Conservative Supreme Court Justice Says Capitalism Needs Christianity

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Says Capitalism Needs Christianity September 10, 2013

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.

Browse Our Archives