As the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg points out, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Michael Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Gregg evaluates the initial reception and ongoing legacy of the book at The American Spectator:
From a 2012 vantage point, it’s easy to forget just how radical this book was. In penning the Spirit, Novak was the first theologian to really make an in-depth moral, cultural, and political case for the market economy in a systematic way. Needless to say, Novak’s book generated fierce reactions from the religious left. The opprobrium was probably heightened by the fact that the Spirit confirmed what had become evident from the mid-’70s onwards: that Novak was well on his way to abandoning his previously left-wing positions.
Thirty years ago, however, many Christians — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, clerical, and lay — were marching in precisely the opposite direction to Novak. Theologians in the Americas and Western Europe were still waxing lyrical about “dialogue” with Marxism. The fight-back led by Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger against the doctrinal heresies and Marxist analysis underlying liberation theology had only just begun. . . .
Naturally some of Novak’s book has been superseded by events, such as Communism’s defeat in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, liberation theology’s virtual collapse throughout the Catholic world, and the rise of new generations of bishops and priests who know that economic policy is largely a matter of prudential judgment for the laity. And yet the Spirit‘s strengths endure. These include a Catholic mind that takes seriously Adam Smith’s economic and philosophical insights; the affirmation that markets must be grounded upon particular moral, political, and legal habits and institutions; the attention to how awareness of the reality of sin should incubate us against economic utopianism; and, perhaps above all, the sustained effort to locate democratic capitalism within a vision of God and man, thereby giving it genuine theological meaning.
Novak’s 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism has long been the object of spirited debate, both admiring and disdainful. But nobody doubted that he had broken new ground and made an argument that could not be ignored. His contention was that capitalism is not just an economic system but an order within which culture, politics, and economics form a triad of “political economy” that is one of the great achievements of humankind and is best exemplified in the American republican experiment. That basic “triune” understanding of our public order is today more and more embraced by other writers — writers who frequently cannot bring themselves to acknowledge their debt to Michael Novak.