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Chasing Political Sunsets

The American Enterprise Institute invited dozens of college students from all corners of the map—I met friends from Venezuela, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and France—to their headquarters in Washington, DC to join ranks in the fierce competition of ideas. Through the branch called Values & Capitalism, my class focused on the compatibility of capitalism and Christianity, a seemingly odd synthesis on the surface, but a topic that sparked fruitful dialogue.

As scientists, economists deal comfortably in the quantitative, the descriptive, the measurable, and the falsifiable. A predisposition towards such tangible inquiries unintentionally shuns metaphysical concerns—namely, the stark reality that humans, the dominant object of social study, have souls. Led by Dr. Anne Bradley, however, our class refused the common assumption that morality (the language of the soul) and economics are divorced. In order to know which organization of the economy is most conducive for human flourishing, we cannot avoid staking an anthropological basis. What are humans made for? This question differs from typical social science which asks, how do humans behave? The former regards teleology, the latter does not.

A Christian’s telos (the end goal, or final purpose) is directed towards the Heavenly Kingdom, ruled by our Lord and Savior, where creation is perfectly united by God’s loving grace. Some might counter that such a mouthful is impractical, but at least it acknowledges what humans are for, and whose we are. Secular incredulity towards such an epic end does not excuse their burden of submitting a telos of their own—for every worldview holds an implicit end or purpose that all subsequent premises are based upon. It was appropriate then that our class began by reviewing Genesis 1 and 2, and thereby contextualizing the discussion of Capitalism in the creation mandate and exhortation that humans belong to God. St. Augustine famously prayed, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This timeless opener to The Confessions beautifully sums up human purpose: We are made for God, and all rival objectives will result in turmoil, rather than Shalom. With some discomfort, we navigated across the intellectual gap, bridging economics and theology. Our new vantage offered a fresh perspective to the generation-old question of whether Christians can, and some dare say should, support capitalism.

Few people, even heartless economists, concede that the sole aim of the economy is to maximize macro production. The Gini coefficient, which measures how spread out wealth is, has to matter as well. On the other hand, the material abundance of an economy should not be sacrificed for the sake of equality, fairness, and other alleged utopian virtues. Clearly, society cannot possibly agree on which economy to adopt insofar as they disagree on what the economy is for. A socialist, for example, will never be convinced that capitalism is superior if she believes the proper end of an economy to be equality of outcome; likewise, a capitalist will not accept socialism if he believes economic freedom to be the proper end. Libertarians, who tend to regard freedom as an inherent virtue, do not care as much about the end goal (or telos) as they care about methodology or how one gets there. Was the individual coerced or did free-will have some elbow room from government regulation? Christians are invited to not only care about how we arrive to our telos, but also what that telos is. We are lucky to have assurance in the end that we are made for, which can possibly speak wisdom into the purpose of an economy. Because Shalom, a heavenly vision of human flourishing is what our hearts crave, then our broken reality should reflect that, even if it is imperfectly done.

Do not confuse this sequence of argumentation for a full defense of capitalism on its political, economic, and welfare merits (many excellent resources have done this elsewhere, better than I could). This essay’s aim is higher, in a spiritual sense, and also more modest because it is not delivered by an intellectual juggernaut, but from a meager Christian student who enjoys economics. Indeed, this essay wonders whether capitalism can fit within the vision of a Christian telos, kingdom come. The key question to ask is, “Does the telos of the story of God redeeming humanity overlap with the telos of a particular economy?” I suggest two aspects of Capitalism that might overlap in this regard: the Inherent Goodness of the material universe and Human Creativity.

Circling back to Genesis, we are reminded that material creation was not a mistake on God’s part. Philosopher James K.A. Smith puts it nicely, “We are not just dawdling around in some anonymous cosmos; we are home. We are dwelling in God’s world. This isn’t just ‘nature’; it is creation. And it is ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31).”[1] The goodness of the material world is confirmed when Jesus was born and the Word became flesh. Revelation 21 caps it with a vision of humans dwelling with God in a new creation.

What does this mean for the economy here and now? It means that material abundance is not a vice. While Christians recognize the brokenness of creation, it is a project to be redeemed rather than discarded. Capitalism is known for proliferating the most wealth for the most amount of people. Allow this to sink in with a more heartfelt translation. Capitalism provides the most food for the most hungry, clothes for the most naked, and shelters for the most vulnerable. Morally attractive as this is, the main idea here is that God desires humanity to maximize the potential of creation, which brings us to the second point. Humans are not merely inhibitors of God’s creation, we are called into action as His image bearers (Gen. 1:27). Once again I borrow from Smith, “We are commissioned as God’s…vice-regents, charged with the task of ‘ruling’ and caring for creation, which includes the task of cultivating it, unfolding and unfurling its latent possibilities through human making…”[2] Part of God’s invitation to us, as His image bearers, is to generously spill our creativity out over the universe. God entrusts us with the tasks of organizing society, inventing institutions, cultivating land, and curing diseases. God packed this place with “latent potential” and he endowed humans with the skill to unpack it. Capitalism is good for Christians in the narrow sense that it allows us the freedom to participate in this exciting vocation.

Our restless hearts generate many desires that seem insatiable. Until we calibrate our telos with Shalom—resting in and with God—we will always be wanting, chasing sunsets. Neither democracy, nor socialism, nor affluence, nor equality will satisfy our craving for justice and peace. And while a political or economic victory will not cure our broken hearts, we can celebrate capitalism simply because it allows us to pursue a telos that does ultimately satisfy.

[1] Smith, James K. A. You Are What You Love: the Spiritual Power of Habit. Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.

[2] Ibid.