Christianity and capitalism reconsidered

David Bentley Hart’s essay on the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism, featured in the new issue of Plough Quarterly, strikes me as absolutely essential — an argument that everyone who wants to think seriously about Christianity and the social order ought to reflect on and find a response to. That argument is not, in its broad outlines, new — but it does condense some vital points and express them in vigorous prose.

But before getting to Hart: One of the most frustrating elements of the current debates about Christianity and American life is the vagueness and abstraction of the relevant terms. When certain Christians decry “the liberal order,” what do they mean? My friend and colleague David Corey has offered a deeply intelligent and extremely useful response to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed in which he points out that while liberalism is intrinsically associated with the securing and preservation of freedom, “freedom” has been defined by the key theorists of the liberal order in at least nine distinct ways. Which of those do the celebrants of the liberal order celebrate? Which do the denouncers of the liberal order denounce? Often it’s impossible to tell, and it’s highly unlikely that the typical celebrant or denouncer would even understand the question. (So please read David Corey’s essay.)

Of course, most people who make arguments about anything don’t really know what they’re talking about. But it seems to me that arguments about Christianity and politics have an almost unique ability to reduce the intelligence of the people involved by at least a third. We desperately need clarity about what, exactly, we’re arguing about. And that’s where Hart’s essay can help. In the first sentence of his essay he writes, “I have no entirely satisfactory answer to the questions that prompt these reflections; but I do think the right approach to the answers can be glimpsed fairly clearly if we first take the time to define our terms.” And indeed this is precisely where we need to begin.

Unfortunately, this promising opening leads immediately to the least satisfactory element of Hart’s essay, which I am going to address in the remainder of this post, and then go on, in later posts, to describe what I think is very right, or at least very useful, in the rest of his essay.

I have often praised a model of debate that I learned about from my friend Robin Sloan. Here’s Robin’s description of it:

Every so often, the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco hosts a debate. It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress — high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.

Instead, it goes like this:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction — a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument — and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.

David Bentley Hart is not interested in this sort of attempt to reach a common understanding of the terms of debate. Earlier I quoted the first sentence of his essay; but before the first sentence we get an epigraph from Baudelaire that begins, “Commerce is, in its essence, satanic.” At the end of that paragraph he cites the early anarchist Proudhon’s view that capitalism “is a system in which as a general rule those whose work creates profits neither own the means of production nor enjoy the fruits of their labor.” So Hart’s definitions of capitalism are those of its declared enemies. Thus, the incompatibility of capitalism with Christianity is not the argument of Hart’s essay, it is the essay’s premise. That the defenders of capitalism would not accept these definitions is, I suspect, of little interest to Hart.

But I think it should be. Consider Deirdre McCloskey in the first volume of her series of books on bourgeois life, The Bourgeois Virtues: “I mean by ‘capitalism’ merely private property and free labor without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus.” Her argument following from this definition is that liberal capitalism (a) makes us richer, (b) lets us live longer, and (c) improves our ethics. From these points she concludes: “Anticapitalism is bad for us.”

I don’t think that Hart would accept any of these points, but I wonder what he might say in refutation. One of the key points of dispute would surely be the characteristic effects of capitalism. Hart writes, “One can also concede that, now and then, the immense returns reaped by the few can redound to the benefit of the many; but there is no fixed rule to that effect, and generally quite the opposite is the case“ — but as we have seen, McCloskey claims that the best research tells us that Hart’s claim is flat wrong, that “generally” capitalist activity is a tide that lifts most if not all boats. (It’s funny how often McCloskey seems to be anticipating Hart, e.g.: “If modern capitalism is defined to be the same thing as Greed — ‘the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone … , this boundless greed after riches,’ as Marx put it in chapter 1 of Capital, drawing on an anticommercial theme originating in Aristotle — then that settles it, before looking at the evidence.” Largely this is because Hart’s critique of capitalism is a very familiar one, as, I’m sure, he would be the first to acknowledge.)

I also wonder whether, given disagreements like the above, it would be possible for Hart and McCloskey to agree on a definition of capitalism, and, if they did, what it would be and how it would affect their respective arguments. But to speculate about such possibilities is to live in a dream world.

I don’t want to try to adjudicate the dispute here. For one thing, it’s not a level playing field: Hart wrote one short essay and McCloskey three long books. I merely want to say that I think Hart could have started from a more neutral definition of capitalism and arrived equally securely at his anti-capitalist stance — indeed, could have arrived there more securely, and made his position more convincing to skeptics. It is even possible that everything that McCloskey says about capitalism is true and that capitalism is still incpmpatible with Christianity, because McCloskey does not tell the whole truth. (McCloskey is a Christian, by the way.) Hart’s essay has an unfortunate beginning, then, but after that it grows stronger. Hart confronts me with some powerful points that I would rather not confront — but I’m going to try to do so.

Everything I have to say from here on is directed to Christians who believe that what the Bible says, or at the very least what Jesus says in the Bible, matters to their thinking about our social and economic life — who believe that, once we understand what Jesus is saying to us, we are bound to obedience.

And that means being so bound even when obedience leads us onto paths that do not, or do not seem to, conduce to our flourishing. That is what I meant when I said that Deirdre McCloskey’s argument — that capitalism makes us wealthier, lets us live longer, and improves our ethics — could be right and even so Christianity and capitalism might not be compatible. Maybe God doesn’t want us to be richer and longer-lived, and maybe there are certain matters of faithfulness that transcend what most people call “ethics” (Kierkegaard famously called this the “teleological suspension of the ethical”). Christianity shares with the other Axial Age religions a thoroughgoing revaluation of what makes for human flourishing. As Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age, Buddhism and Christianity diverge greatly in doctrine, and yet they have something vital in common:

This is that the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of self in one case, or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other. The respective patterns are clearly visible in the exemplary figures. The Buddha achieves Enlightenment; Christ consents to a degrading death to follow his father’s will.

Jesus was not wealthy — “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” — and preached “good news for the poor.” He did not live to a ripe old age. His ethics were thought deficient by the leading religious figures of his time and place. Thus capitalism could be everything McCloskey says it is and yet we Christians could be called upon to disavow it.

Hart thinks this is precisely what Christians are called upon to do:

Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full; woe to you who are full fed, for you shall hunger; woe to you who are now laughing, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). As Abraham tells Dives in Hades, “You fully received your good things during your lifetime… so now you suffer” (Luke 16:25). Christ not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matt. 5:42), with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matt. 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth – not merely storing it up too obsessively – and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matt. 6:19–20). He tells all who would follow him to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds away as alms (Luke 12:33), and explicitly states that “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). As Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).


It is interesting to reflect on the number of Christians who insist that Scripture’s teaching on our culture’s topics du jour (whatever those might be) are explicit and obvious and so incontrovertible that anyone who disagrees with the Preferred Interpretation must be willfully blind — and yet simultaneously insist that the passages Hart quotes are subject to dramatically varying interpretations, and that it would be rash indeed to claim that we are actually literally being told to give all we have away to the poor?

This is why I am so fond of quoting this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

As I say, I am fond of quoting this passage, but I am also judged by it in ways that make me profoundly uneasy. Kirekegaard’s savagely hilarious mockery prevents me from evading the force of the words of Jesus that Hart cites, and I suppose that’s good; but none of his words can compel me to obedience.

As far as I can tell, I am, as a Christian, bound to sell all I have and disperse the proceeds to the poor; but, also as far as I can tell, I won’t do it. And I won’t do it because I lack the requisite courage. I am afraid that if I obey Jesus on this point my wife and I will spend our final years in poverty and fear, that like Jesus himself we will have no place to lay our heads. I am afraid that if I give everything I own to the poor I’ll have nothing to leave to our son, who seems likely to be facing a more economically precarious life than I have had.

I don’t like being in this situation. I’d be much happier if I could convince myself that “Christian scholarship” is correct when it explains to me that those biblical texts Hart quotes don’t mean what it sure looks like they mean. But Kierkegaard forces me to see just how motivated my reasoning is, how desperately I want to avoid Jesus’s commands. So I suppose I should start praying for courage, shouldn’t I?

All that said, these reflections take us a long way from the question of how compatible Christianity and capitalism are.

The reason the reflections in the previous section of this post don’t bear on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism is simple: Jesus tells me what to do with my money, but He does not what sort of socio-economic order to build, or try to build. The focus of the New Testament is always on what persons do and especially what the ecclesial community, the koinonia, does. The relationship between those acts, that community, and the larger social order remains enigmatic. There’s no question that Jesus brings a revolution against all the existing Powers, but how that revolution is to be made manifest is hard to grasp. His statements about Roman power are famously ambiguous, and his lack of interest in leading or even participating in a political rebellion of the Jews against their overlords seems to have scandalized some of his early followers.

Hart tries to bridge the gap between statement and implication in the following way:

  • “There can simply be no question that absolutely central to the gospel they [the Apostles] preached was the insistence that private wealth and even private property were alien to a life lived in the Body of Christ.”
  • “Small intentional communities committed to some form of Christian collectivism are all very well, of course,” but “whatever prophetic critique they might bring to bear upon their society is, in the minds of most believers, converted into a mere special vocation, both exemplary and precious — perhaps even a sanctifying priestly presence within the larger church — but still possible only for the very few, and certainly not a model of practical politics.”
  • What must be kept in mind is this: “the full koinonia of the Body of Christ is not an option to be set alongside other equally plausible alternatives. It is not a private ethos or an elective affinity. It is a call not to withdrawal, but to revolution.”
  • In conclusion: “Christians are those, then, who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.”

Before proceeding, I want to pause to digress on something that might be the only thing that really matters here. Deirdre McCloskey describes with enthusiastic intelligence the virtues that bourgeois-capitalist society cultivates; Hart, by contrast, writes of “the anarchy of Christian love.” It is a long-vexed question whether agape is a virtue in the same way that many other traits are virtues.

Since Aristotle, it is common for virtue theorists to describe virtues as finding some golden mean between two vices: hope, for instance, says Thomas Aquinas, may be found between the false extremes of desperatio and praesumptio, despair and presumption: the despairing person doesn’t think there’s anywhere to go, while the presumptuous person thinks that he has already arrived. (The hopeful person knows that she is a wayfarer: she hasn’t yet arrived, but she has a destination clearly in mind.) But while it’s easy to draw such a clear map of hope and its perversions, it’s harder to do that for love. After all, if your love is rightly directed, you can’t love too much.

McCloskey comments that some people who heard that she was writing about “bourgeois virtues” laughed, because they didn’t think that the bourgeoisie have any virtues. But in fact the classical conception of virtue is a useful way to think about middle-class life under capitalism. You don’t want to take unnecessary risks, but you don’t want to sew your money into your mattress either. You don’t want to hoard your resources, but you don’t want to waste them either. You don’t want to work yourself to death, but you don’t want to be lazy and feckless either.

But this balancing act may well be inappropriate to the life of agape, which in the New Testament is so often associated with what from the bourgeois point of view looks like extravagance. If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak also. Praise that old widow for giving all she has, even though a bourgeois virtue would counsel her to hold something back. Don’t try to escape persecution, but rather rejoice in it. Don’t even think about what you should say when called to account for yourself before some court — God will give you the words you need. Don’t try to maintain your emotional equilibrium but rather laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. (Don’t save your money so you can give it to your son when you die.) This, I think, is what Hart means by “the anarchy of Christian love” — it’s a kind of flinging of yourself into the world without counting the cost and in defiance of the consequences. After all, look at what happened to Jesus when he flung himself into the world.

Practicing the bourgeois virtues makes the social world run more smoothly and predictably; practicing anarchic agape makes … we know not what. Hold on to your hat.

Anyway. Let’s posit that what Hart says in those five bulleted points I quoted several paragraphs back is true (especially since, as far as I can tell, all of it is true). Nevertheless: none of it tells us what we should do when we live in a society in which some people are Christians and some people are not. we may be called to revolution, but throughout history revolution has come in many varieties, varieties often incompatible with one another — so which variety is the koinonia supposed to follow? Or is its revolution essentially distinct from all other forms? Even when Hart says that intentional Christian communities don’t provide “a model of practical politics,” that doesn’t tell us whether we should have a model of practical politics. Maybe that precisely what a community of anarchic love shouldn’t have and indeed cannot have. Maybe that’s the nature of its revolutionary impetus. So not a great deal obviously follows from Hart’s argument.

But the primary imperative that surely follows is this: Do not make an idol of capitalism, do not see it as an ideal, do not see it as God’s Way, do not take it as a model for how to live. We are forbidden that by Scripture. In that sense capitalism is certainly incompatible with Christianity.

But having said that, it does seem to me that you could agree with Hart’s points and still hold a position fairly close to McCloskey’s, which is that capitalism, or rather the liberal social order which exists symbiotically with a market economy, is, for Christians and for everyone else, “pretty good.” Not great, not without significant flaws, but good enough to be going on with, and better than the available alternatives. Christianity is compatible with the liberal capitalist order in the sense that one can be a Christian within that order, though not easily and not without making trouble for yourself and for others.

But that doesn’t mean that one should be content with such getting by. The key question, I think, is to ask what, if we agree that Christianity is revolutionary, we mean by “revolution.” If you read Hannah Arendt’s great book On Revolution you will discover that the term has had many meanings over the centuries, not all of which are compatible with one another, and at least some of which — the violent overthrow of a government, for instance — surely cannot be reconciled with Christian faith and practice.

A related question — for Christians who are commanded to sell all they have and give to the poor, and to share all things in common — would be: May we strive to instantiate a political order that forces everyone within it to sell all they have and give it to the poor, regardless of whether they are Christians? I worry about this, because the track record of Christians when given the power of political coercion is tragically poor. Should not penitence for past sins, if nothing else, cause us to hesitate before attempting to enforce our convictions on those who do not share our faith?

Perhaps the best strategy would be to see if, in whatever political order we happen to find ourselves, we are able to be obedient to the commandments of King Jesus, at least for a period of time. Because we are unlikely to get other people interested in following a revolutionary banner that we ourselves aren’t strong enough to hold up.