Moral and Religious Discourse Surrounding Free Trade Agreements

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
202 South Hall (South Hall)
Amy Reynolds, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
Economic sociology has established that markets are not merely structures to facilitate the efficient trade of goods, but that there are underlying values that serve as foundations for markets.  In my research, I look at one subset of actors who have been engaged in debates surrounding market life: religious actors within the Americas (North and Central). Specifically, I focus on how Catholics in Costa Rica, Presbyterians in the United States, and Christians in Canada have discursively engaged in debates over free trade agreements and international economic policies.

Free trade agreements represent a point of interest to both academic communities.  At one level, they signify a desire to see less state regulation of the economy, while also limiting the sovereignty of states to set their own economic policies.  Although an International Trade Organization was initially planned to oversee such policies, the failure of ITO to come to fruition means that market logic largely governs such policies today.

I argue that religious actors are important actors for economic sociologists and IR scholars to consider when thinking about international economic policies and international economic relationships.  Religious actors are both transnationally networked, but also located in concrete physical local places. Religious organizations have power because they provide collective values that can be used by followers to engage the market.  Berger’s “sacred canopy” of religion has the potential to shape economic understanding by declaring basic values about human interaction. 

Based off of my empirical research presented in my book (Free Trade and Faithful Globalization, Cambridge, 2015), I find that religious actors are important actors in the arena of international economic policy.  They speak with moral authority regarding economic policy, they embody a national and transnational reality, and they provide various models for how civil society might best engage economists and policy makers. 

First, studying religious discourse reveals some shared concerns among religious (in this case, Christian) communities regarding current international economic policies. Even as religious actors are not often considered in studies of market change, they regularly make strong claims regarding key values to be considered in the construction of social life. The central value that emerged was that of community, and what it means to have community as an ethical starting point in a market that prioritizes the individual.  Groups had different understandings of what it meant to value community – proper relationships with others, solidarity with the poor, or an investment in the common good. Yet for each of the groups I studied, this value on community was central to their religious commitments and moral understandings.  

Religious actors play an important role in helping people connect religious and moral values to political action. Further, as Hart suggests (Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics, Chicago, 2001), an ability to express strong moral sentiments is essential if efforts at progressive political change take root.  Religion can sometimes provide both the content of such moral sentiments, and the impetus and motivation for action and societal engagement. 

Second, transnational religious actors are an interesting case because they show the ways that different national values intersect with other moral and ethical commitments. All of the actors I considered are connected to interntional religious communities, but they are bounded actors that speak for a religious community in a particular national location. To borrow from Lamont and Thevenot (Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology: Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States, Cambridge, 2000), different repertories of action are available in different nations.  So religious actors combine both transnational religious understandings and nationalistic attitudes. Ideas about global governance are a good example. Even as there may be shared understandings about the need for oversight and standards among religious actors, I find that values about global governance largely seem to be shaped by the power of one’s home state within the global governance system.  

Third, I want to argue that these religious actors are important to consider because they also provide insights into the role that civil society actors should and can play in the international economy, and in crafting international economic policy. These religious actors were seeking to engage market life and enter into a conversation about how the market is constructed. However, the ways that they viewed their role, and viewed economic and political leaders varied greatly.  What is the role for civil society actors in crafting international economic policy? I suggest that these three groups represent three different models.  In the model of frame, civil society can supply moral values for experts to consider. In the model of lens, all policies are judged through certain lenses, and ethical leaders sit together with economists and political scientists to evaluate policy. In the third model, of religion and practice, religious leaders somewhat disengage from the conversation among policy makers, providing instead alternative visions of market life.

I am particularly interested in participating in this mini-conference looking at research in the fields of economic sociology and international relations because I think together complexities of economic policies today can be more fruitfully engaged.  What are the values that trade policies should be measured against?  The international community is a conversation over what shared values and priorities matter in assessing development efforts. For example, recently, the UN announced the new Sustainable Development Goals.  Better understanding the moral and ethical claims of religious actors towards the market poses new questions for international actors to ask in crafting trade agreements.