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Lazy theology leads to socialism

Dr. Mike Frost, founding director of the Tinsley Institute in Sydney, Australia and author or editor of nineteen theological books, gave five reasons he thinks capitalism is not Christian:

  1. Capitalism benefits the few at the expense of the many. 
  2. Capitalism promotes greed.
  3. Capitalism treats people as commodities. 
  4. Capitalism’s quest for constant growth is ultimately destructive.
  5. Capitalism speaks a lot about freedom, but actually limits autonomy. 

Frost isn’t well known in the U.S., but his article summarizes well what most theologians think about capitalism. He announced that socialism isn’t Christian either, but he doesn’t give us his school of economics, so I assume he thinks the current mixed economy is the most Christian. 

Let’s look at these complaints more closely. Frost complained first that capitalism benefits the rich at the expense of the poor: 

“Do I need to list the innumerable times the Bible condemns Israel for allowing the rich to become richer while the poor remain destitute? Or do I need to quote Christ telling us the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, or his condemnation of those who do not care ‘for the least of these sisters and brothers of mine’?”

Had Dr. Frost bothered to read serious economic history, he would know that the way people become rich under capitalism differs from the way they did so before capitalism. Before, the rich with few exceptions were people in government, kings and princes or relatives. They got their wealth through heavy tax burdens on the people, looting in war, kidnapping for ransom, and taking bribes. These were the “honorable” means of achieving wealth for millennia. 

The Old Testament prophets indicted princes (government officials) who bribed judges to falsely convict commoners of crimes so that the princes could steal their land. Or they charged exorbitant interest rates on loans that the poor couldn’t repay so the princes could repossess the land. In the New Testament, the rich refused to pay laborers for their work and stole from the Temple treasury. Jerry Bowyer’s book, The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics, details the crimes of the political elite and high priests. 

Every society but that of the Jews despised commerce. Aristotle and Cicero considered merchants to be the most immoral people in society. During the Middle Ages, the few merchants who managed to gain some wealth through trade gave half of it to the Church to buy a ticket to heaven then used the rest to buy land and a title of nobility to prevent others in the nobility from stealing it. So, yes, the rich grew richer by taking from the poor for most of history. 

Then, theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain, during the Reformation, distilled the principles of capitalism from natural theology with support from the Bible. The Dutch Republic implemented those; made the old “honorable” ways of getting wealth illegal and became the first capitalist nation. Since then, most of the wealthy in the West have earned their wealth in business or inherited it from parents in business. 

To succeed in business within a free market, the owner must service others well. If not, he loses his customers as they switch to businesses that serve them better. The historical facts behind how the West grew richer than the rest of the world are simple. It began with agriculture. Someone had invented the horse collar that allowed horses to pull heavy plows and wagons. Before, harnesses choked horses if the load was too heavy, so horses had been limited to use in war. Horses and mules enable a man to farm 40 acres whereas a team of oxen, the cutting-edge technology since pre-history, limited him to 20 acres. 

Farming with horses empowered farmers to produce twice as much food as oxen and potentially made farmers twice as rich. But competition from other farmers using horses caused the price of food to fall, so farmers split the increased wealth with consumers. Both became richer: farmers through greater income, consumers through a lower cost for food. 

Next came clothing. Mechanical spinning wheels made thread much cheaper. Then large looms made the price of cloth plummet. As with the farmers, the spinners and weavers made more money while consumers grew richer through lower prices for clothing. Before long, the wealthy passed laws against dressing like the nobility because the common people were dressing so well. 

Before capitalism, middle class craftsmen worked solely for the nobility producing handmade items. Under capitalism, businessmen used mass production to make things for the masses and enrich them through lower prices. Under capitalism, new inventions have made inventors rich but have enriched society far more. If it were true that capitalism enriches the wealthy at the expense of the poor, the West would not be 30 times wealthier today than 300 years ago. 

Dr. Frost is correct that the Bible contains many passages condemning the rich, but that’s because from prehistory until the advent of capitalism, most rich people were very evil people and worked in government. Frost ignores the passages in which God blessed the Patriarchs, Job, and kings David and Solomon with great wealth, or the promises to Israel that he would bless them with material wealth if the people would remain faithful to him. Then there are these: “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.” (Proverbs 10:4) “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” (Proverbs 13:4)

Dr. Frost needs to show us the Bible verses that condemn diligence, hard work and serving others. He must show us the passages that proclaim lifting the poor from the fear of death from starvation is evil, because capitalism, and only capitalism, has lifted billions from poverty to wealth over generations while charity has never lifted anyone out of poverty.

It doesn’t take much effort to learn this history. A couple of books will do it. But often theologians when they veer into economic questions can be shockingly both highly confident and yet not diligent in learning some of the basics of economics and economic history.  I will respond to his other points in future articles.

Roger McKinney is the author of Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx.

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