A plurality of American Christians now believes that capitalism is at odds with “Christian values,” a trend that’s been accompanied by a range of political leaders and Religious-Left thinkers who promote the supposed compatibility of Christianity with expansive state control. Paired with our culture’s growing interest in “democratic socialism,” such arguments are especially worthy of reflection.
In a new video, Russell Moore examines this debate, addressing common Christian complaints against capitalism and asking, “Is socialism consistent with a Christian view of reality?”
While noting the more practical and historical failures of socialism, Moore focuses most of his attention on the theological and moral implications. This begins with a reckoning of the various moral challenges presented by modern-day capitalism.
Moore recognizes and affirms a range of these challenges—an inequality of outcomes, continuous disruption and displacement by innovation and automation, the enabling of immoral products and industries, and so on. Yet in each of these areas, Moore argues, socialism fails to provide the proper recourse or response, serving instead to simply reassign human depravity to more impenetrable places and more all-encompassing levels of power and control.
Indeed, when we look at the Bible and the bigger-picture Christian vision for human destiny, we find some principles that can help guide us in structuring just political institutions and cultivating a framework for human flourishing.
“The Bible does not mandate a particular economic system and the Bible does not give us an economic blueprint,” Moore explains. “But the Bible does reveal some principles.
I have excerpted key sections of Moore’s explanation below, organizing them into several key ideas (my own paraphrasing/interpretation of his argument):
1. The Bible promotes the notion of private property.
There is such a thing as private property. Even in the Ten Commandments—“you shall not steal”—in order to steal, there has to be a connection between what you have and what you don’t have, what belongs to you or what belongs to your family and someone else. You can see that even in the injustice that is done with Ahab taking the land of Naboth in 1 Kings 21. This is Naboth’s property; it’s his inheritance that’s being taken away. And that’s consistent with the rest of the Bible. Adam is created with a connection between his labor and his life. “You will bring forth bread from the ground.” Jesus indicates that that’s pointing to something even more primal. “I see what my Father is doing, and I share in that.”
2. The Bible promotes generosity and community—which are different from state control.
When you come to the New Testament, some people will say, “Look, you have the early church. They are sharing their resources.” Yes, but this is not state action. This is voluntary—the work of the spirit within people who are forming a counterculture. So you see, for instance, Ananias and Sapphira, who are struck dead because they lied about having some property and some money that they didn’t bring into that counterculture. The issue is not that they were being coerced into some sort of communistic system. Simon Peter says that’s not the case. “You would not have had to do this, but you lied to the Holy Spirit.” The issue is they are giving an appearance that isn’t actually the case.
3. The Bible reveals certain limitations on the state.
The Bible reveals limits on the state. It doesn’t detail those limits, but you have a clear limitation both in Romans 13, with what the state is given to do, and in terms of demonstrations of when the state oversteps those bounds, in Revelation 13.
4. Human depravity isn’t limited to “private” human action or enterprises.
If we understand human depravity, that means that, yes, we are going to have a suspicion about what we can do in businesses. Nobody who has a clear-eyed view of human nature would say that the market is morally neutral or that everything the market does will be morally right. But if we have a clear-eyed view of human nature, we would also say the state also is not exempt from that. What happens in socialism is that the state tends to become nearly all-encompassing in dealing with the economic aspect of life in a way that just doesn’t work. Why? Because it’s driven by an ideology that attempts to see the world through a purely economic lens…It’s an ideology rather than a prudential understanding of how the world works.
As is evident in each of these points, for the Christian, the proper alternative to socialism is not simply “more capitalism,” but rather, “more capitalism, better embodied and inhabited.” As Moore explains, we will still face a number of challenges within a free market, whether it be the pain, struggle, and suffering in tough jobs and competitive industries or the temptation to look inward rather than outward.
Throughout history, socialism has failed and capitalism has succeeded, in many cases despite whatever virtues or vices existed in the culture at large. But while capitalism may prove better at “managing” our depravity, it also offers us the freedom to pursue much more. Within a context of economic freedom, Christians will encounter new temptations, to be sure, but we will also have more opportunity respond accordingly—embracing a call to creativity, stewardship, and value creation that breathes with the extravagant generosity of the Gospel.