Christian Leadership and Capitalism

Are Christian leaders/pastors invested in the success of capitalism? 

An honest answer must be yes and no.

First, the yes. Capitalism is devoted to the concept of self-interest. (See Alan Greenspan’s comments here.) And Christianity teaches that at heart, most people are all about self-interest. Thus capitalism works because it  appeals to that which is most basic to humanity, self-interest, just like Christianity predicts. 

However, that does not mean it is the preferred way of living. And here is the no. Christianity is all about change. The Christian leader/pastor hopes to be able to lead people into a changed life-style where acting in self-interest is no longer the dominant way of thinking, replaced instead with the values of Christ.

Christian leader/pastors start with the idea that appealing to the self-interest of others is the best way to reach people who do not share their commitment to Christian teaching. Disaster occurs when they allow their organizations to remain stuck there.

4 thoughts on “Christian Leadership and Capitalism

  1. This is a semi-rambling, thinking-while-writing response, so bear with me.

    Self-interest is a tricky term here. Capitalism is not driven purely by self-interest. The desire to make money can also be for one’s family. Who hasn’t dreamed of making big $$ in order to help their friends and family, or to give their children the best possible life?

    Nevertheless, I think this can still be critiqued from a Christian perspective…even a dog cares for her pups. And, in turn, one may argue that “care for one’s family” is the exception, not the rule.

    As you’ve presented it, Christianity shouldn’t support the success of capitalism, Christianity simply predicts the success of capitalism. Of course, you could argue that Christians want capitalism to succeed because it is an impressive engine for wealth creation and can bring people out of poverty.

    But how far does the attempt at change go? Does the church seek to undermine the capitalist drive in society, or just the church? Surely, we don’t want people to be selfish, and we clearly don’t want society to go too far down the Ayn Rand road (e.g., – Ayn Rand hated charity). But we also don’t want people to be in poverty.

    I think we have a kind of dilemma, or what on the surface looks like a contradiction: If the church predicts that capitalism will work, shouldn’t it support capitalism wholeheartedly, even while criticizing it and working to destroy what drives it? Or perhaps the driving force behind capitalism doesn’t have to be selfishness. In logical language, selfishness is a sufficient condition, but not a necessary condition, for the success of capitalism. Can desire to do one’s best, even justice (one being given one’s due based on one’s work, not on one’s need…), and mercy (…so that one can freely give to those according to their need) be the driving force of capitalism? If so, then the church is not really against capitalism, but against its present driving force.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the marketing aspect of the church. I’m afraid that most of our churches don’t have much else to offer than an appeal to self-interest. I don’t think this is purely the fault of any individual church, but is in large part due to the shattered nature of the church. Do churches not function in a capitalist way? Seeking to get people into their churches? If so, then how will they interact with those without faith? Is it not in the same way?

    So, a further problem develops. Churches are driven by self-interest (of the corporation), and feel they must be so in order to exist and carry out their vision. How can a church critique and seek to transform something that they must do themselves in order to survive? Are we less culpable because, as individuals, we seek to be kind, even while, as a group, we act in collective self-interest against the church down the block (or the other denomination, etc.)?

  2. Travis,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. You write: “Capitalism is not driven purely by self-interest.” This would contradict Greespan’s description, “individuals and private enterprises are allowed to pursue their self-interest.” Would you agree there is a distinction between the function of a philosophy, in this case self-interest, and the motivation for its adoption, which as you state can be multitudinous?

    Your question about how far should Christianity go in its attempt to initiate change is of course quite interesting! I’d respond that a better economic system than captialism cannot be embraced until there is a change of heart, attitude and behavior. I suggest this is the logical conclusion of adopting a traditional Christian view of the nature of humanity.

    In the large scheme of things Christianity is about the reclamation of Creation to the Creator. Captialism may be used as a tool in that process (i.e. the creation of wealth whwich then should be distributed according to Kingdom values) but certainly must be seen as something transitory at best.

    Closely related to Captialism is consumerism, which to my mind, is more of a mind-set than a functioning economic system and also more inimical to Christian teaching on community, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. I agree with the problem of consumerism. I would also add that capitalism seems especially prone to encouraging consumerism.

    Let me try to be a bit clearer, though, about my concerns here.

    When one speaks of a more equitable economic system (which is what I’m guessing you’re suggesting), then I can only assume that we’re speaking of something in which finances are more distributed according to need. I believe one of the inherent weakness of such a system is that it is also a problem vis-a-vis Christianity.

    I think two connected problems arise, related to the idea of personal significance:
    1) When one receives something according to need, rather than as a “just” due for his/her work, this can be demoralizing. When receiving from someone with a face, the receiver of the gift can be thankful to a person (or a known community), and in the acts of receiving and giving a relationship is formed. One cannot form a relationship with a faceless, impersonal group (such as, say, the federal gov’t). So the demoralizing aspect of feeling like someone who only takes from the community without giving back cannot easily be overcome (if at all).
    2) The second one I mentioned in the above post. To be significant means, at a very basic level, “to act on the world, and have the world react appropriately.” When the world reacts very little, we feel (or actually are) less significant in that particular realm. When one works, the reaction of the world is usually in some kind of honoring. For most work, it is monetary (for pro bono work, it is usually some other kind of honoring). If the rule is that one’s need is that in which one’s significance is grounded, then one’s significance has nothing to do with one’s activities. Thus, I am significant because of my lacks, not because of my work, my activity.

    Now, perhaps, Christians can simply say, “You are not significant, except insofar as God loves you. Therefore, do not find significance in your work.” But I think that is an emaciated view. Are not humans called to work?

    Then perhaps the issue is the manner of honoring. Rather than seeking money, one should seek some other kind of honor (treasures in heaven, perhaps?). I could get on board with this idea. But the problem is that a human system (not by virtue of sin, but simply by virtue of human limitedness) cannot offer such honor to individuals. There are too many people – such a big system cannot “care” about any individual. “Treasures in heaven” is, I guess, an honor God gives.

    So, I think capitalism need not rely on selfishness, at least not in the ugly sense of that term, but rather on personal significance. I feel the move to an “equitable system” may be nice on the surface, but will erode personal significance.

    1. I think you are spot on when you write about the impossibility of forming a relationship with a faceless entity like a governnment. This is why I do not think that a more equitable economic system is the answer, save only in the most esoteric fashion where system is undertood to truly encompass and interconnect all aspects of life. No, the answer lays right on your important insight, on the definition and necessity of a true relationship which Christianity teaches you find in the character of God.

      Remarkably, this also takes care of the significance problem. While I agree with you, finding significance in work is important, still the remedy for demoralization is seeing the improvement in the relationships around you. When the focus is on the person rather than the delivery system or the goods, the entire economic enterprise is elevated to a different, higher level. Honor then comes through relationship (to God and others) rather than through immaterial items or processes.

      Marx attempts this with the dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” but fails to acount for the selfishness of the human heart which dooms his idea and brings us back to my original post.

      What is required is a heart change which propels attitudes and behaviors to establish and re-invigorate true relationships, wouldn’t you agree?

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