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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Capitalism and Christianity: Friends or foes?

(Mexican Stock Exchange)

Rather than launching into an immediate knee-jerk response to this question, Brent Baccala refreshingly points out that the answer would depend upon how these terms are defined.

Baccala defines “Christianity” as “the religious and philosophical system taught by Jesus of Nazareth, and recorded primarily in the Bible’s four Gospels.”  His definition of “capitalism” is somewhat more complex.  He divides it these three components:  capitalism 1 denotes “a laissez-faire economic system, characterized by the separation of economy and state…” –  capitalism 2 is “an industrial model of production, well illustrated by Henry Ford’s assembly line” – capitalism 3 involves “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.”  Baccala’s ultimate conclusion is that it is capitalism 3, and 3 alone, that clashes with the essence of Christianity.

R. M. Bowman defines “capitalism” as “making money with money” – and goes on to say that everything called “unearned income” would fall into a “lifeblood of capitalism” category.  Using this definition, he then asserts:  For most of its 2,000 year history, Christianity not only frowned on capitalism, but banned it outright.  He backs this up with the following quote from Exodus 22:24-25 (and says there are 22 more like it in the Old Testament alone):  If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.  He then offers New Testament quotes such as this one from Matthew 19:  If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. 

Bowman concludes his “Brief History of Christianity and Capitalism” with this heavy line of questioning:  Why is it that conservative Roman Catholics who hang on every word the Pope says when condemning homosexuality or prohibiting women priests pay not the slightest attention when he condemns the gulf between rich and poor under capitalism…  Bowman then turns his steely gaze towards Protestants:  “For that matter, why is it that Protestants who take the Bible very literally when it comes to sexual practices someone else engages in, are able to explain away the clear Biblical prohibitions on economic activities they
engage in?”       

Michael Novak, on the other hand, seeks to dispel images of an historical enmity between Christianity and capitalism.  In fact, the very title of his article is “How Christianity Created Capitalism.”  He goes on to quote historian Randall Collins, who said:  "It was the church more than any other agency that put in place what Weber called the preconditions of capitalism."  These preconditions include “the rule of law and a bureaucracy for resolving disputes rationally; a specialized and mobile labor force; the institutional permanence that allows for transgenerational investment and sustained intellectual and physical efforts, together with the accumulation of long-term capital; and a zest for discovery, enterprise, wealth creation, and new undertakings.” 

Novak claims that the “industrial revolution” of the high Middle Ages (1100-1300) was made possible by the “freedom for enterprise, markets, and competition” that was provided by the Catholic Church.  Novak even points out how clerical celibacy “played an important capitalist role” by “breaking the traditional tie between family and property that had been fostered by feudalism and its carefully plotted marriages.”  He also mentions the entrepreneurial talents of the Cistercians, “who eschewed the aristocratic and sedentary ways of the Benedictines and, consequently, broke farther away from feudalism.”  Finally, Novak emphasizes the role of the Catholic Church in fostering an unprecedented development of “human capital.”  He then credits Thomas Aquinas with writing “one of the first defenses of “the inherent right of people to form corporations.”

However, one can argue (and many have) that the Church (whether Catholic or Protestant) is not necessarily the same thing as Christianity itself.  Therefore, the ways of the Church might not be the best measure of whether Christianity and capitalism are truly compatible.


Copyright November 12, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved


  1. Thank you this post. Attitudes may be changing toward unfettered capitalism. His Holiness, Pope Francis PP, wrote in his Evangelii Gaudium,

    53. Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly home-less person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a "throw away" culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers".

    54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about great-er justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us some-thing new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

    Paragraphs 53-54, pages 45-46,

    1. And thank you for all of this additional information -