Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Jesus is (Probably) Not a Keynesian

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In a recent interview with Peter Enns, author and theologian N.T. Wright notes that in America, “the spectrum of liberal conservative theology tends often to sit rather closely with the spectrum of left and right in politics,” whereas, in other places, this is not quite the case:

In England, you will find that people who are very conservative theologically by what we normally mean conservative in other words, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, believing in the trinity are often the ones who are in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern of a sort which if were you to transport it to America would say, oh, that’s a bit left wing.

I think what I want to do is to uncouple some of the connections which people have routinely made, particularly in America, and to say actually the whole idea of a spectrum, whether it’s theological or political, is probably very misleading because there are all sorts of insights that we need. We need to get them from bits of the Bible we don’t normally expect and perhaps from people in bits of the church we don’t normally expect.

Such liberal/conservative match-ups certainly exist, and tend to differ regionally as Wright indicates. But I’m not so sure the mere existence of such differences provides all that special of an occasion for “uncoupling” one’s connections. Though I can appreciate certain aspects of Wright’s various attempts to prod us outside of claustrophobic spectrum-think, he’d do well to stretch his own legs while he’s at it.

I, for one, have read far too many of Wright’s books and lectures, absorbing striking insights and compelling exegesis, only to find out by chapter 4 or 5 that all of his enriching talk of “putting the world to rights” crumbles apart in basic application. But alas, where I come from, being “in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern” is, well, a bit right wing.

We should certainly stay wary of boxing in our theology according to some idol of political conformity, but at a certain point in the naval-gazing process, one man’s narrow-minded “spectrum” is really just another man’s sensible symmetry.

Echoing sentiments expressed in R.J. Moeller’s recent Acton Commentary, Douglas Wilson offers a sharp critique of Wright’s response, pointing out that “many who claim to love Jesus with their theology hate the poor with their economics,” and we’d do well to figure out what the latter actually looks like. This will not come from designating the “passionate and compassionate” to Progressive Ideology X and pretending that such an assumption is ho-hum, even from the perspective of the opposition. “The gospel is not some airy fairy thing that fails to apply to how people have to live out their actual lives,” Wilson writes. “When Jesus taught us to feed the poor, instead of turning their place of habitation into a desolation, this necessarily excludes every form of Keynesianism.”

Or: application matters.

For Wilson, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll end up with the following options, and the quicker we come clean about it, the better:

We might conclude, for example, that Jesus doesn’t care what our economic policies are, so long as we love Him. Or we might decide that those who are conservative in their economics need to quit it, and become progressive, because that’s what Jesus wants. Or we might go the other way, and say that the progressives ought to become conservatives, also in the name of Jesus. The correct answer, boys and girls, is the last one.For Wilson, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll end up with the following options, and the quicker we come clean about it, the better:

The first one is out because we are told to seek the good of the city where we dwell (Jer. 29:7). We are instructed to do good to all men (1 Thess. 5:15). Apathy and indifference are therefore out. The second option is excluded for the same reason, only more so. If we are told to do good to all men, not only does it exclude leaving them alone in their misery, it also excludes doing bad things to them, creating misery for them. Keynesianism destroys jobs, wages, families, neighborhoods, education, opportunity, and more. How is it seeking the good of the city to saddle them with sub-standard schools? How is it seeking the good of the city to start subsidizing waste, fraud and abuse? All such meddling is economic stupidity, and God did not tell His people to fan out over the globe, doing stupid things to people.

Wright says he’s out to “uncouple some of the connections” that certain folks, “particularly in America,” have tended to make when it comes to matching up this theology with that ideology. And yes, where the puzzle pieces are forced together and peeling at the edges, I say, “decouple away.” But let’s not pretend that certain things can’t be abundantly clear, and that those same things might just maybe result in one of the various spectrum mash-ups we see before us — particularly, I might say, in America.


However we decide to label the connecting of those dots — spectrum or symmetry — some things don’t budge, and shouldn’t, because they’re nice and snug in all the right ways.

Wilson concludes by calling for an open and direct debate on these disagreements, asking, “Does the gospel of Christ, in setting men free, bring in free markets or not?”

Now that, my spectrum-seeking friends, is an opportunity for coupling.

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.


  • Clearly the parable of the wise and foolish builders is anti-Keynesian in its primary intent. (I’m kidding!)

  • RogerMcKinney

    Many Christians who support socialism interpret the “poor” in the Beatitudes as being the economically poor and claim that Jesus came to liberate them from material poverty. Traditionally, Christians have interpreted the poor to be the spiritually poor.

    If Jesus endorsed the Torah, he would have endorsed free markets because the theology of free markets comes from “thou shalt not steal”. Private property doesn’t exist unless markets are free because property requires control.

    • geoffrobinson

      Not to mention “thou shalt not covet”. Although the coveting can go both ways. It precludes socialism but capitalists have their share of coveting. Not that they have to covet.

      • RogerMcKinney

        I think envy is just a form of coveting. Coveting can lead
        to theft, but it can also lead to envy which is resentment and the desire to
        see harm come to the person who owns the coveted thing. Coveting is part of
        human nature and not caused by socialism or capitalism. But socialism elevates
        envy to a virtue while capitalism tries to combat it through competition.

        • Curt Day

          Yes Roger and realize that Capitalism is based on greed and envy. That is the basic motivation that fuels it. But at the same time, advocates of capitalism carry this delusion that we can live off the energy produced by greed while being able to control its emissions.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            [waits for Curt to explain why Socialist systems are better equipped to handle human greed and envy.]


          • Curt Day

            And I am waiting for Marc to learn how to read.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            A recap of the conversation to this point, for those uninitated:

            Curt: Capitalism is self-destructive economically, socially and environmentally.

            Marc: Curt, it seems you believe that socialism is not as prone to such self-destruction as capitalism. Keeping in mind the history of socialist states, why do you believe that to be the case?

            Curt: Well, those socialist states weren’t actually socialist states you know.

            Marc: Curt, it seems you believe that socialism is not as prone to such self-destruction as capitalism. Keeping in mind the history of socialist states, why do you believe that to be the case?

            Curt: You just don’t understand what I’m saying. That’s OK, simpleton. Run along now.

            Marc: Curt, it seems you believe that socialism is not as prone to such self-destruction as capitalism. Keeping in mind the history of socialist states, why do you believe that to be the case?

            Curt: Things are complicated and it’s totally unfair to judge socialism by its demonstrated track record. [plugs ears] BOTTOM-UP SOCIALISM! BOTTOM-UP SOCIALISM!

            Marc: Curt, it seems you believe that socialism is not as prone to such self-destruction as capitalism. Keeping in mind the history of socialist states, why do you believe that to be the case?


            Marc: [facepalm]

          • Curt Day

            Marc- you can make any point you want especially when you misrepresent people.

            So when you are interested in a serious discussion, let me know. That is when I will respond again.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I apologize if you feel that in the process of poking fun at your unwillingness to answer a simple question I didn’t copy and paste your full evasions, straw-man burnings, and the like. That would have been tiresome and uninteresting.

            Speaking of serious discussion, is it your custom to get into a dispute over one of your assertions, argue for a while on one thread, and then post the exact same assertions in other threads as if the prior disputes have never occurred? Because that sure seems kinda troll-y. Just wondering.

    • Curt Day

      And today’s free markets steal. Those who preach free markets are only concerned about the moneyed-interests of today. Free market fundamentalists are only concerned with the property and “rights” of those with wealth while disdaining the rights of others by ignoring the impact that the operation of each business has on all stakeholders.

      • RogerMcKinney

        Only God has the ability to discern the motives of others. You seem to think you have the same power. Socialism elevates envy to a virtue.

        • Curt Day

          In judging me, you seem to think you have that ability. And the economy that is based on envy and greed is capitalism. The politic that is based on envy and the desire for power is elite-centered.

  • Curt Day

    There is a world of difference between saying that Jesus is Socialist, or Keynesian, or whatever and saying I am a Socialist or Keynesian or whatever because of my faith. The first is presumptuous because it speaks for Jesus where not enough info is given. The second speaks for ourselves and is, hopefully, based on serious and fallible reflection.

    But the comment on Keynesian economics can be made about today’s neoliberal capitalism too. Bringing Jesus’s name in here is more about glorifying one’s own beliefs than glorifying Jesus.

  • Papa Mincho

    “Does the gospel of Christ, in setting men free, bring in free markets or not?”

    Well, Wilson was clearly being lazy in his assumption that any embrace of any Keynesian tactic leads to the abolition of free markets. The United States is not an Austrian anarcho-capitalistic paradise: we embrace expansions of government for regulatory purposes, like any good republic.

    True conservatism is not about blowing up the government, but about correcting government overreach: say, the Dems’ insistence to encourage banks to lend to unqualified home owners COMPILED with the Repubs’ insistence that we dismantle any of the regulatory framework overseeing those loans. Either have the loans with extra-tight scrutiny, or don’t give the loans out at all.

    While I commend the article for its recognition of the need to help the most unfortunate among us, I’m still scratching my head about the Austrian solution to the problem. Draconian austerity policies are stifling job creation in Europe, while the watered-down Keynesianism of Obama has drastically, noticeably improved the economy. Austrianism offers no security net–just a security-blanket insistence on the magical powers of the free market.

  • Curt Day

    When our only interest is self-interest, then we have a problem. The basic ethic in today’s capitalism is the maximization of profits. Such an ethic is self-reductive so that all morals are pushed aside and the only interest expressed is self-interest.

    BTW, which form of socialism are you talking about? And please let me know how force doesn’t become fundamental in any society that relies on laws.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      Curt: perhaps it would be helpful for all of us if you would explain how the form of socialism that you prefer would address the argument that menmos raises.

      • Curt Day

        What Socialists like myself want is an extended democracy throughout all institutions but particularly where one works. That rather than being run by management, a company is run democratically and such companies do exist in multiple countries.

        In addition, where a company has an impact on a community, then the democratic control of the company should extend to more parties that were included in the traditional definition of the word stakeholder. The more modern working of definition almost equates shareholder with stakeholder.

        Finally, with democratic control, which at the least will disperse power, must come a collective conscience. The collective conscience says that we must look after the concerns of those who are both vulnerable and not in our group. But even without that, by extending democratic control to the workplace, what you have is a decentralization of power and a chance to introduce concerns other than those of executives and the shareholders.

        • Marc Vander Maas

          First question that springs to mind: what becomes of the concept of private property?

          • Curt Day

            Depends if we look at private and public property in an all or nothing manner or not.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Well, how would you look at it in your preferred socialist system?

          • Curt Day

            Should have been collective conscious which simply means that we live not as individuals alone but as a member of a community with our community belonging to a society. That means that we are concerned for those not in our immediate group and thus take their needs and concerns into consideration.

            Land with resources everybody needs should be owned publicly and administered democratically. And here we have to insist that the gov’t represents the public in how it administers the stewardship of the land and resources. I already talked about what it means in terms of work places. But none of that implies that one can’t own the land on which their home is located. How much land can be owned must be decided democratically by all and not representatively by the gov’t.

        • Marc Vander Maas

          Additionally, what do you mean by “collective conscience,” and how do you propose that such a conscience be established in a community that likely includes many people with many competing concerns that are often at odds with each other?