Doing Something for Self: The Evangelical Critique of Capitalism | Sojourners

Doing Something for Self: The Evangelical Critique of Capitalism

The emergence of Bernie Sanders as one of two finalists for the Democratic presidential nomination has renewed focus on his self-identification as a “democratic socialist.” Although several pundits, including Paul Krugman of the New York Times, have argued that Sanders’s “socialism” is really a pale version of what most Europeans regard as socialism, many Americans – including those who identify as evangelical Christians – remain suspicious of Sanders’s ideology. Socialism, they argue, is somehow antithetical to Christianity. Some have even argued that capitalism is sanctioned in the scriptures. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the Religious Right, declared that “the free-enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs,” and his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. recently said, “I believe in Jesus’ teachings to do what’s in the best interest of the corporation.”

Clearly, these evangelicals have never read the Acts of the Apostles.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind,” Acts 4:32 reads. “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

Sounds like socialism to me, if not communism (lower-case C). And then we have Jesus’ words about rich people and camels negotiating the aperture of needles.

If we return to evangelicalism in the 19th century, we see that evangelicals were highly suspicious of free-market capitalism. Indeed, many evangelical sentiments in the antebellum period would be considered radical by the standards of both the 20th and 21st centuries. Charles Grandison Finney’s understanding of the Christian faith and duty led him to a suspicion of capitalism because it was suffused with avarice and selfishness (a critique shared by many Roman Catholics as well).

Finney allowed that, “the business aims and practices of business men are almost universally an abomination in the sight of God.” What are the principles of those who engage in business? Finney asked. “Seeking their own ends; doing something not for others, but for self.” Finney enumerated “another thing which is highly esteemed among men, yet is an abomination before God,” namely “selfish ambition.” Finney argued, in effect, that a Christian businessman was an oxymoron because capitalist pursuits necessarily elevated avarice over altruism.

Elsewhere, Finney preached even more explicitly against the mores of business. “The whole course of business in the world is governed and regulated by the maxims of supreme and unmixed selfishness,” Finney said. “The maxims of business generally current among business men, and the habits and usages of business men, are all based upon supreme selfishness.” Finney indicted capitalism itself, arguing that the “whole system recognizes only the love of self” and “the rules by which business is done in the world, are directly opposite to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the spirit he exhibited.” The man of business, by contrast, lives by the maxim: “Look out for number one.”

A writer in the New-York Evangelist echoed Finney’s concerns, suggesting that the integrity of the church itself had been compromised by its associations with the world of business. “The prosperity of the times in the business world threatens to endanger the piety of the church,” he wrote, adding that businessmen were already insinuating their principles in the nation’s pulpits. “The desire to possess, though constitutional, is one of the most dangerous affections of the human heart,” he warned. “Can the heart be sanctified by constant contact with goods and merchandize, bills and invoices, notes and monies, checks and drafts?” These accouterments of business threatened the very souls of believers. “In devising as well as prosecuting their schemes of money-making, American Christians find themselves associated, if not identified with the most devoted servants of mammon, the world can afford.” The author cited, in particular, the pernicious influence of “The Chambers of Commerce” and lamented that the “bias of heart toward money-making, has become an American characteristic.”

An evangelical farmer, writing from Vermont in 1837, offered corroboration, citing the deleterious effects of “wild speculations, arising from an undue anxiety to be hastily rich.” An article in the New-York Evangelist similarly took a dim view of acquisitive wealth, arguing “that the believer who devotes all that is given him beyond his present necessities to the cause of Christian benevolence, trusting God for the supply of his future wants, acts more according to the mind of Christ, than he who treasures up of his abundance as a future provision for himself or family.”

The Christian Chronicle expressed similar reservations. “Riches, alas! are often amassed by the arts of oppression, extortion and deceit,” the article warned. “Thus acquired, the blessing of heaven cannot rest upon them.”

The excoriations of capitalism and wealth on the part of evangelicals in the 19th century make Bernie Sanders’s perorations sound timid by comparison. Evangelicals of an earlier age, long before the advent of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, understood the spiritual perils of acquisitiveness. They warned against the seductions of wealth, and they recognized that the tenets of capitalism — selfishness, greed, “the desire to possess” — ran counter to the mandates of the gospel and the words of Jesus to care for “the least of these.”

Few evangelicals of the 19th century identified explicitly as socialists. But their jaundiced view of free-market capitalism place them far closer to the ideas of Bernie Sanders than to the rhetoric emanating from leaders of the Religious Right.

Next time: The siren call of the rapture.

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