Christianity vs. Capitalism

by Cory Bushman

Capitalism is one of the many economic and social systems that exist within the context of modern day society. Capitalism is defined as a “system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit, and in which investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are determined through the operation of a market economy.” For many, capitalism—like democracy—has become something that is loved, revered, and worshiped. Writer and political activist, Michael Harrington wrote, “One of the things capitalism brought into the world was democracy, though I do not think the two are inseparable.”

The belief that democracy and capitalism are inseparable stems from 19th century Britain where there was widespread development of industrial capitalism, which coincided with a movement of increased democracy. However, it is important to note that communist societies, like the system of industrial capitalism, were based on the exploitation of labor, and were a form of state capitalism.

It may be argued that 20th century capitalism is the cause of a decrease in infant mortality, extended life expectancy, increased literacy rates, access to better nutrition, and an overall increased standard of living. History has acted as witness to the exploitation of capitalist systems in the form of colonialism, imperialism, the repression of workers, genocide, war, the unspeakable environmental impacts, the advent of a consumer over citizen based culture, and the targeting of anyone who dares to question the existing system. Capitalism has successfully followed in the footsteps of communist Russia and deemed those who question the economic order, “enemies of the people.”

Ayn Rand, one of the biggest supporters of laissez-faire capitalism wrote, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.” Altruism is the selfless concern for the welfare of others. As Christians, can we afford to live in a society that prohibits us to have selfless concern for the welfare of others? Can we go on worshiping an economic system, which fundamentally cannot co-exist with the roots of our own core beliefs? In St. Matthew 6:33 it reads, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Can we be devout followers of capitalism and follow the teachings of Christ found in the Sermon on the Mount?

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma wrote of a more egalitarian system, in reference to the Nephites, “…and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely. (Alma 1:26-27) This ancient Nephite society represents a people who put Christ’s teachings about their personal economic pursuits. They preemptively followed Christ’s plea to “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” (St. Matthew 5:42)

In his book A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut wrote of a modern day figure who, followed altruistic pursuits over capitalistic ones. Powers Hapgood, was a Hoosier idealist, Harvard graduate, and middle-class socialist who was dedicated to economic justice. Hapgood inherited his family’s successful cannery in Indianapolis, which he turned over to the employees who initially ruined it. As an official of the CIO, he was called into question after a dust-up on a picket line. During the court proceedings, the judge stopped everything and asked Powers, “Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you’re a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Hapgood answered the judge: “Why, because the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

We are not sheep lost in the wilderness. We have been blessed with a roadmap, including the scriptures and a modern day prophet. God has not asked us to acquire as much wealth as possible, but to work hard and to take care of our brothers and sisters. In St. Matthew 6:33 we are told to “…seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” and that we would be blessed in doing so. St. Matthew 6:21 boldly reads, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Poet, novelist and painter, Herman Hesse wrote, “One must start with the impossible in order to reach the possible.” It is my belief that there are other economic and social systems in existence and yet to be created that would more easily allow for the teachings of Christ to be followed than capitalism. We may have to begin with goals that may appear impossible in order to achieve a greater goal of creating a society that will allow individuals to better live the teachings of Christ.

Howard Zinn lends hope on this impossible / possible goal in his book, A People’s History of the United States:

“We would need—by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country—to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most. We would start on our neighborhoods, our cities, our workplaces. Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force—children, old people, “handicapped” people. Society could use the enormous energy now idle, the skills and talents now unused. Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and available—free—to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.”