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April 09, 2012 3:54 PM Where Do the Gospels Endorse Capitalism?

By Ed Kilgore

Kevin Drum watched Rick Warren talk about economic issues on a Sunday show—on Easter Sunday, no less—and wonders, this morning, exactly where Warren would find biblical support for his belief that helping the poor via public services would “rob them of their dignity.”

The short answer, Kevin, is that there’s not any.

Now that’s not the same as saying the Bible lays out a clear-cut religious mandate for a social democratic regime or any other particular form of political economy. Lest we forget, even the most recent chapters of the Good Book were written by and for people living in a relatively primitive agricultural economy and under relatively demanding and arbitrary public authorities claiming (and often embodying) divine sanction.

But in any event, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are sufficiently loaded with injunctions to social justice, condemnations of idle and conspicuous wealth, and identification of righteousness with concern for the welfare of people in need that you might say the burden of proof for the godliness of anything approaching laissez-faire capitalism is pretty heavy.

Some conservatives of a religious bent seek to radically distinguish between personal charity and public assistance and argue that the latter undermines the former. Others have developed theologies that treat private wealth as signs of divine favor. Still others have excoriated efforts to “redistribute income” as public reflections of the private sins of theft or envy. Perhaps the most common Christian Right rationalization of economic conservatism is that a state that can “confiscate” income has the power to justify wickedness (e.g., legalization of abortion and same-sex relationships) or oppress the righteous. And in a less articulate way, cultural conservatives of every stamp naturally prefer the economic arrangments of the 1950s or 1930s or 1880s just as they prefer the family structure and moral codes of bygone days.

Roman Catholics have a more complicated path to membership in a conservative coalition that includes and is financed by plutocrats and their apologists, thanks to a reasonably rich heritage of social justice teachings and (in this country at least) a history of solidarity with the working class. Many wonder why, for example, the Bishops seem absorbed with reversing a contraception coverage mandate for non-church entities instead of fighting for social justice in an increasingly unequal society. The official and not inherently irrational answer is typically that protecting the lives of the unborn (which is at stake because the contraception mandate includes medications and devices the Church considers abortifacients) is a threshold issue for any just society, more fundamental than economic arrangements, as is protecting the autonomy of the Church itself (supposedly in jeopardy if Catholic hospitals, charities, or even individual employers are forced to violate the moral law).

Suffusing all these issues is a strong tendency among Christian conservatives to apply all the biblical passages providing encouragement for the afflicated and the persecuted to themselves, strange as it may seem. Much of the over-the-top language of the Christian Right, in fact, is part of a difficult but psychologically essential effort to turn comfortable white suburban believers into the wretched of the earth, hounded by powerful secular elites and their corrupt poor-and-minority clients into subjection. Enter one of those brightly colored evangelical megachurches and attend closely and you will catch more than a whiff of the Catacombs. It’s no accident that Christian Right leaders like James Dobson just love to compare themselves to the brave rebels of the German Confessing Church, and why nothing thrills the rank-and-file quite like those viral emails suggesting that Obama is plotting to ban religious broadcasts or even herd martyrs into concentration camps. A lot of today’s Christian conservatives are feeling too much pity for themselves to share much with the poor, who generally vote wrong and can be dismissed as pawns of the Evil One.

It does take a lot of self-deception to read the Bible regularly and come away not only believing but preaching that Ayn Rand was basically right, except for her atheism. But it seems a remarkable number of American religious leaders are up to the task.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • stevio on April 09, 2012 4:17 PM:

    "But it seems a remarkable number of American religious leaders are up to the task."

    That and closeted same sex encounters (Until they are exposed, so to speak)

    Truly nauseating humans...

  • Anonymous on April 09, 2012 4:31 PM:

    exactly where Warren would find biblical support for his belief that helping the poor via public services would “rob them of their dignity.”

    You already lost your dignity selling books and preaching the Prosperity Gospel to rubes stupid enough to believe that their "seed" money will result the fictitious deity in heaven showering them with wealth.

    You fucking scam artist. Better odds than the House at a Los Vegas casino .

  • skeptonomist on April 09, 2012 4:43 PM:

    Jesus was not a social revolutionary. He basically accepted the world as it existed in his time; he had nothing to say against slavery, for example. But there is no question whatsoever that he (and God) thought it was everyone's duty to directly help the poor. Jesus had no economic message (he hadn't heard of Karl Marx, Adam Smith or J.M. Keynes; God created them later).

    If Warren and other US conservatives had a rational position on this, it would be that helping the poor is the job of private individuals and churches, and not the job of government. This position was taken by Bush I, for example. Jesus did not say either that you should pay taxes so they can be given to the poor, or make your business bigger so that there are more jobs; he said help the poor directly. And I don't think either God or Jesus was concerned with "fairness"; it was taken for granted that some people were wealthy and powerful, and it was their duty to help those less fortunate.

  • SecularAnimist on April 09, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Ed Kilgore: "Now that’s not the same as saying the Bible lays out a clear-cut religious mandate for a social democratic regime or any other particular form of political economy."

    Fortunately, the government of the United States of America is a secular government which derives its power from, and is answerable to its citizens -- it is not a theocracy ruled by a Biblical "mandate", let alone by the opinions of Rick Warren, James Dobson, Kevin Drum or Ed Kilgore as to what "mandate" the Bible "lays out".

  • SecularAnimist on April 09, 2012 4:51 PM:

    skeptonomist wrote: "Jesus did not say either that you should pay taxes so they can be given to the poor, or make your business bigger so that there are more jobs; he said help the poor directly. And I don't think either God or Jesus was concerned with 'fairness' ..."

    Jesus made it very clear what he was concerned about.

    When Jesus told the rich man to give everything he had to the poor, it was not because Jesus was concerned about the poor. Jesus was concerned about the rich man's soul.

  • Texas Aggie on April 09, 2012 4:55 PM:

    Basically the argument that charity should be through the churches, not the government, falls on its face for two reasons. The lesser is that the same people want the church to be the government. The more important is that for a church to demand that everyone tithe and then decide how to distribute that money is no different from the government saying that you have to pay taxes based on how much you make and then decide how to distribute that money.

  • delNorte on April 09, 2012 5:10 PM:

    I live near Grand Rapids, Michigan, a bastion for some wealthy "compassionate conservatives" (think Amway), and yet:

    "Today, 36,860 children living in Kent County are food insecure. From 2000 to 2008, Grand Rapids had the largest spike in poverty among any US city at 8.9%, meaning that more children are at risk of becoming food insecure."

    If these conservatives are the people George Bush was counting on to step up to the plate, I'm afraid it's not happening. They have a real-time opportunity to show that the government shouldn't support the poor, and the evidence above reveals just the opposite - if the government doesn't step in, no one else will (at least not on the scale necessary to address the size of the need).

  • cmdicely on April 09, 2012 5:28 PM:

    Many wonder why, for example, the Bishops seem absorbed with reversing a contraception coverage mandate for non-church entities instead of fighting for social justice in an increasingly unequal society.

    Presumably, that "many" is the many who aren't aware of the ongoing efforts by the Bishops relating to economic justice, probably because the "many" are looking through the lens of the major US media, which is rather selective in what efforts of the Catholic heirarchy (or, to be fair, any religious organization) it highlights, preferring those that fit into a Christians vs. liberals narrative.

    The official and not inherently irrational answer is typically that protecting the lives of the unborn (which is at stake because the contraception mandate includes medications and devices the Church considers abortifacients) is a threshold issue for any just society, more fundamental than economic arrangements, as is protecting the autonomy of the Church itself (supposedly in jeopardy if Catholic hospitals, charities, or even individual employers are forced to violate the moral law).

    No, that's not the "official" response to the question you frame. A response of a somewhat similar form might be part an official response to why the heirarchy's position on particular items of public policy treats certain policy positions as obligatory while other policy positions are treated as strong recommendations of how to acheive a goal that it is obligatory to seek, but it isn't an official answer of the heirarchy as to why things like the contraceptive coverage mandate are pursued instead of economic justice, because it is simply a falsehood that advocacy on those two are mutually exclusive.

  • Tim Balch on April 09, 2012 5:32 PM:

    Fred Clark at Slacktivist is a good resource on these topics of conservatives and the bible, and the "persecution complex" of some religious groups. As an example of the latter mindset he points to a fake raid on a youth group, "staged to show the teens the perils faced by Christian missionaries in the world's trouble spots."

  • bk on April 09, 2012 5:38 PM:

    Public services take away poor peoples' dignity because it takes away rick warren's power over them. the welfare state promotes freedom and liberty. I don't have to believe anything to get help if i need it. I can be an atheist, a muslim, a homosexual, or whatever i want and the welfare state will help me. rick warren wants to control people, telling them what to believe before he will magnanimously help them.

  • citizen_pain on April 09, 2012 5:45 PM:

    Secularanimist as usual hammers the nail on the head @4:47.

    Bottom line is this whole argument is a mute point. The founding fathers' ideas of self determination and inalienable rights, to me represent the ultimate repudiation of organized religion, and went so far as to EXPLICITLY say this in the Constitution. Article 6, at the end of the third clause:

    "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

    Our country has become what they tried so hard to prevent. Evangelical Christianity, which is really no different than ultra orthodox Judaism and Islamic Jihadists, when you consider they all are strictly fundamentalists.

  • citizen_pain on April 09, 2012 5:48 PM:

    Sorry for the grammar. Pissed off and almost half drunk already.

  • schtick on April 09, 2012 6:12 PM:

    These preachers pick and chose what they want to follow and preach about in the bible. The rewriting of the bible by the tealiban should be a clue, with the support of these bible-thumpers, including now, the catholic church.
    We are having the litmus test for the people running for office, if not, why the concern about what religious beliefs those pols have? And remember that farce with Obama and McCain? Where McCain wasn't supposed to know the questions in advance, but he did?
    The preachers live in mansions, drive around in limos, and preach politics from the pulpit while telling the igonorant poor and middle class to give a percentage of their hard-earned money to the "church" while they twist the bible in telling the people how to vote. This is the really BIG reason churches should be taxed.

  • JackD on April 09, 2012 6:49 PM:

    I'm surprised that noone has mentioned the Acts of the Apostles in which the community is described as holding everything in common with noone going hungry.

  • citizen_pain on April 09, 2012 6:50 PM:

    The point I'm trying to make here is that monotheistic organized religion is no longer viable, it serves only to FUCK shit up.

    All three great religious institutions of the last millennium no longer apply. It's time for mankind to move on and transcend the old ways.

  • TCinLA on April 09, 2012 7:02 PM:

    What do you expect from some dumbass Southern Baptist from Orangatang County?

  • PTate in MN on April 09, 2012 7:21 PM:

    "the most common Christian Right rationalization of economic conservatism is that a state that can “confiscate” income has the power to justify wickedness (e.g., legalization of abortion and same-sex relationships) or oppress the righteous. "

    A Baptist friend of mine used to comment that the church was the Devil's playground...because if the Devil could wound a good Christian, he would score twice. I think about this when I read the crazy s*** that the right wing Christian church goes on about nowadays. They've driven out the liberals and moderates; only the delusional, spiteful and bigoted remain, the Devil's Spawn.

    I think you are right about the conservative Christian rationalization that a state who confiscates your wealth has the power to do evil, but I think they've got the causal arrow reversed. I argue that they become angry about taxation when the state began to mess with their nice, comfy, privileged lives--by insisting the African Americans and women have equal access to school, healthcare and jobs. They didn't want to pay for THAT kind of democracy.

    upthread, Texas Aggie points out two good reasons why the idea that charity should be done by churches is unsustainable. A third reason, if I may add to the list, is because only 46% of Americans are regular church-goers. The other 54% get off without paying a cent to help provide for their unfortunate brethern. How fantastic is that, eh? Under that kind of system, the only people to join churches would be the ones who needed help. Everyone else would be off insisting that charity was the work of churchgoers, not our responsibility.

    These are all reasons why the government was enlisted to provide for the common welfare in the first place. Private charity isn't up to the task.

  • citizen_pain on April 09, 2012 7:30 PM:

    History repeats itself. Lessons will be learned again. Let's just hope we can get that far!!

  • jpeckjr on April 09, 2012 7:41 PM:

    @JackD. In Acts, the community that held everything in common was the small, fledgling community of Christians, not the whole of society. Christians taking care of Christians is a good thing, and their care for each other attracted followers to the movement.

    However, as BK noted, public assistance provided by a secular govt must be provided without a religious test. That, too, is a good thing.

    @schtick. I am a preacher. I serve a small, liberal, progressive Christian congregation. My church sponsors a free health clinic that sees 40 - 60 uninsured and underinsured people a week. We ask no questions about their religious beliefs or practices.

    I live in a 2-bedroom apartment. My compensation is less than $50,000 a year. I have health insurance, but my church can't afford this year to contribute to my retirement program. I drive a 2008 car I bought used in December when my 1992 vehicle finally died. I do not tell my congregation how to vote.

    Comparing me and thousands of pastors like me to any of the celebrity preachers you see on TV is ignorant and insulting.

  • revchicoucc on April 09, 2012 7:45 PM:

    The Bible does not endorse any modern economic system. The Bible does warn against the spiritual dangers of wealth and power, names greed and covetousness as sins, encourages fair business practices, and supports careful management of ones own finances. Of course, that's all in the Book of Proverbs, a book of wisdom, not the Gospels. Nobody ever reads Proverbs. Pity.

  • JackD on April 09, 2012 9:15 PM:

    @jpeckjr. The account in Acts does not limit itself as you imply to be solely applicable to the small Christian community. Rather, it appears to stand as an example of how people, in general, should live. Oh, no, I hear you say; that's socialism! As Jesus might have responded, "you have said it".

  • c00p on April 09, 2012 9:49 PM:

    "Conservatives" may claim that dealing with poverty and other social ills is the job of the church and not the government but it's been patently obvious to "progressive" political leaders in Western countries for decades that churches either can't do the job alone or aren't doing the job. FDR and the New Deal didn't usurp the work that churches were doing in the Great Depression: they provided services the churches couldn't offer. If religious leaders in the US want the government out of taking care of the poor and the elderly, then maybe they'd better get busy doing that "charity" work themselves instead of building multi-million dollar "sanctuaries" for the comfort of Sunday morning attendees.

  • JD on April 09, 2012 9:58 PM:

    JackD, the scripture from Acts you cite reads as follows:

    "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything." Acts 4:32 (NIV)

    Clearly, the Bible is describing the original Christian community in the first years of the Church. The point of this passage is, I believe, to show how powerfully God was working within the church. It simply says that the church was selfless in the concern that they showed for one another. It's remarkable for how vividly this community contrasts with the usual way of the world. I don't think it's a mandate for socialism, communism or any other "ism".

    I say this as an Obama supporter who believes that the government should help the poor and see to the welfare of all its people, regardless of creed.

  • JD on April 09, 2012 10:00 PM:

    Of course, the part about sharing everything is predicated on a community being "one in heart and mind", a state of affairs that is, to say the least, quite rare.

  • John on April 09, 2012 10:41 PM:

    While it's certainly reasonable to say that the Bible does not call for socialism or a welfare state, I think there's a lot more grounding in the text for that than there is for the very common idea on the right that the Bible endorses social Darwinism.

    Beyond that, I'd just note that the Catholic position seems to me to be very different from the Evangelical position. Evangelicals are opposed to the welfare state in principle. The Catholic Church supports the welfare state in principle, but frequently allies with its enemies because they believe that the pro-life issue is more important than social welfare. There are, of course, a large number of lay Catholics who oppose the welfare state, but I don't think that's really grounded in their religious beliefs.

  • JD on April 10, 2012 8:00 AM:

    John, while many prominent evangelicals oppose government help for the needy, not all do. Evangelicals have diverse political views and it is not accurate to lump them together. This is increasingly the case as younger evangelicals assume more of a leadership role in the church.

    The only way that evangelicals would, en masse, oppose the welfare state in principle would be if there was a clear biblical injunction against it. There clearly is no such injunction in scripture.

  • Rugosa on April 10, 2012 8:21 AM:

    Women have been virtual slave labor for the church since the beginning. The church opposes contraception and abortion because it wants to keep things that way.

  • Steve P on April 10, 2012 9:25 AM:

    Then there's that whole "camel and eye of a needle" business. There was a satirical story in the 80's about a religious industrialist who had a camel reduced to a liquid state and then injected through a hypodermic needle to lay that ghost.
    Not sure now it was satire--it may have been something the Kochs tried.

  • JEA on April 10, 2012 9:42 AM:

    It's no coincidence that the "prosperity gospel" is an exclusively white suburban, upper middle-class phenomenon.

  • JackD on April 10, 2012 12:23 PM:

    @JD. I agree that the story in Acts is not calling for any ism. It is, however, describing a model for what life should be like and the idealism of that model was apparently attractive to others. It also offers what appears to be an endorsement of the desirability of people caring for each other.

  • revchicoucc on April 10, 2012 12:47 PM:

    @JEA. The "prosperity gospel" is not an exclusively white suburban upper middle-class phenomenon. It is found in African-American, Latino, and Asian-American cultures, as well as in other countries. Some of the largest African-American congregations in the US are "prosperity gospel" churches.

  • JD on April 10, 2012 12:56 PM:

    JackD,

    Agreed.

  • zandru on April 10, 2012 1:15 PM:

    As it sez in the Bible "Am I my brother's keeper?"

    There you have the Randian justification. Of course, this was Cain, trying to cover up having slewn his brother, and Cain was later punished, but hey! It's in the Bible! Who needs "context"?

  • MelanieN on April 10, 2012 2:17 PM:

    These fundamentalists need to pay more attention to what Jesus actually said. Read Matthew 25: 31-46, where He appears to talk about who is going to go to heaven and who is going to go to hell. The division into "sheep" and "goats" is based entirely on whether the person being judged gave aid to the sick and the needy and yes, even the imprisoned. If you helped those people, you enter into paradise; if you didn't, you go to "eternal punishment". Note that He says nothing about the sex life of the person being judged; it's entirely about their compassion and charity, or lack of same.

  • boatboy_srq on April 10, 2012 3:01 PM:

    @SecularAnimist 4:51 pm

    When Jesus told the rich man to give everything he had to the poor, it was not because Jesus was concerned about the poor. Jesus was concerned about the rich man's soul.

    Two sides, one coin. It wasn't because the poor were needy that He said that; it was (is) because wealth is a risk to one's spiritual health. His statements to the rich may have said little about what the poor needed/deserved/whatever, but they said much about how corrosive the act of or need for accumulating assets is.

    This is why to many of us, however attractive it may be, the "prosperity Gospel" is nothing less than blasphemy: if Mammon competes with God, and one cannot revere both at the same time, then accumulating mammon while professing Christianity is simply being greedy and lying through one's teeth.

    Jesus said a lot of other, distinct things about how to treat everyone, the poor included. His talks with the rich in His society were more explicit: not "give everything to the poor" but "give everything you own away." It was less important who received the gifts than who was able to go without them by their own choice.

    One can argue, taking the Gospels as a whole, that the poor would have been the most appropriate recipients of the rich's handing over their wealth to save their own souls. And one can argue that poverty troubled Him even as He apparently accepted that it could not be eradicated, which would be cause enough to fight poverty as a social and moral ill. But it is irresponsible, untruthful and flat-out wrong to argue that He ever suggested that wealth and privilege were anything but the soul-corrupting hindrances to salvation, or that being wealthy and successful were signs of Election and Righteousness and not the most serious risks to their souls that any who possessed either could encounter.

  • David Martin on April 10, 2012 4:21 PM:

    Conflating Ayn Rand with the Christ is one of the weirder social trends of recent years.

  • Jimo on April 10, 2012 5:11 PM:

    I think you must remember that a core foundation of what today passes for "conservatism" is social standing fear.

    If gov't helped people "below" you rise up to your level then how would you look down on those people? Wouldn't that jeopardize your social standing relative to others?

    "Those people" "don't deserve" "government help."

    This explains:
    1. How middle income people can be oblivious to gross income disparity.
    2. Why middle income people who benefit directly from gov't programs despise gov't programs.
    3. Why many white persons confuse "gov't assistance" with minorities.
    4. Why the cruelest towards the poor rarely are the Romney's of the world but rather those just above poverty themselves. ("I did it; so can they.")