University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank delivered a lecture Wednesday about the role of Christian faith and morality in market economics and business, and how she’s balanced living as an active Christian in a market economy.
Blank’s lecture included arguments from a 2004 book she co-wrote with Wall Street Journal editorial writer William McGurn, “Is the Market Moral?” in which she discussed the place of Christian morality in economics.
In addition to her role as UW chancellor, Blank is a widely respected economist, having served as the Deputy Secretary of Commerce during President Barack Obama’s administration and as a professor at numerous higher education institutions.
Beyond her expertise in economics, Blank said she is a devout Christian in her private life.
As the chancellor of a secular university, Blank said she rarely gets to speak publicly about her personal religious beliefs, but the audience of this particular lecture made it appropriate.
Blank delivered her lecture at Upper House, a space for Christian students on campus that often holds church services and other Christian events.
Coming from a German family who lived in an area near the birth of Lutheranism, Blank said she identifies as “culturally Protestant.”
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Blank said her personal involvement in the Christian church and professional involvement in free-market economics have forced her to consider how these two parts of her life interact and intersect.
“You can’t be an economist and engaged in the church the way that I’ve been engaged without thinking about how these two parts of your life come together,” Blank said.
In her lecture, Blank identified and contrasted some defining characteristics of markets and Protestant Christian ethics.
In her first contrast, Blank said markets are motivated by self-interest, while Christians are “called into community.” Secondly, whereas markets are focused on the individual, Christians care about the wellbeing of others.
In the third contrast, Blank said markets support the mantra “more is better,” while Christianity measures abundance in “spirit,” and not in material objects. In her fourth and final contrast, Blank said the choices made in markets are morally neutral, while Christianity carries moral and ethical implications in every action.
These contrasts, Blank said, represent two different worlds which can be hard to reconcile.
“Much of what we do with our life is living in the world of markets and well explained by economic theory,” Blank said. “But, I suspect many of you are also in church and struggling with what it means to be a Christian. So how do you reconcile these two models and these two worlds, and how do you live in both of them?”
Developed through her own personal experience and struggles with these contradictions, Blank posited several ways people could reconcile Christian morality with the seemingly amoral nature of market economics.
Blank referred to this reconciliation as “living consciously in both realities,” and it involves a balance between the two.
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“It is, I will admit, a very uneasy balance — and it’s a particularly uneasy balance for those of us who are here in very secular institutions,” Blank said.
Paying close attention to how one treats others is one of the most important and effective ways to go about doing this, Blank said. Being in the highly visible role of UW chancellor made Blank more aware of this than she has ever been before.
Being charitable, coupled with a consciousness of one’s economic choices and of one’s political involvements, were other recommendations Blank put forward. Blank said one’s involvements and consumption habits can be tied to a system of morality and ethics to offset the morally neutral realities of markets.
Blank’s final recommendations touched on more religious tones. These included being aware of things bigger than yourself, which Blank identified as God, and playing an active part in the church.
“This type of living consciously — living in both of these worlds, trying to think back and forth about who you are, what you owe to God, and what you owe to your engagement in the secular and economic worlds — is a hard one,” Blank said. “But it is the route that I have found most possible for me.”