Is God a Capitalist?

[tab:Faith in the Free Markets]

Faith in the Free Markets

The Soviet Union ceased to exist at 12:00pm on December 21st, 1991. As President Reagan might have put it, the Evil Empire had fallen. It is very tempting, especially from a Western perspective, to see God’s providence at work in this stunning series of events. Nations in the former Eastern bloc, as well as Russia itself, moved quickly to adopt freer markets. Capitalism won; communism lost. Does this mean that God loves capitalism and hates communism?

As usual, the real picture is a tad more complicated. A hundred years earlier, the U.S. Congress unleashed the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) to rein in the excesses of monopolistic trade practices. This signaled the beginning of the end of laissez faire capitalism. A classic product of the European Enlightenment, laissez faire economics was adopted enthusiastically by British and American thinkers. Chief among them was Scottish social and moral philosopher, Adam Smith. In his extraordinary Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith argued that a government should allow its people as much freedom as possible to manufacture goods from their own capital—their land, their machinery, and any other means of production within their grasp.

In the following decades, burgeoning capitalists developed a love-hate relationship with the free enterprise system. They loved the opportunity to compete freely but, having reached the top, conspired to deprive workers, consumers, and competitors of the same opportunities. They would stop at nothing to eliminate rivals and monopolize the market. Many industrialists tacitly endorsed a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” approach to business.

It is no wonder that people began to view capitalism in a decidedly un-Christian light. In 1904, a Quaker by the name of Lizzie Magie patented a board game that mimicked the prevailing system of land ownership. The financial ruin of all but one player was supposed to shed an ironic light on the moral bankruptcy of slum lords and property speculators. Today, few Monopoly players have any idea that this was the original purpose of the game.

Laissez faire economics was definitely under siege, but received a timely boost from Max Weber. His book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), marked a groundbreaking effort to link a particular economic theory to a particular theological view. Weber saw three main points of contact between the rise of Calvinism and the success of capitalism. First, members of the clergy were not the only ones who could be “called” to work. A drain digger or a street sweeper is still serving God. Second, Protestants applied Calvin’s emphasis on self-discipline to everyday life. So turning up on time for work is just as important as turning up on time for worship. And third, prosperity in this life could be seen as proof of our divine election. Weber observed a fourth ingredient not related especially to Calvinism, and that was a commitment to enlightened self-interest. Failing to look beyond the “bottom line” can work at times against our own best interests. Profits are great, but they cannot be our only consideration. Smith had much the same view.

[tab:All Things in Moderation]

All Things in Moderation

Today, full-blown communism and laissez faire capitalism have their share of dreamy-eyed supporters. In practice, these theories have both proved unworkable. Think about the short but disastrous experiments in Russia and other parts of the world. According to Karl Marx, communism had to emerge in any society where soul-destroying capitalism had run its course. As we all know, this never happened. Instead, Czarist Russia and various European monarchies skipped capitalism and dove headlong into socialism. The newly formed nations put all or most of the means of production in the hands of a centralized bureaucracy. Initially, people were promised an equal share of the economic pie if only they would relinquish some personal freedoms. The more they gave up, the more they could expect from the state in return. That, at least, was the deal on offer. As we all know, the social contract ended up being a very one-sided affair. Max Weber called it the “cage of future bondage.”

As we have noted already, the original version of capitalism ran into trouble as well. In America, where rail and oil tycoons were running amok, state and federal governments finally had to step in and balance business interests against social interests. Big corporations bemoaned intrusions into the free market, but also accepted tax breaks, import tariffs, and federal grants.

So is the best economic system somewhere toward the left in the form of socialism, or is it somewhere toward the right in the form of capitalism? For many believers, the answer has leaned anything but right. The more ascetically minded of Weber’s day saw opposition to capitalism in Jesus’ teaching on humility and worldly gain (Luke 12:16-20; 13:30). Others went even further. The sharing spirit of the early church (Acts 2:44-45) could be pressed into the service of communism: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Beginning in the late 1960s, a radical socialism emerged among Catholic theologians in the poverty-stricken depths of Latin America. According to this new “liberation theology,” when Jesus said that the “poor in spirit” would attain “the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3), He meant that the poor would literally overthrow oppressive government regimes.

Of course, the Biblical text was never meant to be read this way. We see in the early church a communitarian spirit, but this is not the same as communism or even socialism. The redistribution of wealth was not intended to model a divinely approved economic system for all people in all ages. It reflected a response on the part of brethren to a specific need at a certain time and place. Their example is certainly worth emulating, but it was also rooted in something quite foreign to communism: a love for Jesus Christ. Liberation theology mishandles Scripture and loses sight of Jesus’ real mission. He came, not to reform human society, but to bring each of us to spiritual repentance (Luke 5:32).

What about capitalism? Proponents will quickly reel off a number of Bible passages in its favor: “for you have the poor with you always” (Matt. 26:11); “if anyone does not provide for his own, [he is] worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8); “if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). These verses are made to speak for a free labor market and against a reliance on social safety nets. Always in the background is a deep commitment to choice and personal responsibility. After all, one could argue from Scripture that we are answerable to God precisely because we have the freedom to accept or reject Him (John 12:48). Unfortunately we are tempted to see in free choice a theological basis for the entire free enterprise system. And, conversely, the socialist goal of replacing personal freedom with state control is made to appear downright diabolical. Any attempt to transfer wealth from the “haves” to the “have nots” is derided for penalizing the Protestant work ethic and discouraging the entrepreneurial spirit. In the end, there is little sympathy for the hungry and the homeless. Poverty comes to be seen as a product of bad choices and plain laziness.

[tab:Economics or Justice?]

Economics or Justice?

Apart from some dubious exegesis, pressing this position too far threatens what our Lord called “the weightier matters of the law,” namely, “justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23). The religious wrangling of the scribes and the Pharisees allowed all sorts of economic injustices, including the neglect of aging parents (Mark 7:9-13).

Jesus was not a social reformer, but this in no way diminished His compassion for the underdog (Matt. 25:44-46). Capitalism, especially a capitalism unrestrained by a Christian world view, has struggled to find a place for social justice and broader community concerns.

The intentionally provocative question at the head of this article was designed to challenge our assumptions: Is capitalism the only right way to think about money? What about socialism? From a Biblical perspective, the answer in each case has got to be “no,” for two simple reasons. First, capitalism and socialism postdate the “Biblical perspective” by centuries. Since the time of Jesus we have seen economic systems come and go: trade guilds, feudalism, mercantilism, industrialization, capitalism, socialism, communism, to name but a few. We can no more read capitalism into Scripture than we can read representational republicanism into Scripture. All we can do is look for abiding Biblical principles that will help us discern good from evil (Heb. 5:14). And second, neither capitalism nor socialism is without its problems. As we have seen, both come into conflict with Biblical ethics in practice if not in theory.

As Christians, can we choose to be diligent workers under the yoke of communism? Yes. As Christians, can we choose to exercise justice, mercy and faith even where the dollar reigns supreme? Yes. What matters, in the end, is that we keep the commandments of God no matter what our lot in life may be  (1 Cor. 7:17-24).

[A version of this article appeared in Think, November 2007, pp. 16-17.]

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© 2007 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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