Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hijacking Christianity

This article was written by Aryeh Spero a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal. These types of articles really bother me, particularly because I feel that he is hijacking Christianity to justify a position he feels strongly about rather than critically analyzing society in light of the teaching of the Bible in order to make it better. Capitalism has its strengths, but it isn't without weaknesses, and to say that Christianity or the Bible endorses it, I think, is very wrong-headed if not out-right ridiculous. This doesn't mean that I think Christianity endorses socialism, but I certainly don't think our brand of capitalism is the best we can come up with to follow the teachings of Bible. To say that Christianity specifically endorses capitalism, is, I think, to be like one of the Pharisees and is extremely dangerous because people can come away from reading this thinking that this is indeed what Christ told us.

Spero's article can be read here (and below): What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism. My comments are in red.

Who would have expected that in a Republican primary campaign the single biggest complaint among candidates would be that the front-runner has taken capitalism too far? As if his success and achievement were evidence of something unethical and immoral? President Obama and other redistributionists must be rejoicing that their assumptions about rugged capitalism and the 1% have been given such legitimacy.

More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective. We call this the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor.

I disagree that within Christianity resides a "ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor". The Bible does not endorse 'self-interested' individuals, nor does it endorse the accumulation of riches, and both are hallmarks of capitalism.

Regarding mankind, no theme is more salient in the Bible than the morality of personal responsibility, for it is through this that man cultivates the inner development leading to his own growth, good citizenship and happiness. The entitlement/welfare state is a paradigm that undermines that noble goal.

This is a bold statement. I could propose other themes that might be more salient, e.g. love--the true gift of self to God and to others. I also don't equate entitlement with welfare as he does. A sense of entitlement does undermine the morality of personal responsibility and public welfare programs can certainly cause that, but they can also enable people to be personally responsible who would otherwise be unable to because they aren't afforded much of an opportunity in our capitalist society.

The Bible's proclamation that "Six days shall ye work" is its recognition that on a day-to-day basis work is the engine that brings about man's inner state of personal responsibility. Work develops the qualities of accountability and urgency, including the need for comity with others as a means for the accomplishment of tasks. With work, he becomes imbued with the knowledge that he is to be productive and that his well-being is not an entitlement. And work keeps him away from the idleness that Proverbs warns leads inevitably to actions and attitudes injurious to himself and those around him.

No major qualms here, though I prefer the language of Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens. Here is one snippet:
And yet, in spite of all this toil-perhaps, in a sense, because of it-work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being".
And in regard to capitalism and work:
But in the light of the analysis of the fundamental reality of the whole economic process-first and foremost of the production structure that work is-it should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.
Yet capitalism is not content with people only being laborers and holders of jobs, indistinguishable members of the masses punching in and out of mammoth factories or functioning as service employees in government agencies. Nor is the Bible. Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual. Because the Hebrew Bible sees us not simply as "workers" and members of the masses but, rather, as individuals, it heralds that characteristic which endows us with individuality: our creativity.

I don't disagree here with the creativity part. Capitalism certainly affords us freedoms that an authoritarian communism proved unable to, but it can also take away freedoms from the working (or non-working) poor if they are not given a just opportunity to succeed. I would argue that there are many poor people who have less freedoms and opportunities than their wealthier counterparts within the United States.

Also, the Bible does not see us simply as individuals. We are certainly autonomous and responsible for our own morality, but we are also social and responsible for the morality of others. Individualism is one of what Pope Pius XI called the 'twin rocks of shipwreck' (collectivism the other).

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: "Man is created in the image of God"—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Again, the individuality. I believe all (or most?) Christians believe in the Trinitarian God where God is not an individual, but three persons in one God. If, as we believe, we are made in His image, then we are also autonomous, yet social beings. I think using our creativity for good can be seen as facilitating our relationship with God, but using our creativity to make ourselves rich is hardly what God has asked us to do.

Capitalism makes possible entrepreneurship, which is the realization of an idea birthed in human creativity. Whereas statism demands that citizens think small and bow to a top-down conformity, capitalism, as has been practiced in the U.S., maximizes human potential. It provides a home for aspiration, referred to in the Bible as "the spirit of life."

I think he makes a big jump here from our current government, or even to what liberal-minded people want out of government, to statism. Asking for help from our government (which is or is supposed to be of, for, and by the people in the United States) is not the same thing as the government controlling our every move. Welfare programs aren't statism. That doesn't mean they are perfect, but it also doesn't mean that welfare state=soviet union. I agree that freedoms are good, but I think we have to ask if capitalism is actually providing those freedoms or if our government is safeguarding those freedoms.

The Bible speaks positively of payment and profit: "For why else should a man so labor but to receive reward?" Thus do laborers get paid wages for their hours of work and investors receive profit for their investment and risk.

The Bible, the Word of God, and most directly the Gospel, also warns the rich man that it will be very difficult for him to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24) and also that we should not accumulate treasures for ourselves here on earth (Matthew 6:19).

The Bible is not a business-school manual. While it is comfortable with wealth creation and the need for speculation in economic markets, it has nothing to say about financial instruments and models such as private equity, hedge funds or other forms of monetary capitalization. What it does demand is honesty, fair weights and measures, respect for a borrower's collateral, timely payments of wages, resisting usury, and empathy for those injured by life's misfortunes and charity.

I am not sure where it is comfortable with wealth creation or the need for speculation in economic markets, that one really baffles me.

It also demands transparency and honesty regarding one's intentions. The command, "Thou shalt not place a stumbling block in front of the blind man" also means that you should not act deceitfully or obscure the truth from those whose choice depends upon the information you give them. There's nothing to indicate that Mitt Romney breached this biblical code of ethics, and his wealth and success should not be seen as automatic causes for suspicion.

I really don't know if Romney came by his wealth "honestly" or not, but his attitude toward his riches is concerning.

No country has achieved such broad-based prosperity as has America, or invented as many useful things, or seen as many people achieve personal promise. This is not an accident. It is the direct result of centuries lived by the free-market ethos embodied in the Judeo-Christian outlook.

I am not saying the free market wasn't apart of this, but the U.S. has also had many other advantages in achieving its prosperity including the slavery of thousands and thousands of natives and Africans for over 100 years (going back to before the revolution).

Furthermore, only a prosperous nation can protect itself from outside threats, for without prosperity the funds to support a robust military are unavailable. Having radically enlarged the welfare state and hoping to further expand it, President Obama is attempting to justify his cuts to our military by asserting that defense needs must give way to domestic programs.

I don't think Obama has to cut funding to either, as you can see in my posts about the deficit and the job guarantee program.

Both history and the Bible show the way that leads. Countries that were once economic powerhouses atrophied and declined, like England after World War II, once they began adopting socialism. Even King Solomon's thriving kingdom crashed once his son decided to impose onerous taxes.

I would hardly say England has atrophied and declined. It may no longer be the Empire of the world, but is that a bad thing? They are also much smaller and populated than the U.S., how have they 'declined'? And many socialists would be quite angry that you call their government 'socialism'. Again, I think there is an enormous leap here from Bible to big government=collapse that isn't really backed up by evidence.

At the end of Genesis, we hear how after years of famine the people in Egypt gave all their property to the government in return for the promise of food. The architect of this plan was Joseph, son of Jacob, who had risen to become the pharaoh's top official, thus: "Joseph exchanged all the land of Egypt for pharaoh and the land became pharaoh's." The result was that Egyptians became indentured to the ruler and state, and Joseph's descendants ended up enslaved to the state.

Many on the religious left criticize capitalism because all do not end up monetarily equal—or, as Churchill quipped, "all equally miserable." But the Bible's prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy's saying that "Judges and officers . . . shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not . . . favor one over the other." Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.

I agree that the Bible doesn't call for everyone to be monetarily equal. Rather, it calls for people to share from their abundance to take care of all humanity, because we are all in this together. So, if there is enormous inequality in capitalism and there are people dying of starvation, could we say that the rich are sharing as the Bible tells them to? The Bible says it's okay to own multiple homes while others are suffering because they can't find a job because capitalism doesn't offer everyone a job who wants to work?

The motive of capitalism's detractors is a quest for their own power and an envy of those who have more money. But envy is a cardinal sin and something that ought not to be.

Envy is a cardinal sin. But how is it envious to desire that the poor be given their dignity? I don't want socialism, but I'm not okay with justifying a system that consistently and atrociously denies a living to a great proportion of its people.

God begins the Ten Commandments with "I am the Lord your God" and concludes with "Thou shalt not envy your neighbor, not for his wife, nor his house, nor for any of his holdings." Envy is corrosive to the individual and to those societies that embrace it. Nations that throw over capitalism for socialism have made an immoral choice.

Envy is corrosive, but why is it capitalism or socialism? There aren't varying degrees of government involvement in between complete laissez-faire and complete authoritarianism? Nations that worship 'mammon' over God have made an immoral choice.

UPDATE: I failed to notice that the author of this article is a Jewish Rabbi. Much of what I said above may not apply to Judaism, I'm not really sure what they accept, if any, of Christ's teachings, or the New Testament. Still, he mentions Christianity, and I don't think the Old Testament is a big supporter of selfishness or accumulation of riches at the expense of others either.


  1. I agree with much of what you said, a couple of observations.

    1. Is it a sin to be rich when others are poor? If we are talking about owning most of the food when people are starving then, yeah. But is that what we are dealing with in the US? No, not really. We have token wealth which can buy goods and services. If the poor have enough of the tokens to buy the goods and services they need to survive,vthen what does it matter if some people have two or three houses? We should not be concerned with the difference between the top and bottom, just with raising the bottom.

    2. Who is the agent that should raise the bottom? I don't know if our government is capable of doing this. Our elected officials are too entrenched in funneling the money from people that did not vote for them to the people that did vote for them, to secure their vote for next time. Rich people should give, but not be forced to give with higher taxes. Then it ceases to be charity. Cardinal George does a good job. He hob nobs with the rich and then extols them to give by saying, "the poor need you to live, you need the poor to live eternally."

    3. Is it against the golden rule to make others pay higher taxes? This is an objection that has arisen in my mind that I have had trouble with. If I say, "it is unfair that I should pay 35% in taxes," how can I then turn to my neighbor and say, "you pay 35%!"

    4. Is there money spent elsewhere that could go to the poor? I know it sounds naive but couldn't we do something like, cut millions sent to Planned Parenthood and give it out in food stamps or welfare? Or after we end a war take the budget and put it toward charity? Why is it that when people are hurting that we turn to the rich and say, "you have too much!" We could easily just rearrange our budget and do it ourselves.

  2. On moral grounds, I think you are right, inequality is only a problem if it means that there are some who are not getting their needs met, but I'd point out that though that may or may not be as much of an issue in the United States (I would still argue needs aren't being met in the U.S.) it is a big problem around the world. I think we should be more concerned with raising the bottom of all people which is no small task. Income inequality can also lead to what Pope John Paul II called structures of sin in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

    On economic grounds income inequality leads to a whole bunch of other problems.

    I agree that our government is quite corrupt and very good at funneling funds to themselves. Taxes aren't charity, but what if private giving isn't enough? We should always work to make it enough and we shouldn't rely on the government to do it for us, but if we fall short should the government (the collective body of the people) not do something about it?

    Is it against the golden rule to have 3 houses when my neighbor can't afford healthcare or education or decent housing because he/she can't get a job because our economic system consistently fails to provide the jobs needed to provide for oneself and one's family?

    How I can I say I can own 3 houses because 'I've earned it' and you must suffer because you can't find work? How is that charitable? How is that loving your neighbor?

    Yes there is a lot of money spent elsewhere that could go to the poor (see campaign funding). Our economy needs more money spent to get back to full employment. The government can provide those funds without debt trouble because it is the issuer of the currency, while the private sector cannot. The government can spend more money on programs for the poor either by setting up a bureaucracy to do it themselves or by funneling those funds towards already set up private charities and it wouldn't have to cut back anywhere else. In fact, if it did it wouldn't help the economy at all, though it would help those in need.

    I think you see it as the poor demanding more from the rich because they feel entitled to more. I see it as a broken, unjust system that needs much repair. The rich get more than they deserve, more than they earned, and the poor get trapped in poverty circles through no or only some fault of their own. Private charity can be the fix, and I believe it to be the fix, what Jesus called us to do, but in a democratic system would you let the nation fall apart to corruption and violence and rioting because we feel on principle it is wrong to tax the rich more than the poor or to have any kind of welfare system?

  3. Oops! I thought I wrote a longer reply but it got lost. Let me just say that I think that it is the government's job to create a free society not a just society. It is up to Christians and Churches to make it just.

    Also the golden rule can never be applied to someone else and how they should use their money. It can only be applied to ourselves.

    Great Blog!

  4. I understand your position and I'm sorry if I seemed a little worked up over the topic. I feel that our current socioeconomic system is unjust and that the system needs correcting. One of the institutions we can make those changes through is the government. We can also do it through the church and other charitable institutions.

    But I feel that as is, our society is neither just, nor free and I don't think that scaling back government will make it either just or free.

    I agree we can't apply or enforce the golden rule on others. I think the question there is, is that their money? Are our laws of property ownership just? Do they make for freedom? Does our system promote just and free distribution of wealth? I would have nothing or very little if it weren't for our society. I have put in effort, but effort alone has not afforded me the luxuries and property that I own.

    I feel that pre-tax distribution of property is unjust, but I don't really like re-distribution through taxation. I would prefer it be done by individuals out of the kindness of the hearts, but I think we can make better rules or institutions through government to distribute more fairly before taxes and without then having to 'take' from others.

    Anyway, sorry for getting heated, and thanks for reading! I always enjoy your input, it helps me gain perspective and makes me more well-rounded.