Christianity and Capitalism: Part 1

*Posted by Joe Wooddell

In 2009 HarperCollins published a book by Jay Richards entitled Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. The title is, I assume, purposefully provocative. It certainly catches one’s attention, especially in a day and age when critics of capitalism abound.

This post is the first in a seven part series covering the main points of Richards’s book. In his introduction Richards maintains that in the twentieth century battle between communism and capitalism, capitalism won, communism was shown to be ineffective and even destructive, but its remnants remain up through today. Capitalism is blamed for everything from pollution to poverty, landfills to oppression, and for products we neither want nor need, but which are foisted on us by aggressive advertisers cluttering the landscape with billboards and the internet with trash. Every day, however, we willingly benefit from a capitalistic system, using credit cards, going to jobs, collecting salaries, and expecting raises to those salaries.

Christians, of course, are supposed to be altruistic, so when people like Ayn Rand argue that greed is a virtue we are rightly appalled. Capitalism, however, is not based on greed. There’s a difference between greed, selfishness, and self-interest. Neither greed nor selfishness is virtuous, but self-interest just is. I ate breakfast and got dressed this morning out of self-interest: I wanted to be fed and clothed, but I’m not greedy or selfish because of that. Some Christians have begun to study this system and have concluded that it makes sense. They now speak of business as a “calling” to the glory of God. This is not a “prosperity” or “name it, claim it” gospel. Rather, it is simply saying we are stewards of God’s resources – multiplying them via wealth creation – and we are created in His image, being sub-creators ourselves.

Richards’s first chapter treats what he calls the “Nirvana Myth,” the notion that we can bring heaven to earth. This is a dangerous fallacy. In fact, he cites sources which claim that between China, the Soviet Union, and other communist states in the twentieth century, communism claimed between 85 and 100 million lives, especially through starvation and murder. This system that was supposed to help humanity flourish ended up destroying the very people it aimed to benefit.

“But,” one might ask, “wasn’t the early church communist? Didn’t they have all things in common in Acts 4?” They certainly shared voluntarily, but some were still rich and others poor. There was no mandate from a central planner requiring that they “equalize” everything.

What about the communist experiment of the twentieth century? Richards rightly maintains, “Before trying to experiment with half of mankind, it might have been a good idea for communists to ask a few questions, like: What is man really like? What does the state have a right to change? What is within its power to change? What is beyond its control? And then they should have made sure those changes were for the better, not worse.” Then Richards says, “The communists tried to draw heaven down to earth. They brought up hell instead.”

People are fallen. “No one,” argues Richards, “is fit to be a benevolent dictator.” And finally, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.” We should do what we can to make things just, but “the worst way to do that is to try to create an egalitarian utopia.”

Thus ends the first chapter of Richards’s Money, Greed, and God, which I urge you to pick up and read. I don’t know Dr. Richards personally, I get nothing for promoting it, but his book is one of the best, most accessible defenses of capitalism (especially with believers in mind) I’ve ever read.

In the next six weeks I’ll cover the remaining seven chapters of his book at For Christ and Culture. The point this week should be obvious: the communist system, which requires an initial impetus by top-down central planners, has done incredible damage to states the world over. The warning for us today is to be aware of similar schemes. Good intentions are great – we all should have a heart for the poor, as did Jesus. But good intentions without sound economics, the rule of law, private property, and dispersed power structures are ineffective at best and devastating at worst.

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7 Responses to Christianity and Capitalism: Part 1

  1. Pat says:

    Thank you for doing this. I plan to follow and read the book also. I fully agree we must learn to defend all that we believe as this culture will cocntinue to change, but not for the better. It only took Jesus and 11 men to change the world. We have his Word and the Holy Spirit to guide us and I appreciate that He works through men like you.

    • jdwooddell says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree that things will continue to worsen until Christ’s return; I am a premillennialist. And with His Holy Spirit and His Word we can be salt and light and see pockets of positive change and revival, both spiritual and economic, even as things continue slipping. As I’ve mentioned before in other writings, it’s like knowing we’re sick or have a terminal disease and are going to die. That doesn’t mean we give up; we continue working for the best possible state of affairs.

  2. Willie says:

    I heard this piece on the radio and was happy to hear the discussion but I disagreed with several of the points. The conversation seems to equate critiques of Capitalism with support of Communism and that is just not the case. Also, Capitalism is not virtuous in and of itself. I DO believe it can be a better system than Communism with the right constraints. For example; Capitalism has no problem with slavery, child prostitution, child labor, legalized drugs, and illegal immigration. Because it is amoral, it is up to institutions like the Church to impose limits on it that reflect our values. That is where most of the limitations have historically come from. However, now the Market is everything and trumps the Church and family. I work in the public arena and I seldom hear the critiques he is talking about. All I ever hear and have heard is how wonderful Capitalism and the Market is and if anyone has a problem with some aspect, they are automatically branded a Communist. I don’t think that is good for our Democracy or for Capitalism.

    • jdwooddell says:

      Thanks for commenting, Willie. What I’m doing is going through Richards’s book, and he starts off by addressing Communism. I certainly wouldn’t pose such a false dichotomy, nor does he. You are correct that we need not only freedom but virtue. But be careful: virtue is not a way to “constrain” Capitalism; rather it is simply a way to live rightly. We need both freedom and virtue. Capitalism is not anarchy. As this series goes along, if you follow it, you’ll hear mentioned the rule of law, property rights, diligence, thrift, delayed gratification, etc. We also must promote “natural law” in terms of not murdering, stealing, or coveting, etc. I hope this helps. I appreciate the angle you are taking.

      • “It is also necessary for the virtues to be a good thing (for those who have them are in a sound condition as a result of them, and they also tend to produce good things and lead to actions . . .” (Aristotle).

  3. Jim says:

    A definition of capitalism and communism might be helpful. For example, it’s clear that there has ever really been a ‘true’ communist state.

    • jdwooddell says:

      Yes, thank you Jim. Communism wants to do away with private property and have the state own everything. Everything is “common.” I assume you meant to say there has “never” been a true communist state, and you are correct; they never got to that utopian ideal. Capitalism is when private individuals or entities (not the state) own the capital necessary for production. It’s not a perfect system, but the best “live option.” And if the rule of law and property rights exist, along with personal virtue, it fares much better at helping the poor. In fact, when coupled with the rule of law and property rights, capitalism forces producers of goods and services to act in the best interests of the consumer, even when the producer doesn’t feel like it, since if he doesn’t act in the consumer’s best interests, the consumer will go elsewhere. I appreciate the comment.

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