What’s So Great About Capitalism?

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:44-45

I’m not a politician. I’m not even a political person. Truth be told, laughing at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is about the extent of my political involvement on a normal day. So as I bring this question up, I approach it as one seeking answers, not one arguing for a position. If you want to pick a fight about economic policy, you’re not going to get it from me. Feel free to fight amongst yourselves in the comments.

So here’s the question: I constantly hear church goers complain about the president and one of the major complaints I hear is that he is a “socialist.” They spit that last word out like it tastes bad. To hear them talk, with Obama in charge we’re just a few steps away from being Russia under Stalin. I overheard a conversation a few weeks back where both sides reminisced about the good old days where everyone knew who the bad guys were (communists and socialists.) The fact of the matter is that Obama’s no socialist and he’s not about to turn our country into a socialist nation, but even if he was, would that really make him a “bad guy”? Can we really frame this argument in moral terms so that socialism equals evil and capitalism equals good? And even more interesting for me, why is capitalism thought to be the automatic moral preference for Christians? Is a belief in capitalism inherently the more “Christian” or moral position?

Socialism seems to only be a dirty word in America. On the other side of the pond, many politicians proudly wear the title of “socialist” and run for office under socialist parties. They make no secret of their disdain for the free market. I know there are socialists in America, but as far as I know, most of them have to avoid that label is they want to get elected.

Jesus commands the church to care for the poor and says that the things we do to help the least among us are done unto him as well (Matthew 25:34-45). Jesus’ half brother James even says that taking care of widows and orphans is the mark of true religion (James 1:27). The early church shared everything they had, selling their possessions and distributing the money to those who had needs (Acts 2:44-45). Caring for the poor, helping those unable to help themselves, the redistribution of wealth… that sounds a lot like the things that socialists talk about. I realize that many Christians will respond that these verses deal with the actions and responsibilities of believers and churches, not governments. However, couldn’t a Christian be in favor of any work that supports the poor, both within the church and the government?

When people talk about not wanting to take their “hard earned money” and give it away to others, I hear argument like the one I found on this blog: “Capitalism rewards hard work, creativity, service, and (not so good) cunning.” The line of thinking seems to be that capitalism is great because it rewards hard work and creativity. It’s great because it encourages people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a living. Does capitalism hurt anybody? Only “the foolish, the lazy, the poor, the sick, and the ungifted.” In other words, if you don’t have money, it’s because you’re lazy or stupid and you did it to yourself. You made your bed, now sleep in it and don’t expect any help from anyone else. This is the Christian view? Not to mention the fact that in the desire to gain capital, people and businesses frequently use and exploit the “least of these” in order to get the most labor for the least money.

Socialism may have some major problems with the way it works out in real life implementation, but is capitalism really any better or more moral? Both fall under some shady gray area in some respects. I guess my problem isn’t with either view as much as it is with the idea that there is only one official “Christian” view on economic policy that all Jesus followers must hold. I have the feeling that even in the church this argument has more to do with party affiliations (and everyone knows real Christians are Republicans) than with biblical reasoning.

The fact of the matter is that the Bible doesn’t endorse any particular economic policy, political party, or even a system of government (How many leaders in the Bible became leaders by gaining a majority of the electoral votes?) Shouldn’t two Christians with different political views feel free to express those views without being seen as heretical or even “evil?” Isn’t it possible for churches to refrain from demonizing any minority views? People who hold these views often are afraid to speak up for fear of how the congregation will react.

Isn’t the church supposed to be more about freedom than fear?

6 thoughts on “What’s So Great About Capitalism?

  1. Michael D. says:

    How is it a "fact of the matter" that Obama is not a "socialist"? I don't think he is full blown, but many of his ideas and policies he would like to implement are socialist "type" policies, redistribution of wealth, etc. To say it's a "fact" that he isn't is an offense to the definition of the word "fact".

    And I think you answered your own question when you said "many Christians will respond that these verses deal with the actions and responsibilities of believers and churches, not governments." Exactly. You said it yourself in your other post when you said "When you blend Christianity and politics so much that you can't see where one ends and the other begins, it gets a little ugly." So, no, I don't think a Christian has to be in favor of "any work that supports the poor, gov't or Christian", because they are different. Plus, we have additional statements of scripture, such as "if a man will not work he should not eat". That is just as instructive for Christians as the other scriptures you mentioned.

    And, For instance, they should be separate because I can't expect people who are NOT Christians and don't believe they should help the poor to willingly participate in massive gov't plans that do so. I think it's better left up to the church. Not saying we always do all we should do, we are going to fail some as sinners. But I don't think a Christian has to be for both.

    HAVING SAID ALL THAT, I never ever mention my political beliefs, campaign, or anything else in my sermons or in leadership of the church. I think the New Testament viewpoint on gov't is, basically, "don't spend all your time worrying about it, pay your taxes and obey the laws (only to the point that you can still be faithful to Christ), pray for your leaders, and focus on these other things." I think it's ok to be involved, for sure, but I think a lot of Christians spend tons of time and money "campaigning" and trying to outlaw sins rather than telling people about how Christ can change them and sharing the Gospel.

  2. Michael D. says:

    Sorry, I couldn't fit it all in one post, but I do understand what you mean about the "Christian viewpoint". I will fight to the death about abortion and how I don't see how a believer can support it. I think it's plainly murder, and I will never ever understand that. But I don't agree with outlawing every single sin, in cases where it is two consenting adults, etc etc. And I won't go into it now specifically but I'm just saying there is a difference in murdering an innocent child who has no choice and in trying to outlaw homosexuality or something. That is what I was talking about with Christians losing their testimony instead of giving one! So I understand your frustration about how some things are portrayed as "Christian", and others aren't, that are really neither. And I'm a separation guy, so I think we will agree there.

  3. Jody Webster says:

    Thanks for weighing, Michael. Like I said in my post, I'm not the one to argue politics. My complaint has less to do capitalism, socialism, or any other ism and more to due with the way we as a church tend to talk about these things. Because I'm trying to encourage actual conversation though, I'll attempt to respond to the comments you made.

    When the word "socialist" is used to describe Obama, it's usually used as an insult, not an actual description of any particular policy. It's a way of showing how "evil" the man is and how he's going to turn us into a Communist country… or a Nazi country… whichever one sounds nastier at the moment. It's a way of branding him as different or other or anti-American. Do some of his policies contain elements that could be considered socialism? Sure, but that doesn't mean he's a full blown socialist.

    And while I agree with you that the church should primarily be responsible for helping the poor, there are certain things the church is not capable of doing. Can the church provide health insurance for people who can't get it through work or can't afford it? There are kids dying from preventable diseases (like tooth decay!) because without insurance they can't get help. That's a horrible shame, and the church can do some things to help there, but the problem is a systemic problem, one that can't be fixed without changes to the system. There are many people who are poor, sick, etc not because they're lazy, but through some loss or difficulty they couldn't have prevented. We're responsible as a church, and I believe as a nation, for what happens to our weakest members. Letting people die needlessly is a moral issue that someone needs to deal with and if the problem is too big for the church to handle on their own, I don't see a problem with supporting government programs that could help.

    I think you misunderstood me when you said, "I don't think a Christian has to be in favor of 'any work that supports the poor, gov't or Christian.'" I never said all Christians had to in favor of any work to help the poor, only that it's possible that a Christian could support both. Not that they have to.

    On the whole, I think we really agree on the basic idea that baptizing political ideas is bad. And that's really what I wanted to say as much as anything. If someone is socialist, capitalist, whatever that does not make them more godly or evil. There are definitely times when a political issue is also a moral issue (like abortion) but there's no official Christian position for most issues. I just think that in the church we should be free to disagree on the non-essentials without being branded as the "bad guys."

  4. Jody Webster says:

    One more question though, you've talked about what makes socialism bad, but what makes capitalism good? Or do all the systems suck to one degree or another?

  5. David Knox says:

    really appreciate your thoughts jody. great stuff. i just stumbled onto your blog off of a facebook link and i am very glad you are asking these questions.

  6. Jody Webster says:

    Thanks, David! So far lighting hasn't struck me for bringing these things up, so I think God must be okay with us asking questions, even sticky ones.

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