"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

On the Correlation of Capitalism and Christianity

“He that will not work shall not eat.” With these famous words pulled from 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Capt. John Smith uttered a phrase that both saved Jamestown and breathed a capitalistic nature into the very fabric of American society. Nearly 300 years later, German theologian Max Weber would ascribe the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic, combined with the Calvinist doctrine of asceticism and predestination. Since the dawn of America, from the original pilgrims and colonists to the Founding Fathers and subsequent presidents, American civil society has generally coupled the economic system of capitalism with the moral system of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Although many of the Founding Fathers were deists, almost all understood an economic system of industriousness and elbow grease as a morally superior paradigm.

We are not all that different today. Although a recent resurgence in socialist ideals show a possible counter trend, much of America’s historical and contemporaneous constituency has affirmed the economic system of capitalism, none more so than the conservative Christian demographic. Although the theory of the Protestant work ethic is now often scoffed at, the Protestants of that theory still largely champion capitalism. I will be the first to say this; as a 20-year-old college student, I affirm Jesus as my Savior, and I am proud and privileged to live in a country that operates under free-market principles. I believe that efforts made in a capitalist society have helped drag much of the world from the poverty line, have been responsible for the innovative boom of the 20th century, and have been crucial in shaping America into the country it is today. However, I have become increasingly interested and aware that many Christians seemingly correlate and associate capitalism and Christianity. This is a problem.

In 1776, what would become one of the world’s most influential writings was published. Although the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, I am speaking now of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” This groundbreaking book on economics and a new free-market system earned him the moniker the “Father of Capitalism” and helped revolutionize the old mercantilist system into a bold economy of gross domestic product, division of labor, capital accumulation, automation, and competitive free trade. Combined with an industrious and moralistic population, this new form of trade flourished. Capitalism was adopted as a Christian ethic, a system by which God was made proud. Looking hundreds of years later during the 20th century, capitalism was deemed the moral, Christian, and good system as opposed to the immoral, secular, and bad Communist ideology. A few decades later, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority inspired millions of evangelical Christians to vote for conservative candidates, all of which espoused Christian talking points and pro-capitalist arguments, if not genuine Christian beliefs. At this point, you may be growing weary of historical capitalist trivia, but I mention all these moments to show the connection between capitalism and traditionally conservative Christian America. It is with this relationship in mind that I want to caution American Christians into implicitly connecting capitalism and Christianity.

In 11th grade, my American history teacher asked me a question that has remained with me to this day. “If someone asked, would you identify yourself first as an American or a Christian?” For many Christians today, this would be difficult to answer. I still struggle with it. However, make no mistake: If we in any way call ourselves a son or daughter of God, our first allegiance should be unequivocally to God. He is the moral arbiter, the fount from which right and wrong come. With this knowledge should come the fact that His kingdom is not of this world and His primary concern is with the everlasting. Herein lies the tension: Capitalism is an amoral system concerned with the temporary. It is both instrumentally and inherently concerned with production and efficiency, whereas God’s moral law is inherently concerned with the salvation of souls and only instrumentally concerned with earthly laws. While there are some inspiring companies, such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, what good comes from capitalistic tendencies is what good one makes of it.

This is why I am worried about the automatic assumption that capitalism is moral and thus superior to all other systems. The system from which Christians should derive judgment is God’s law, not Adam Smith’s. Many good things have been accomplished through capitalism, as have many bad things. The utilitarian construct of weighing its merits against its demerits is a false dichotomy, since Christians ought to have a higher standard on worldly arguments. Theologian Harvey Cox once stated, “The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament — not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must be universally accepted and who allows for no pretenders.” When Christians view a created economy as a moral guideline, it follows that there is a deviance between their understanding of moral living and God’s expectations of how we ought to understand His moral law.

Many Christians may vehemently disagree with me. Some might wryly concede that it is the worst form of economy, except for all the others. I raise questions not to dissuade others from subscribing to any particular belief, but to challenge American Christians to reevaluate their stance on the relative morality of any one worldly system. A healthy skepticism of any economic or political structure is beneficial, as is the prioritization of Christian practices.

Instead of arguing for a decrease in welfare spending, be the volunteer who assists low-income families and negates their need for governmental help. Instead of worrying about a trade war with China, partner with local companies or nongovernmental organizations that promote domestic or fair-trade items. As an unnamed pastor once constantly reminded his staff, “Efficiency isn’t a kingdom value.”

While Jesus did teach about investing one’s time, talents, and treasures wisely in Matthew 25:14–30, He did not call us into this world to be warriors for an economic system, but to be messengers of His good news. If kingdom work can be done through that economic system, then it is worth keeping as the instrument of that good work, but capitalism’s usefulness for the spread of Christianity does not make it an inherently moral system. An understanding of our calling to be in the world but not of the world is a sobering reality check on any one political ideology.

So, disagree with me. Agree with me. You are encouraged to think critically and independently. I am not writing to dictate the way Christians ought to think of capitalism; rather, I want to challenge you to form a stance on how one ought to walk the line between the creation of heavenly good and the formation of earthly goods. Capitalism has been at the forefront of the world’s largest beneficial leaps and behind the scenes in the perpetration of the world’s grossest injustices. It has been a force for good and evil. As 2 Corinthians 5:1 says, “ For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” When the edifices of this earth crumble, and its economic structures fade, will you have contributed more to the creation of an earthly tent or the participation in an eternal house?