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Economic Martyrdom and the Great Irony of Progressivism

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Justice Antonin Scalia caused quite the stir by attending President Obama’s inauguration ceremony wearing a custom-made replica of the painter’s hat depicted in a famous portrait of St. Thomas More, the well-known Catholic statesman and martyr.

Whether Scalia intended it or not, observers quickly translated the act as a quiet game of connect-the-dots between the administration’s punitive HHS mandate and Henry VIII’s executioner, leading conservatives to applaud while progressives don their own less fashionable bonnets of protest.

Although I don’t expect actual heads to roll anytime soon, the symbolism is fitting indeed. This an administration that seeks to lure Christians away from their consciences through threats of economic penalties and pain. If your religious beliefs happen to clash with the coercive methods and materialistic aims of this administration, blood shall be spilt on the altar of “access.”

The irony abounds. Keep in mind that President Obama ran a campaign that ridiculed Mitt Romney as an Ebenezer Scrooge who clings to his coins without empathy for others and without regard for ethics and morality (all despite Romney’s strong record of charitable giving, might I add). Then and now, this same President seeks to persecute good people like Hobby Lobby’s CEO through economic penalties in the millions of dollars, all for the abonimable sin of caring about and believing in something before and beyond the dollar.

If the great secret of capitalism is its power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends, the great irony of progressivism is its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques.

As we continue to see Christian business leaders refusing to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s Golden Image—choosing economic martyrdom over secularist conformity—the more this administration’s limited, debased, and deterministic view of man and society will reveal itself. Through it all, even as the furnace grows hotter and hotter, Christians should remember that a fourth man stands close by, offering peace and protection according to a different system altogether.

Thomas More once quipped, “If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable.” As Scalia’s latest episode of Robed Runway indicates, it might be a good time to reevaluate our incentives.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Dean Ohlman

    I was struck by the versatility of this statement: “If the great secret of CAPITALISM is its power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends, the great irony of PROGRESSIVISM is its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques.”

    Exactly the opposite can be said: “If the great secret of PROGRESSIVISM is its power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends, the great irony of CAPITALISM is its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques.

    What a great example of the pot calling the kettle black. Sozhenitsyn saw it right:

    “We must go over from uninterrupted progress to a stable economy, with nil growth in territory, parameters, and tempo, developing only through improved technology (and even technical successes must be critically screened). This means that we must abjure the plague of expansion beyond our borders, the continual scramble after new markets and sources of raw material, increases in our industrial territory of the volume of production, the whole insane pursuit of wealth, fame, and change. No incentive to self-limitation has ever existed in bourgeois [conventional] economics, yet the formula would so easily and so long ago have been derived from moral considerations. The fundamental concepts of private property and private economic initiative are part of man’s nature, and necessary for his personal freedom and his sense of normal well-being. They would be beneficial to society if only– if only the carriers of these ideas on the very threshold of development had limited themselves, and not allowed the size of their property and thrust of avarice to become a social evil, which provoked so much justifiable anger, not tried to purchase power and subjugate the press. It was a reply to the shamelessness of unlimited money grubbing that socialism in all its forms developed.”

    Until we understand that standards of living that destroy the sources of life are not high but evil, we will continue downward toward “crash and burn.”

    • I agree with your final statement. We disagree, however, on which system best constrains evil and promotes the good. In this example, David Green believes that widespread access to abortifacients is, as you say, a “standard of living that destroys the sources of life.” Yet it is the progressives, not the wealthy capitalist, who are seeking to elevate a so-called “standard of living” above conscience.

    • I agree with your final statement. We disagree, however, on which system best constrains evil and promotes the good. In this example, David Green believes that widespread access to abortifacients is, as you say, a “standard of living that destroys the sources of life.” Yet it is the progressives, not the wealthy capitalist, who are seeking to elevate a so-called “standard of living” above conscience.

      • Dean Ohlman

        Access to abortifacients is about death, not life. Compassion and care for prenatal infants is about life-affirmation, which is the motivating principle of Christian ethics. The sources of life I had in mind were the natural aspects of God’s good earth, which we are to steward, guard, preserve, and cultivate (Genesis 2:15). Modern consumption-based capitalism is destroying God’s good earth (in concert with materialist socialism and grinding poverty). We took a wrong turn at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and never looked back, and we are now suffering the consequences of service to Mammon. I beg to differ with you that the wealthy capitalist does not elevate his standard of living above conscience. Jesus said that you cannot serve God and wealth (Mammon), and the wealthy, careless capitalist says, “I can; just watch me!” The result is Monsanto, Amgen, and Exxon-Mobile, Mammon’s trinity.

  • Dean Ohlman – Aren’t progressivism and socialism branches of the same bad tree? If so,then in arguing as you have, you support the original statement, not oppose it.

    The key, in my opinion, is in providing incentives for citizens to act in ways that are virtuous and moral. If laws and public policy do the opposite – encourage bad behavior – why are we surprised when people behave badly? Virtuous people are often virtuous up to a point. If we want them to behave well even beyond that point, we must at least not punish them for doing so.

    • Dean Ohlman

      John, I yield my platform again to Solzhenitsyn:

      “Whatever feelings predominate in the members of a given society at a given moment in time, they will serve to color the whole of that society and determine its moral character. And if there is nothing good there to pervade that society, it will destroy itself or be brutalized by the triumph of evil instincts no matter where the pointer of the great economic laws may turn. And it is open to every one of us, whether learned or not, to choose — and profitably choose — not to evade the examination of social phenomena with reference to the categories of individual spiritual life and ethics.”

      I am not taking issue with the basic truth of Joseph’s conclusion. My middle son is curriculum director of a large international, evangelical operation seeking to offer life-affirming alternatives to abortion overseas. I’m a pro-life, conservative evangelical. I am merely pointing out the naivete of these old Hillsdale College “economics 101” positions. The real battles are far afield from what seemed apropos 20 years ago. Solzhenitsyn’s point is my point. “Evil instincts” pervade society so thoroughly now that “the great economic laws” are becoming meaningless. When are conservatives going to confess that greed is not good, and the “invisible hand” in capitalism could just as surely be the hand of evil as it is the hand of goodness. The “fourth man” in fiery furnace is also the One we believe said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon (wealth).”

  • I have read David Green’s book about his company, HL. Before all this hullabaloo from our government, his family-run business was very pro-Christian with a chaplain on staff, no opening on Sunday, etc. I believe attacking him/HL is not right; Domino’s got an exemption and who even knows who runs it or what belief system he/she has? I personally even doubt our President has much of a belief system that is kind to others, generous and wise to grow and support our country or government.

  • Dean Ohlman

    The very nature of capitalism militates against the pipe dream that it has the “power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends.” When has service to Mammon (wealth) ever moved anyone toward transcendent ends–such as “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”?

    Another exile from Communist Russia, N. Berdyaev (died in 1948) had some key observations on capitalism that I don’t hear from Acton Institute:

    “From the Christian point of view the principle of absolute unlimited ownership of material things and economic goods is altogether wrong and inadmissible. Property is the result of sin. No one can be an absolute unlimited owner—not the individual, not the community, not the state. The Roman conception of property as the right to use and to abuse material objects and values, which is not at all Christian, lies at the basis of European [and American ~DO] individualism.”

    “No one can claim an absolute and unlimited right of property or absolute and unlimited power, neither the individual, nor the community, nor the state. If an individual is given an absolute right of property he becomes a tyrant and inevitably tyrannizes over other people; and the same thing happens in the case of the community or the state. Both the individual and the state abuse their absolute right of property and the power which it gives them, and become tyrants and exploiters. Liberation from the tyranny of individuals who have abused their right of property and acquired enormous wealth—from feudal lords or from capitalists owning banks and factories—does not consist in depriving them of the absolute right of property and vesting it in the community or the state.This would merely change the subject of the tyranny and exploitation and might result in still greater restrictions of freedom. The liberation consists in denying spiritually and morally the very principle of an absolute right of property, by whomsoever it might be exercised. This is quite analogous to the principle of power.

    “To transfer the right of unlimited power from the monarch to the people means merely to create a new tyranny. True liberation consists in denying the very principle of unlimited power. It is godless and anti‑Christian to believe that any man or any group of men can have absolute ownership of the material world.”

    • I think you may misunderstand a little bit.

      First of all, it is important to put Berdyaev in context. I believe I have read that passage before, though without a citation I cannot say for sure. If I remember correctly, however, he goes on to conclude that the proper Christian orientation toward property is not “use and abuse” but use as stewards of God’s property, since God alone can be said to have absolute property rights. It would not be charitable to read this post as being in disagreement with such a position. Indeed, the idea that “the great secret of capitalism is its power to leverage and channel the human spirit toward more transcendent ends” emphasizes that material things are not ends in themselves to be served (Mammon), but rather gifts from God meant for his service.

      Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind when reader older writers, and Berdyaev in particular, that “capitalism” and “capitalist” may have different meanings depending on who’s using them. Berdyaev is clearly using them in the Marxist sense (which is their original sense), where a capitalist is “an owner of the means of production”—thus, his reference to “capitalists owning banks and factories.”

      Lastly, when reading any writer, it is important to explore some of the secondary scholarship about their work as well. The following comment from Sergei Levitzky is helpful with regards to Berdyaev’s views on economics:

      “It should be added, however, that Berdyaev’s criticism of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois culture must be regarded as outdated; not unlike Marxists, he had in mind mainly Capitalism of the 19th century, when exploitation of the laborers was a reality and not a mere propaganda. Being ahead of his time in spiritual matters, Berdyaev lagged behind it in matters of economics. Modern Capitalism, with its system of proportionate taxation and with at least a decent standard of living for the masses of workers, was not taken into consideration by him. Particularly the USA remained a blind spot in his world-outlook.

      “Therefore his critique of Capitalism can scarcely be endorsed in our time.”

      Levitzky, Sergei. “Berdyaev’s Philosophy–Heresy or Not?” St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, ns 4 no 4 1960, p. 7-19.

      • Dean Ohlman

        Yes, it is always wise to put a writer in his/her context. However, when you find a theme that runs through generations and has a more global context, I believe you can connect the dots. In the late 1800s George MacDonald in England saying, “The love of possessing a property must, if it goes unchecked, in time annihilate in a man the inheritance of the meek. . . . Only love and only God can be ours perfectly. Nothing called “property” can be ours at all. . . . All is man’s only because it is God’s. The true possession of anything is to see and feel in it what God made it for, and the uplifting of the soul by that knowledge is the joy of true having.” We have Woodrow Wilson in 1915 characterizing American capitalism as “heartless,” T.S. Eliot climbing out of his wasteland years to his Christian years saying,
        “O weariness of men who turn from God
        To the grandeur of your minds and the glory of your action,
        To arts and inventions and daring enterprises,
        To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited,
        Binding the earth and water to your service,
        Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,
        Dividing the stars into common and preferred,
        Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator,
        Engaged in working out a rational morality,
        Engaged in printing as many books as possible,
        Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,
        Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm
        For nation or race or what you call humanity;
        Though you forget the way to the Temple,
        There is one who remembers the way to your door:
        Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.”
        The theme runs through the writings of the Inklings: Sayers, Lewis, and Tolkein. Then to Francis Schaeffer re: our “ash heap lives” to Jacques Ellul and the “technological bluff” to Solzhenitsyn and on to the present in Wendell Berry. The conflation of Christianity with capitalism has done much evil. We are in the grip of what Lewis calls “That Hideous Strength.”

      • Dean Ohlman

        I fear I gave in a bit too quickly on your point. I believe the Berdyaev quotes that I offered can stand the test of time. He was not an economist, but an Orthodox philosopher. When you discount valid observations simply by saying the man lived in another era, you end up with what I call the pride of the present: only our views are the right views; what went before is passé.

        Here Berdyaev addresses the very point I took issue with in the original editorial, that capitalism best allows for the influence of “transcendent values”:

        “The understanding of life as service to a supra-personal value [a
        transcendent value] is a religious understanding of life. This understanding however is not characteristic of the modern makers of culture. It is striking that the idea of service to a supra-personal value has been rendered godless. The cultural stratum of contemporary Europe [and America now -DO] possesses neither a broad nor deep social basis, it is torn asunder from the masses, which claim all ever greater and greater an allotted weight in social life, and in the doings of history. The cultural stratum, humanistic in its world-outlook, is powerless to give the masses the ideas and the values that should inspire them. The humanistic culture is a fragile thing, and it cannot withstand the great mass processes which beset it. The humanistic culture is compelled to become contracted and isolated. The masses readily assimilate for themself the vulgar materialism and the outward technical civilization, but they do not assimilate for themself the heights of spiritual culture, and they readily cross over from a religious world-outlook to atheism. And to this end they enable the grievous associations: connecting Christianity with the ruling classes and with the defending of an unjust social order.”

        I am an evangelical Christian, and I have to confess that our conflation of Christianity with capitalism is a “grievous association.” I agree with Solzhenitsyn that the only way forward is first to repent and then practice self-restraint.

        • I think you miss the point of my comment.

          It was not that Berdyaev’s ideas are old and therefore bad, but rather that Berdyaev is critiquing a capitalism defined in Marxist terms and virtually non-existent since the nineteenth century, if it ever existed at all. No one who supports capitalism today defines it as Marx does. Thus to read authors who presume the Marxist definition and then apply their critiques to someone’s work that supports capitalism today, such as the author of this post, is illegitimate.

          Indeed, in neither of your comments have you attended to the point that older writers define capitalists and capitalism differently than the author of this blog post, which, I believe, accounts for your uncharitable and inaccurate application of Berdyaev et al.

          As an Orthodox Christian I appreciate your admiration of the East, but Levitzky, who I quoted, is just as Eastern as Berdyaev, if not more so (Berdyaev’s philosophy is heavily influenced by German idealism and existentialism). When looking outside of one’s tradition, be careful that you do not simply see what you want to see. The proverbial wisdom that “the grass is always greener” always applies, even when the grass may actually be greener on the other side of the fence to some extent.

          Now, to be clear, neither I nor the author of the post are advocating any conflation of Christianity and purely materialistic capitalism. No one here is defending such a view. Rather, his point seems to be that capitalism as most define it today—property rights, free enterprise, the rule of law, etc.—is best understood and employed when oriented toward heavenly ends (which would entail good stewardship and exclude waste and abuse of one’s property) and that given its potential for this, capitalism, rightly understood, is more compatible with the Christian faith than progressive policies that often decry the evils of capitalism while failing to be less materialistic.

          Nor, for that matter, do I think the author would disagree with Solzhenitsyn. See, for example, his previous post on self-denial:

          I have a feeling that you are simply hearing something that no one here is really saying and arguing against a shadow rather than engaging the actually reality.

          • Dean Ohlman

            I would like to believe you are right. Maybe, however, we need to read what older writers are actually saying and not place the burden of their times on their well-spoken words. Wisdom transcends time. I live in Grand Rapids and have a long and checkered history with Acton Institute–especially their well-funded attacks on the evangelical “creation-care community” of which I have been a part. I believe that they are living in a Pollyanna world that fails to see many of the evils of modern our modern “capitalistic” economy so ably pointed up in the works of Wendell Berry.

            Would Acton ever give a voice to Berry and dozens of others who think our “little economy” is the economy of hell, not heaven. We both know they would not. I am ashamed as a Christian and a conservative to affirm what Berry says here:

            Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?

          • “Maybe, however, we need to read what older writers are actually saying
            and not place the burden of their times on their well-spoken words.
            Wisdom transcends time.”

            My whole point is precisely to read what older writers are actually saying; one will miss any wisdom of an old writer who criticizes capitalists if one anachronistically reads them presuming that “capitalist” means someone who supports the free market, private property, etc. That is not what a writer like Berdyaev means; he is specifically critiquing capitalists in the Marxist sense, i.e. the European aristocracy, which never existed in the United States and likely was not as bad in Europe as Marx et al. made them out to be.

            Furthermore, when one does read him in his context, it becomes clear, as Levitzky points out, that Berdyaev misses the fact that already by his own time capitalism had become something entirely different and far more humane. There may be some wisdom there, but you will never grasp wisdom that transcends time if you read older writers without first respecting the time in which they wrote. Such a reading does not transcend time but rather commits the error of interpreting everything in the past through the lens of the present only.

            On the other hand, when one understands the ways in which a particular person defines their terms, given their context, then one can get at what timeless wisdom there may be that can be applied to our present context, in which such terms may be used entirely differently.

          • Dean Ohlman

            Thanks for the exchange, Dylan. To continue any further with obviously be fruitless. To me the critiques by Berdyaev, Solzhenitsyn, Eliot, Lewis, Sayers, Ellul, and Berry apply to what capitalism has once again become. We are all slaves of Mammon. If we think not, we are fools.

          • MARYANN33

            We need to come to God as little children, not try to out think him..The message of Christ is quite simple and quite clear…

          • Dean Ohlman

            Just so you know, Dylan, I basically agree with Joseph Sunde. But because he stuck in the terms “capitalism” and “progressivism” without definition and placed them at opposite poles, it smacked of simplism. I admire the CEO of Hobby Lobby for taking the stand he has. I have become cynical (I believe with cause) about both political parties and about the other labels. I use “evangelical Christian” in its First Century context as about the only popular label I lay claim to–with trepidation. When our traditional political parties and socio-economic categories become as polarized as they are, I have to believe either that both sides are wrong or that they truly are the epitome of good and evil. I believe the former. And the sooner both sides begin to clean up their own houses, the better it will be for us all.

            Allow me to quote Solzhenitsyn from the late eighties:

            “The end of the world, so often foretold by the prophets only to be postponed, has ceased to be the particular property of mystics and confronts us as sober reality, scientifically, technically, and psychologically warranted. It is no longer just the danger of a nuclear world war — we have grown used to that and can take it in
            our stride. But the calculations of the ecologists show us that we are caught in a trap: either we change our ways and abandon our greedy pursuit of progress, or else in the 21st century, whatever
            the pace of man’s development, we will perish as a result of a total exhaustion, barrenness, and pollution of the planet. Add to this the white-hot tensions between nations and races and we can say without suspicion of overstatement that without repentance, it is in any case doubtful if we can survive. It is by now only too obvious how dearly mankind has paid for the fact that we have all throughout the ages preferred to censure, denounce, and hate others instead of censuring, denouncing, and hating ourselves.”

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