Capitalism and Christianity

Is capitalism an un-Christian philosophy?

The answer to this question depends heavily on how you define your terms. “Capitalism” and “Christianity” are both complex words that mean different things to different people. Debating over the meaning of these words is largely pointless; it’s like arguing over whether a glass is half empty or half full. I’ll present my definitions up front, to make my meaning clear. If these words mean different things to you than they mean to me, then your answers may vary.

By Christianity, I refer to the religious and philosophical system taught by Jesus of Nazareth, and recorded primarily in the Bible’s four Gospels. I do not selectively endorse any one denomination or division of Christianity, nor do I reject any. The Bible is confusing, and there is room for honest disagreement among Christians. In my opinion, the key to Christianity is to believe in one man, Jesus Christ. To believe that he’s the son of God, that he came to this world and gave his life that we might be saved. To believe that one of the greatest gifts he left behind are his teachings, recorded for all time in the Gospels. To believe that his system, his philosophy, and not any other one devised by man, is the way to live your life. The parts we understand, we must strive to live in our daily lives, no matter how difficult or seemingly unreasonable. If any part of Jesus’ teachings were trivial or unimportant, he wouldn’t have bothered with them. If the ways of the world take precedence to you over the Gospel teachings, or if you simply don’t care what the Bible says, then read no further, as this essay will have little to say to you.

Capitalism, likewise, has several different connotations. In the course of writing and discussing this essay, I’ve identified three major interpretations of the term. Let me define them as follows:

  • capitalism¹ – a laissez-faire economic system, characterized by the separation of economy and state, “anti-socialism”, free markets, free trade, relatively light taxation, and a minimum of government interference in commerce

  • capitalism² – an industrial model of production, well illustrated by Henry Ford’s assembly line, characterized by heavy specialization of both capital and labor, economies of scale, with the cost of goods reflecting the distributed costs of production

  • capitalism³ – a pseudo-religion of greed, characterized by pursuit of self-interest, often associated with the claim that each individual, by advancing his own self-interest, ultimately advances the good of society

For the remainder of this essay, I’ll use the superscripts to indicate which meaning of capitalism I’m discussing.

I have no real objection to capitalism¹ or capitalism², and in fact reject socialism completely, but this isn’t the meaning of capitalism I wish to discuss. Likewise, to some people capitalism means a commitment to hard work and self reliance. I don’t really object to this, either, having no problem with either working hard or taking pride in your work, though I do feel that “self reliance” can be easily twisted into an insistence that others rely on themselves.

I take serious exception to capitalism³. One of the most important functions of religion is to provide us with a value structure through which to judge right and wrong. Capitalism³ is a philosophy of life that can only be described as pseudo-religion of greed. It usurps the role of religion to provide a distorted morality. “Give to all who beg from you,” Christianity teaches us. “What’s mine is mine,” the capitalist³ answers. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the Bible’s Golden Rule. “Take care of number one,” is the capitalist³ response. “Sell all your worldly possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me,” Jesus told one of his questioners. The capitalist³ just laughs.

Let’s not be distracted by the capitalist³ talk of “freedom”, either. Someone who takes a gun and robs a convenience store has freedom. He’s just chosen to use it to evil ends. Freedom implies the ability to chose between good and evil, but doesn’t provide us with a value system to judge between them. This is the function of religion.

So often, when a capitalist³ talks about freedom, it’s really a clever attempt to intertwine capitalism¹ and capitalism³. Anyone opposed to capitalism³ is twisted into an opponent of capitalism¹, and the distinction between the two is glossed over or ignored completely. Anyone who opposes “capitalism” is depicted as a monster socialist who opposed to freedom and liberty. In fact, just because we support capitalism¹, a society largely free from government control over the economy, doesn’t imply support of capitalism³, a dog-eat-dog world where men live like wolves and prey on each other as best they can. Freedom does not imply that everyone lives for himself… unless that’s what we choose it to mean.

These are my main objections to capitalism³:

  1. The values we promote.

    Don’t underestimate the impact society’s values have on people, particularly the youth. We need to teach and practice Christian values, to lead others clearly. Making money shouldn’t be our primary goal, and we shouldn’t allow money to interfere with our commitment to Christianity. Christianity’s two greatest commandments are to “love God with all your heart and all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Nothing’s wrong with working hard, as long as we’ve got the right goals. Our first goal in life must be to seek God’s will for us and put it into effect in our lives. Our second goal must be to love and serve others.

    If we have a product or service for which people are willing to pay, we can make money, but be sure not to turn away those who can’t pay. Remember the Christian commandment, “give to those who beg of you”; let’s be sure to honor it! Having money isn’t the problem; the problem is what people will do to get money and then to keep it. The Gospels make it clear that generosity is one of the great virtues of our religion.

    So many times, when someone comes up with some nifty new idea, they immediately start figuring if they can get a patent on it, slap some restrictive license on it, or just keep the details secret. Instead of immediately asking “how can we make money on this?”, we should instead start by asking “how can we best serve God and man with this?” Make the commitment to God and others first; let the money come later.

  2. The kind of society we build.

    Let’s face it – not all the people who try to start a company and make a ton of money actually succeed. Yet enough do succeed to make a difference in our lives – Microsoft, WorldCom, Exxon, GM, RCA. Imagine if as many people who tried to make a fortune instead set out to make the world a better place. Not all would succeed. Yet enough would succeed to make a difference, because it’s the attempt that counts. Little by little, we’d find ourselves living in a world of love and hope. Instead, little by little, we find ourselves living in a world of greed and despair.

  3. The legacy we leave.

    What do we want our children to say about us? Do we want them to answer with pride that their parents sacrificed to make the world a better place? Or are we content to let them shrug and say, “Yeah, they made a lot of money“? How do we want our age remembered by history? Are we willing to risk being judged along with the conquistadors and robber barons? Or will we sacrifice now, so that we may be judged along with the prophets and saints? Let’s decide that the future will look back on us and say, “these people did everything in their power for the good of others”.

  4. The treatment of dissidents.

    By “dissident” I mean anyone who won’t adopt the capitalist³ philosophy. My personal experiences in a capitalist³ society are far from pleasant. In my youth, I began quite adept with computers, and ended up working for some major computer companies in the early 1990s. Yet I couldn’t stomach the secrecy with which the technology was developed, and I decided that any software I wrote was going to freely available to anyone who wanted it. That decision cost me my livelihood and turned me into an outcast on the fringe of society. And for what? Because I wanted to write software and publish it for free on the Internet. We need to build a world were people won’t be ostracized just because they won’t go along with “the system”.

A man cannot serve two masters. If he attempts to do so, the demands of his masters may for a while coincide, but ultimately will diverge. The two masters will demand two different courses of action, and then you have to chose. Christianity and capitalism³ are two different masters promoting two different value structures.

Christianity teaches us to “give to all those who beg from us”. So long as we keep this firmly in mind, fine. Yet the capitalist³ philosophy is often one of selfishness. “I take care of myself; nobody else will take care of me.”

Of course, the capitalist³ would no doubt raise a flurry of objections:

  1. Capitalism³ works…

    …in the real world,” I can almost hear you adding. Well, Christianity never claimed to work in the real world. In fact, Jesus taught that Christianity would be rejected by the world, and that his disciples would be persecuted and killed.

    Consider also that capitalism³ is not the world’s only “success story”. Fascism worked. By the end of 1940, fascism had conquered all of Europe. Germany was fascist; Italy was fascist; Spain was fascist; Poland had fallen in a couple of days; France a matter of weeks. Fascism ruled the entire continent. Fascism was a “success”. Hitler felt so confident he invaded Russia.

    Communism worked. By the middle of the twentieth century, between Russia and China and their various satellites, communism ruled half this planet. Communism turned a backwards, rural nation into an industrial super power, put the first man into space, and cast its intellectual appeal to many of the world’s left-wing thinkers. Cuba looked to communism. Angola looked to communism. Communism was a “success”. Kruschov pounded his shoe on the table and declared, “We will bury you!”

    Other notable “successes” include Negro slavery; the conquest of native Americans by both the Spanish and the Anglo Saxons; the establishment of global empires by Britain, France, and Holland; and the military dominance of the Mediterranean by Rome for nearly a millennium.

    Clearly, judging “success” is a difficult matter, made easier by the passage of time and quite difficult without the hindsight of history. Yet even if communism or fascism had genuinely succeeded over the long term, neither of these societies I’d want to live in! Success shouldn’t be measured just by the expediance of the moment, but by moral and ethical considerations. To blandly declare “Capitalism³ works,” and to use this as a trump card to cancel all other considerations, to also to accept these other societies, because each, at some time and in some way, “worked”.

  2. You have to survive.

    Total relativism. People had to survive in Soviet Russia; the way to do it was to become a communist. People had to survive in Nazi Germany; the way to do it was to become a fascist. This argument can be used to justify anything.

    Jesus’ answer to this question was not to worry about survival; let God take care of your survival. My answer is slightly different. We do have to survive, and the way to survive is to take care of each other and to build a society where people can take care of themselves, and walking into Safeway with a $20 bill doesn’t count. If you’re dependent on another man for your food, freedom quickly becomes an empty euphemism. Government welfare programs simply replace one form of dependence with another.

    The capitalists³ don’t want freedom, except for themselves. You don’t make a lot of money by setting people free. In fact, quite to the contrary, the way to make a big pile of money is to make people dependent. Bernard Ebbers didn’t build WorldCom by making long distance communications free. The way to build a WorldCom is to put a switch on every telephone line in this country, then sending people a bill every month and turning off their service if they don’t pay.

    Under capitalism³, everyone “has to survive” because everyone is dependent on the capitalists³ for food, housing, clothing, transportation, and pretty much everything else in life. The Christian solution is to love our neighbors, and one of the best ways to do this is to make our neighbors self-sufficient.

      “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day;
      Teach him to fish, feed him for life.”

  3. We don’t have raw, naked capitalism³; it’s regulated by the government.

    A good point, but not one want we’d like to carry to its natural conclusion.

    Why do we have an Environmental Protection Agency? Basically, because a bunch of people decided that it was in their business interests to build factories that dumped all their waste into the nearest river. It’d be nice if the people building factories would design them to be clean, but then those factories would be more expensive, they wouldn’t be able to compete, and the clean factories would all go out of business. Eventually, people got sick of not being able to swim in their rivers, clamored to their government for a Clean Air Act and a Clear Water Act, and now every factory in this country is regulated by the federal government.

    Why do we have anti-trust laws? Basically, because people like John D. Rockefeller realized that their oil companies could make a lot more money if they also owned the railroad companies and charged competing oil companies ten times as much to use the same rail lines. All the competing oil companies would have far higher operating costs and eventually go bankrupt. It was a smart business decision. Eventually, people got sick of having their oil prices dictated by a monopoly, the government passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and now every major business deal in this country requires government approval.

    Why is Microsoft now embroiled in an anti-trust lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department? Because Bill Gates is acting in the heritage of Dow Chemical and Standard Oil. He’s putting his own profit interests ahead of the better interests of society. So Microsoft keeps all their source code secret, engages in restrictive licensing practices, violates networking standards, and deliberately breaks the backwards-compatibility of their software. These are good business decisions, and the trend is clear. Eventually, the entire high-tech software industry will be regulated by the federal government.

    The capitalists³ love to gripe about socialism, but capitalism³ itself is one road to socialism. The capitalists³, by a constant pattern of abuse, will create a society in which all aspects of everyone’s lives are eventually regulated by the government.

    We don’t want raw, naked capitalism³, nor do we want massive government regulation of our lives. The only alternative is for people to take responsibility for their own actions and do what is in everyone’s best interest. Otherwise, the only way we’ll have a decent society is for the government to force it on us.

  4. Capitalism³ gave us everything we’ve got today.

    Maybe, but I won’t argue the point. I don’t think we have to give up own modern technology to live as Christians. Even if we did, given the choice between a modern, advanced, rational, scientific world, and living a simple, primitive life according to teachings of Christ, which would you choose?

  5. You can’t run a business like that.

    Then don’t run a business! Run a charity, or a philanthropy, or a non-profit organization. If the word “business” gets in your way, discard it, because almost anything can be done in a Christian way. Jesus doesn’t tell us what kind of house to build; he just gives us a foundation to build upon.

    If you’re running a restaurant, turn it into a soup kitchen. This doesn’t mean you have to run off your regular clientele, move to the inner city, and spray paint grafitti over your logo. Just make sure that when somebody comes it without money and asks for a meal, feed them! It doesn’t have to be the broiled lobster tail. Don’t hide or disguise this policy; make it clear to your workers and customers. If you have trouble paying your bills, let your suppliers know about your Christian practices, and if necessary find new suppliers who will reciprocate in kind. Go directly to the farmers if need be, and move your operation to a friendly church’s banquet hall if you can’t pay your rent. If some people leave and don’t come back, so be it. You can’t please everyone, but make sure one of the people you please is God.

  6. That sounds very noble, but I’m sick of working every day and want to be my own boss.

    This is the great lure of capitalism³. “Sign up for own system,” they say, “then you can work for yourself.” Well, I signed up seven years ago. I ran my own computer consulting practice, then I found two partners and started a regular company that eventually grew to have about a dozen employees. To make a long story short, there’s no better way to uncover the myths of capitalism³ than to run your own business. You don’t work for yourself. You work for the marketplace. You don’t make your own decisions. You do what sells. Unless you’re a sole proprietor, you’ll have salaries to pay, a significant tax burden, probably rent and insurance as well. If you don’t make money, you’ll lose your employees, be evicted from your space, go out of business and still have the government chasing after you for back taxes. If you can manage as a consultant or sole proprietor, you’re a lot better off, but don’t risk asking yourself if this is the best you can do for others. The answer may cost you your livelihood.

    Independence in capitalism³ is largely a myth. If you’re not aggressive and somewhat ruthless, you’ll always be a small player, still largely dependent upon the marketplace. The only way to become a big player is to go along with the program. It’s like going into a restaurant and being told that you can order anything off the menu, so long as it’s fish. If you love fish, that’s great, but what if you wanted chicken? You probably won’t come back to that restaurant, no matter how good the food, but the capitalists³ want every restaurant in town to serve only fish.

  7. This isn’t Christianity.

    One of the great advantages of Christianity is the Bible. We don’t have to take anybody’s word for Christianity; we have Jesus’ teachings, written down and preserved for us over 2000 years. To know Christianity, read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels, praying for wisdom and understanding. Don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Remember that not everyone who claims to be a Christian will be saved. By the same token, don’t let the ways of the world and the opinion of others distort your interpretation.

  8. Christianity is based on faith, not works.

    This isn’t what Jesus said, and it isn’t what James said either. Faith is the basis of Christianity, but we’re clearly charged by the Gospels to put our faith into action.

  9. This just doesn’t make sense.

    Jesus never attempted to justify his philosophy by invoking reason or logic. These are the tools used by human philosophers to justify their systems of thought. Logic worked very well for science; it laid the foundation for all the technology we use daily. Scientists had developed logical systems to explain physics, chemistry and biology, perhaps philosophers could also develop systems to explain and govern human society. Thus, in the last few centuries, we’ve seen fascism, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Charles Darwin; communism, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Karl Marx; and capitalism³, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Adam Smith. On the other hand, Christianity isn’t based on reason or logic, it’s based on faith.

  10. This is what “the people” want.

    A tricky argument that attempts to intertwine democracy and capitalism³. Democracy can not be used as a trump to justify any course of action. Suffice it to say that capitalism³ must be judged on its own merits, not based on how many people support it.

Let’s not put our faith in capitalism’s false, worldly pseudo-religion of greed. Christianity is a real religion, with a real God, a real savior, real prophets, and real salvation. “For God so loved the world that he he gave his only Son” to us. Will we accept him, and live his teachings in our lives, or turn him away?