Christianity and Capitalism have been kindred spirits in this country for a long time. Conservatives are devout believers in capitalism, whereas liberal/progressives tend to lean more toward socialism…a dirty word to conservatives. Is it a coincidence that Conservatives also lean toward Christian beliefs, and liberals toward nonbelief?
In Kevin Kruse’s “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” the author lays out the history of Christianity’s service to capitalism in the United States. Although the roots go back further, the current union started after the Great Depression. A surge in anti-capitalist sentiment in the country alarmed financiers and their associates. As Kruse lays it out:
“Concerned that populist politics might endanger their wealth, the moneyed interests bought a solution. It came in the form of James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregationalist pastor who made his fortune in Southern California by preaching to the fabulously wealthy and accepting their patronage. Fifield was especially gifted at assuring wealthy Christians that their riches were evidence of virtue rather than vice. A philosophical descendant of Max Weber, Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state—which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable—and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.”
As Kruse describes it, Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, among others, were fervent preachers of what became known as the prosperity gospel. They raked in cash from committed capitalists delighted by the arranged marriage of God and mammon.
Faith in Capitalism has faded in recent years, even among religious believers. According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 38% of Christians believe capitalism and the free market are consistent with Christian values while 46% believe the two are at odds.[i] The survey is eight years old, but the trend continues.
Kathryn Tanner, author of a new book released this year, “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” teaches at Yale Divinity School.[ii] She discusses how “finance dominated Capitalism” is much different from the capitalism that our parents knew, which was based on an entrepreneur starting a business, and competing in an open market.
“I am arguing that finance sets the terms for other sorts of business by forcing them to try to match the oversized profits possible in financial markets. This sort of disciplining by finance is especially direct when businesses are managed to maximize shareholder value, that is, with an eye to keeping their stock prices high. Nonfinancial businesses need to be as profitable as possible for such purposes, and this often comes at the expense of labor: employees are overworked, underpaid, and have few benefits, and therefore find themselves under enormous stress.”
The “Prosperity Gospel,” is a sect of evangelical Christianity that espouses the greedy pursuit of wealth, assuring their believers that the Almighty will help them because of their faith. A lot of poor people might tend to differ with this. Despite fervent devotion to their faith, they don’t seem to be getting any divine help from their prayers. It’s not hard to see why most poor people are not conservatives. I doubt if many follow the teachings of Prosperity Gospel.
And that reminds me of my late brother’s oft-quoted adage: “If you pray in one hand and piss in the other, you know which one will get full first.” He knew what he was talking about. He had a PhD in organic chemistry.
Capitalism, as Gordon Gekko said in the movie “Wall Street,” is based on greed. “Greed is good,” he said. For Christians, all goodness flows from God’s inherent character, so if Gekko is right, then God approves of greed. If capitalism lives on greed, and greed is good, then capitalism and Christianity go hand-in-hand.
There are some ominous signs for Christians who still favor capitalism. In a recent survey, more than half of American millennials (25-35 years old) selected socialism as their first choice, such that those who hoped to live in a socialist country outnumbered those who wished to live in a capitalist country. Another survey this year, by Gallup, showed that the views of young Americans had changed since 2016, with socialism viewed more favorably than capitalism. It is significant that these recent changes have come since the 2016 elections.
The loss of support for capitalism by religious groups, the secularization of our society and the changes in the attitudes of young people bode ill for the future of capitalism as the predominant economic system in the US. How this plays out over the coming years will be interesting to watch.