By Hugh C Whelchel
Originally published on June 21, 2018 on Christianity Today
Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed the most significant movement out of poverty in human history. If this trend continues, we will see extreme poverty almost completely eradicated in the 21st century, according to a 2008 report from the World Bank. This historic economic movement was not the result of government programs, the United Nations’ national debt forgiveness, or even Christian charity. It was brought about by the spread of economic freedom and capitalism.
Economic freedom is important because it affects nearly every aspect of an individual’s life. Living in a society with high levels of economic freedom leads to higher incomes, less poverty, less unemployment, longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, higher literacy, cleaner environments, and a host of other benefits. More economic freedom equals improved well-being and a better quality of life. Economic freedom, then, is one measure of what the Bible calls “flourishing.”
Yet, today, free-market economics has come under fire. Social activist Michael Moore’s critique of capitalism is embraced by many:
Capitalism is an organized system to guarantee that greed becomes the primary force of our economic system and allows the few at the top to get very wealthy and has the rest of us riding around thinking we can be that way, too—if we just work hard enough, sell enough Tupperware and Amway products, we can get a pink Cadillac.
Almost everywhere we turn, we can see examples of greed and abuse, which has many asking, “Are the evils of capitalism worth the benefits?”
A Loss of Morals
Enter Kenneth J. Barnes, who dives headlong into this contentious debate in his new book, Redeeming Capitalism. He does not insist on unfettered capitalism, as many free-market supporters do; nor does he want to scrap capitalism for an “alternative economic utopia.” Instead, Barnes proposes “that capitalism, once rooted in a particular religious ethic, long since lost to the moral relativism of the modern era, need not be replaced, but needs instead to be redeemed.”
Barnes comes to this topic from an unusual but helpful perspective. Along with over 20 years’ experience in the business world, he holds numerous advanced degrees in theology and was recently appointed director of the Mockler Center for Faith & Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. While he doesn’t wish to dismiss the positive contributions capitalism has made to Western civilization, he agrees that we cannot ignore the evils and abuses that commonly plague the current system. He asks the reader to imagine a different type of capitalism, a “virtuous capitalism,” that he defines like this:
[A]n economic system with all of the wealth-generating possibilities of the capitalism we have, with the social benefits of the capitalism we desire; a system that consciously embraces and enthusiastically employs common grace for the common good.
To demonstrate that it is not capitalism itself but its practitioners who are at fault, Barnes uses the first third of the book to explain the historical uncoupling of capitalism and morals. Our system, he writes, “has evolved over the centuries from the traditional capitalism observed by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century to the modern capitalism seen by Max Weber in the early twentieth century, to our current postmodern form of capitalism.” Having broken free of previous moral constraints, this postmodern capitalism, says Barnes, has led to serious corruption and abuse.
Wading through an extended history lesson supplies important background to support Barnes’s central argument, which begins in the second third of the book. Here he examines how the theology of Augustine, Aquinas, and John Calvin has contributed to the development of economic virtue. Barnes argues that, when taken together, the biblical theology of these church fathers gives us a “motif that is remarkably universal in its application,” thus providing a useful framework for redeeming our current economic system.
This motif, says Barnes, consists of three elements: common grace, wisdom, and virtue. Equally essential are three other virtues: the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love. About their role, Barnes concludes:
Pursuit of an economic system reflective of wisdom and virtue is not only desirable, it is essential. When capitalism emerged from the primordial ooze of feudalism and mercantilism it was rooted in a religiously inspired ethic. As it has evolved over time, however, it has drifted further and further from that ethic, morphing into the postmodern capitalism I have described previously as “devoid of a moral compass and resistant if not impervious to ethical constraint.”
Barnes’s combined background in business and theology is particularly helpful in the last section of the book, as he seeks practical solutions to the problems presented by postmodern capitalism. Analyzing the current situation, he observes a disconnect between those at the top and the bottom:
Many people have lost hope in our economic system because they have lost faith in the markets themselves. They don’t see any obvious relationship between their own economic contributions (i.e., their labor) and the wealth of those at the top of the pyramid who appear to be spinning money according to their own devices. It has often been said, that two emotions drive Wall Street: greed and fear, neither are virtues.
Traditional capitalism was driven by self-interest―defined as a willingness to do something of value for others while also securing the things that benefit oneself. In other words, our self-interest, or pursuing and using our own gifts, talents, and resources, informs how we will be useful to others. Yet postmodern capitalism blurs this once-clear difference between self-interest and pure greed, and over the long haul, a system operating outside any moral constraints cannot possibly be sustainable.
Capitalism at the Crossroads
If you are looking for a full-blown strategy for restoring virtues to our economy in the closing chapters of Redeeming Capitalism, you will be disappointed. Barnes’s intent is not to provide a comprehensive cure, but instead to simply sound the wake-up call. That said, readers will still find some interesting practical ideas that point the way forward.
For example, in describing virtuous capitalism, Barnes writes that it “is neither wealth accumulation nor conspicuous consumption, but a genuine desire to see the power of free markets used for the purpose of human flourishing.” For this to happen, he suggests Christians must understand that it was always God’s intent for us to promote human flourishing through our work. This means teaching a new narrative around the purpose of work, wealth creation, and their God-ordained roles in bringing flourishing to God’s creation. Barnes favors an approach that integrates our faith and our work, rejecting the compartmentalization of our current culture, which dictates that work is only a means to an end.
Many will argue that capitalism doesn’t really need any redeeming. On this view, the only thing our economy needs is less government interference, so that it can continue providing opportunity and an improved quality of life. But this ignores the rising cultural opposition to the current postmodern capitalist system. Between protests like Occupy Wall Street and growing interest in Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism, there are many danger signs that people are losing confidence in the moral justifications put forward for free-market economics.
As Barnes observes, “the capitalism we have is the capitalism we have created.” Christians must take some of the blame for its present condition. For centuries, we have been the guardians of virtue in the West. But in more recent times, we have been negligent in being salt and light in the world of business. Far too many Christians have bought into the notion that their vocational work is secular and has little or nothing to do with their faith. They have neglected Paul’s admonition to “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). As a result, they work just like everyone around them and wonder why the culture has become so corrupt.
Barnes closes his book by calling it “a journey, not a destination.” If that is true, and I believe it is, we are indeed at a crossroads. While Redeeming Capitalism points us in the right direction, much work remains to be done.
As the late Catholic writer Michael Novak wrote in his classic book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, over 30 years ago, “Democratic capitalism is neither the Kingdom of God nor without sin. Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny—perhaps our last, best hope—lies in this much despised system.”
While Barnes doesn’t quote this passage, it certainly reflects the heart of his message and gives us a vision for a virtuous capitalism restored.
Hugh C. Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.