Capitalism Is an Insidious Secularising Force
It’s remarkable that while other developments of modernity, including scientific naturalism, Freudian psychology, and Marxism were quickly recognized as threats to the Christian worldview, evangelical Christians have been much more welcoming of economic liberalism and the free-market economy, seeing these forces as morally neutral or even as supporting the cause of the gospel. This can be traced to several factors: capitalism’s lack of an explicitly anti-Christian ideology or metaphysic, its inarguable effectiveness in generating national prosperity, and the need to resist the spectre of godless Communism.
In the United States, wealthy industrial interests opposed to the New Deal deliberately sought to purchase the support of conservative Christians. Flush with their monetary support, James W. Fifield Jr., pastor of the largest Congregational church in the world, launched the Spiritual Mobilization movement to attack the welfare state, labour rights, and the Social Gospel, and to win Americans over to Christian libertarianism. As one critic cynically observed, “these groups do as much proselytising for Adam Smith and the National Association of Manufacturers as they do for Christianity.”¹
In the 1950s, Billy Graham took up this mantle, with the support of Texas oil billionaire Sid Richardson. In a 1951 crusade, he spoke of “the dangers that face capitalistic America,” urging the crowd to embrace “the rugged individualism that Christ brought”.² The fusion of neoliberalism with the gospel was completed in the 1970s and 1980s in the alliance of convenience between the Moral Majority and corporate interests in the Republican Party.
As a result, theologically conservative American Christians overwhelmingly support unrestricted free enterprise. But despite this identification of neoliberal economics with the biblical worldview, capitalism has been a powerful force of secularization in the modern world, all the more so because its adherents have adopted it so uncritically. With effort, other facets of modernity can be avoided, but because it is virtually impossible to opt out of the market, its assumptions affect everyone on the globe.
In The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish political economist Adam Smith proposed that “the invisible hand” of market forces was all that was needed to equitably balance competing self-interests. Outside interference, by the state or the community, would only introduce inefficiencies into a self-correcting system. Whatever Smith’s personal religious views may have been, this was an essentially Deistic understanding of economics. If God existed, he stood aloof from the economic process while blind economic laws ensured order, growth and prosperity.
In the Middle Ages, religious concerns were fundamental to the economic order. After the disruption of the Protestant Reformation, and especially following the religious wars of the seventeenth century, religion lost its plausibility as a unifying social and organising principle. Economic liberalism offered an appealing alternative that did not require a religious justification. The free market offered the hope for a society based on toleration, liberty, and cooperation for mutual advantage, without the need for government coercion. Montesquieu, for example, “praised trade as a civilizing force that contributed to overcoming barbarism, calming aggression, and refining manners”.³ After all, people can participate in the free market despite radically different convictions about God, religion, and society. Economic liberalism thus secularised much of public and social life, relegating spiritual and ethical concerns to the realm of private morality.
“The Laws of Economics are statements of tendencies expressed in the indicative mood, and not ethical precepts in the imperative,” Alfred Marshall wrote in 1890, in the preface to his hugely influential Principles of Economics.⁴ Questions of the ultimate good and the cultivation of appropriate virtue in a just society had been seen as central concerns of economy since Aristotle. These concerns were now relegated to the private world of values; the science of economics was henceforth to be situated firmly within the public world of brute facts. This secularisation was unwittingly aided by evangelical Christians. Although Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and the other magisterial Reformers were deeply concerned with the ordering of church and society, as were the English and American Puritans in the following century, by the time of the Great Awakening evangelical Protestants were focused instead on individual conversion, subjective experience, and personal piety, thus effectively ceding the public square to secular economics.
Christian thinkers had traditionally been deeply suspicious of self-interest, as a threat to the soul and society. But under capitalism, rational self-interest is elevated to the supreme principle of economic behaviour. The natural laws of supply and demand, free from interference, would create efficient exchanges in which buyer and seller would mutually benefit, despite each acting entirely in self-interest.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Adam Smith famously wrote. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” The justification for this system is that social good is an emergent property of mass self-interest, when allowed to operate efficiently. “By pursuing his own interest,” Adam Smith argued, the individual “frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”⁵ Free-market capitalism lacks a compelling vision of the common good, emphasising instead the maximisation of individual self-interest. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously declared in 1987.⁶ The tragic result is massive inequality, with the world’s eight wealthiest individuals controlling the same wealth as the world’s three billion poorest people.⁷
Because its underlying assumptions are fundamentally godless, Craig Gay observes, “the market economy is one of the most significant ‘carriers’ of secularity and practical atheism in contemporary society and culture.”⁸ Since most of human life is now taken up in economic production and consumption, our attention is irresistibly dominated by material conditions. Questions of ultimate ends are ignored in favour of rationalising economic processes to ever more efficient ends, and human beings begin to think of themselves as little more than economic machines. Once the assumptions of the market economy are taken for granted, other forms of practical atheism will take root.
It is not hard to see the relationship between naturalistic determinism and the invisible hand of the market, or between economic self-interest and sexual hedonism. The market economy creates a habit of mind wherein the claims of Christianity are not only implausible, but simply irrelevant to the real business of life. Thus Peter Berger argues that “economic data on industrial productivity or capital expansion can predict the religious crisis of credibility in a particular society more easily than data derived from the ‘history of ideas’ of that society”.⁹
How should Christians respond to the market economy? Because of its pervasiveness, Christians who wish to engage in their societies cannot avoid participating in it — there are no plausible alternatives.¹⁰ We must learn how to participate in the system as salt and light in the kingdom. Kathryn Tanner states,
I am trying to show how Christianity can form resistant subjects, that is, how it can form people whose fundamental understanding of themselves, for specifically Christian reasons, does not line up with the demands capitalism makes on them… One can therefore hope that fundamentally different expectations of persons, on Christian grounds, can gum the system up, by helping to deprive the system of the willing subjects upon which it depends.¹¹
This requires a serious program of comprehensive discipleship, since the evangelical church (especially in North America) has uncritically, and enthusiastically, endorsed the free market. Indeed, much of the church has been absorbed into its machinery, as megachurches compete for consumers by offering worship spectacles and engaging programs tailored to the felt needs of the religious consumer, as determined by market research. Thus even Christians who would be considered highly engaged based on church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, charity and evangelism, act as economic agents in ways barely distinguishable from their non-religious neighbours.
For this to change, churches must prioritise Kingdom discipleship that engages all of life, with sustained attention on our economic activities. The assumption that God is only concerned about the private sphere and individual souls must be rejected as deeply secular and unchristian. Systems that are godless and soulless inevitably become inhumane and oppressive. Increasingly, the rewards of global capitalism are enjoyed by the few, as the masses struggle to survive on the edge of poverty.
God’s will for Israel as a holy society in contrast to the nations included explicit instructions regarding economic justice to protect and provide for the most vulnerable members of society. Most remarkably, the Jubilee provided for the cancellation of debts and the return of land to struggling families. As Paul Williams observes, “The system exists to protect the ability of people to serve God in community and recognises that persons have their identity in community, not in isolation from others. The social goal of this biblical vision is not economic growth or efficiency but relational peace or shalom.”¹²
A genuine Christian vision of economic life thus affirms the dignity of every human being as a person created in the image of God. In self-giving grace to the undeserving, God in Christ has forgiven our debts and called us into a new community marked by love, grace and justice. Our economic activity is thus deeply moral and relational, and although its purpose includes reasonable self-interest, this is transcended by care for the poor, concern for the common good, and ultimately, the glory of God. When these kingdom values are embodied in creative ways by Christians in the marketplace, Christians can offer a far more compelling vision of human flourishing than the soulless and inhumane machinery of modern capitalism.
- Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books: 2015), 27–29.
- Kruse, 91.
- Jürgen Kocka, Capitalism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 102.
- Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics: An Introductory Volume (London: Macmillan, 1890), 1.
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776), book IV, chapter II, paragraph IX.
- Margaret Thatcher, “AIDS, Education and the Year 2000!”, Woman’s Own (31 October 1987), accessed March 10, 2021. www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689.
- Oxfam Briefing Paper, “An Economy for the Ninety-nine Percent” (Oxford: Oxfam, 2017), accessed March 10, 2021. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/economy-99.
- Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans: 1998), 132.
- Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Open Road Media: 2011), 151.
- Nevertheless, there is much to learn from Hutterite and Mennonite communities and their vision of common life. Perhaps Christianity has always needed a small minority to withdraw from the world in order to teach the rest of us how to engage in it more faithfully.
- Tanner, “Can Christianity be a counterforce to finance capitalism?” Christian Century, January 9, 2019. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/interview/can-christianity-be-counterforce-finance-capitalism
- Paul Williams, “Capitalism, Religion, and the Economics of the Biblical Jubilee”. Cardus. July 12, 2013. https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/capitalism-religion-and-the-economics-of-the-biblical-jubilee/