May 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% 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 www.illuminos.com.