Anti-Capitalism Christians

According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of American Christians may not be as wrong as Jim Wallis thinks they are.

Consider the following evidence:

Overall more Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible. This pattern also holds among Christians. Among Christians in the U.S., only 38% believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds. Religiously unaffiliated Americans look similar to the general population and to Christian Americans, with a plurality (40%) saying capitalism is at odds with Christian values, compared to 32% who say they are compatible; 14% say they do not know. There are significant differences by gender, party and income.

In many ways, this is no surprise. Christians are well aware that greed and selfishness are absolute sins, and we are constantly told—albeit falsely—that such sins are the very drivers of capitalism. With pro-capitalism folks like Ayn Rand affirming such myths, it’s no wonder that Christians defer to the stereotype. Such a fundamental misunderstanding comes about for a variety of reasons, but from my experience, it’s typically rooted in one or more of the following: (1) an overly simplistic and all-encompassing view of greed, (2) a materialistic view of wealth, (3) a failure to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, and (4) a belief that God has something against material inequality.

Yet in other ways, this is a surprise. Of the 46% of Christians who believe capitalism is “at odds” or “inconsistent” with Christian values, how many are themselves actively engaged in the capitalist system? Of the 61% of Americans who believe regulation is necessary to ensure “ethical” business activity, how many truly believe they need to be regulated in order to ethically trade an apple for an orange? Of the 55% of white evangelical Protestants who believe that income inequality is “one of the biggest problems in the country,” how many have a higher income than someone else? Indeed, if any of these folks are simply working in America today, aren’t they profiting from, indeed encouraging, the very capitalistic system that opposes their religious convictions?

My hunch is that most of these anti-capitalism Christians are quite comfortable with their basic economic activities. Most of them don’t feel un-Christian when they go to work, order from Amazon, or go on vacation to Mexico, and I doubt it’s because they’re a bunch of disingenuous hypocrites. Despite the bizarre twisting and theorizing about capitalism as a system of evil in our heads, our real, day-to-day experience tells us something different: that capitalism simply allows for us to be who we are on matters of economics. It’s up to us to use the tools for Christian or non-Christian purposes.

We can certainly allow for greed and selfishness to drive our basic human decision-making, but for many of us, I trust this is not the norm.

We go to work because we find legitimate value in doing so. We agree to a wage because we think it’s worth our time. We accept a job promotion or a wage increase because we think we deserve it. We pay $2 for a loaf of bread (or $25) because we think it’s a fair price for the product. We invest in food, clothing, and shelter because we know we could die without them. We pay for entertainment because it helps us relax. We give money to friends, family, churches, and charities because we think it’s the right thing to do.

At a fundamental level, capitalism simply empowers us as private owners to control our own economic decisions and futures without unethically infringing on others. At its core, it’s about individual rightsownership, and the basic freedom to exercise our will and collaborate with others.

So if this is what 46% of Christians are opposing — the capitalistic system itself — and that is what they are engaged in — the capitalistic system itself — they have some serious reconciling to do.

Yet I don’t think these Christians really understand what they’re saying. As already mentioned, most Christians (like most Americans) see capitalism through the distorted lens of pop-culture caricatures and economic mythology. When we think of capitalism we don’t imagine small business owners or struggling start-up entrepreneurs. Heck, we don’t even see ourselves. Instead, we imagine the Gordon Gekkos, Ebenezer Scrooges, and Donald Trumps, the likes of which would be thrice as dangerous were they to be our beloved communist commissars. In short, much of the 46% is dwelling in basic confusion. Given the bulk of their actions, it amounts to basic self-contradiction.

But if we are really going to take such beliefs seriously — if we are really going to assume that 46% of Christians do properly understand capitalism and its moral implications — these folks have relatively few options at their disposal. Just as the anti-communism Christian should probably avoid the role of communist dictator or violent proletariat rebel, the anti-capitalism Christian should probably avoid the role of capitalist.

Sound unrealistic? You’re on to something.

So let’s have some fun. Here are my recommendations for the 46% of Christians who want to stay “true to the faith” in modern-day, out-of-sync-with-Christianity capitalism. Good luck:

  1. Take appropriate action based on your beliefs. This will vary, depending on your particular qualms with the invisible hand. If, for example, you believe God hates material inequality, you should probably make a concerted, voluntary effort to improve equality by leveling your material wealth along with others who share your beliefs. If, however, you detest capitalism because you think the pursuit of wealth is necessarily tied to greed, you should probably stop pursuing wealth. If, on the other hand, you think self-interest should not be heeded because it amounts to selfishness, you should probably stop breathing, eating, or sleeping, and burn your house down while you’re at it. On this point, the options for action are endless.
  2. Move to another country. I usually dislike this recommendation because the situation almost never warrants the measure. But if eternal life is on the line, the stakes are a bit higher. If you actually, sincerely believe that your basic day-to-day engagement in trade and commerce is driven by a system antithetical to Christian values, you should probably either pursue Option 1 (a difficult task) or simply find another system. I know you want to change America into a socialist republic because you “love this country” (noble, to be sure), but how long are you willing to oppose your Christian values for the sake of mere patriotism? North Korea is waiting, and I’m sure Kim Jong-Il doesn’t have a greedy bone in his body.
  3. Come clean. Maybe the hypocrisy hypothesis is correct. Maybe middle-class American Christians are just a bunch of fakers who are knowingly resisting their true Christian convictions for a comfortable, albeit guilt-ridden life. If so, you should probably just admit it. It’ll make you feel better.

If the hypocrisy hypothesis is wrong, however, and you are actually having a hard time ridiculing your own economic decisions along with the evil system that makes them possible, maybe the system isn’t so evil after all.

  • Zoe

    Jesus said: “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” Matt. 19:21 Jesus most certainly would not be happy with the inequities, corporate and individual greed, moral decline in modern America. Paul also speaks to governments being ordained by God to enforce laws and collect taxes for governance- Romans 13:1- 7. Government must govern over captilaism for the “greater good”.

    • Ryan

      1) Jesus was talking to a particular individual, not everyone. The “you” isn’t general, but specific.

      2) He isn’t in this passage condemning ownership of many goods, or even the desire to own many goods. He isn’t even condemning inequity. Here, he is challenging a particular rich man’s inordinate desires.

      3) Interestingly, he does just before tell this same man to keep the commandments. He lists some of the ten commandments (vv. 17-19). One he doesn’t list but is none the less a commandment is Thou shalt not covet any thing that is thy neighbor’s. And yet many Christians today have elevated Envy to a political principle, even though the mere inequality of wealth or income is condemned neither by natural law or divine law.

      4) It is true that Paul writes that we ought to pay taxes that are required of us. But he does not in that passage say anything about governing over capitalism, whatever that means. You’re just proof-texting, and not very well.

      • Fred Flint

        Another feature of wealth you did not mention are the many examples where God made his faithful wealthy. People such as Job, Jacob and Joseph. If wealth were a bad thing God would not have called it a blessing. Unlike the rich man in the new testament Job, Jacob and Joseph had demonstrated their love of God over that of money.

        • Kevin James McAllister

          Yes, but you have to go to Old Testament to find that. New Testament – which is important if you believe in Jesus – has him saying things like, “It’d be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The whole society, at that point, thought that being rich meant you were favored by God, and if you were sick (blind, leprosy, paraplegic), it’s clear you’re being punished for your sins or your parents’ sins. Jesus’ teachings showed that this isn’t the case – that God doesn’t actively punish and reward people based on current level of sinfulness or blessedness. Instead, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

          The whole point he made is that being wealthy doesn’t mean you’re favored. In fact, if you’re wealthy, you probably aren’t doing everything you can to serve God (you know, by serving the “least of these”). That’s why he chose the rich man to give up everything he owned – because he put his worth in them instead of God.

    • rhb100

      Christ might not like the profit motive and the virtue of selfishness but this is because the statements of Christ indicate that he was a left winger who did not recognize that capitalism is the only economic system compatible with human morality.

  • Max Berzowski

    I suppose we could take it one step further with the criteria used to measure a ”Christian” and see what we find there.

  • jack

    Just because you are engaged in the system (because you have no choice) doesn’t make it right. This is a fallacious argument.

    Communism (Socialism) is not the only other choice,

    Capitalism is based off of selfishness and self advancement. This is not Biblical.

    It is despicable that some “Christians” have hundreds of millions or billions of dollars while 29,000 children are dying daily from preventable causes and billions of people don’t have sanitation and clean drinking water.

    Christianity is at odds with Capitalism because as a Christian all possessions belong to God (not to self). Each Christian is to ACTIVELY seek how to use their resources (not just money) in building the Kingdom of God.

    I lived this way in America and I do so now with my family in the Philippines as we take care of about 40 orphaned, abandoned and street children. As you mentioned, I have made a concerted effort to help the people in the world less fortunate than myself (God wants us to have “enough” and not to be poor…so we get by with what we need) and we stopped pursuing wealth more than a decade ago…you know what…IT WORKS! God has taken care of us and I have been living a very rich life serving God and his children.

    You don’t have to move to another country to do it.

    Instead of posting what you think is sarcasm…maybe you should post the alternatives with some seriousness. Just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean it is wrong. God often calls us to the difficult path…because it is right.

  • Kathleen Ridgeway-nida

    Supporting a system of modern capitalism means you are supporting the 1%. No, I do not think Jesus would agree with American corporations setting up sweat shop labor for children in third world countries! And…. making sure the people in those countries stay hungry and impoverished for cheap labor. No thanks, that’s not the God I want to worship.

  • Paul Lim

    To create an unrealistic and untrue dichotomy of an all-engrossing capitalism and all-encompassing socialism is being too simplistic and to treat earnest alternatives visions and versions of the moral-economic self as contradictory and clueless simply closes off conversation. While I do have some libertarian sympathies at an ideological setting, life, especially our economic policies (part. those that are carried out at the local quotidian levels) are so much messier than Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Hayek, Novak, etc., etc.

  • MrRedwoodGuy .

    Uh, people who “work for companies” are not capitalists. Even most CEOs are not capitalists. Capital-ISM is a construct forced upon the society by the the construct of the Constitution. People have no choice, but to participate in order to survive. This argument is utterly specious.

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