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Topics: Cultural Engagement, Politics, Public Square

A Transformational, Moral Foundation for Democracy and Economics

October 25, 2013


By Michael Berry

In 1831, the French government commissioned Alexis de Tocqueville, a political scientist and historian, to study the American prison system.

De Toqueville’s observations resulted in his iconic work, Democracy in America.  In it, de Tocqueville explained his belief that the Puritans, who founded America, planted the seeds of American democracy because of the high priority they placed on religion and liberty.  Democracy in America had a profound impact in both Western Europe and the United States, and it soon became a classic.  From it, we have such enduring statements as:

“America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”


“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Most Americans, particularly those of the Christian faith, are quick to agree with de Tocqueville’s observations.  We often mourn the demise of a republic rooted in morality.  It is all too easy to point to the various empires that have enraptured so many Americans—sports, entertainment, politics, and scandal—as evidence of our downfall.  But perhaps not all is lost.

In 2002, the Chinese government directed a prominent economist, Dr. Zhao Xiao, to study the differences between the market economies of the United States and his native China.  Dr. Zhao’s findings and his ultimate conclusion would be remarkable were they reported by a western economist.  That they came from an atheistic communist is astounding, if not unimaginable.

Dr. Zhao’s initial premise was that, although China is rapidly closing the gap, the United States’ economy is still leaps and bounds ahead of every other nation.  He identified several reasons for this.

First, Dr. Zhao observed that “in America, there are churches everywhere.”  This led him to further speculate that there must be “a foundation of morality behind the American market economy.”  He contrasted this with China, where “we have concentrated a lot on economic reforms but have not paid much attention to that moral foundation.”

Next, Dr. Zhao studied the relationship between morality and economy, ultimately concluding that “a good business ethic or business morality can provide for a type of motivation that transcends profit seeking.”  He then tied this to economies on a national scale.  That is where Dr. Zhao’s research gets really interesting.

We know that America is a country founded by Puritans. And Puritans, their dream of coming to America was the need to establish a city on a hill, to let the entire world see the glory of Jesus Christ, whom they believed in. So their purpose for doing business was for the glory of God. If my motivation for doing business is the glory of God, there is a motivation that transcends profits. I cannot go and use evil methods. If I used some evil methods to enlarge the company, to earn money, then this is not bringing glory to God. Therefore, this is to say that [bringing glory to God] can provide a transcendent motivation for business. And this kind of transcendental motivation not only benefits an entrepreneur by making his business conduct proper but it can also benefit the entrepreneur’s continued innovation.

Finally, Dr. Zhao concluded his research with the thesis that China’s transformation into a global power—economic or otherwise—must have a moral foundation.  In other words, according to Dr. Zhao, the single most important competitive advantage that America has is the moral foundation that was laid by our Puritan forebears.

Whether it comes from a French revolutionary or a Chinese communist, the message for Christians is clear: if we are to prosper as a nation and as a people, we must build upon a moral foundation.  The greatest news in the universe is that Jesus Christ already laid the foundation for us.

God gave us His Holy Spirit to serve as our moral compass.  We know, just as the Puritans knew, that our purpose is not mere profit-seeking.  We exist, as individuals and as a nation, to bring glory to God.  And when we stumble, as we have many times, we need not prematurely declare the demise of our republic.  Through Christ’s death, and indeed through His resurrection, we have redemption of mind and society that results in the kind of economies and nations that Dr. Zhao and de Tocqueville observed.

And the coolest part—the rest of the story—is that Zhao became a Christian as the result of his study.  He began reading the Bible, as many do, to prove that God didn’t exist.  His explanation for this is refreshing for it’s honesty:

In 2002 [when conducting the study mentioned above] I was not a Christian. I was only following my observations as a scholar and made some observations coolly and rationally. But since then, I started to observe American churches, to go inside churches and observe. Inside these churches, I saw some very touching scenes — they were all very friendly; they were all so happy. Especially when I saw couples of 70 or 80 years of age who were still like young people just falling in love, this really moved me. I saw the friendship and goodwill among people — that joy that comes from the depths of the heart — and the mutual love. This really moved me.

From this point, I started to study the Bible. But my initial motivation for studying the Bible is not really pure. My purpose for studying the Bible was not to prove that there was a God. I wanted to look for proof against the existence of God. The reasons are simple. First of all, I believed that I’m not really a good person. I felt that I had a lot of bad thoughts and did a lot of bad things. So if there was a God, whatever bad thoughts I had, he would know; whatever bad things I did, he would know. To me, this is too insecure, so I would rather not have a God. So this was how I studied the Bible: I wanted to prove that it was a good book but that there was no truth to it.

But after reading it for over three months, I admitted defeat. I discovered that this kind of book China does not have.  China does have morality books. For instance, the Analects of Confucius teaches people morality.  China also has very philosophical works, for example, Laozi. China also has many intelligent writings, for instance, the Buddhist texts. But China does not have a book like the Bible. The Bible is a book that claims inspiration from the will of God. It talks about the history of the relationship between God and human beings, and this kind of book does not exist in China.


Michael Berry is an attorney for Liberty Institute, a nationwide religious liberty law firm dedicated to restoring religious liberty in America. Michael joined Liberty Institute in 2013 after seven years serving as a JAG officer in the United States Marine Corps. He is a 1999 graduate of Texas A&M University and a 2005 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Law

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