Thursday, May 05, 2011

American Christians and Capitalism -- Sightings

Was Jesus a capitalist or a communist?  The answer to that question may depend on where you're from.  Most Americans, I dare say, would hope that Jesus was a capitalist -- though you'd be hard pressed to find any capitalist teachings there.  More likely he expressed "communistic" views, but I doubt he was a Marxist.  Whatever our interpretations, the issue of Christian faith and economics remains an important question, especially in light of the religious polarization along right/left lines.  In a Sightings post that originally came out on Monday, Martin Marty wrestles with the Reconstructionist ideology (along with some on the left).  And he raises the question as to how representative the libertarian/tea party view is among Americans.  Indeed, many Americans Christians seem a bit uncomfortable with trying to align Christianity and capitalism.  I invite you to read and respond accordingly!


Sightings 5/2/2011

American Christians and Capitalism
-- Martin E. Marty

“God has cursed the earth. . . This is the starting point for all economic analysis. The earth no longer gives up her fruits automatically. Man must sweat to eat.” So writes Gary North, “the leading proponent of ‘Christian economics,’” which connects his version of biblical principles with the free market. North’s radical “Reconstructionism,” invented by R. J. Rushdoony, has family resemblances to and influence on some wings of the libertarianism favored by some conservative churches.

Reconstructionists argue that the Bible forbids any welfare program, writes Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times. They argue that America should be an “Old Testament theocracy.” Of course (I suppose one would say ‘of course’), this “Christian Economics” and “Theocratic” thinking is not representative of mainstream libertarians. However, expert on the subject Michael J. McVicar of Ohio State says that one must pay attention “given how widely Mr. North’s teachings have been disseminated on the Christian right.”

Enough? Then read the conclusions counter to Reconstructionist Libertarians, voiced by Andrew Walsh of Culver-Stockton College: “Throughout the Bible, we see numerous passages about being our brothers’ keeper, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick.” Continuing the contrast, Walsh again: “The idea that we are autonomous individuals competing for limited resources without concern for the welfare of others is a philosophy that is totally alien to the Bible.”

Where is the polled public as it lives between free marketism—in more moderate forms than North’s—and the “welfare of others” claims of Walsh? While opinion polls are blunt instruments and can’t tell us as much as we might like and need to know, their findings do throw some light on what is out there in the minds of citizens. Nicole Neroulias, writing for Religion News Service and reporting on the Public Religion Research Institute findings, observed and noted some surprises in polarized America.

Samples: The PRRI survey released April 21 stressed that more Americans see the free market system at odds with Christian values, the score being 44 percent to 36 percent. White evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and minority Christians are all well-represented in the 44 percent majority. In the 36 percent minority cohort, “Republicans and tea party members, college graduates and members of high income households view the systems as more compatible than not.” Democrats? While 53 percent see capitalism and Christian values at odds, only 37 percent of Republicans have trouble with the combination. Nearly half, 46 percent of those with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more, believe that capitalism is consistent with Christian values, while only 23 percent of those with incomes under $30,000 agree.

“Hold on!”Abstractions like “capitalism” and “Christianity” are too blurry to serve as neat definers and dividers among the publics. These are modern words for historically complex and always evolving phenomena. Handle with care. But then: “Let go!” Remembering complex data and discoveries from polls like this, one should advise, when next time blustering cable-TV and radio broadcasters suggest that the public has made up its mind and sided with the tea partiers and that its sentiments should frighten governmental leaders, note further that the Bible does not make generalizations all that safe and easy. De-ideologizing the subject might lead to better discourse. Might it not?


Mark Oppenheimer, “‘Christian Economics’ Meets the Antiunion Movement,” New York Times, April 29, 2011.

Gary North, An Introduction to Christian Economics, The Craig Press, 1974.

Nicole Neroulias, “Poll: Americans see clash between Christianity, capitalism,” Religion News Service, April 22, 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Brian said...

I know that opponents can counter scripture with scripture. After all, the devil quotes scripture too! But I'm going to quote some scripture anyway. (NRSV)

Ezekiel 16:49
49This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

7The righteous know the rights of the poor;
the wicked have no such understanding.

ACTS 2:44-45
44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Deuteronomy 15:1-18 provides one of the most liberal pieces of legislation I've ever seen.

Gary said...

You want to have the US operate by Jewish, OT law? Fine. As long as you include all of the law. That would mean executing homosexuals and adulterers, amoung others. The problem with that would be that a large percentage of those who think Jesus was a socialist would be executed! Would you like to reconsider?

Jesus endorsed private property, buying and selling, and voluntary transactions between employers and employees. He also prohibited coveting and stealing, which implies that people have the right to own their own things.

Jesus also endorsed the voluntary sharing of goods with others who are in need. But I'm still looking for a scripture in which Jesus commands that the government be in charge of helping those in financial need by taking the property of some in order to give it to others.

Brian said...

I did not say, nor did I imply, that I want to impose OT law on the US.

Gary - Do you have any conversations that don't eventually turn to homosexuality? If I were immature and unprofessional I'd make a joke implying that you are aroused by the thought of homosexual activity. Fortunately, I am far too mature and professional to put those ideas out there. Therefore I won't imply that you are a closeted homosexual. Such behavior would be unbecoming and childish.

Therefore I'll simply bid you good day....poopy pants.

Glenn said...

I for one wish to applaud Brian's maturity. This is certainly not the place to out a closeted homosexual. That kind of behavior should be reserved for twitter, it reaches a broader audience. : )

Gary said...


I understand that any opposition to homosexuality is offensive to you, and to just about everyone else who posts here. Oh well, life is hard. And then you die.