This conversation between Ross Douthat and William Saletan on Slate is required reading for any thoughtful Christian. It reviews themes in Ross’s new book, “Bad Religion,” which I’m now about to buy. The two discuss everything from homosexuality and contraception to fundamentalism and orthodoxy, but the portion pertinent to this blog arrives in the second and third installments of the discussion. In the second, Saletan introduces the topic of markets and morals, notes that Christians roundly criticize market excesses and greed, and asks Douthat, “How should a Christian’s distrust of the free market manifest itself? In what ways should Christian Republicans prefer government redistribution to laissez-faire?” Douthat’s answer is a coherent chronicling of how mainstream Christian perceptions of the free market have ebbed and flowed in the past century, and offers some hope that the recent drift into putting government in the place of the church may be turning back as we speak.
[Recent decades] have suggested some problems with a straightforward synthesis of orthodox Christianity and an expansive welfare state. First, a lot of the Christian socialists and Christian Democrats and Christian New Dealers were too enthusiastic about what central planning could accomplish, and too naïve about the way that original sin could work through an administrative state as easily as through capitalism red in tooth and claw. Second, there’s the affordability problem…[T]he modern welfare state has a way of encouraging long-term irresponsibility… Third, while the federal bureaucracy may be a useful instrument for pursuing justice, its agencies and programs are rather less effective at expressing love—and indeed, public spending tends to crowd out precisely the kind of private, personal virtue that Jesus seemed particular intent on stressing.What we are seeing with Douthat and others is a roundly Christian counter-critique to the earlier modern Christian critique of industrialism. In other words, Christian socialism and labor movements of the 20th Century were critiquing excesses of capitalism—factories that used humans like they did machines, for example. Now, on the other side of this swing, Christians are beginning to realize and articulate, like Douthat, that the answer to capitalism-encouraged greed isn’t socialism or government redistribution. What IS the answer? We all seem better at articulating what it isn’t than what it is. As I learned from my years in debate, it’s way easier to “go negative” and tear down ideas. Putting forth a positive action to take is much more courageous and difficult, as Rep. Paul Ryan consistently demonstrates. I think Ross articulates the next step for the Christian thought community: “The Jesus of the New Testament managed to be hard on the rich and powerful without endorsing the revolutionaries and political utopians of his own day. And the same goes for Christian conservatives and libertarians today: If you don’t think the government should be responsible for cutting great fortunes down to size, that should only heighten your responsibility to issue a moral critique when rich people let greed and hubris get the better of them.” But what’s after that? After we establish publicly that Christians are down on greed just like we’re down on forced “charity,” how do we begin to establish the legal frameworks that fit both? Is that even something we ought to do?