Virtual Voices

Can a Christian be a capitalist?

Religion

A recent survey claims that a plurality of Americans believe Christian values are at odds with capitalism. That left me wondering whether we first ought to ask whether Americans even know what Christianity and capitalism are. When one learns that one's accountant espies a deep conflict between Newtonian physics and Jungian psychology, one is right to ask what he knows of velocity and synchronicity, and whether he ought not busy himself doing one's taxes rather than spouting off to someone taking a survey.

The two ideas seem simple enough. Christians follow Jesus and capitalists make trades. Except that we all know professing Christians who-were you to lay it out for them-would balk at some elements of the Nicene Creed, and you can't throw a stick down Wall Street (the reader may linger on that pleasurable thought) without hitting some well-heeled beneficiary of taxpayer welfare.

You can offer up your life to Christ without understanding Christian dogma, just as you can be a masterful entrepreneur without being able to articulate the concept of subjective gains from trade. The survey-taker might get a fruitful answer by asking how your prayer life is going, or whether you made money last quarter, but he ought not conclude that a tuna knows the first thing about lunar tides and currents.

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It's a poorly formulated question, and it might be better asked this way: "Can a Christian be a capitalist without becoming a hypocrite?" I believe the answer is yes, for four reasons.

1. Christianity is rooted in liberty.

God does not force anyone to love Him. We are free to choose life or death, salvation or damnation. Creation is a gift from God, and we are invited to walk in it by His grace and thereby make our way toward paradise or perdition.

Meanwhile, the only alternative to free markets is coercion. If a gang of smart guys dislikes what happens when people freely gather to exchange goods and services, their only option is to get some guns and forbid the exchanges they dislike. Every economic system other than capitalism depends, at its root, on smart people with guns telling the rest of us what to do.

2. Christianity was established in sympathy.

Michael Novak called sympathy "a high moral art," and distinguished it from self-centered empathy, wherein we imagine someone's experiences are our own. Christ didn't engage in empathy; He engaged in sympathy. He became fully man, fully sympathetic with our plight, and thus fully engaged in our suffering and redemption.

Meanwhile, a good entrepreneur exercises sympathy. Unlike the paternalistic socialist, he does not limit himself to asking what is best for his fellow man, but asks what his fellow man truly wants. The socialist (and the bad businessman) tries to remake man against his will, while the successful entrepreneur gets to know what man truly is and wants, and therefore is much better equipped to meet him where he is.

3. Christianity was born in community.

We find, in the Nicene Creed and in the broad narrative of the Bible, community. The Trinity is community. God calls us to community with Him. He calls us into community with one another.

For all their posing as communitarians, advocates of alternatives to capitalism-in practice if not theory-inevitably foment isolation and oppression. In East Germany, North Korea, the former Soviet Union, and the failed communes of Western utopians, we find a common theme: Noble aspirations give way to shirking and selfishness, which give way to policing and punishment, all of which destroy trust and social bonds.

While capitalism is most frequently depicted in movies by the worst behaviors of Wall Street cretins, in practice it is more fully evinced by Main Street, where trust, cooperation, and shared experience characterize economic relationships, all of them lending themselves to a richer community.

4. Christianity is the story of Creation.

Most discoveries occur where people have the liberty to experiment and the opportunity to personally benefit from their accomplishments. The two great oppressive systems of economic organization in the 20th century-fascism and socialism-both subverted science while eviscerating the connection between personal creation and personal economic gain. Not surprisingly, both excelled at destructive innovations (think Nazi V-1 rockets and Soviet techniques to brush out of photographs any followers who ran afoul of Lenin and Stalin). Meanwhile, their people languished in economic and spiritual deprivation.

The true capitalist (as opposed to some bozo who makes big, ill-advised bets and then trusts his political contacts to bail him out) is a creator. She brings together an idea with resources, and takes the risk upon herself of combining those resources in a way that creates new and exceptional value for others. In so doing she participates in the first great calling of man by God, which was to labor alongside Him in creation.

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