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Christianity and Capitalism: Does the Bible support self-interest?

U.S. currency and coins in a vault at a bank in Westminster, Colorado.
U.S. currency and coins in a vault at a bank in Westminster, Colorado. | (Photo: Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Jesus had much to say about money. It’s one of His most discussed subjects, more than faith and prayer combined. He encouraged radical generosity, “​If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21), decried idolatry, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24), eschewed materiality, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19) and called for stewardship, “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

For Jesus, finance has spiritual implications; as He says to the Pharisees — “who loved money,” according to Luke’s author — “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your heart” (Luke 16:14). Honestly, Jesus’ views on money are pretty unmistakable:

The way we engage with money matters.

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There are plenty of opportunities for Christians to examine whether their own financial habits line up with the words of Christ. But how often do we stop to consider whether the system we are a part of is compatible with Scripture? Is capitalism Christ-like?

In a recent ​article​ for Desiring God, Rick Segal tackles this very question. Segal delves into the history of capitalism, beginning with the “Father of Capitalism,” Adam Smith. In his seminal economic work, The Wealth of Nation, published in 1776, Smith argued that the best economic system is that which allows for a free exchange of goods between people driven by “their regard to their own interest.” Smith’s vision put production in the hands of private owners.

No government overreach, everybody striving after and profiting from their own “self-interest” — that’s capitalism in a nutshell.

Smith’s capitalism, Segal goes on to argue, is actually rooted in Christian — or at least Christ-adjacent — ideals. Segal insists that Smith, in championing “self-interest,” was not sanctioning selfishness, but describing something far more akin to the “self-love” that Jesus refers to in Mark 12:31, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Essentially, by pursuing your own happiness, you are better able to contribute to the happiness of those around you.

If there is selfishness and greed because of capitalism, Segal says, that is not inherent to Smith’s system but is the result of “corrupted” capitalism. Segal likens Smith’s system to “Christian Hedonism” (an idea popularized by pastor and writer John Piper), which is the belief that life’s fulfillment is found in the pursuit of joy rooted in God. In fact, in Segal’s opinion, if Smith made any mistake it was detaching his economic system from the ultimate purpose of glorifying God. Segal’s solution: a capitalism with “the church as the cultural foundation beneath it.” Ultimately, Segal argues that Christian principles are best articulated in capitalist society.

Segal is quick to admit that capitalism, as it is currently practiced, is in need of reform— ”redeemed” as he puts it. But at no point does he suggest that byproducts of capitalism (oppression, wealth disparity, corporate corruption, consumerism, rampant selfishness) are inherent to the system. In his mind, capitalism isn’t the problem.

Many Christians throughout the ages would take issue with that premise. The entire Social Gospel movement of the early-20th century, for instance, sprang out of pastoral concern for the way that capitalist practices hurt the disenfranchised. Social Gospelers set about the task of bringing “the Kingdom” to earth, tackling issues like racial inequality, poverty, factory conditions and lack of unions. One of the movement’s most prominent voices, Walter Rauschenbusch, a pastor and writer, was blunt;​ he went as far as to call capitalism and its effects sinful. In his most famous work, The Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch writes:

“To find the climax of sin we must not linger over a man who swears, or sneers at religion, or denies the mystery of the trinity, but put our hands on social groups who have turned the patrimony of a nation into the private property of a small class, or have left the peasant laborers cowed, degraded, demoralized and without rights in the land. When we find such in history, or in present-day life, we shall know we have struck real rebellion against God on the higher levels of sin.”

The wealth disparity that Rauschebusch describes has only grown wider, and plenty of people point to capitalism as the cause. One such person is Thomas Piketty. Piketty is an economist who analyzed centuries of income tax data from America, Britain and other Western countries. He published his findings in his groundbreaking book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the conclusion he arrives at is sobering: if we continue on this path, we’re looking at a world where the majority of wealth is held by the smallest fraction of people. Piketty believes these flaws are inherent to the system. As he writes, “Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” Translation: capitalism is a danger to democracy.

Segal makes a similar claim in his article, but about a different economic system —socialism. Sure, capitalism has its issues, but whenever socialist policies have been enacted throughout history, they invariably lead “toward gulags, killing fields and long marches.” He concludes his article by emphasizing, “Better that we should breathe freely of a chastened capitalism than to gasp on the thin air of a coercive socialism.”

It’s a common argument, especially in America, and especially by Christians. But does it hold water? Many would say no. Walter Rauschenbusch was one. Although he saw the hazards of socialism in action, he also resonated with socialist ideas of human dignity and cooperation. He believed Christians “ought to join in it exactly to avert” the hazards.

A more contemporary example, though, is theologian and scholar David Bentley Hart. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Hart puzzles over the fact that “only in America…is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.” While Americans hold onto their Cold War preconceptions, “Every other free society with a functioning market economy” understands socialism to be “an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance…for the purpose of promoting general welfare.” Not only has democratic socialism been effective in Germany, Canada and Britain, but it is also, Hart notes, historically and ideologically “grounded in deep Christian convictions.” To hear Hart tell it, socialism could not be more Christ-like.

Hart makes a good point. We shouldn’t be afraid of socialism. It can and does work. But I think Segal is right, too: we shouldn’t write off capitalism simply because it’s been employed poorly. Are they both compatible with Christianity? Absolutely. As we’ve seen, you can find central tenets of Christ in both systems. The real issue, as ever, is the human heart.

Jesus knew this and stressed it. The systems, on their own, are fine; it’s when the people with power stop treating human beings as holy that the systems become dangerous. People first, always. If we can’t grasp that, it doesn’t matter what economic system we take part in. We will repeat history and once again miss an opportunity to bring heaven to earth.

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