Where Do the Gospels Endorse Capitalism?

Kevin Drum watched Rick Warren talk about economic issues on a Sunday show–on Easter Sunday, no less–and wonders, this morning, exactly where Warren would find biblical support for his belief that helping the poor via public services would “rob them of their dignity.”

The short answer, Kevin, is that there’s not any.

Now that’s not the same as saying the Bible lays out a clear-cut religious mandate for a social democratic regime or any other particular form of political economy. Lest we forget, even the most recent chapters of the Good Book were written by and for people living in a relatively primitive agricultural economy and under relatively demanding and arbitrary public authorities claiming (and often embodying) divine sanction.

But in any event, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are sufficiently loaded with injunctions to social justice, condemnations of idle and conspicuous wealth, and identification of righteousness with concern for the welfare of people in need that you might say the burden of proof for the godliness of anything approaching laissez-faire capitalism is pretty heavy.

Some conservatives of a religious bent seek to radically distinguish between personal charity and public assistance and argue that the latter undermines the former. Others have developed theologies that treat private wealth as signs of divine favor. Still others have excoriated efforts to “redistribute income” as public reflections of the private sins of theft or envy. Perhaps the most common Christian Right rationalization of economic conservatism is that a state that can “confiscate” income has the power to justify wickedness (e.g., legalization of abortion and same-sex relationships) or oppress the righteous. And in a less articulate way, cultural conservatives of every stamp naturally prefer the economic arrangments of the 1950s or 1930s or 1880s just as they prefer the family structure and moral codes of bygone days.

Roman Catholics have a more complicated path to membership in a conservative coalition that includes and is financed by plutocrats and their apologists, thanks to a reasonably rich heritage of social justice teachings and (in this country at least) a history of solidarity with the working class. Many wonder why, for example, the Bishops seem absorbed with reversing a contraception coverage mandate for non-church entities instead of fighting for social justice in an increasingly unequal society. The official and not inherently irrational answer is typically that protecting the lives of the unborn (which is at stake because the contraception mandate includes medications and devices the Church considers abortifacients) is a threshold issue for any just society, more fundamental than economic arrangements, as is protecting the autonomy of the Church itself (supposedly in jeopardy if Catholic hospitals, charities, or even individual employers are forced to violate the moral law).

Suffusing all these issues is a strong tendency among Christian conservatives to apply all the biblical passages providing encouragement for the afflicated and the persecuted to themselves, strange as it may seem. Much of the over-the-top language of the Christian Right, in fact, is part of a difficult but psychologically essential effort to turn comfortable white suburban believers into the wretched of the earth, hounded by powerful secular elites and their corrupt poor-and-minority clients into subjection. Enter one of those brightly colored evangelical megachurches and attend closely and you will catch more than a whiff of the Catacombs. It’s no accident that Christian Right leaders like James Dobson just love to compare themselves to the brave rebels of the German Confessing Church, and why nothing thrills the rank-and-file quite like those viral emails suggesting that Obama is plotting to ban religious broadcasts or even herd martyrs into concentration camps. A lot of today’s Christian conservatives are feeling too much pity for themselves to share much with the poor, who generally vote wrong and can be dismissed as pawns of the Evil One.

It does take a lot of self-deception to read the Bible regularly and come away not only believing but preaching that Ayn Rand was basically right, except for her atheism. But it seems a remarkable number of American religious leaders are up to the task.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.