Capitalism & Christianity

It’s a question in a variety of settings, from a variety of different people. I was surprised to read that a poll within the United States recently asked the very same question. The results were surprising to me. The question: is Christianity compatible with capitalism?

The Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion New Service released the results of a poll of 1010 adults in late April. The result was that 44% of Americans viewed free-market capitalism as being at odds with Christianity; 36% saw no incompatibility. As to the others – well, they weren’t sure.

It surprised me that the largest group of respondents understood that capitalism was contrary to the teachings of Christ. It’s not that I think that the teachings of Jesus are unclear. Among the sayings attributed to him are these statements:

Give to anyone who asks you (Luke 6:30)

If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your shirt as well (Matthew 5:40)

Don’t store up treasures for yourself on earth (Matthew 6:20)

Such words just don’t square with an economic philosophy free-market capitalism: a system in which goods and production are privately owned, are priced based on supply and demand, with minimal outside regulation. While many wealthy individuals in America espouse free-market capitalism while also claiming to the Christian, amassing private wealth is contrary to the way in which the early Christians lived.

No one claimed any of their possessions as their own but shared everything with each other… there were no needy persons among them. Those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Let me be clear: I don’t live the way the early Christians lived. I don’t always give to pan-handlers nor do I respond to every request I receive for a charitable donation. I also save for retirement, own a car, and a home. At the same time, I don’t believe it is either moral or ethical to make money at the expense of others, to take advantage of others for profit. I also support economic reform as a principle rooted in my beliefs and spiritual life. Fundamentally, I can find no way in which a capitalist system can be ethical. Capitalism requires that the few get rich at the expense of the many. Free-market capitalism allows the few to get as rich as they can without regulatory safe guards to protect others.

My surprise with the poll is that the largest group of Americans in the poll seem to recognize that Christianity is incompatible with capitalism. Given the political power of conservative groups like the Tea Party, I had thought most Americans would find no contradiction between Christianity and capitalism or, far worse, that capitalism was rooted in Christian ideology. (In April’s poll, 56% of Tea Party members stated that capitalism is consistent with Christianity.) It’s encouraging that a large portion of those who consider themselves to be Christian can identify the ethical limits of our economic system.

The way in which we live is based on our fundamental beliefs and attitudes. Taking advantage of others for personal gain is the outgrowth of a belief that one is somehow better or more deserving than others. This position is contrary to the Judeo-Christian understanding that each person is a unique reflection of the Divine and that all of us are children of one God, therefore brothers and sisters to each other. In other words, the Judeo-Christian tradition understands the relationship among people as a community in which each person should be treated with dignity. The values of free-market capitalism just don’t fit within that framework.

The majority of the American population considers itself to be Christian. The predominant view among Christians in the United States is that their faith is not compatible with free-market capitalism. Yet, those in political power continue to eliminate regulations meant to protect people from financial exploitation. While I find the political climate in which we live to be very distressing and contrary to my beliefs, in this circumstance I find the words on George Bernard Shaw to be appropriate: “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to Capitalism & Christianity

  1. Dan Shafer says:

    Lou, I enjoyed reading and passing this post on to my readers. Your statement of your clear position on the un-Christian nature of unregulated free market capitalism is clearly, in my view, consistent with Scripture and with the way early Christian communities lived.

    I also find it interesting that 20% of those polled didn’t know or had no opinion. The ground is fertile for educating those folks about the truth of this position. Just think what amazingly wonderful things would happen if a majority of Americans agreed with this position. It could change everything.

    I enjoy following you on Twitter and I like this blog a lot. Keep up the great work!

  2. Steve Greenlaw says:

    I am not Tea Party member—I consider myself a liberal XN—but I don’t see any necessary contradiction between capitalism and Christianity. As an economist, I view capitalism as the most effective economic system, given human nature, for generating wealth and raising people’s living standards in the world. The problem is what people do with their wealth. I would respectfully disagree with some of your characterization of Capitalism. For example, I don’t believe that exploiting others is required by capitalism. You say, “While many wealthy individuals in America espouse free-market capitalism while also claiming to the Christian, amassing private wealth is contrary to the way in which the early Christians lived.” You’re right in the way you describe early Christians, but consider this: the theologian John Wesley said “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” It’s not the creating of wealth which is anti-Christian, but rather the worshipping of it. The Bible doesn’t say “Money is the root of all evil,” but “Love of money is the root of all evil.” The problem for humans is that wealth is very easy to worship. I’d say it’s very hard to be rich and retain your focus on what Christ calls us to do and to be. Capitalism isn’t the problem, but human nature is!

  3. Lou says:

    Steve:

    It’s interesting that you quote John Wesley. Wesley, and his brother Charles, came from a well-educated British family and were born into privilege. Ultimately, both John and Charles needed to come to the New World colony of Georgia because they were viewed as a treat to both the religious and political establishment. Settling first in Savannah, John Wesley and viewed as a renegade because of his refusal to conform to the Church of England and, by association, the governor of Georgia. John became a street preacher and the early Wesleyans’ are best known for circuit-riding preachers who served the common folk along on the frontier. That’s why today there are so many Methodists churches in rural America and so few wealthy congregations in suburban areas.

    To put it in today’s idiom, the Wesley’s gave up a way of life associated with the 2% and provided religious and spiritual leadership for the other 98%. Yes, they believed that hard work led to success. But I’m not familiar with anything in the early Wesleyan tradition that suggests that provision shouldn’t be made for the poor. John and Charles Wesley would have viewed providing for the poor as an essential element of Christian life. Free market capitalism leads to a system where wealth moves to the 2%. (Please note: that’s free market capitalism, i.e., capitalism without regulation or societal restriction.)

    I appreciate the time you took to comment. I enjoy the discussion.

    Lou

  4. Ann Hayden says:

    Read your blog Lou and I really enjoyed it. Capitalism has brought about so much greed and corruption in our world I really feel we need to change things and start thinking more about those who have nothing. Capitalism does not care for the “failed consumer” who cannot afford the overpriced products, some which are produced through slavery. Young children forced into slave labour to earn mega riches for those at the top. We all need to look deep inside ourselves and examine what is really important to us. Thank you for your blog I will pop back and read more.
    Ann

  5. Lou says:

    Ann:
    Thanks for taking time to comment. Indeed, capitalism isn’t concerned with the individual. However, our spiritual traditions teach us that each person is sacred.
    Lou

  6. Martha Carey says:

    I just now discovered and read some of your website and commentary about the compatibility or not) of “Christianity and Capitalism” in an integrated co-habitation. From a 21st century defined ideology and philosophical understanding, it is clear that they are intrinsically allergic and contrary to each other. Jesus said to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s.’ The two sides of the same coin have/will continue to exist in each other’s presence in this dimension. This long time affiliated co-existence just might open up a new paradigm of dialogue for 21st century humankind to be free to develop and pursue their innate capacities and skills for financial betterment as well as to the primary loyalty of: “Love God and your neighbor first, then do what you will.” With both capitalism and christianity, its not the ideology itself, its the use or abuse of it. Like cause and effect, our higher principles of truth, justice, mercy and serivce should act as our caused and manifested agents of our christianity. The effect would be a far more socially just and equitable capitalism, abeit with a communitarian bent–which is concerned with proven fairness and distribution.
    Hope this enlightens and enlivens the discussion with human nature’s inevitable ingredients of paradox, contradiction and fundamental incompatibles-its not either/or.

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