With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate Over Capitalism
by Craig M. Gay, foreword by Peter L. Berger
Eerdmans, 276 pages, $19.95
Recently the local news reported on a Wisconsin environmental initiative. School children were sent into prairie fields to gather seeds from the grassy stalks for replanting. A reporter stopped one seven-year-old in the midst of joyful picking and asked what he thought about it all. With great intensity, the child replied: “Oh, I just love Nature!” And then, with as disparaging a tone as a second grader can muster, he added, “If I had my choice, I’d live in Nature instead of modern appliances.”
As an evangelical studying economic development, I run into many Christians whose view of capitalism is akin to the youngster’s opinion of modern appliances: you sort of have to put up with it, but it holds a lowly place among your moral druthers, and you look wistfully for some “better way” of ordering economic life. Craig Gay’s book With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate Over Capitalism confirms my anecdotal evidence. It shows that most evangelical sentiment towards capitalism ranges from hostility to discomfort to cautious acceptance. Gay profiles the evangelicals clustered around these positions (as well as the far-right faction that would baptize capitalism as God’s ordained economic system). Comprehensive in scope and rich in description, the book reveals the breadth and diversity of evangelical opinion and identifies some of the pitfalls and promises of their reflection.
Two years ago, the British historian Paul Johnson asserted in these pages that capitalism is “indifferent” and “morally neutral” (see “The Capitalism and Morality Debate,” First Things, March 1990). Johnson’s insight helps explain the ambivalent feelings religious people often experience concerning it. Though capitalism’s efficiency has been convincingly proved, many Christians’ enthusiasm about capitalism’s wealth-producing ability is tempered by their distaste of materialistic capitalist culture and distress over members of the underclass at home and abroad who seem not to have shared in the free market’s unheard-of prosperity. This discomfort over capitalism leaves Christians with a dilemma: how can we make the market more moral? In the post-1989 world, this issue is particularly pressing as formerly statist countries adopt market-friendly policies, hoping to imitate the West’s material prosperity without falling prey to its cultural decadence.
Largely, Craig Gay’s book is a description of the conversations evangelical intellectuals have been holding on the “moralization” of capitalism. He categorizes these scholars as left, center, and right and analyzes them in the context of New Class theory. This theory maintains that America’s middle class is really two classes: the old, traditional, business-oriented class and the modern, liberal, secular New Class engaged in the production and dissemination of symbolic knowledge. (This is perhaps an oversimplified description of the New Class, since some of its members by vocation do not share its predominant political philosophy.)
Gay argues that the evangelical left has chosen to identify with the New Class and the evangelical right with the traditional business class. In so doing, both groups have “bargained” with their secular counterparts, adopted their assumptions and prescriptions, and sinned by considering socio-economic issues as ultimate, rather than penultimate. Though the book’s organization makes Gay appear to censure both parties with equal vigor, in fact, as Peter Berger notes in the foreword, the evangelical left’s compromises are more dangerous. Its continuing dialogue with the New Class’s “modern consciousness” has introduced a more intense and perilous form of what Berger calls “cognitive contamination,” i.e., the “gradual, typically unconscious process of adaptation to the prevailing worldview.” This accommodation has allowed secularity to “come in the back door” and manifest itself in the theological, as well as political/economic, positions of the evangelical left.
At least at the level of proclamation, the evangelical left has loudly insisted upon a more moral, more communitarian, and more holistic society. Its members are eager to frame a “society that recognizes moral objectives,” as Paul Johnson put it. But the left challenges Johnson’s notion of a morally neutral capitalism. As Gay points out, for them, capitalism is evil, capitalism is the problem, and a more moral community will arise only when capitalism has been extirpated.
Gay observes that the left views capitalism as a “comprehensive system, encompassing economic, political, and social realities.” For them this is a critical as well as helpful view, because this definition allows the left to use capitalism as a scapegoat for just about any evil under the sun. (The evangelical right, in contrast, maintains that capitalism is simply an efficient way of ordering economic production and exchange in a world of scarcity-and that it is only one social institution among many, such as the church, state, and family.) For the left, greed is the engine of capitalism, concentrated power and exploitation its chief characteristics, and gross material inequalities domestically and globally its chief results. With such a dim view, the left considers attempts to make capitalism “more moral” fruitless and utterly misguided. Christians would do far better to promote worldwide social revolution against the beast.
Gay considerably advances our understanding of the left’s case against capitalism by going beyond the Scripture-based arguments they raise. “As the evangelical left has matured,” he writes, “its theological condemnation of capitalism has increasingly drifted away from merely ethical and propositional assertions and toward an incorporation of such assertions into an overarching view of history and eschatology.” The left (and much of what Gay calls the center) contends that “God is always at work in history, liberating the poor and oppressed.” For these evangelicals, “conversion” to the Gospel means fundamentally a conversion to a socio-political agenda (the New Left’s) through which, allegedly, God is at work building His kingdom. This leaves little enthusiasm for the labor to which Johnson exhorts Christians: cultivating the moral foundation upon which capitalist institutions can be grounded and sustained, and to which free market activity will be accountable.
It is, rather, two other groups in Gay’s survey who bring the most to that endeavor. They are the evangelical “moderate right” (represented, e.g., by Herbert Schlossberg, Ron Nash, and P. J. Hill and excluding the far-right theonomists) and the section of the center Gay calls the “evangelical mainstream” (represented, e.g., by Carl F. H. Henry). Gay’s categorization might have been neater if he had put these two groups together; identified his “center progressives,” such as Nicholas Woltersdorff, for what they are, somewhat less dogmatic allies of the radical left; and completely separated the far-right reconstructionists from the rest of the right. Then the book would have divided those—namely, the “moderate right” and the “center-center”—that have been somewhat successful in resisting trends towards secularization and immanentization, and those that have not.
This amended categorization would clarify a crucial point that is in danger of being missed in light of Gay’s apparently evenhanded criticisms of left and right. His approach unwittingly sets the reader up for sympathy to the evangelical “center” as the group that must have the most balanced, responsible, and non-compromising stance. This is not the case. To his credit, though, Gay’s examination of the center and his concluding comments do identify some of its serious shortcomings.
Theoretically, this group (especially the “progressive neo-Calvinists”) share some assumptions of the moderate right: that capitalism can be appreciated for its efficient wealth-creation; that it is not a comprehensive system because society is composed of several spheres with important roles; and that the state must be limited if other “mediating institutions” such as the family and church are to enjoy their rightful autonomy. But, as Gay points out, in practice the center’s policy prescriptions—for justice defined as “equity,” for far greater state activism in the economy, and for a reconceptualization of the task of economics to one of “guiding” the society toward appropriate ends—threaten to circumscribe severely the freedom of the other spheres. Ostensibly, the evangelical center is concerned about making capitalism more moral; in reality, its policy agenda suggests that it is willing to see the capitalist economic system usurped by the interventionist one. Although this is better than the left’s implied call for socialism, this “statist” solution neither resolves Paul Johnson’s question, nor, for that matter, helps the poor or promotes “justice.”
More than this, Gay’s work suggests that the left and center-left’s alignment with the New Class renders it incapable of leading the discussion on how to build the moral-cultural and strong juridical framework in which economic freedom is used creatively, responsibly, and in a socially beneficent way. It is the civil society, and especially the church, that must cultivate the moral-cultural system in which the economic order is located. When the church is faithful to orthodoxy and to the transcendent God—the God of the higher, objective Law—it can proclaim the metaphysical basis for a society of ordered liberty. When the Christian community loses its sense of the transcendent and of objective moral reality, it cannot contribute very much to the sustaining of a free and virtuous society.
The “absolutization” of the economic sphere, against which evangelicals rightly rail, and the grievous excesses that occur when economic liberty becomes license are not produced by capitalism per se. As Pope John Paul II argued in Centesimus Annus, if these things happen “the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system . . . has been weakened.” Gay’s research demonstrates that the left’s and center-left’s continued dialogue with the New Class is fueling the deterioration of the moral-cultural system by compromising orthodox theology. As he concludes, these groups have “in effect expanded their conception of theological authority to include neo-Marxist socioeconomic analysis” and “they have tended to shorten the eschatological horizon to the merely historical . . . .” This process of immanentization of the Gospel works against the relativizing of economic life that, for example, the Pauline epistles advocate.
Most of the immoral consequences of market processes stem from abuses of freedom. At least in part, this arises from a conception of liberty divorced from any moral restraints or objective standards. Such standards used to be supplied by the church, which taught that true freedom is the freedom to do as one ought. Gay’s research warns that the trends toward secularization and the collapsing of the fullness of the Gospel into a socio-economic treatise underway in some evangelical quarters undermine this community’s ability to disciple citizens in the traits and attitudes—frugality, discipline, integrity, fairness, delayed gratification, and other-centeredness—required if capitalism is to be tempered by a vibrant moral-cultural system.
Amy L. Sherman, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, is author of Preferential Option: A Christian and Neoliberal Strategy for Latin America’s Poor, forthcoming this spring from Eerdmans.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?