Acton Institute Powerblog

America the Acquisitive?

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.

That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:

The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.

A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:

If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.

You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:

But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.

It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:

So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.

What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).

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.


  • Larry Linn

    United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of
    clergy.”— George Washington”

    “The United States Constitutional Convention, except for three or four
    persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”— Benjamin Franklin

    “This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles.”—
    John Adams

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for
    every noble enterprise.”— James Madison, letter to William Bradford,

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any
    sense, founded on the Christian religion;…” ~Treaty of Tripoli

  • Roger McKinney

    I might read Van Key’s book to see if he has new research on the Dutch Republic because it is one of my favorite subjects. I think capitalism began in the Dutch Republic, although Venice came very close and provided a foundation for the Dutch to build on.

    If the reviews accurately represent the book, then I think Van Kley makes some serious, and for a scholar, inexcusable mistakes:

    1) Van Kley commits the modern error of thinking that society creates individuals. That’s an atheist, socialist concept, not Christian. Traditional Christianity teaches that individuals determine their stance toward God. The choice that individuals make determines how society will turn out. Atheists decided in the French “enlightenment” that individuals are born a blank of plastic for society to injection-mold into its image. Individuals have no free will and have no choice but to become what society makes them. We are nothing but the slaves of the past.

    2) He credits the Reformation, but ignores the schism between East and West centuries earlier. That was a far more serious rip in Church unity. Maybe that was the cause of modern unbelief?

    3) Erasmus was more important to the Reformation than Luther or Calvin, but Erasmus merely put into beautiful words what the people were already thinking. By the time Luther came along, few people in the Dutch Republic attended church.

    Erasmus was right to warn Luther that open rebellion against Rome would result in massive death and to avoid it. Erasmus was too wise for the world. And though the Reformed church dominated the politics of the Dutch Republic, most Christians seem to have remained more Erasmian than Calvinist.

    4) His embrace of Weber’s discredited thesis is just sad. Economists have learned so much in the century since Weber. We now know that the Catholic scholars of Salamanca, Spain first laid down the principles of capitalism. Though the Protestant Dutch Republic came closest to fully implementing those principles, Venice and the other Italian city-states came very close. Capitalism is not based on avarice but on a Biblical respect for property, the rule of law and freedom from the state. The vice that the modern world has embraced is envy, the power of socialism.

    5) As the Acton Institute is very diligent to promote, we have learned since Weber that the best way to help the poor is through free markets, which create well-paying jobs.

    6) The most important “reformation” was that which took place in attitudes toward commerce, which began in northern Italy centuries before the Reformation and which Deirdre McCloskey describes in her series on “Bourgeois Values”.