Christianity and Capitalism: Counterparts of Freedom

Few would argue that wealth accumulation is some­thing emphasized by Christianity. In fact, one might argue that Christianity condemns it. Jesus says in Mat­thew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the king­dom of God.” We see this message reinforced by the lives of early church members and saints, as Christ’s disciples gave up all they had to follow Him and evan­gelize. We also see this reflected in the value of sim­plicity underscored by many church leaders today. While the message is clear, it is important to con­sider audience and context. When Jesus speaks to us through the Gospel, he speaks to us as individual members of his church. He guides us on our own path toward Salvation. What Christ does not do is provide a schematic for secular political and economic struc­tures; for, later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Surely there is more to Christ’s message than our in­dividual relationship with God. One cannot neglect the role of the church and the broader Christian commu­nity in the faith of individuals. The church community not only gives strength to individual Christians through the sharing of mutual burdens but also trains us to act with Christ’s kindness toward others. There is a differ­ence, however, between the ways a church and an econ­omy operate. For much of the time Christianity has been around, being a member of this church communi­ty, or being a follower of Christ, has been a choice. This is how Christ intended it to be. Christianity’s emphasis on choice and individual agency—values that emanate from the larger, core tenet of free will—extends back to the story of Adam and Eve, who were given the free­dom to choose to commit the first sin. Indeed, free will forms the basis for all of Christian morality. While social pressures can certainly provide the support and atmo­sphere for Christian living, it is ultimately an individual’s choices that solidify his or her commitment to Christ.

Engaging with an economy, on the contrary, is not usually a choice. We are born with wants and needs that we must acquire either through our own labor or the la­bor of others. While the imperatives of Christianity are moral (and therefore voluntary), the imperatives of an economy are utilitarian (and therefore don’t have to re­spect free will). Because an economy is inevitably util­itarian, as Christians we should support the econom­ic system that best respects the path toward salvation. For most denominations, this path is found through faith and good works, both of which the free will is es­sential for. The Christian emphasis on individual agen­cy and autonomy, then, is more compatible with some economic systems than others. In the middle ages, feu­dalism and knighthood (in some cases) reinforced hier­archy and other Christian values, but these systems are now clearly outdated. We presently live in the age of the nation-state, and in this age, we have a limited num­ber of feasible economic systems. We cannot ignore the global expanse of trade, industry, and technology.

What we do with the expanse of wealth and indus­try that arises from this system, both as individuals and as a society, is the question we are called to answer. The best we can do as individuals is to look at the teachings of Christ. Through prayer, scripture, and meditation, we can hopefully come to know how much we ought to sacrifice and how much we ought to keep for our­selves. This is how I believe we will be judged: not by the dollar amount we give, but by the amount of inten­tion and sacrifice behind our donations. Capitalism is the most conducive to this framework because it plac­es the burden of charity on individuals, who alone have the will to be charitable. For this reason, paying taxes can be patriotic, but not moral. When choice is not re­spected and intention is not the qualifying factor, all ac­tions become utilitarian. More specifically, politicians and those who vote to expand welfare programs should not confuse redistributing the money of others with in­creasing their own charity. Enforcing equality is not the same as seeking charity, for the former emphasizes the aim of satiating hunger over the aim of moral human behavior. The preference of general utility over individ­ual morality is textbook utilitarianism.

For society’s or the government’s decisions on this matter, I think it is important to focus on preserving the separation between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. Many would argue that untethered capitalism would be terrible for certain segments of our population. I do not dispute that claim or the claim that some regula­tions and safety nets are good. These good things sim­ply should not be described as moral. I think in an ideal Christian world, individual communities or the church would care for the poor (as is still the case in many parts of America today). In addition to being less effective, government programs just are not conducive to a sense of community. It is easily understood that receiving a check in the mail from the government will not help an individual or a family as much as the structural support of a smaller, more caring, local community. Some may also argue that sometimes employers and business­es do not choose the moral action. While this is true and sometimes requires intervention, it is important to note that the action is still the fault of the individuals involved, not the fault of capitalism. To blame capital­ism for greedy action rather than the individuals in this system is the equivalent of blaming red wine for dress stains or blaming marriage for adultery.

History is also very telling on the relationship be­tween Christianity and capitalism. Given the ideas I have stated above, I do not think it is a coincidence that countries with freer markets have remained more religious. One can point to the obvious examples of America and the Soviet Union. America, for the most part, because of capitalism (and the Liberal values that arose with it) has always respected religious free­dom. For a long time it set up a system where capi­talism led to the expansion of wealth and innovation while Christianity maintained a sense of community and morality. When countries have become more in­trusive and utilitarian, it is religion and people of faith that are naturally targeted first, as religion offers an al­ternative system of morality. It has become apparent over the past few decades that even non-totalitarian countries reinforce my point that capitalism and mo­rality go hand-in-hand. Faith is declining at a much faster rate in many western-European countries as Neo-liberalism and Socialism increase. While there are other factors that have contributed to this decline, the coinciding rise in secular “morality” of govern­ment is worth noting.

Christianity and capitalism are different but in many ways remain compatible. Though Christianity has a moral framework and capitalism a utilitarian one, their mutual respect of individual choice and autonomy makes them reconcilable on a more fundamental lev­el. Of course, the motivation for this respect is differ­ent—one is for salvation, the other for profit—but the profit motive can be sought at the same time as salva­tion if enough is given back to one’s community. So­cialism and other restrictive economic systems, on the other hand, often have fundamentally different frame­works than Christianity. This is because these systems construct their own moral framework around the prin­ciple of utility and project it onto a larger community by force. While capitalism is not perfect and does not in­centivize virtue, it also does not present a competing moral framework that Christianity must overcome.

 

Mark Diplacido is a sophomore History major in Berkeley College.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,