Can a Christian Be Capitalist?
Politics and religion continually find themselves intersecting on issues of economics. If God created the world and the people who live on it, and established the natural laws that govern social interaction, the debate between capitalism and more socialist systems is as much a spiritual debate as economic.
Christians often hold that at least some basic principles of capitalism are right, but are hesitant to defend the whole system. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that “more Americans (including Christians) believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible.”
Many believe that to be capitalist means to advocate for taking advantage of the poor and for exuberant wealth for the rich. In response, it is important to note that even in “capitalist” America there is much deviation from truly free markets. Most often, a phenomenon called corporatism (or its first cousin crony-capitalism) pits corporate fat cats against others, usually with the support of government actors, facilitating behavior that is far from capitalism.
Unraveling the mess of ideas about what capitalism is plays a key role in discovering its true value, as does exploring the plan for Christians on this side of the pearly gates.
Economics of God’s Nature
With a look at God’s nature, it’s clear that he values diligent work, and rewards those who generate value (Eph. 4:28). Hard work is a value also held by many Americans, and yet there is reluctance to fully embrace the idea as “Christian” because some are obviously bestowed with more talents than others. Thus the flipside of God’s nature is that he loves the poor and needy. Interestingly, capitalism aids both the well-equipped and the poor more than any other system.
To simply focus the discussion on empirical evidence that poor people do better with capitalism, however, fails to address the question at hand. It remains important to dig into how capitalism relates to issues of both the morality of choice and the purpose of the Christian life.
The Morality of Choice
Capitalism is the system that allows people the most choice. Businesses must cater to consumers’ choices in order to survive, and they’re rewarded when they strike a chord with consumers and meet failure when they don’t.
In essence, God appears to have created a system that benefits from voluntary decisions and trade. It’s fundamental to God’s nature to allow such liberty of behavior – even when it’s contrary to his desire. Two key examples of this in the spiritual realm are Adam and Eve being able to choose to eat the forbidden fruit even though it led to earthly death, and people having the choice whether or not to believe on Jesus to forgive their sins even though it’s an eternal life or death decision.
Capitalism rewards behavior that God values. Plus, it discourages undesirable behavior by causing self-interested actors to work toward the mutual goal of serving others, resulting in harmony rather than strife. Even for non-Christians without a set moral foundation capitalism brings out their best. What other system can boast such a phenomenon?
Certainly there are those who take advantage of others, and certainly wealth has been a corrupting force in many people’s lives (which is often cautioned against in the Bible), but it’s important not to be hasty in blaming the system rather than the individuals who freely made such decisions.
Capitalism in Light of the Christian Mission
All things considered, perhaps the most important reason a Christians should support capitalism is that when economies are free, so are ideas. Therefore the platform to share one’s faith is afforded by capitalism more than other social orders. Sharing ideas of faith in the streets of China, North Korea, Cuba, or other anti-free market regimes is met with persecution and suppression.
Capitalism is the effective use of one’s property to generate more property. Numerous parables reflect the value of putting one’s capital and ability to work in service to God – the stories of the stewards and the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), the servant and the traveling master (Luke 12:42-48), and countless references to sowing and harvesting (e.g. John 4:36, Gal. 6:8). What makes these passages so applicable is that they not only represent solid worldly wisdom, but they also reflect the eternal nature of God’s plan.
If the Christian mission is to take the message of the Gospel to many more people, multiplying its impact by employing the most effective outreach methods, practicing evangelism, and seeking deeper understanding to enable the Good News to spread most effectively, can’t the Christian life be referred to as “spiritual capitalism”?
It is important to note, also, that capitalism does not rule out compassion. They are not mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily in tandem with each other. Again, this is where personal responsibility comes to fore.
Ultimately, the question remains: under what economic system is the most freedom to benefit economically, relationally, and spiritually? The answer is surely capitalism, not as an end but a means.