How ironic to be told this by a Calvinist. But Smith is absolutely correct. This article is from a New York Times series, God and Mammon, which debates the question, Is contemporary capitalism compatible with Christian values?
Steadfast Principles in a Changing World
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary & Henrietta Byker chair in applied reformed theology and worldview. He is also an editor of Comment magazine and and a senior fellow at Cardus.Updated June 25, 2014, 6:52 PMBeware “Jesuology.” That is how British theologian Oliver O’Donovan describes those Christian public theologies that claim to privilege the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Ask a Jesuologist our question and you can guess the answer: “Blessed are the poor” and “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”
All true. But Jesus also tells parables about servants who are punished for their terrible return on investment. From which Jesus-sayings should we deduce an economic theory?Christianity isn't incompatible with free markets. But it may be incompatible with modern capitalism and its growing inequality and exploitation.
A Christian social vision is never a simple enactment of Jesus-sayings, both because the Gospels are embedded within a wider canon of Scripture and because Christian social thought is conditioned by an eschatology — a sense of what is yet to come, and that we’re not there yet. Every Christian social vision is forged in this “not yet.”
In light of that, Christianity is certainly not incompatible with free markets. Indeed, in many ways, the emergence of such markets — and the prosperity produced by them — depends on the capital of a Christian worldview that prizes both flourishing and freedom.
But Christianity may have become incompatible with “contemporary” capitalism — with what seems to be increasing inequality in society. (Things might not be as bad as Thomas Piketty suggests, by the way.)
Christianity is incompatible with libertarianism — an ideology rooted in social atomism that pits all against all in a war of wills. Capitalism is not inherently libertarian, so the more it is wed to such a distorted social ontology, the more it becomes inconsistent with Christianity, which is fundamentally communitarian. When capitalism ceases to be an engine of the common good, it is inconsistent with Christianity.
Christianity is also consistently critical of greed. So the grab-all-you-can approach to executive compensation is a concern. In 1982, the chief executive-to-worker pay ratio was 42:1; in 2012 it was 354:1. What should concern Christians today is a selective inheritance of Adam Smith: we’ve prized the "Wealth of Nations' and ignored his "Theory of Moral Sentiments." We’ve seized upon the magic of self-interest and forgotten his counsels about virtue.
Finally, Christianity is deeply concerned with the plight of the poor. And, in fact, in many ways — tenured radical tirades notwithstanding — capitalism has been good for the poor. But Christianity is equally concerned about justice for workers. Figures like Pope Leo XIII and Protestant statesman Abraham Kuyper have affirmed both the good of markets and the need for unions. They didn’t equate capitalism with exploitation, but they did see the need to protect the dignity and value of work and workers — a concern that remains equally valid today.
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