Christian Critics of Capitalism

Christian Critics of Capitalism April 25, 2013

There are certain columns those with an interest in the history and present of American Christianity should read. The Wall Street Journal‘s weekly Houses of Worship essay (see the recent pieces on Jackie Robinson and Robert Edwards). Our own Philip Jenkins’s essays at Real Clear Religion (see his recent column on the anniversaries of Waco and Oklahoma City). Naturally, there are many high-quality blogs on the history of Christianity, too many to mention. Here’s another regular column to add to the mix: the Christian Century‘s Then & Now feature, edited by Ed Blum.

This week’s Then & Now column is from Heath Carter, who teaches at Valparaiso and is working on a manuscript (per his website) about “social Christianity” in the early twentieth century was shaped by decades of working-class activism. It would also be worth reading  Heath’s column at Religion in American History about the recent NYT piece on historians and capitalism.

Here’s an excerpt from Carter’s column:

In the United States, contemporary Christianities rarely challenge the economic status quo. On the contrary, they typically celebrate the ever more elusive and yet no less alluring “American Dream.” Christians are as enamored with upward mobility—and all the iPads, designer countertops, and luxury sedans that come with it—as the next person.

Meanwhile, we abide and even endorse an unbiblical distinction between “fiscal” and “moral” issues. It is little wonder that, at the Lutheran university where I teach, students assume that corporations—as much “persons” as you or I according to the Supreme Court—are, by their very nature, exempt from the Golden Rule. “Nature” is the key word here, for in the minds of many our free enterprise system, championed by Democrats and Republicans alike, seems as natural as the earth and sky.

I agree with most of the second paragraph, much less so with the first. I don’t think it’s true that mainline denominations and the American Catholic Church, to name two examples, “rarely challenge the economic status quo.” I’m a bit out of date, but at the last Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly I attended, there was an abundance of challenges to the economic status quo. On the other hand, what is true of mainline denominations is rather less true of the average mainline pulpit. If Carter substituted “contemporary evangelicals” for “contemporary Christianities,” perhaps his statement would be more true. Even so, many contemporary evangelicals do challenge the economic status quo, just from the right rather than the left. There is such a diversity of denominations, churches, and opinions that any clear voice on such matters is impossible for Protestants. The Catholic Church is a more effective critic, I would suggest.

It is true that many Christians “endorse an unbiblical distinction between ‘fiscal’ and ‘moral’ issues.” I agree that some Christians exempt business and businesspeople from the Golden Rule, believing that cutthroat competition — if harmful to certain parties — works out best for our society as a whole. Our very system of government, to a substantial extent, gives its blessing to the pursuit of self-interest and relies on a system of checks and balance to compensate for human depravity.

Carter continues by pointing to the massive gaps in wealth and income between the top echelon of American society and the vast bulk of Americans, and yes, it is reminiscent of those Gilded Age fountains that bubbled with champagne. Statistics do show that middle-class incomes have stagnated in recent years. That is the problem, in my view, rather than a rise in inequality per se . I’ve never been convinced that it’s immoral for the rich to get rich more quickly than the poor or the middling classes, as long as the real incomes of ordinary Americans are also rising. This reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s final appearance in the House of Commons, in which she eviscerated an opponent for — in her view — “saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy.” During the Gilded Age, the incomes of ordinary Americans did rise rapidly. I would argue that the income and wealth chasm between those at the top and those at the bottom was not the problem. To the of my knowledge, both the income and purchasing power of American workers expanded considerably in the late 1800s, which was also a time of falling prices. The very real and serious problems were the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy, the corresponding insecurity for workers, and the fact that due to a massive imbalance of both power and suppler and demand, employers could cruelly mistreat their workers by subjecting them to dangerous working conditions for relatively little pay.

Carter points to the activism of countless working-class Christians (and a few allies) during this time period:

Galvanizing the debate were myriad ordinary Christians who sought to reform both the emerging industrial order and those churches that unquestioningly accommodated it. These included thousands of trade unionists, who battled both intransigent bosses and scab ministers. Workers were quick to remind their religious betters that Jesus, a carpenter after all, had insisted that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7).

And despite the economic status quo preaching of figures like Henry Ward Beecher and Dwight Moody (this per Carter), there were increasing numbers of Protestant evangelicals quite comfortable with preaching social and economic reform. The evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman comes to mind, for instance.

A closing thought: one major reason that more Christians are not critical of capitalism is a simple belief that it works pretty well compared to most economic systems. It might not square very well with scripture or with the ethics of Jesus, but it works (at least in the minds of many American Christians). Many progressive Protestants criticize evangelicals for ignoring science — in favor of revelation — when it comes to positions on everything from evolution to homosexuality. Economics is far less of a science, but I can imagine that many evangelicals look at their society and suspect that capitalism had something to do with the massive amount of prosperity that Americans, on average, enjoy. That doesn’t mean that Christians should not raise their voices against exploitation and greed, or that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Mammom should be separate in terms of ethics. Indeed, one could effectively argue that many northern European societies provide both higher levels of equality and social mobility. Nevertheless, the prosperity of the United States — stunning by historical and global standards despite all our problems — tends to blunt Christian criticism of American capitalism.


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  • Norman

    The studies of the gap between the rich and the poor always seem to miss on critical fact… you can only get so poor (effectively down to where the government steps in – the poverty rate), but there is no maximum for getting rich. Thus, as society as a whole gets richer, the gap will naturally widen.

    Often missed, as well, is the fact that the rich do not typically horde their wealth. Instead they either invest it or spend it. Investing increases their wealth to be sure, but it also creates opportunity for others in the way of jobs and new products and services. Spending also creates jobs and opportunity.

    The Scriptures are clear on the dangers of riches, in that they can pull us towards idolatry, so the Christian, rich, poor or somewhere in between, must constantly be on his/her guard to worship, not the gift, but the Gift-giver.

  • Heath Carter

    Thanks for this response, John. A few quick responses:
    1) I certainly agree that there is no shortage of denominational statements criticizing the economic status quo. But I’m skeptical that these constitute a very substantial or meaningful challenge. I would stand by the statement that, on the whole, American Christians – whether mainline, evangelical, or Catholic – embrace the American Dream.
    2) Whether we think that inequality as such is problematic or not, there are real questions to be asked, for example, about whether CEO productivity has increased so vastly that executives deserve to be paid 10x more relative to the average worker than they were in the 1960s (or has worker productivity declined in the same proportion?). I think it would be difficult to make the argument that these changing valuations of labor reflect actual changes in the value of work people are doing.
    3) I would agree that prosperity has blunted Christian criticisms of capitalism in this country. But I think the idea that “it works pretty well compared to other economic systems” is not a given. How we evaluate that statement will depend in part on what we mean by “works.” The bigger question, I think, is works for whom? At this point I think it would be difficult to say it’s working very well for the 2 billion or so poorest people around the world; and as the inequality gap at home expands, I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that American capitalism is producing the kind of “equal opportunity” society that Republicans and Democrats alike champion.

  • mike helbert

    The Christ follower who is conscious of the life of Jesus depicted in the Gospels also needs to be on guard against systems that abuse privilege. American capitalism may be seen as one such system. I’m not saying it is. But, it certainly has the potential to become a mechanism for injustice.

  • johnturner

    Thanks for jumping into the conversation here, Heath.

    1) I reread your paragraph. While I do think many Christian voices challenge the current economic system, I agree that too few (and especially among evangelicals) effectively challenge our culture of acquisitive materialism.
    2) I have zero desire to defend the productivity or performance of CEO’s. Or the fact that CEO compensation often seems to have very loose connections to company performance or profits.
    3) Part of the problem is defining what “it” is, even before we question how well it works. To many Americans, we live in a quasi-socialist, hyper-regulated state that imposes absurd burdens on businesses and therefore stifles innovation and hiring. To many other Americans, we live in a world of unregulated Cowboy capitalism that allows the destruction of the environment and exploitation of workers. So depending on one’s perspective, one would either blame statism or laissez-faire capitalism for our current woes. No wonder the voices of various Christian critics amount to a muddle.

  • Heath Carter

    Sounds like we agree on much. The only thing I would add, specifically with reference to your 3rd point, is that I don’t believe the two views you describe are equally valid. Moreover, I think that we as historians can play a key role in helping to adjudicate such disputes by offering wider and longer perspective on the questions at hand. If we do our work well, we may inject some clarity – both moral and historical – into the existing “muddle.”

  • Jim Price

    The Christians that I associate with all hold to the American dream. That despite the fact much of their life’s work has dissipated, some to the point of going into the negative. They also continue to blame poverty, now visible all around, on the poor themselves. They will not give up on their long held view, that those who are poor are that way because of flawed character and/or laziness.
    While denominational leaders often have statements about economic systems, they almost never reach the pulpit level. It’s a rare pastor, who has any concept of how Christian ethics should play out in the economy.

  • How much did Jesus rail against the Roman system that was ruling Israel of the day?

    There are two kingdoms. The rule of governments is just that, and the Christian is bound to that rule. But the Christian is free to live out his/her walk of faith in the freedom to live outwardly…and help the poor in any way they see fit. That does not mean forcing other people to do so, however.

    Jesus said it, “You will always have the poor with you.” But that is no excuse for ignoring them.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Jim. I’m sure you’re largely correct about the disconnect between denominational leaders and pastors at the local level.

    I think it’s probably unwise for pastors to presume that they know the economic solutions for our nation and world at an aggregate level (and such things are so partisan, they would necessarily antagonize a congregation with any sort of intellectual / political diversity), but perhaps pastors can at least be prophetic in terms of denouncing obvious examples of greed, selfishness, and immorality in the economic realm.

  • johnturner

    It’s also worth remembering that these are old questions, as in, really old (despite the key difference being that we live after the rise of modern capitalism).

    I’ve been meaning to read Peter Brown’s book on late-antique Christians’ changing attitude toward wealth:

  • Theodore Seeber

    Pope Leo XIII defined Americanism as a heresy, over 125 years ago.

    Pope Francis, just last week, said that capitalism is as bad as communism. And I watched Americans on both the left and the right completely ignore him.

    Me, I’m a distributist. I believe productive capital should be owned by the state and granted in stewardship to 18 year olds. Beyond that, you should be on your own. If you can make something of your homestead, great. If you can’t, sell off your rights to it to fund your college degree or whatever.

  • Yes, capitalism *does* work pretty well, but it would work even better with a smidgen of morality involved. Or rather, what’s really needed is an unfettered, laissez-faire, free market capitalism, instead of the crony capitalism or corporate capitalism that we’ve been forced to endure. It is those who forcefully interfere with the capitalism of voluntary exchanges that give capitalism a bad name. Capitalism involves competition, yes, but not necessarily ‘cutthroat’ competition. Capitalism also involves a whole heck of a lot of cooperation, cooperation between employers and employees, cooperation between companies, and cooperation between companies and customers. To realize this, you just have to imagine the very long chain of events that have to occur for raw materials to be turned into finished products that people use. “Moral capitalism” is merely capitalism without the control freaks having power over voluntary exchanges.

  • BT

    Other interesting research coming out that bears on the discussion involves the efficacy of a capitalist system when the rewards to labor increasingly go to fewer and fewer individuals. The research I’m aware of focuses on sports figures and CEO’s but can be extrapolated somewhat.

    Motivation declines when the rewards to labor are concentrated. There may actually be some benefit to certain redistributive policies such as estate taxes.

    Fair labor laws are another example. Essentially such laws remedy known exceptions to the half dozen or so preconditions to a functional private market.

  • Theodore Seeber

    “unfettered, laissez-faire, free market capitalism”

    The problem is that the only difference between a free market capitalist and a crony capitalist is the cash flow needed to buy a politician.

  • Y

    The insanity of the recent Supreme Court’s rulings, especially that on corporations, is appalling on so many levels, it defies description. Corporations are NOT, and never have been, personally accountable for their actions, as there are no PERSONS who have personal accountability under the corporate umbrellas. This is the sole purpose of corporate umbrellas, to shelter those who have the authority from any responsibility.

    Religion, ostensibly, teaches personal accountability and consequences, on a personal level, for one’s actions. Our “government” (taxpayer-funded) forced “charity,” the incorporation of religious institutions, the funding of religious programs with our tax dollars, and the unregulated (ungoverned) corporations have intermixed church and state and have made both irrelevant to responsibly compassionate societal habits.

    Every time a corporation crashes, the middle class retirees are hurt most severely as the executives fly away with their multi-million (or billion) dollar “golden parachutes”. There can be no justice without PERSONAL responsible compassion.

  • John C.Gardner

    I believe that capitalism is both a sinful system and one driven by both greed and American consumers desire for cheaper goods. I also believe(to paraphrase Churchill loosely in a new context) that it is the best economic system considering all the other alternatives. I myself want some degree of regulation, aid for the poor and an end to crony capitalism. We also need to withdraw government aid and adopt a system which Ross Douthat calls small government egalitarianism.

  • “capitalism *does* work pretty well, but it would work even better with a smidgen of morality involved. Or rather, what’s really needed is an unfettered, laissez-faire”

    Capitalism is an economic system founded on the “morality” of exploitation, cynicism, nihilism and greed. I’m not sure “unfettering” such system would make it any more moral. Would it be more moral if prostitution and heroin were legal?

  • Er.Sunil (SUNY) Pedgaonkar

    Reformed Protestantism;Hindusm;Islam;Jewism teach social capitalism & democracy
    They teach & advocate certain moral & ethical values in society.They also say that
    people who directly or indirectly support such immoral&unethical persons&institutes
    are also to blamed equally.Money & Profits should be used for good social reasons.

  • Er.Sunil

    Human Values;Love;Affection;Friendship;Kindness;Mercy;Co-Operation;
    Collaboration;Good Words;Good Deeds;Good Actions are important.But
    these are relative & subject to change depending upon situation & time.
    That does not mean cowardness;but manners&etiquetes.Things like war;
    courts;legal disptes;violence happens only when such bad behaviour happen