Captialism and Christianity: Pulling on Both Oars

by Robert Bachelder

Mr. Bachelder, who has worked in banking, in 1987 was minister of Worcester City Missionary Society (United Church of Christ) in Worcester, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 19-26, 1990, pps. 1194-1197. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The churches have determined wrongly that modern political economy is incompatible with biblical religion and thus to be dismissed from Christian consciousness.

A battle has been joined that is reminiscent of an earlier episode in church history. Fundamentalists and modernists in the oldline Protestant churches once disputed the proper relationship between religion and science, or between scriptural revelation and a rationalist outlook inherited from the Enlightenment. That fight was resolved in favor of the modernists who maintained that God’s revelation is ongoing, that religion and science are not inherently irreconcilable, and that the tension between the two ought to elicit discussion and reflection rather than the abandonment of one subject or the other.

Fundamentalists and modernists of a different kind are at it again. This time the issue is the relationship between religion and economics, and now the "fundamentalists" are in control of the oldline denominations both in the local church and at the judicatory level. The work of these churches in economic policy is usually criticized because it is politically too far to the left of center or socialist. The more salient criticism, however, is theological: the churches have determined wrongly that modern political economy is incompatible with biblical religion and thus to be dismissed from Christian consciousness.

This account may sound implausible because on other topics, such as human sexuality, these churches are accused of exalting social-scientific descriptions of human experience at the expense of scriptural norms. But while it is hard to imagine theologians writing scientific papers that use the Bible’s cosmology or creation account in a literal way, as though Copernicus or Darwin never lived, theologians and clergy abound who accept the Bible’s communitarian social framework as normative for political-economic analysis today. They either write as though Adam Smith never existed, or else they caricature his views in the way that William Jennings Bryan lampooned Darwin in the infamous Scopes trial. They do not concern themselves with the Enlightenment’s penetrating question about economics: How do societies generate wealth? Nor do they accept the discovery, confirmed by recent developments in Eastern Europe and even more poignantly by recent difficulties in Sweden, that societies must provide the freedom and incentives for individuals and groups to invent and innovate.

The new biblicism shows itself at both a theoretical and a practical level. The United Church of Christ’s study paper, Christian Faith and Economic Life (1987), for example, declares that the purpose of the church’s political advocacy must be "to achieve the biblical concept of economic justice." Drawing on the biblical motifs of community and solidarity, the document formulates several principles of economic justice and then advocates community interests above private interests, and calls for public ownership and worker management in corporations. Although the paper employs some materials from contemporary economics, they are used to buttress its theological contentions in the way that creationists use bits of science to support their claim that the Bible is a scientific textbook. The paper does acknowledge that the productivity of the modern corporation must be preserved, but this bald statement is never developed nor are its implications explored.

It would be one thing if such biblicism were limited to denominational studies and pronouncements, but it also informs the public action of many clergy. Last spring the budget for human services and public education in Massachusetts was threatened with devastating cuts because of a shortfall in revenues. Advocates of these interests urged the legislature to adopt a new tax package, and clergy across the state decided to weigh in loudly with the protax advocates. In an example of the straight-line thinking that is characteristic of economic biblicism, clergy in one city purchased a newspaper advertisement that began by citing biblical references about the obligation to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:16 and Matt. 19: 19), stressed the importance of community, and then recommended a tax increase to fund human services.

I was as eager as anyone to see these services continue, and I supported a tax increase. My agency was launching the first housing program in the state for women and children infected with the HIV virus, and projected cuts in state housing subsidies would have reduced its potential size. Nevertheless, the clergy’s approach disturbed me because it did not try to understand or respond to the position of the antitax forces who thought that new levies would impede economic growth at just the time it was most needed. Instead of arguing that the antitax case was weak, the clergy tended to dismiss their opponents as greedy and uncaring. By pressing the ancient moral criterion of equity while refusing to discuss the economic criterion of growth, the clergy in effect revived a medieval understanding of faith as intellectual sacrifice. It is not surprising that Protestant laity listen to their churches’ pronouncements on economic issues with the disdain evinced by American Roman Catholics for their church’s teaching about human sexuality.

0pposed to biblicism is the approach taken by revisionist theologians such as James Gustafson and David Tracy. They argue that theology must be correlated with general human experience and understanding. A revisionist perspective on economics might not see Christianity and capitalism as inherently irreconcilable. As A. James Reichley observes in Religion in American Public Life:

Capitalism and theist-humanist religion will always be to some degree in tension ... [but] this tension need not be hostile and may be both socially and morally productive. To the extent that it promotes theist-humanist values, religion supplies moral qualities that capitalism needs for survival and that counter its dehumanizing tendencies. Capitalism, in turn, creates the economic base on which may be built, with guidance from religion and democracy, a more humane society of the kind called for by both Christian and Jewish traditions.

This approach, with its qualified openness to economic modernity, has a long and distinguished history in the American church. Perceiving constructive possibilities as well as moral peril in the free markets that were replacing the Calvinist economic edifice and its regulated "just price" toward the end of the 17th century in Massachusetts, the Puritan clergy sought to synthesize their communitarian social ethic with the emerging individualist business ethic that accented competitiveness and aggressiveness. Cotton Mather used the analogy of a person in a boat having to pull on both oars in order to reach a destination. Since then clergy in many pulpits have articulated what Washington Gladden was to call the doctrine of the "socialized individual," exhorting society to balance capitalism and its emphasis on self-interest with religion and its traditional emphasis on the public welfare. Without exaggerating its influence, we can say that this ministry is one reason the U.S. has a mixed economic system that acknowledges the value of equity as well as efficiency, and a business establishment that acknowledges its responsibility to society as well as to its shareholders.

Of course, this account of the oldline Protestant ministry of economics is too sanguine. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great modernist at New York’s Riverside Church, preached a sermon titled. "The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism" because he observed a tendency for religion to accommodate itself too thoroughly to the scientific outlook, sacrificing its distinctive insights. Similarly, the churches have at times accommodated themselves all too well to the capitalist spirit, as in Bishop William Lawrence’s claims early in this century in World’s Work: "We believe in the harmony of God’s universe ... Godliness is in league with riches." Pulling solely on the oar of capitalist individualism results in nihilism, as it did in the Gilded Age and in the 1920s and ‘80s, and is no more satisfactory than trying to steer society by the oar of Christian communitarianism. A revisionist perspective tries to keep both oars moving.

When the church addresses public economic issues from a revisionist perspective, it presses the biblical imperative for justice while simultaneously accepting modern economic insights into the nature of productivity and growth. It understands with economist Alan Blinder that two questions must be asked about any proposed economic policy: Does it redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, and does it improve the market’s efficiency?

As Blinder points out, some policies flunk on both counts. Protectionism, for example, not only tends to damage efficiency but redistributes wealth from consumers to rich owners and workers whose wages are well above average. Other policies pass on both counts: the comprehensive tax reform passed during the Reagan years improved economic incentives by closing tax loopholes and lowering marginal rates, while it also protected the poor by raising the personal exemption. But then there are controversial policies which further efficiency at the expense of equality (as was true for the personal tax cuts of 1981-4) or vice versa. In these cases the practical difference between biblicists and revisionists emerges. Faced with a conflict between two legitimate goals, the revisionist’s position is unpredictable since he or she faces the dilemma squarely, reserves judgment, allows the problem to stimulate fresh thinking and conversation and finds ways to minimize the negative effect of any tradeoff. Biblicists are spared such mental aerobics since they have rejected efficiency as an important value in the first place. For the the issue is not what to think but how best to mobilize social-action networks behind the policy choice instantly assumed to be fair and just, and how best to collaborate with other like-minded advocacy groups.

If revisionists manage someday to recapture denominational offices and pulpits in large number, the churches will be less concerned to prescribe and implement theologically correct views and more interested in equipping people to do their own thinking about questions of economic policy. As the English economist and churchman D. L. Munby noted when Anglican bishops were debating responses to inflation in the late 1950s: "What is needed is not a dose of moral authority, but a careful discrimination to discern the real moral issues involved." The most important contribution the churches could make, Munby maintained, would be to convene theologians and economists to prepare and circulate a report outlining the various technical approaches to dealing with inflation and showing for each the political and moral choices that lay behind it. Comparable reports on issues of current concern would be received gratefully by many conscientious laypeople who, quite understandably, ignore current denominational literature and imperatives.

Biblicists will no doubt reject this approach as being wishy-washy and insufficiently prophetic, just as some activists have criticized Riverside Church’s proposed "center for health of the city," a think tank on urban problems. However, as James Sanders wrote in Torah and Canon: "The true prophet does not engage in political diatribe to provide a rallying point for a particular course of action ... he questions all the powers that be in the name of the one power beyond them." Such an approach requires more courage than fiery denunciations of greed and injustice; subjecting all positions in a policy debate to critical theological and moral scrutiny risks offending everyone.

Still, a revisionist perspective occasionally will take the church beyond strict neutrality. As ethicist John Bennett once noted in the context of a discussion of national-security concerns, the church sometimes needs to emphasize those moral elements which governments are most tempted to neglect. Such emphasis is needed now on equity. But that does not mean ignoring the efficiency question. As former Nixon economics adviser Herbert Stein observed, President Bush has made economic growth the acid test by which every other policy is to be judged, believing that such growth will permit progress on other fronts, including raising the standard of living for the poor. The relevant question here, Stein said, is whether devoting resources to increasing economic growth is a better way of uplifting the poor than devoting those resources directly to such a purpose. He noted that real GNP increased by two-thirds. between 1970 and 1988, but the proportion of the population in poverty did not decrease. He concluded that while government should be trying to spur economic growth, it also ought to give more direct attention to "the provision of opportunity for the very poor to lift themselves out of poverty."

Clergy and church officials should press this formulation on business and political leaders who, despite all the claims that the mainline has become sideline, are still found in disproportionate numbers in the oldline churches. This formula satisfies the criterion set out by the late Paul Ramsey for the churches’ social teaching: it steers between the extremes of irrelevant generalities and relevant particularities that are beyond the churches’ competence. Carrying the churches’ traditional concern for justice without disavowing the modern economic language of growth and efficiency, the formula also has the potential to spark genuine conversation between religious leaders and those who make or influence policy.

That conversation is what is at issue in today’s dispute between biblicists and revisionists. Are the oldline Protestant churches going to resume their constructive, culture-shaping public ministry of economics? Or will those churches now complete their sectarian withdrawal from the arena of public debate as their theologians and activists go on speaking to themselves as though they were living 350 years ago and economics were just a branch of biblical ethics? The revisionist project in economics directly addresses this challenge. For now, its proponents are a small minority, and they find themselves asking Fosdick’s famous question: shall the fundamentalists win?