Third Rail

Michael Metzger

No matter who wins the presidential race in November, Social Security won’t be touched. It’s the “third rail” in politics. You touch it you die. In business, you can experience a similar shock if you touch religion, says Nicholas Wolterstorff. “If the businessman, rather than being motivated by the bottom line of profit, allows his religious convictions to shape his business practices, he shortly finds himself out of business.”1 ZZZZZZap! The next time a business colleague treats faith as a third rail, tell him or her they’re only half right. In fact, tell them they’re only a third right.

Today’s Bible for business is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, written in 1776 by Adam Smith. He stated that the public interest (i.e., the free exchange of goods and services in a free market economy) is best advanced when we pursue our own interests. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”2

Sounds a bit egotistical, doesn’t it? Yet Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever pleases him.”3 And we’re made in God’s image.4 So we’re designed to do whatever is in our own self-interest. In the “four-chapter” gospel, this is Chapter One, creation. Of course, we need gutter guards – recognizing that we’re fallen, frail, finite, and have limited finances and physical capabilities. This is Chapter Two, the fall. So how do we properly pursue our own self-interests and prosperity?

Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville and others called it “enlightened self-interest.” “Americans are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other.”5 By enlightened, Smith and others believed proper prosperity is the result of human action but not of human design. Design came from an “invisible hand” that properly guided capitalism. For Smith, this “invisible hand” was attached to an invisible person. A mathematician of deep Christian faith, Adam Smith rooted markets in the moral virtues that spring from God. In The Moral Theory of Sentiments, he wrote:

Wise and judicious conduct, when directed to greater and nobler purposes, is called prudence. Prudence, combined with valour, benevolence, a sacred regard to the rules of justice, and supported by a proper degree of self-command – necessarily supposes the art, the talent, and the habit of acting with the most perfect propriety in every possible circumstance (and) necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues. It is the best head joined to the best heart.

The last thing business needs today – this goes for media, politics, the arts, and education as well – is a separation of the heart from the head. “If Tocqueville was correct, that democracies are ever in danger of slipping downward from high ideals in moral and cultural life, it is imperative that the sound ideals animating the business calling be more fully articulated,” writes Michael Novak. “To ignore or cover over the moral dimension of business is to suck wind out of the democratic sail, and to watch the experiment in self-government go slack.”6 Most of us are familiar with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. How many have read the other bookend – The Moral Theory of Sentiments?

The next time you’re standing on a rail platform, ask yourself: why do they warn me to not touch the third rail? It’s the power, stupid. Colleagues who warn us about Christianity as a third rail implicitly recognize a third of the truth. God is the third rail – providing the power for people to be properly self-interested and not overly indulgent. Yet Christianity also provides two steel rails that the trains drive on – the way business ought to be and the way it is. Try running the trains without all three.

1 These remarks were delivered by Nicholas Wolterstorff as part of a seminar titled “Can Life in Business Still Be a Calling? Or is That Day Over?” at the Colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life, March 18, 2004, at Richmond, Virginia. Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.
2 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 1981), pp. 26-27
3 The same point is made in Psalm 135:6: “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does.”.

4 Genesis 1:26-28
5 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969), p. 526
6 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: Free Press, 1996), p.51


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