Should Christians be capitalists?

Jay W. Richards answers common questions about money, greed, and God.

Many thought the debate of free market versus communism ended when the Soviet Union fell. The resurgence in communism’s popularity suggests otherwise, and many Christians are left wondering if communism aligns with Christian faith and if the free market is as savage as media and popular culture often assert.

Read on for key insights from Jay W. Richards’s Money, Greed and God.

We summarize the key ideas from new and noteworthy nonfiction. Join our free email list to get fresh insights sent directly to your inbox.

Even more than it’s maligned, the free market is misunderstood.

It’s not difficult to make a punching bag out of capitalism. Plenty of people make it the whipping boy for all of our social maladies. Volkswagen doctored emission reports. Apple schedules obsolescence of its devices so you have to buy newer, more expensive ones. Facebook doesn’t do a great job protecting its users’ privacy. Oil companies sully landscapes, disrupt ecosystems, and stall the development of alternative fuel sources.

Even if you chalk these claims up to media bias, we see the effects of the free market everywhere. We leave mortgaged or rented homes that we’ve furnished in our preferred ways, get into our cars, and drive to a job where we’re paid to provide goods and services for which others are willing to pay. All along the drive are billboards that blot the landscape and compete for our attention. Factories occasionally shut down, leaving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people jobless. Our bosses want wider profit margins. We carry our wallets with us everywhere. And who can resist poking around on Amazon when there’s a Prime deal?

The media’s frequent denouncements of capitalism are not surprising. But with growing frequency, Americans hear similar critiques from the pulpit. Pastors aren’t going out of their way to extol the calling to the business world, and parishioners feel caught between a rock and a hard place, wondering if their lives are dissonant with the gospel. Are they complicit in the corrupt system, even if they’re just trying to get by? Adding to the drama is the prosperity gospel, which equates the blessed life of a Christian with material enrichment. God wants us to be loaded, Joel Osteen and others tell their congregants. This, then, becomes particularly useful fodder for left-leaning Christians who equate capitalism with greed. 

Understandably, this all leaves people wondering whether Christian faith and capitalism can coexist. After all, on the face of it, free markets seem at odds with Jesus’ warnings and indictments:

“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal.”

“The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Soviet defector Ayn Rand was a stalwart advocate of capitalism, but she also saw loving your neighbor as a slippery slope to communism. You couldn’t find a person more suspicious of altruism. It was in the 1980s, at the zenith of Ayn Rand’s heyday, that stock trader Ivan Boesky gave his infamous commencement address at Harvard, in which he called greed “healthy,” insisting that, “you can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

If this is capitalism, then it finds no home in the Christian faith. But free market principles are not inextricably linked to greed or consumerism and grinding down the poor. The free market economy leaves plenty of opportunity for generosity, the possibility of simplicity, and escape from poverty.

The term “capitalism” that Marx coined is too baggage-laden to try defending.

What do the words “Quaker,” “Christian,” and “Big Bang” all have in common? They were originally coined by their opposition, intended to be pejorative. The same is true of “capitalism,” a term that Karl Marx himself created.

If we really care about truth and justice, it makes sense to really understand economics rather than being content with just knocking down caricatures. More than deep feelings of concern or sympathy, this process of evaluation requires thinking. But those who dig might find, as the author did (once a socialist sympathizer) that the horrible images the word “capitalism” conjures are a far cry from basic free market economics. 

Tacking on “ism” to the end of any word gives it an ideological flavor, which is something to be avoided, especially when talking about an economic system, which is just that: an economic system. It’s not an all-encompassing worldview, nor does it comprise the totality of the society.

It’s no use trying to reclaim a word like capitalism. Market economy, free market, and free enterprise are far better, more accurate terms.

The church in Acts 4 emerged from a very particular context and should not be taken as normative.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Acts 4:32-35 

Some people read the story of the early church and wonder if Christian and Marxist ideals aren’t that different. While there might be some prima facie similarities, they are actually worlds apart. What’s glaringly absent from Luke’s narrative is talk of class warfare or insinuations that private property is evil. What was given was given freely.

Another significant difference is that the State is nowhere to be seen in the story. Nothing had been nationalized, nothing seized for redistributive purposes. It was the Church at work—not the State.

When the apostle Peter confronts Ananias and Sapphira, the grievance is not that they gave most of their money instead of all of it, but that they’d lied about how much they’d given. Peter even tells the couple that they had every right to keep their property and the proceeds from its sale. “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

It’s also important to bring in the historical context of the Acts 4 community. Their togetherness was the result of an extraordinary set of circumstances. The brand new community of believers was comprised of Jewish people who’d come to Jerusalem from all over the world. It was an experience born of necessity, as locals stepped in to support the process of teaching the new believers before they returned to their homelands. Maybe the community was together for half a year or more, but it wasn’t a sustainable endeavor, and possibly was never intended to be the new norm. After all, the apostle Paul later exhorts churches to “earn their own living” and that “anyone unwilling to work shouldn’t eat.”

Paul gives no indication that the post-Pentecost experience was one to be emulated everywhere. Some Christian groups over the centuries have continued the experiment of living communally. Most fall apart, and the ones that don’t (some monasteries, for example), are usually tiny and volunteer-based.

In fact, one such attempt was Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in the early 1600s. William Bradford of Thanksgiving lore originally arranged for all the farmland held in common. Labor and food were distributed as evenly as possible, but then conflicts emerged. Bradford described in his journal what economists today call the “free-rider problem.” Animosity grew as the industrious settlers picked up the slack of those who didn’t contribute. Bradford reported that the matter was resolved when the farm was divvied up among the families. The surplus that had become a shortage during the communal farming days soon returned to a surplus. 

Compared to a non-existent Utopia, capitalism definitely falls short.

There is a glaring gap between rhetoric and reality. When making the case for communism and socialism, there’s far more talk about potential future good than the unintended-but-very-real consequences repeatedly revealed in history when communism is attempted.

Compared to Nirvana, or some idealized but never-before-seen society, capitalism definitely misses the mark, but so will any other form of society when the standard of comparison is so high. If perfection is the expectation, working for wages begins to look like slavery and competition in a marketplace begins to look pretty Darwinian.

The United States definitely can’t compete with the kingdom of God, but that’s not the right question to be asking. On-the-ground societal realities should be compared to other on-the-ground societal realities. A fairer comparison than with Paradise would be with Cambodia, the Soviet Union, Venezuela, or North Korea.

In the twentieth century, communism’s track record is crystal clear:

65 million Chinese dead

20 million Russians and Eastern Europeans dead

2 million North Koreans dead

2 million Cambodians dead

150,000 Latin Americans dead

These deaths were not the result of wars with other nations. The regimes slaughtered their own citizens. As these experiments involving flesh-and-blood humans rather than abstractions have shown us, the cost of chasing a society that is perfectly equal is horrifyingly high.

Those who use the pie metaphor to explain the have-to-have-not ratios forget that the pie can grow.

What do we make of the fact that there are a few who have an unprecedented degree of wealth while others still live in poverty? Such observations elicit emotions ranging from white-hot indignation to a more staid, pious concern. Worrying, as one culture critic has pointed out, has become a chief virtue in the developed world. We feel better about ourselves when we feel bad.

Many Christians, too, view inequality as a telltale sign of a sick, morally bankrupt society. Why does poverty remain in a country so rich? Among many other Christian leaders, Jim Wallis, Pope Francis, and even Pope John Paul II, who was far from socialist, have criticized the free market and connected it to poverty. The axiom that many take for granted is that not only are there some super rich and others super poor, but that the rich are rich at the expense of the poor. The adage that, “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” plays on loop in news cycles and university classrooms, but that doesn’t make it any more true.

The pie analogy is often brought up to give concrete expression to the injustice of it all. A hefty portion of the pie is heaved onto the wealthy man’s plate. The remaining scraps are put on the poor man’s. The economy is far more dynamic than this analogy implies, however. Better approximating the true state of economic affairs would be a pie that’s able to shrink or grow over time.

The pie’s size is not static. Neither is the economy. Growth over time is possible and has been a consistent trend for hundreds of years now. This growth is not in spite of capitalism but because of capitalism. The free market economy has been the vehicle through which millions have been catapulted out of poverty. The zero-sum pie analogy can’t accommodate the possibility of wealth creation.

Wealth is not the problem—poverty is.

What do we mean when we use the word “poverty”? One important distinction that is often overlooked in the rhetoric is relative poverty versus absolute poverty. Elon Musk, for example, makes far more than most of us. We’re relatively poor compared to Musk, and yet most of us have enough and maybe even more than enough. 

Those Americans who are considered poor today are fabulously rich compared to most people throughout history and most people in the world today. As of 2011, the US Census Bureau found that of the 30 million citizens considered poor, the typical household had a car, air-conditioning, two TVs, cable and/or satellite. The majority were not hungry, had access to medical attention as needed, and had more living space than many middle class Europeans.

The typical American living in poverty is in a very different position than someone experiencing absolute poverty, where people’s basic needs like shelter, food, or clothing are not satisfied.

In the early 2000s, the United Nations, World Vision, and other organizations compiled some staggering statistics, like 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day, and 2.8 billion people living on less than two dollars a day. Another statistic frequently brought up was that the three wealthiest people control more wealth than 600 million of the poorest poor. What does a figure like this imply? What’s not said, but what many people read into this statement, is that Bill Gates should not have that much money, that if he weren’t so loaded, the 600 million wouldn’t be as destitute, or even that Gates is swiping money from the world’s poor.

If we have the means to alleviate absolute poverty, we should definitely do something. But most of the rhetoric about gaps reveals ignorance about basic economics. Chasing gaps is like chasing ghosts. The gap rhetoric is a distraction from 1) the vast improvements over the last 150 years and even just the past decade, and 2) from the truly needy, and absolutely impoverished. Just because a gap has widened doesn’t mean that the poor have become poorer; it could be an indication that wealth for all has risen and that rich and poor alike have grown wealthier—even if at differing rates.

Absolute poverty is on its way to being eradicated. In 1970, 38 percent of the world lived in absolute poverty. In 1990, that number was down to 26 percent. In 2019, the absolute poor numbered 750 million, which is a lot, but proportionally, is less than 10 percent of the world’s population. 200 years ago, you couldn’t find close to 10 percent who weren’t living in absolute poverty. The World Bank predicts that absolute poverty will drop to zero percent by 2030.

So the real shock is not that there is a gap between rich and poor. For a long time almost everyone was poor. What is shocking is how many people have risen out of absolute poverty in just a few centuries. Wealth is not the problem—poverty is. And in the places where it still exists and cripples, the best hope for them is wealth creation—not decrying the gap. The gap is a decoy that gives us an opportunity to feel better about ourselves by showing outrage, but it will fail to help the poor.

This newsletter is powered by thinkr, a smart reading app for the busy-but-curious. Start a free trial to access thousands of key insights from new and noteworthy nonfiction.

Try Thinkr Free