5 Reasons Capitalism is not Christian

Recently, Julie Roys, whose work in unmasking evangelical Christian leaders accused of spiritual, sexual, and psychological abuse I greatly admire, wrote an article entitled, 5 Reasons Socialism is not Christian.

It wasn’t the most sophisticated piece, I must confess. Those of us who have lived outside the United States in economies that have been influenced by democratic socialism aren’t quite as spooked by the S-word as some American evangelical commentators. But in the end, frankly, I agree with Roys’ general conclusion: I don’t think socialism is Christian either. But lest anyone think that means I believe the usual alternative, capitalism, is Christian, uh-huh, no, I don’t.

Christians have found themselves at home in both capitalist and socialist systems, and contributed to those systems significantly throughout history. But neither of them can ever truly be home for us.

You’re right, Julie Roys, socialism is not Christian, and neither is capitalism. Here’s my reasons why:

 

Capitalism benefits the few at the expense of the many

The fundamental principles of capitalism systematically undermine social cohesion, dividing us from each other, impoverishing us, and eventually sacrificing our collective well-being for the benefit of the few.

In his book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Michael Albert writes, “Capitalism revolves around private ownership of the means of production, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labor.  It remunerates property, power, and to a limited extent contribution to output.  Class divisions arise from differences in property ownership, and differential access to empowered work versus subservient work.  Class divisions induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life.”

Do I need to list the innumerable times the Bible condemns Israel for allowing the rich to become richer while the poor remain destitute? Or do I need to quote Christ telling us the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, or his condemnation of those who do not care “for the least of these sisters and brothers of mine”?

In the Christian tradition, inequity and poverty have always been seen as evidence of a corrupt and sinful society, and God’s people have always been called to practice the alternatives of generosity, hospitality and justice.

 

Capitalism promotes greed

I remember hearing an investment banker telling me the market will always correct itself because traders are driven by two primary motivations: fear and greed. Greed drives the free market, and in turn capitalism promotes greed.

In his documentary on capitalism, Michael Moore says,

“Capitalism is the legalization [of] greed.  Greed has been with human beings forever. We have a number of things in our species that you would call the dark side, and greed is one of them. If you don’t put certain structures in place or restrictions on those parts of our being that come from that dark place, then it gets out of control. Capitalism does the opposite of that. It not only doesn’t really put any structure or restriction on it. It encourages it, it rewards it.”

The biblical injunctions against greed, avarice, gluttony and self-interest are myriad. As Proverbs 1:19 says, “So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain. It takes away the life of its owners.”

Greed destroys that which we love. It is opposed to our most basic moral principles. And Jesus couldn’t have been more explicit about its corrosive nature, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:15)

 

Capitalism treats people as commodities

In capitalism, commodification is the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities or objects of trade. At its most basic, a commodity anything intended for exchange, or any object of economic value. We’re okay about products and consumables being exchanged as commodities, but the commodification of human life, when selling their labor on the market to an employer, is deeply concerning because it turns people into objects. And when people are seen, and counted, as objects they are easier to exploit or dispense with.

At its worst, commodification results in child labour and sweatshops in the majority world, paying their workers wages far lower than those that prevail in developed nations. But even at its best, in those developed nations, where there are functional labor laws, it can still be argued by Christians that the very conception of the worker’s labor as a commodity reduces that worker to something less than God sees them.

Christians believe all humans are made in the image of God and share a common value as God’s children. This is why Christians were at the forefront of movements to end slavery and to institute child labor laws and in the fight for civil rights and social justice. It simply isn’t Christian to perceive God’s children as objects of varying or debatable worth.

 

Capitalism’s quest for constant growth is ultimately destructive

In order to exist, capitalism must expand without end. This is the capitalist dream of continuous economic growth. It is an unquestioned capitalist assumption that growth of gross domestic product (GDP) is essential to a country’s stability and prosperity. As economist Robert Gordon said, “More growth is better, period.”

But the quest for constant growth has negative consequences for millions of people as well as for our fragile ecosystems. Companies say they could grow more quickly if they had fewer regulations on their production, but without such regulations capitalism’s hunger for growth would inevitably destroy the poor and consume all of nature and the ecosystems that we depend on to survive.

Joel Kovel explains it this way:

  1. Capitalism tends to degrade the conditions of its own production.
  2. Capitalism must expand without end in order to exist
  3. Capital leads to a chaotic world-system, increasingly polarized between rich and poor, which cannot adequately address the ecological crisis.

This combination makes for an ever-growing ecological crisis. But Christianity teaches that humankind has been tasked with the stewardship of God’s creation. We are called to preach the Gospel, protect life, and care for the planet. This will include showing compassion for people who suffer from creation’s destruction, as well as resisting those forces that seek to tarnish the glory and integrity of God’s good creation.

 

Capitalism speaks a lot about freedom, but actually limits autonomy

We all think capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand, but in reality, capitalism slowly ekes away our autonomy and leaves us less free than we realize.

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have pointed out that, “a market arena of self-interested and anonymous interaction might reduce not only the need for compassion, but also the sentiment itself. In this respect, the economy produces people as well as things, and the capitalist economy produces people that are not ideally equipped with the democratic sentiments and capacities.”

Not only does it make us less civil, it also organizes us in a way that limits our choices. Erik Ollin Wright says, “Capitalism constructs the boundary between the public and private spheres in a way that constrains the realization of true individual freedom and reduces the scope of meaningful democracy.”

It results in elites controlling the political system, governments serving the interests of private capitalists, and very limited autonomy for workers.

 

So, does all that mean I prefer socialism? Or anarchism? Or libertarianism? Yes and no. There is no political or economic system that can be labeled Christian, only systems that are less Christian than others. In your critiques of socialism, don’t make the mistake of assuming that capitalism is as pure as the driven snow. It’s as slushy and muddy as some of the other alternatives.

As I said at the beginning, Christians have managed to find a home in all kinds of political systems, including socialist Scandinavia and capitalist USA. Christians have contributed greatly to the common good in those systems as well as critiquing them sharply when necessary. Our mistake is to imagine we are ever at home in any of them.

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “5 Reasons Capitalism is not Christian

  1. Michael Moore, who met Chávez at the Venice film festival in 2009 and posted pictures of himself with the president, tweeted: “Hugo Chávez declared the oil belonged 2 the ppl. He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all. That made him dangerous. US approved of a coup to overthrow him even though he was a democratically-elected president.”

    This didn’t age well at all.

    1. I suspected that including a Mike Moore quote would trigger some people. No, you’re right, his affirmation of Chavez didn’t age well. But while Venezuela isn’t the only example of socialism, and there are plenty of more successful ones, as I say in this post, I’m not putting my hopes for the future in socialism any more than I am in capitalism.

  2. Good to read a well balanced article that is able to look objectively at both sides. Virtually unseen in most journalism/blogs these days.

    1. Huh? You might want to do a quick flicj of the wrists and search the keywords “greed and capitalism” for a slew of articles in various publications, including this that offers a nuanced view:

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/rainerzitelmann/2019/09/02/the-driving-force-of-capitalism-is-empathy-not-greed/#3da35cdf67aa

  3. As a Christian in America it’s sad to see my tribe’s left hand tightly gripping the cross and with the right the flag. Capitalistic republicanism IS Christian not for all, but certainly many. Its become God AND Country BOTH. Christ’s kingdom doesnt fit into one of man’s governmental structures. I had a friend say to me once that greed makes the world go round and that is a good thing. They asked me what I thought did and I told them that sadly I agreed, but love is what God intends to make it go around and the system I choose to press into…

  4. Thanks Mike,

    This is important – I did read the post… I’m sure many just read the headline! Your reference of Moore / Chavez was brave!

    The complicating element is that most of in the West (and the modern world generally) are beneficiaries of capitalism… indeed China, whilst still “socialist” is completely sold over to and reliant on capitalism.

    I completely agree that capitalism is not the answer in the same way that socialism is not the answer. The Kingdom of God is the epitome of what we should aspire to, but given that we operate in a world where not everyone shares the same values or ethical / moral code, finding a best fit system is tricky. Perhaps some sort of democratic socialist capitalism is the answer?

    One thing that I have been wrestling with over the last 6-9 months or so is the idea that at it’s heart, capitalism assumes that the future will be better than present (it’s what investment and lending is based on … many cultures pre-capitalism simply didn’t hold this view). What I find interesting / troubling / thought provoking is that in essence, this is also the claim of christianity. Those of us that believe Christ is redeeming all of creation and that eventually God’s Kingdom in all it’s fullness will be established, cannot help but have hope in a future that is brighter than the present. So in that sense, is not captialism onto something?

    As I said, I’m wrestling with it – I run a business and contribute/benefit directly to a capitalist system (whilst also leaning significantly to the socialist side) – but I also know the atrocities that accompany a capitalist system (without needing to note the atrocities that seem to accompany economies that have bought into socialism).

    As such, I’m in a bit of bind – it’s something I’m still metabolising and welcome your article. What are your thoughts on the idea of a hopeful future in this context?

    1. Hi Dave, good comment and I appreciate your sincerity in trying to figure this out. Re: capitalism being focused on a hopeful future… a future that is better than the present. I would ask, a hopeful future for whom? Who will the future be better for? The future certainly seems hopeful for those who benefit from capitalism – property owners, business owners, those with wealth who can invest and create more wealth. The wealth created for those at the top is at the expense of those at the bottom – who work for below a minimum wage, with no health benefits or paid sick leave, many who will never be able to own a home and create even a basic amount of wealth to survive.

      Jeff Bezos of Amazon increased his net worth by $35billion since the pandemic begun, at the expense of people desperate to have products delivered for safety, and at the expense of his underpaid and over-worked employees struggling to keep up with demand. Whole Foods (owned by Amazon/Bezos) even had the audacity to ask their employees to donate their sick days to their colleagues, instead of the company covering it. Bezos made $35billion in a ~3 months and Whole Foods can’t afford to cover sick days for its employees in the midst of a pandemic?! I don’t see a bright and hopeful future here… except for Bezos.

      As the pandemic has revealed, many are one paycheck away from being evicted, foreclosed, and/or needing a food bank. Think about that. This system is not working for the majority.

      You can be a good business owner, and pay your employees well and take care of them with health packages and sick days, etc. But if you are greedy and want every-increasing profits, as capitalism demands, especially if you’re traded on the stock market (and so your company is now 100% a profit-generating entity for its shareholders first and foremost), then you need to trim expenses somewhere – usually labour, or quality/safety.

      SO – regardless of any political or economic system – we as Christians live under the authority of a different King & a different Kingdom. And if we truly want equality, and to love our neighbour, it requires sacrifice. Which we are called to as Christians. We need to learn to live with less so that others can have more – and by more can we start by just paying people decently for their labour?

    2. Don’t we as Christians not also believe the world is going to become nightmarishly evil beyond compare or redemption before it becomes good again in the new creation? It is the nature of all systems, interfaces, structures, ideologies, projects, governments, groups, corporations, and institutions to fall to depravity by mere interaction with humankind due to sin. As such, all systems are corruptible and cannot, in themselves, be the home of a Christian. This is why we are to eschew all of this and await the perfected creation – which, horrifically enough for the future of this age, will only arrive after the destruction of all.

      It has always struck a deeply uncomfortable nerve in me that the mark of the beast functions as an economic system, not merely a marker of belief or anti-belief. I don’t believe capitalism is, as an economic system, the mark of the beast. However, I have lately come to think of its very postmodern, neoliberal incarnation, in conjunction with our growing “technological-control” society in this information age of ours, as not unlike a blueprint for what such a system could even entail. Exclusionary, antithetical to all good action, antagonistic to the mere existence of the Church, hateful, brutal, and altogether dehumanizing to its core.

      Capitalism is not the fulfillment of these hallmarks, though it does point in that direction the deeper we reach into the 21st century. To me, our current capitalist system is a rough sketch of such a system; the warning signs are here, and it is up to us to contend with it. Every generation likes to fantasize it is The Final Generation in the great endtimes, but I do think we are perhaps not altogether distant from such a generation, given the rate things are going in the world. I despise capitalism for its inefficiencies and inequalities baked into its foundation, yet I fear more what might replace it, and what shall replace that in turn.

      At the end of the day, I do not think it is necessarily correct to hold hope for a linear progression toward a hopeful future, though we do share the ultimate hope in the climax of the Age of Ages. Until then, however, we should recognize that all things are bent, broken, or soon gone astray. Capitalism, socialism, anarcho-communism, feudalism, or any flavor of fascism; all will fragment and destroy creation until the day of our Lord, and only in their passing, along with all the things of this crooked age, shall we be free. Perhaps we’ll have a perfect capitalism in the next one, but until it’s before my eyes I am skeptical of hope in the institutions of man.

      Peace, friends. May we all survive this year intact.

  5. Thanks again, Mike, for a balanced piece that makes a whole lot of sense.

    As a British-born Australian, I am not inclined to be at all jumpy about the “S”-word & a little sick of the “C” alternative, especially as I have witnessed it here in the land of Oz. On the flip side, I have in the past been the target of a good deal of criticism, written abuse and even threats on my life (in social media circles) from folk living in a land, “…where power and position are equated with the grace of God” (Jackson Browne – Looking East).

    In my experience of recent years, there seems to have been an increase in a capitalist world view among Evangelicals in Australia. I have found this to be not only surprising for Christians, but quite a sad thing, in light of the points you have made. So I do appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Unfortunately the Michal Moore quote killed the potency And efficacy of the article. Until that point I was eager to forward it to my parents and many others who, in my opinion, would benefit from an honest biblical critique of capitalism.

    1. As I said in an earlier comment, I suspected the Moore quote would trigger some people. But I certainly didn’t think anyone would be so short-sighted as to dismiss the whole article on that basis. The Moore quote is useful regardless of your views of Michael Moore.

    2. Oh brother! Why can’t Christians accept that oftentimes non-Christians have important and intelligent things to say, that are worth quoting?! Yes, Michael Moore is a controversial character but he also has had the courage to expose some very gross things about American culture, etc. If that exact same quote had been said by someone else, say, John Piper or some other Christian talking head, it would’ve been perfectly acceptable…

  7. Excellent article and I appreciate your affirmation that socialism is not the answer in itself as well.

    I can get behind every point except the last two.

    Capitalism’s quest for constant growth is ultimately destructive
    You mention that capitalism relies on constant economic growth. As long as the population is growing, you’re going to have to have economic growth to support that growing population. How else would things get paid for?

    I know you’re not arguing for socialism here, but claiming capitalism limits autonomy is a red herring. Socialism eviscerates autonomy. This also begs the question that autonomy is inherently good. If you really want autonomy, then you’d need to go to something even more severe than capitalism in which there is no regulation. The people would be allowed to do whatever they want and act autonomously. This would lead to the powerful trampling over the weak and would be disastrous. The same thing happens though when you go to the extremes of socialism – communism. In every communist regime there are created groups of people with power who have then trampled over the weak to the point of genocide, mass murder and targeted killings.

    The problem is not a specific type of government. The problem is that we live in a fallen world full of sin and whomever rises to a position of unadulterated power, ends up abusing that power to harm others.

    Some will state that it just takes the right person to end up with the power. The problem with that argument though is that someone more sinister will gain the power often by murdering the “right person” in that position. It’s happened throughout history.

    Americas problem is not capitalism. It’s corporate welfare. Any consolidation of power is not the answer and when corporations can “buy” politicians, that’s exactly what you get.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s not full our capitalism more fill out socialism. It’s somewhere in the middle.

  8. In actuality, I think Christianity would support a system where there is no $, no money at all.
    Or even bargaining.
    I mean, there’s not going to be any sort of $ in Heaven, is there?
    “In capitalism, commodification is the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities or objects of trade.”
    And thus, we have human trafficking – which is actually slavery, and not just sexual slavery either, but also labor slavery.
    Of course, as Mike points out, socialism isn’t any better.
    And actually, all human systems will in some way or another fail, because none of us have perfection. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t try to make the best world for everyone because, simply,
    No One deserves to suffer.

  9. Thanks for a thoughtful read. Iron sharpens iron.

    After living in Spain for 25 years, I know the semantic fields of the word “socialism” are many and overlapping, rather that the monolithic perception of many evangelical Americans, as you say.

    By the same token, however, I think that capitalism is monolithic in theory or practice. There are grades, of course. For that reason, I don´t think the presentation is the most sophisticated piece, either. Even without referring to nuances of economic theory, some healthy qualifiers would make the reasons more convincing. For instance, the statement “Capitalism treats people as commodities.” I think it better to say “Unrestrained or amoral capitalism treats people as commodities.”

    You argue that capitalism limits autonomy. I disagree with this statement on the evidence to the rise in the standard of living and social mobility in developing countries. There are other cultural and political factors that limit the increased choices that wealth creation brings to a new class of people.

    I am no real fan of capitalism, but it does have its positives, and options for autonomy I believe are real in regulated capitalism.

  10. I’m looking forward to your next post outlining a sophisticated articulation of why socialism is not Christian.

    1. Reading Julie Roy’s article was such hard work. So I’d also like Nick be interested in your articulation of the socialism at odds with Christianity post.

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