What does Christianity have to do with capitalism? The short answer is, "not much, really; at least not directly". You see, economics is, simply put, the allocation of scarce material resources. The Christian would do well to remember that Christianity not only thrives today in all sorts of harsh economic systems, but it has done so all through the changing systems throughout history. In fact, the argument could be made that it has thrived more hardily in oppressive systems, especially if we accept the fact that the church, in its purest form, is interested much more in men's eternal destinies than in any carnal-minded concepts such as the fair distributions of material resources.
The Christian therefore must beware of those who fix their eyes on worldly "material" as, not only their source of joy and purpose, but also a suitable solution for all that ails society. The very idea of the economic system of communism was born out of this very perspective. The father of communism, Karl Marx, rejected God. He then set out to make things “fair” for those whom he saw as the down trodden masses. But he could only see them in a strictly material sense. That a child with lots of toys and a full stomach might not be as wholly well off as one with barely anything except two loving parents who are raising their child with an eternal purpose and destiny is lost on a materialist like Marx.
As it turned out man's attempts to bring about the Utopian system he envisioned succeeded only in bathing the 20th century in blood. Yet Utopia never arrived; only deeper levels of hell and fear for those under its oppressive fist ... oh, and lots of disparity in wealth distribution too. In fact, history, as well as Jesus, tells us that wealth disparity is part and parcel to Man's existence. Man's attempts to "fix" that problem only end up changing who gets more than "their fair share".
From the Christian perspective -- that is, from the perspective that takes into account eternity -- it is the hopelessness during this life that causes the Church to thrive. In the free market system, you see, no matter what the material circumstances of one's birth, there is hope of improving those circumstances. This hope, which focuses primarily on material gains in this life, can present strong competition for our interests and affections and so be a formidable distraction from a future eternal hope after death. The irony should not be missed that the system dreamed up by Karl Marx, who proclaimed that religion was the opiate of the masses, caused those who discovered Jesus in the midst of his hell to thrive, albeit not materially.
Affluent free-market systems on the other hand provide a soft bed for the believer -- so soft, in fact, that there is no consequence for being a believer. Compromise becomes normal as worldly wealth finds itself in competition with our life in Christ. Our beliefs begin to die the death of a thousand compromises as our thinking increasingly conforms to this world. In the process we become less and less distinguishable from the world until one day we wake to find that our “Christian” bedfellows are not Christians at all but rather wolves dressed in sheep’s’ clothing. We learn that these wolves have co-opted the Christian banner for anti-Christ causes based on social justice, which is just another way of saying "material justice".
Worse yet, affluence begins to inculcate the "religion" of Christianity with a confusion between material wealth and the abundant life in Christ. Because of this confusion terms like "thrive" when used to describe the oppressed and poor's life in Christ is difficult to grasp. It is not mere coincidence then that the very term "abundant life" in John chapter 10 is found in the context of pointing out the existence of hireling shepherds -- shepherds who are there for the material outcome they gain and not for the eternal good of the sheep.
Yet capitalism and Christianity do have a relationship. It finds this relationship in a shared core principle concerning man's condition. Capitalism is based on the premise that Man is not basically good. The so-called father of capitalism, Adam Smith, illustrates this in his treatise The Wealth Of Nations:
A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. ... [M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages".By adopting Smith’s prescription the founding fathers aligned our economic system with reality by the assumption that man would be much more productive, innovative and industrious if doing so would be beneficial to himself. Thus was born what would become one of the freest and wealthiest societies ever enjoyed by Man.
The ideas that formed American capitalism however were not instituted in a vacuum but in the bosom of a predominately Christian culture. In such a culture in which the individual held himself eternally liable before a Holy and Righteous God the people were more inclined to exercise self-governance and restraint according to an objective moral standard. These standards then guided their decisions, not only as they pertained to their own lives and interactions with resources, but also as they pertained to every sphere of their influence including the selection of leaders. This predominate mindset of the populace, which was subjugated to a higher order, made for fertile soil for capitalism's seed to flourish. However, as it turns out, equal opportunity and economic freedom naturally produce unequal ends. Some got very wealthy while others struggled. In a a society with a sense of moral bearings this is generally attributed to providence and so does not present a problem. But such disparity it is not suffered well in a society that is not only disparaging of honor, but is also burdened by a perverse sense of entitlement, envy and covetousness ... and which has no suspicion of those seeking power through promises of a Utopian society.
Central to the health of capitalism therefore is the Church's teaching on the truths regarding man's sinful condition. Never mind, for the moment, that this teaching is key to understanding the Gospel, and as such, key to the health of the Church and its Kingdom mandate, for I am attempting here to answer an economic question. The fact remains that the modern Western "Church" has become either unable or loath to make man’s depravity a focal part of her doctrine. This transformation of focus in central doctrines taught by the Church has had a destructive effect on capitalism for a couple of reasons.
First, capitalism is dependent on fidelity. As I pointed out earlier, capitalism produces a few fabulously-well-to-do individuals. But it is just as important that it also produces comfortable masses with relatively modest excesses in resources. Fidelity allows for the masses to pool their resources to create an almost unfathomable concentration of wealth. This wealth then plays an important role in the economy. For one, it doesn't lie dormant, hidden in post holes and mattresses, but rather it becomes productive through investment. Also, its productivity produces a return which not only fuels the economy but also helps to sustain people when they become too old to work. Though this principle was in place long before tax deferment laws were enacted, they are apparent in current 401-k programs.
It is these massive concentrations of wealth that have been responsible for many advancements through research that would have otherwise been unachievable due to insurmountable expenses. Such advancements include the development of drugs and medical procedures, the willing slave of affordable energy and advances in just about all technologies. But the same wealth also awakens the greed and envy resident in the heart of man.
If there is no objective truth by which to judge all things, then we are left with a syllogism that looks kind of like this:
1. Men are good
2. I am man.
3. What I do is good.With this view man can rationalize the greed in his own heart while, incidentally, retaining his right to judge the greed in others. The system breaks down as the wealthy are judged as greedy simply because they were successful at accomplishing what those who judge them could not. In addition to this the wealthy begin to judge each other also. You have millionaire politicians judging millionaire businessmen, and millionaire businessmen judging millionaire politicians. In addition, you have millionaire Hollywood stars, who seem to somehow be above judgment, judging them all. All of this judgmentalism revolving around the greed of others while justifying the greed in one's own heart is therefore not confronted from within with any sense of providence, honor, or accurate understanding of the true condition of the heart of man; much less the economic system within which it is all taking place.
In such a fidelity-starved environment the idea of pooling one's wealth becomes a fool's errand as increasing numbers feel justified in their own actions. Contracts are broken, loans are forsaken, capital is siphoned off by currency printing, onerous regulations, corruption, ponzi schemes, fraud, theft, bribes and so on. Worse, many who justify their own participation in these destructive actions have their own meager resources invested in the system their actions are destroying. This is like a snake greedily biting his own tail for spite of the tail's head. Those with modest means will eventually have no option but to withdraw what remains, convert them to an historically stable currency such as scarce metals which has the effect of removing their power from the economy. This is one reason a rise in the price of gold can be a negative indicator of the health of an economy. As resources are withdrawn there is a corresponding reduction in new resources which results in a domino effect toward a reduced standard of living for the masses.
Second, capitalism is dependent on a productive society. Since man's banishment from Eden he has worked tirelessly to reenter. One way man can go about this is to make his way in life off the sweat of his neighbor's brow. The capitalistic system is a system that is dependent on the pooled resources gained by the sweat of one's own brow. The necessary relationship between work and provision has been thwarted in the past by the outright enslavement of man by his fellow man. Contrary to popular belief, this act hasn't ended, the methods have only changed. Now rather than enslaving a few men and making an ugly spectacle, masses are partially enslaved for the benefit of a few through what has become euphemistically known as wealth redistribution.
Liberty and it's cousin capitalism are not hardy social or economic systems. They can exist only in environments in which those who hold to the ideas on which they stand cling tenaciously to objective reality. Once man's true condition is rejected by the society at large, that society no longer accepts reality but rather an alternate reality based more on how man thinks things ought to be than how they actually are. This then releases man to embrace the folly that some men can be trusted to siphon wealth from others and redistribute it more fairly. Such a relationship is akin to the notion of honor among thieves as the citizen charges the politician to steal from his neighbor while trusting that he will be dealing honestly with himself. He is blinded by the spectacle of a looming Utopia just beyond the horizon. The healthy suspicions that once met those who promised such a Utopian society 1, 2, 3 become suppressed and maligned. Instead schemes are invented that are designed to exchange votes and campaign donations for largess. We saw a battle along these lines recently in Wisconsin as out-of-control state liabilities consisting of promised largess to government union members threatened the state’s fiscal health as larger numbers of people were becoming unproductive by living off the confiscated wealth of their neighbors. This is a spiral as ever more amounts of siphoned resources are required to take cover the cost of governing. These siphoned resources are not coming from nothing, they are shifted from productivity to non-productivity. This is like the snake eating the tail that it bit off assuming it will provide him with long term nourishment. It is counter to capitalism, it is counter to a Biblical view of the world, and in a more sane society it would be counter to common sense.
So, in conclusion, what has the Church to do with capitalism? In a word: “nothing”. In summing up the answer however we would do well to rearrange the question and ask, rather, "What has capitalism to do with the Church?” And like every other question that man asks along these lines, the answer is "everything". Many who worship at the altar of capitalism have not asked this question and their beloved system is now crumbling as a result ... and they provide a thousand reasons why ... and it continues to crumble. Ditto for family, marriages, joy, happiness, and every other thing that man endeavors to do without God in his few short hours in this life.
1 In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville had this to say in the 1830's concerning America's constitution:
The Constitution of the United States is like those exquisite productions of human industry which ensure wealth and renown to their inventors, but which are profitless in any other hands. This truth is exemplified by the condition of Mexico at the present time, The Mexicans were desirous of establishing a federal system, and they took the Federal Constitution of their neighbors, the Anglo-American, as their model, and copied it with considerable accuracy! But although they had borrowed the letter of the law, they were unable to create or to introduce the spirit and the sense which give it life. They were involved in ceaseless embarrassments between the mechanism of their double government; the sovereignty of the States and that of the Union perpetually exceeded their respective privileges, and entered into collision; and to the present day Mexico is alternately the victim of anarchy and the slave of military despotism. (page 189)2John Adams: "Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government."
3F. A Hayek in "The Road To Serfdom" (written during WWII) had an interesting comment in the introduction of his book on page 57 (in my copy) that I think applies here as well:
... [H]istory never quite repeats itself, and just because no development is inevitable, we can in measure learn from the past to avoid repetition of the same process. One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers. 'And accidental combination of experience and interest will often reveal events to one man under aspects which few yet see. The following pages are the product of an experience as near as possible to twice living though the same period... While this is an experience one is not likely to gain in one country, it may in certain circumstances be acquired by living in turn for long periods in different countries. ...Thus, by moving from one country to another, one may sometimes twice watch similar phases of intellectual development. The senses have then become peculiarly acute. When one hears for a second time opinions expressed or measures advocated which one has first met twenty or twenty-five years ago they assume a new meaning as symptoms of a definite trend. It is necessary now to state the unpalatable truth that it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating... It is not to the Germany of Hitler; the Germany of the present war, that England and the United states bear yet any resemblance, But students of the currents of ideas can hardly fail to see that there is more than a superficial similarity between the trend of thought in Germany during and after the last war and the present current of ideas in the democracies.