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Journal of International Business and Law

Abstract

Among the important factors in the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 was a large ethical breakdown in the financial sector that preceded it. The sources of good ethical behavior are multiple but religion ranks high among them. In thinking about the role of religion, most people think first of Judaism, Christianity and other traditional religions. The concept of religion should be extended, however, to include "secular religions" which were among the most powerful religious influences of the twentieth century. This paper argues that many people on Wall Street once believed in an American "civil religion" that was grounded in a deep faith in the redeeming benefits of economic progress and political democracy. Working on Wall Street thus was not simply a matter of making as much money as possible individually, but was also seen as playing a key role in a national economic system that served a transcendent purpose. Indeed, the efficient allocation of capital by the financial system was especially critical to this core American religious project. By the twenty-first century, however, the American civil religion was fading. This waning faith and the lack of any new commonly accepted substitute contributed importantly to the large ethical failures of Wall Street and other participants in the U.S. financial system during the 2000s.

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