I was interested to read a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service that indicated that more Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible. This pattern also holds among Christians. A commentary on the Biblical illiteracy of the Western Church can be found in more likely places than a poll about the relative compatibility of Capitalism and Christianity, but it does say quite a bit about how we have been conformed to the world’s way of thinking rather than being transformed by having our minds renewed.

Part of the evidence of our being conformed to the world is our acceptance of the redefined concept of capitalism that has been sold to us. Popular culture tends to view capitalism in the virulent forms, such as crony capitalism (collusion between powerful market forces or collusion between government and private industry) or capitalism driven by greed rather than self-interest. Capitalism is also often thought of as a means for the rich to exploit the poor, as if there is a finite amount of wealth in the world and the rich are hoarding it from the poor, but that is not capitalism, it is Plutocracy.

Capitalism on the other hand, at the core, as Merriam Webster defines it, it is “a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government” or more simply, individuals or private parties producing goods and distributing them according to their own self-interest. Capitalism, properly functioning allows for wealth to be created by individuals and therefore allows the poor to rise from poverty based on their own skills, talents, abilities and possessions. No other system, properly functioning or not, allows for this income mobility to occur.

Capitalism as it developed in the American form was supported by the rule of law that tended to diffuse the potential of Plutocracy developing while enabling the poor to develop skills, talents and abilities so that they could “pursue happiness”. Of course some of the ways individuals have produced or distributed according to their own self- interest has been less than exemplary, but that does not mean that the idea of individuals having control of their own production and distribution is at odds with biblical principles. As I have pointed out on this blog in the past, part of the reason that we have been created is to be stewards of possessions, skills, abilities and talents that God has given us.

I think a fair case could be made that the concept of stewardship is really quite similar to the concept of capitalism. Being a steward is to take what we have been given by someone else (God) and make something of ourselves and all we have been given and to share that with others according to the interest of the Steward on behalf of the owner (God).  The only real difference is that Capitalism does not specifically recognize that the talents and abilities we bring to the market are ours from God it just assumes they are ours. That difference is significant, but along with the development of Capitalism in America under the rule of law, it also developed under a world view that understood that we were endowed by our creator. Based on that I think it is hard to conclude that American Capitalism is not consistent with biblical views, albeit practiced by imperfect people.

So in my mind, the real problem is not that capitalism is not compatible with Christianity, it is that our culture is no longer compatible with Christianity. It is dodging the truth to blame capitalism for our woes. A healthy capitalist economy will emerge from a healthy moral culture that recognizes its dependence on the creator. Our real problem is that our culture has wandered far from the milieu from which this country and the economic system that emerged from it was formed. We started by ignoring God in our public schools, but it has continued apace by the adoption of all kinds of unbiblical values and it is manifesting itself by so much whining about what we don’t have and how much the ‘rich’ do have.  Envy is not a biblical value.