There is a rift in this country between those who believe Americans should unite and empower the government to provide the needs of its citizens and those who believe the individual should be free and unfettered to provide for themselves. It’s the divide between a big government with comprehensive entitlements and a small government with lower taxes. It has played itself out on the National Mall in the form of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally and the One Nation Working Together Rally. It plays itself out economically in the turf between capitalism and socialism.
Let’s pause for definitions. According to Webster’s, capitalism is the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution are privately owned and operated for profit. Socialism is the ownership and operation of the means of production and distribution by society or the community rather than by private individuals with all members of society sharing in the work and the products.
While the debate between capitalism and socialism may seem like a political one, it has quickly become a religious one. The churches in America have been largely content with a free-market system that allowed them to practice their faith and provide for their families. With the industrial revolution of the late 19th century came the social gospel. It emphasized Christians’ mission to the poor, outcast, and oppressed and the bringing of the kingdom of God here to earth in the form of social justice. It minimizes Christ’s atonement on the cross for sinners and magnifies his example as one who reached out to the poor and stood up to the powers of his day.
The influence of the social gospel has led many to make social justice the primary focus of their ministry. The Episcopalian Church divides its ministry focus into socio-economic justice, environmental justice, and global justice. The United Methodist Church recently pulled support from the “One Nation” Rally (a rally driven by labor unions, socialist and environmentalist groups) at the last minute but announced it remains committed to the goals of the rally including good jobs, equal justice, and quality public education. An increasing number of Christians decry the evils of capitalism’s profit driven nature and insist that a socialism which provides for the needs of all is the Christ-like system.
This was one of the planks of Michael Moore’s documentary “Capitalism: A Love Story.” He interviews several priests who consider capitalism contrary to the teachings of Christianity. In an article published after the movie Moore summarized the point he was trying to make – “you can’t call yourself a capitalist and a Christian, because you cannot love your money and love your neighbor.”
So are these denominations, churches, priests, and filmmakers right? Is capitalism wrong and socialism right? Part of the Christian faith involves caring for the poor, outcast and oppressed (Isa. 58:6-8, Ja. 1:27). Socialism can often meet the needs of these groups by smoothing out inequalities in the culture. It is out of concern to care for the marginalized that many Christians vote for bigger government and more programs. However, nowhere does the Bible advocate one economic system over another. In his documentary, Moore re-works some of Jesus’ words satirically to show how foolish it is to equate Jesus and capitalism. But Jesus wasn’t a socialist either. You won’t find him advocating government control of the means of production and distribution. He doesn’t organize any protests or even criticize the oppressive Roman government. He was not crucified for demanding better jobs, public education, fair pay, or equal rights.
Can one be a capitalist and a Christian? Yes. Moore commits a genetic fallacy by assuming capitalism equals love of money. It can, but does not have to lead to a love of money any more than socialism has to lead to a love of power and control. Capitalism is a system that assumes the means of production will be in better and less corrupted hands if they primarily reside in the private sector. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see this seems to be true. The poor in capitalist America tend to be overweight, watch satellite TV, and drive a car while the poor in other countries suffer from malnutrition. During the Cold War, Germans weren’t jumping over the Berlin Wall to enjoy the mutually shared poverty of the Soviet Union; they were jumping to the free-market of the West. Capitalism, while benefiting some more than others, can actually raise the quality of life for all.
One of the underlying assumptions of capitalism is actually quite biblical – mankind is sinful (Rom. 3:10-18, 23). Socialism assumes man is perfectable. That he will work tirelessly for the common good while an impartial, benevolent government sees to the needs of its citizens. Capitalism assumes man will not work for the common good, but is motivated by greed. In the words of Gordon Gecko in the original Wall Street movie:
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.
Greed is still a sin, but to believe society will suddenly conduct itself righteously apart from Christ is to argue against the Bible. If a guy who works hard and efficiently at a job sees another guy at the same job being lazy and inefficient and they both receive the same pay and perks, how long before his hard work evaporates in unrewarded frustration? (see teachers’ unions)
Governments are not always impartial and benevolent. Governments are made of sinful people who are no less greedy and selfish than those they govern. Capitalism spreads power out among selfish interests to compete rather than allowing some selfish interests to control everything. It is no coincidence the church has suffered the most when the government has had the most control.
Christians are free to favor either socialism or capitalism. Jesus declares his support for neither and seems oddly preoccupied with going to the cross to save sinners (Mk. 10:45). Both systems can be abused and taken to ungodly extremes; but they need not be. If one favors capitalism it is no excuse to live for profit and love money but rather to use the profit for good. If one favors socialism it is no excuse to sit back and allow the government to meet all needs. Sadly, research indicates those who favor income redistribution (socialism) give and volunteer less than those who oppose it. The commands in the Bible to care for the needy are given to people, not governments. May all of us vote the system we believe to be best for the country while living out and declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ.