Acton Institute Powerblog

The Religious Left and Class Warfare

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In my three and a half years as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I encountered more anti-capitalist rhetoric than I may have experienced in my entire life up to that point. Before Asbury, I attended a state and secular university, Ole Miss, where socialist propaganda was largely out of fashion.

Acton President Rev. Robert Sirico is quoted in a new piece titled, “The Religious Left, Reborn” by Steven Malanga. The article appears in the autumn issue of City Journal. Rev. Sirico notes the influence of unions and left wing clergy on young seminary students:

Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences, Seminarians are preaching all the time, and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.

This influence was especially evident at Asbury, which is an evangelical seminary and originally founded to combat the rise of liberal theology. Some new students at the school began to associate justice with wealth redistribution. This transformation in thinking often occurred after students were required to take a required class Kingdom, Church, and World. In this class, business, profit, entrepreneurs, and chief executive officers were often used as examples of anti-Christian behavior.

The free market was also seen as a system that subjugated labor, and especially third world nations. On occasion in Kingdom, Church, and World, I tried to defend the free market and was rebuked by my professor who told me, “Ray … capitalism is an enlightenment construct and not a Christian value.” Fortunately, this rebuke did not convince me that a command economy or a socialist-Marxist construct was better than the free market.

Another issue raised in the City Journal piece is the use of clergy by labor to advance its agenda. Many people who attend a mainline protestant church in America are very aware of this tactic, especially if they hold a differing opinion. Malanga declares:

The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses.

Malanga does an exceptional job at pinpointing the real reason why poverty plagues many people in the U.S. Quoting Michael Novak, he notes:

By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.

Family stability, education, and a sound moral fabric can never be overestimated as elements necessary to escape poverty and create economic opportunities. What was so perplexing about the economic views of some students and professors in seminary was that they did not necessarily regard socialism as a negative. The Church would be wise to do its best at helping and encouraging those in need, instead of rallying to the aid of class warfare tactics already deeply entrenched in partisan politics.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Roger D. McKinney

    It’s sad to see evangelicals follow religious liberals on economic issues. I’m a Southern Baptist and have watched as my leadership drift that direction also. Why would evangelicals think that liberal theologians are wrong on theology but right on economics issues?

    Although I have an MA in economics, I didn’t seriously become interested in the history of capitalism until the late 1990’s when I grew weary of Christianity Today continually promoting Marxism. They have softened their stance some since a new editor took over. But they prompted me to search for the origins of capitalism and I spent several years in research. The amazing thing to me was how much confusion reigns on the subject.

    I have concluded that Catholic scholars created the theological and rational basis for capitalism culminating in the brilliant economic analysis of the scholars at the school of Salamanca in the late 16th century. But their ideas were ignored by most religious and secular powers. It took the Protestant Dutch Republic to implement their ideas. The economic ideas of the scholastics were trasmitted to the Dutch by the scholars Lesius and Grotius. By striving to create a Godly system of government based on the principles of the Salamancan school, the Dutch unintentionally created capitalism. The weird thing is that they caught as much criticism for their economic system from other Europeans as do capitalists today.

    Bottom line is that only capitalism, as conceived by the Dutch, fits with Christianity and the Bible. The socialism that evangelical leaders are prostrating before was invented by atheists in the enlightenment.

  • Ronk

    Wonderful post. Great!

    ” The Church would be wise to do its best at helping and encouraging those in need, instead of rallying to the aid of class warfare tactics already deeply entrenched in partisan politics. ”

    I’ve been saying it for years. Keep up the good work.