According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of American Christians may not be as wrong as Jim Wallis thinks they are. Consider the following evidence:
Overall more Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible. This pattern also holds among Christians. Among Christians in the U.S., only 38% believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds. Religiously unaffiliated Americans look similar to the general population and to Christian Americans, with a plurality (40%) saying capitalism is at odds with Christian values, compared to 32% who say they are compatible; 14% say they do not know. There are significant differences by gender, party and income.In many ways, this is no surprise. Christians are well aware that greed and selfishness are absolute sins, and we are constantly told—albeit falsely—that such sins are the very drivers of capitalism. With pro-capitalism folks like Ayn Rand affirming such myths, it’s no wonder that Christians defer to the stereotype. Such a fundamental misunderstanding comes about for a variety of reasons, but from my experience, it’s typically rooted in one or more of the following: (1) an overly simplistic and all-encompassing view of greed, (2) a materialistic view of wealth, (3) a failure to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, and (4) a belief that God has something against material inequality. Yet in other ways, this is a surprise. Of the 46% of Christians who believe capitalism is “at odds” or “inconsistent” with Christian values, how many are themselves actively engaged in the capitalist system? Of the 61% of Americans who believe regulation is necessary to ensure “ethical” business activity, how many truly believe they need to be regulated in order to ethically trade an apple for an orange? Of the 55% of white evangelical Protestants who believe that income inequality is “one of the biggest problems in the country,” how many have a higher income than someone else? Indeed, if any of these folks are simply working in America today, aren’t they profiting from, indeed encouraging, the very capitalistic system that opposes their religious convictions? My hunch is that most of these anti-capitalism Christians are quite comfortable with their basic economic activities. Most of them don’t feel un-Christian when they go to work, order from Amazon, or go on vacation to Mexico, and I doubt it’s because they’re a bunch of disingenuous hypocrites. Despite the bizarre twisting and theorizing about capitalism as a system of evil in our heads, our real, day-to-day experience tells us something different: that capitalism simply allows for us to be who we are on matters of economics. It’s up to us to use the tools for Christian or non-Christian purposes. We can certainly allow for greed and selfishness to drive our basic human decision-making, but for many of us, I trust this is not the norm. We go to work because we find legitimate value in doing so. We agree to a wage because we think it’s worth our time. We accept a job promotion or a wage increase because we think we deserve it. We pay $2 for a loaf of bread (or $25) because we think it’s a fair price for the product. We invest in food, clothing, and shelter because we know we could die without them. We pay for entertainment because it helps us relax. We give money to friends, family, churches, and charities because we think it’s the right thing to do. At a fundamental level, capitalism simply empowers us as private owners to control our own economic decisions and futures without unethically infringing on others. At its core, it’s about individual rights, ownership, and the basic freedom to exercise our will and collaborate with others. So if this is what 46% of Christians are opposing — the capitalistic system itself — and that is what they are engaged in — the capitalistic system itself — they have some serious reconciling to do. Yet I don’t think these Christians really understand what they’re saying. As already mentioned, most Christians (like most Americans) see capitalism through the distorted lens of pop-culture caricatures and economic mythology. When we think of capitalism we don’t imagine small business owners or struggling start-up entrepreneurs. Heck, we don’t even see ourselves. Instead, we imagine the Gordon Gekkos, Ebenezer Scrooges, and Donald Trumps, the likes of which would be thrice as dangerous were they to be our beloved communist commissars. In short, much of the 46% is dwelling in basic confusion. Given the bulk of their actions, it amounts to basic self-contradiction. But if we are really going to take such beliefs seriously — if we are really going to assume that 46% of Christians do properly understand capitalism and its moral implications — these folks have relatively few options at their disposal. Just as the anti-communism Christian should probably avoid the role of communist dictator or violent proletariat rebel, the anti-capitalism Christian should probably avoid the role of capitalist. Sound unrealistic? You’re on to something. So let’s have some fun. Here are my recommendations for the 46% of Christians who want to stay “true to the faith” in modern-day, out-of-sync-with-Christianity capitalism. Good luck:
- Take appropriate action based on your beliefs. This will vary, depending on your particular qualms with the invisible hand. If, for example, you believe God hates material inequality, you should probably make a concerted, voluntary effort to improve equality by leveling your material wealth along with others who share your beliefs. If, however, you detest capitalism because you think the pursuit of wealth is necessarily tied to greed, you should probably stop pursuing wealth. If, on the other hand, you think self-interest should not be heeded because it amounts to selfishness, you should probably stop breathing, eating, or sleeping, and burn your house down while you’re at it. On this point, the options for action are endless.
- Move to another country. I usually dislike this recommendation because the situation almost never warrants the measure. But if eternal life is on the line, the stakes are a bit higher. If you actually, sincerely believe that your basic day-to-day engagement in trade and commerce is driven by a system antithetical to Christian values, you should probably either pursue Option 1 (a difficult task) or simply find another system. I know you want to change America into a socialist republic because you “love this country” (noble, to be sure), but how long are you willing to oppose your Christian values for the sake of mere patriotism? North Korea is waiting, and I’m sure Kim Jong-Il doesn’t have a greedy bone in his body.
- Come clean. Maybe the hypocrisy hypothesis is correct. Maybe middle-class American Christians are just a bunch of fakers who are knowingly resisting their true Christian convictions for a comfortable, albeit guilt-ridden life. If so, you should probably just admit it. It’ll make you feel better.