confession. Thank you!

  • Helen P says:

    A strong indictment of neoliberalism and those who advocate for it.

    Well done Monica!

  • Jason says:

    Economics is the study of scarcity. No system this side of heaven will see everyone getting what everyone desires. The Free Market is one way to decide. Government is another. I am comfortable affirming actions have consequences and human beings need to be good stewards of what they are provided dominion over. I am not, however, prepared to arbitrate what is best for oil field workers in the U.S. or Canada or, especially, for people in the developing world. I suspect a group of mainline theologians are an even worse arbiter.

    • Monica Schaap Pierce says:

      Hi, Jason. Thanks for thoughtfully reading the piece and responding. As I argued in the essay, when making economic decisions, the Accra Confession directs us to consider the impact that our decisions have on marginalized people and the earth. It seems from your comment that you are considering the impact on the oil field worker but not the Native Americans, whose sacred land has been desecrated by the laying of pipeline, or the ecological impact. In regard to “the developing world” (many scholars have shifted to use of the terms 2/3 world or Global South), the Accra Confession was developed by, presented by, and confirmed in the Global South. You might recall from the essay that it was South Africans who brought concerns about the economic and ecological injustices connected to neoliberalism to the rest of the WCRC for consideration. I believe that is because they see the consumeristic habits of those above the equator as unsustainable and having dire consequences for their own lands, waters, and livelihoods (especially as the climate crisis intensifies). The quote I included from the Caribbean Christians’ study guide struck me as one expression of this. Again, thanks for engaging the piece. I hope that more theologians and laypersons (experts on economy or otherwise) will think deeply about such important issues from the perspective of faith as we discern a way forward that is more life-giving, especially for marginalized people and the earth.

  • Kristin Palacios says:

    Thank you for writing this much needed critique of neoliberalism from a Christian and Reformed perspective. We need more of this from our intellectual and faith leaders.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I was asked to represent the RCA at the WARC conference in Johannesburg SA on following up the Accra Confession. We came up with a plan for RCA (and CRC) participation, but when we got back we couldn’t get any traction from our denominational leadership, and that was before Tom DeVries! By the way, W. Fred Graham argued in his book, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin & His Socio-economic Impact, argued against Weber that the rise of capitalism actually began in the Italian and then Belgian city-states, but then the Counter-Reformation stifled it and left the field open for the newly liberated Protestant cities and provinces.

    • Monica Schaap Pierce says:

      Graham’s thesis is fascinating. I’ll have to take a look at that, Daniel. It’s hard to confront a system of economic beliefs that are held as sacred ideals in this country; I’m not surprised the RCA-CRC roll-out received little reception. I hope Christians in America are slowly waking up to the global impact of our economic choices, but such a shift is difficult as our culture becomes increasingly individualistic, consumeristic, and nationalistic. As evidenced by a comment above, we so easily overlook victims (in the Keystone debate: Native Americans and the land) as our attention centers on homo economicus, the commodified human, or person as primarily producer and consumer within the economy.