Conservative Supreme Court Justice Says Capitalism Needs Christianity

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Says Capitalism Needs Christianity

According to an Associated Press report (published in a local newspaper Sept. 8), conservative United States Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia said in Houston, Texas (“at a religious library”) that “he thinks Christian values are necessary for capitalism to succeed.” One might be forgiven for thinking that’s an astonishing admission for a conservative, neo-liberal, neo-conservative like Scalia to make and for a Supreme Court justice to make. (For the uninitiated, “neo-liberal” and “neo-conservative” can mean virtually the same thing in describing a certain kind of free-market economic philosophy.)

I agree with Scalia with this proviso: that Christian values also necessarily undermine capitalism—as it is believed in by neo-liberal, neo-conservatives like Scalia.

So, why is this news? And why do I agree with Scalia, someone with whom I rarely agree, and why the paradoxical proviso?

First, there’s something cognitively dissonant about a U.S. Supreme Court justice arguing that a particular religious value system is necessary for America’s economic system to succeed. Whatever happened to separation of church and state? Oh, sure, in this case he was not delivering an official opinion and therefore not violating separation. However, such a statement coming from such an official, one of the most powerful in the land, has to make strict separationists nervous.

Second, I agree with Scalia. Capitalism as we now know it, beyond simple individual and family entrepreneurship, ownership of private property, what some call corporatism, cut-throat grabbing toward monopoly by profit-driven, investor-owned corporations determined to drive smaller competitors out of business, thrives on greed and competition—hardly Christian virtues! Perhaps Scalia, in contrast to some of his neo-liberal, neo-conservative fellow believers, sees that a dose of Christian compassion is the only thing that might dilute the cut-throat competitiveness of corporations.

Third, I agree with Scalia with my proviso—that Christian values ultimately undermine capitalism/corporatism as we have come to know it especially since the de-regulation of the Reagan Revolution. According to one book I recently read, it is forbidden by federal rules for any public-stock owned corporation to act in any way that undermines its main mission—to make a profit for its investors. In other words, it is against government rules for Corporation X to have mercy on Mom-and-Pop Store Y down the street and NOT attempt to drive them out of business if there’s a clear and open way to do it (e.g., by artificially lowering prices temporarily).

Scalia obviously realizes, as many neo-liberal/neo-conservatives do not, that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is not working to prevent the power of large corporations to wipe out competition and gain virtual monopoly control over certain commodities and services. And the gap between the rich and the poor is steadily growing with the poor becoming poorer, the middle class thinning out, and the rich and super-rich getting richer and more powerful. Any reflective Christian who is not blinded by Social Darwinism or ideology or greed has to see, as Scalia apparently does, that this kind of capitalism stands in desperate need of correction. But he hopes that correction will come from Christian values. What does he mean?

Well, the report I read doesn’t provide enough to know. But let’s suppose he means nothing more than that capitalism, to avoid becoming oppressive, needs “captains of industry” (CEOs, board members, presidents, managers) who love their competitors and workers. What would that mean in practical terms? Well, voluntarily paying workers more than necessary so that they can live decently human lives on their salaries? Voluntarily avoiding malicious and predatory tactics of competition to drive their smaller, weaker competitors (Mom-and-Pop Stores) out of business? Voluntarily telling the whole truth about products in advertising?

IF such were to happen, capitalism as we know it would undergo such a transformation that it would not be the same thing.

Finally, can we trust “Christian values” to kick in and fix capitalism as we know it in these ways? I don’t.

Walter Rauschenbusch, one of my heroes, sometimes hoped capitalism could be fixed by an infusion of young men and women imbued with Christian values such as love into the system. That’s why he wrote a college curriculum entitled The Social Principles of Jesus—to inculcate in Christian college and university students an awareness of Christian values applicable to social, including business, relationships. He hoped capitalism could be fixed by means of the Charles Sheldon (author of In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?) method—persuasion and voluntary top-down reformation of the system. Reinhold Niebuhr gave up on that while pastoring in Detroit and observing the callousness of “Christian” captains of industry toward workers and customers. He then turned toward organized activism to coerce corporations to humanize themselves.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Christian leaders of industry and business simply check their Christianity at the door when they enter their office towers.

I once helped lead a Bible study for business owners. We met every Sunday morning before church. The business owners loved to complain about their employees acting in a less-than-Christian manner (e.g., taking “sick days” to fish or hunt, pilfering, not giving an “honest day’s work,” etc.) but when I asked them if they believed Christian business owners had any obligations to their employees they firmly said no. The idea was totally foreign to them.

I was glad to read Scalia’s remark, but I doubt capitalism as we know it can be reformed by an infusion of Christian values alone. Structural changes are what are needed. If that’s what he meant, I agree. But somehow I doubt that’s what he meant.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I believe that Mr Scalia is correct. It seems to me that no civilized system will ultimately work unless people agree to not game the rules and each other – that they live out the values in the Judeo-Christian worldview. Structural changes mean very little if not-of-goodwill people will casually undermine them for their own advantage. Our system is built on trust. Woe upon us if we think government can substitute its rules as a replacement of that trust.

    • Roger Olson

      Do you then oppose anti-monopoly laws? Child labor laws? Tax-supported free public education? Laws against racial discrimination in hiring and housing?

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I am opposed to “tax-supported free [sic] public education”. That aside, the other issues arise as a result of the behavior of people not living out Judeo-Christian values. If people lived out Judeo-Christian values (regardless of their actual religion), the problems behind such laws would not be an issue. If people do not live out Judeo-Christian values (as is the case in the real world), government can never really substitute. They will game the government’s laws (as they do). This is why lawyers have such a sour reputation – because they bend and twist and invalidate and invent laws. Then laws pile upon laws and every action is subject to scrutiny and no one is ever really innocent. Keeping the laws few, simple, and straightforward (think Decalogue) would be a vast improvement on what we currently have. In respect to our government, we need to reduce, not increase.

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t know why you added “[sic]” because to many people public education is free; they are too poor to pay taxes. Oh, I suppose you could say they pay taxes indirectly and therefore it isn’t really “free” even to them. But I think you knew what I meant. So what is your view of public education? Should every family pay for its own childrens’ K-12 education and people with no children not support public schools (and I include under “public schools” charter schools, etc.)? We obviously disagree about the role of government. We’ve been around this so many times before. But my view is not that government is a suitable substitute for what you call Judeo-Christian values; it’s simply the only thing to rely on when people don’t live out those values. Without government programs, we would have what one finds in many countries–homeless children roaming the streets, living underground, eating out of dumpsters.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Yes, we disagree about the role of government. I’ll leave that aside. But I would like to respond to the “free” comment. There is very little that is free about education. Yes, there is the taxation. But there is compulsion. From arguments about theological matters, you know well how well the ideas of freedom and compulsion mix. Then there is the enormous waste of resources (time and money). I was a teacher for a number of years in public, private, and adult settings – and my experience revealed a tremendous waste in the minor-aged government school setting. Most grievous to me was the waste of time. There are the contents. Much of the content is fine, and much of the content is superfluous, and much of the content is driven by politics (of the teacher or school board or governor, etc.) meant for indoctrination. Such schemes are plainly visible, even prominent, in the most widely available teacher education textbooks – they pit child against parent by design. But I see that we’ve come full circle back the role of government again.

            I can see little justification to attach the adjective “free” to this system. For many of the children, it is 8 hours of unglorified daycare until they reach 18. For many of the parents, it is free daycare until the children reach 18 and move out. And I’m not specifically talking about those families who are poor, but it may include them as well.
            … but at least there’s sports … ;)

          • Roger Olson

            But, as is so often the case in these discussions, you point to flaws in the system rather than to the idea of the system itself. Sure, I agree, our way of conducting public education is flawed (we sent our daughter to a private high school). But THAT there be free (to the parents) public education is necessary for a civilized society. Let’s fix it rather than scrap it.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    I’m in full agreement, Roger. How can anyone hear the words of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets and carry on business as usual in the capitalistic marketplace? Experience has shown us that those “Christian values” that would correct the greed of capitalism have only been achieved by was of social movements which led to legislation, e.g. child labor laws, safety in the work place, worker’s rights, social security, etc. The problem that I see today is that the corporations are more in control that is the government. We grew up thinking that government legislation was the key to reform, yet today, it is the multinational corporations that call the shots.

    The other problem it the same one we see when we advocate socially responsible government programs to help the poor. Someone will always say, “You can take my money to give to someone else without my say so – what Jesus talked about was voluntary giving.” I want to say, “And when , exactly, was that going to happen?” The minute someone in government mentions faith-based social programs, it gets them (and the corporation) off the hook. They know that with faith-based giving, most will only give a pittance to ease their conscience – not enough to effect real change or to move us toward a compassionate society. Yet even if all faith-based programs suddenly were fueled by sacrificial giving on the part of church members, the resources would still fall far short of what a compassionate society could accomplish by way of a tax-based social program.

    I know some will be chanting that old chestnut of “the government can’t do anything effectively, they just waste out tax dollars; government programs just make everyone dependent.” The best response to that that I heard was years ago when William Buckley was debating the privatization of Social Security. Dennis Weaver was on the side against privatization, Buckley asked him, “Do you not think that the private sector could administer Social Security more efficiently than the government?” To which Weaver replied, “Well, they never did! The private sector would have never done it without government legislation.”

    • Roger Olson

      My sentiments exactly. Thank you.

  • Ray Wilkins

    Perhaps structural change is needed but a forced structural change will not help. This should be evident from the various forms of Socialism around the world that are collapsing under their own regulatory and redistributive weight. In fact, were it not for America’s defense spending, Western Europe would have collapsed long ago. The type of structural change needed is the type that can and only will come from a personal moral change by both the business owner and the consumer. The consumer, even the “poor” consumer is as much to blame for the current business structure as are business and corporate owners. My father-in-law and I once had a passionate discussion about the loss of manufacturing jobs in TN. When I asked him where he did most of his shopping, and he replied, Walmart, I told him he was responsible for the loss because he would rather pay ten dollars for a pack of T-shirts instead of thirty. Now one might say that regulations would solve that problem and eliminate the disparity between prices, but that assumes that the behavior of the consumer will not change. I would disagree. The behavior will change. Instead of simply throwing away an old sock or shirt, one may be more inclined to repair it, like people used to do.

    Now you may say that the number of people inclined to change their behavior will be small and because of sin (something progressive socialists don’t believe in) I would be inclined to agree. So my solution is more freedom and more competition, not less; which is what the result of increased regulations would be. I would agree with you that Corporatism is indeed a threat and the Federal Government does have a role to play in ensuring that there exists a healthy competitive business environment. Something that has not existed, for example, in the healthcare industry in my lifetime. Lastly, I think Scalia is simply restating something Jefferson said on several occasions; democracy without morality will not last.

    • Roger Olson

      But it seems to me you, like most free market advocates, contradict yourself when you admit that the federal government has a “role to play in ensuring there exists a healthy competitive business environment.” What role is that if not regulation? Without government interventions in the economy we would still have child labor (which does still exist in agriculture, by the way) and industrial monopolies.

      • Ray Wilkins

        I would say that the role of the Federal Government is that which is spelled out specifically in the Constitution; no more and no less. Ensuring a “healthy competitive business environment” is part of the Federal Governments delineated role of protecting liberty. Forced child labor would be the antithesis of liberty and thus falls under the proper regulatory role of the Federal Government.

        You make the mistake of assuming that “free-market advocates” want no limits on the market. This is untrue. From the beginning the Constitution set limits on the market by establishing certain protections. What I want to make clear is that unless morality permeate the whole of society (Jefferson believed Judeo-Christian ethics reflected the moral will of God), then the only way to protect individuals is by more freedom, not less. For every regulation there is a monetary cost and the cost to those who are middle-class or poor means less freedom not more.

        • Roger Olson

          Much depends on what is meant by “freedom.” If you mean “freedom to be hungry,” I agree.

        • John Duffy

          You say that the federal government should only possess the powers spelled out specifically in the Constitution. Then you say “ensuring a ‘healthy competitive business environment’ is part of the the Federal Government’s delineated role of protecting liberty.” I’m sorry, but that is no where mentioned in the enumerated powers given the federal government in Article II. One could say (and I would say) that the federal government should play a role in enhancing economic conditions as part of its mandate to “promote the general welfare”.

          • Ray Wilkins

            The general welfare is spelled out in the clauses that follow. Among these is the right to regulate inter-state commerce. Now this, I believe, is purposefully vague because the intent of the Framers was to give the States the bulk of the power (10th Amendment). Protective limits to capitalism was to take place at the State level. I agree with this. If CA wants to have a restrictive and stifling business environment; let them. If Texas wants to have a more free environment, same thing.

            The Constitution does, however, have a mechanism for change; the amendment process. Unfortunately this has been ignored for most of the 20th century and the courts have been used instead, to try and change the Constitution and give more power the the Fed.

          • Roger Olson

            This discussion is wandering away from the topic of my post; I want to keep discussions close to the topic and not let this be a forum for pulpit pounding on all kinds of distantly related subjects. So this is the end of this discussion (viz., about the US Constitution and states rights, etc.) which is at best tangential to the subject of my post.

  • Donnie McLeod

    The solution is Christianity acknowleging that 1% of any large population are psychopaths. The more authoritarian an organization the more likely it will attract psychopaths. Psychopaths are not broken, they are who they are. They have some purpose in the complex process of evolution. what ever their purpose it is nasty. They therefore can not be fixed. History is full of Christianity using psychopaths to impose God’s will. It is not the psychopaths fault. It is organizations that deny they psychopaths are real

    • Roger Olson

      I have no idea what you’re talking about here. Maybe you can express your point of view in a way more easily understandable? If psychopaths are not broken, why is their purpose nasty and they cannot be fixed? And who are these psychopaths and what do they have to do with what I wrote?

      • Donnie McLeod

        Christianity has a hard time accepting Plato’s observation that while many do not need God to be good others are innately nasty. It is these innately nasty, I suggest, that are explained in the book “Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths Go to Work” too often as the CEO or preachers. I can imagine how these psychopaths might be good for the species. They are randomly distributed at about 1 for every 100 every where. You might think of them as sleepers waiting for the occasional famine. That is when their total lack of empathy, their callousness and their ability to manipulate is good for the species. When the good people die some one needs to survive. Our innate goodness is bad for the species in a famine.

        • Roger Olson

          Is this a form of Social Darwinism or are you just parodying it?

          • Donnie McLeod

            The concept of social Darwinism needs to be vilified. It does not explain how our species is so good at “confronting the tiger”.

  • SkipOKC

    Excellent article, Dr. Olson. I tend to be fairly conservative politically, but I have always thought that if business owners read the New Testament admonitions about the treatment of slaves, substituting the word employee, there would be a revolution in capitalism.


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