Acton Institute Powerblog

On Calvinism and Capitalism

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I don’t much like the term Calvinism. I think it is historically unhelpful, and in general prefer to use something like Reformed theology or speak about the Reformed confessions, depending on the particular context.

And I don’t much like the term capitalism, preferring instead to discuss the market economy, or perhaps, in light of the results below, free enterprise.

But while popular and intellectual usage certainly prefers the use of the former term (even if it often is caricatured or has negative connotations), it doesn’t look like the public responds too well to the latter. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a multi-year publicity campaign, but won’t be using terms like capitalism or protectionism.

BusinessWeek reports (HT: First Thoughts via The Corner) that the Chamber did some study of how particular terms are received by the public, and the results of the focus groups showed that, as Chamber spokeswoman Tita Freeman puts it, “‘Capitalism’ was universally problematic,” and was often associated with greed and oppression.

It’s true of course that particular words and terms shouldn’t simply be ceded because of potentially negative public regard. It may be that capitalism isn’t an irredeemable term (although many would contend it is an irredeemable system!).

One of Sam Gregg‘s favorite paragraphs from the encyclical Centesimus Annus discusses this terminological issue. Paragraph 42 reads, in part,

Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

Public relations campaigns aren’t typically the place where nuanced terminological arguments can be made. And so there’s some strong rhetorical support for the Chamber’s decision to talk about free enterprise rather than capitalism, but this may also reflect some deeper wisdom about the usefulness of particular terms.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    I would quibble about calling Calvinism Reformed Theology because not all theology in the Reformation was Calvinism. Erasmian Protestantism dominated the Dutch Republic for a long time. Then there was Lutheran, Baptist and other theologies.

    As for abandoning capitalism, I think the effort to use another name is futile. Why is there so much confusion over the term “capitalism”? Because socialists immediately went to work lying about its content so as to confuse people. Socialims cannot win the hearts and minds of people on its own merits. It has to use deceitful techniques like changing the meanings of words.

    The oldest dishonest technique in debate is to define the terms in such a way that your argument automatically wins and this is the main strategy of socialism. So it really doesn’t matter what name you choose for your system. Socialists will invent a new, distorted meaning for that name and you’ll be in search of a new name.

    Already socialists have defined “free markets” as the hegemony of international corporations. They destroyed “laissez-faire” in the same way by claiming it meant no rules whatsoever, even though no advocate of laissez-faire, not even anarchists, suggested that we could live without laws protecting life, liberty and property.

    Whatever name you choose, socialists will destroy it’s meaning and content. You will always have to define what you mean by it every time you use it. So why not just stick with capitalism and define it every time? And while we’re at it, we should point out the dishonest tactics of socialists.

    Besides, capitalism is an especially appropriate term in light of Austrian economics. It emphasizes that wealth grows only through the accumulation of capital through savings, and the use of more capitalistic methods of production, as opposed to direct labor.