Christianity and Capitalism
How it works
The founding fathers of the United States wrote the Constitution without any formal role for religion in government activities, but with very broad protections for religious liberty as they expected religious morals to play a large role in shaping the country. Most of the early settlers of the United States were Christians. In the early half of the 18th century, 75 to 80% of the U.S. population attended church (Locke), so the early economy of the U.S. was put in place with a strong Christian majority.
While Christianity has declined in popularity amongst Americans, it still remains the dominant religious affiliation. According to a Pew Research Center report in 2014, 46% of United States citizens consider themselves Christians (Alper). The U.S. Constitution did not formally establish America’s capitalistic economic system, but it did pave the way for capitalism by guaranteeing individual liberty and freedom. With individual liberty and free will being core tenets of both capitalism and Christianity, it is easy to see how capitalism might be consistent with Christian beliefs.
While there are many other specific rules and varying beliefs in different denominations, three important tenets of Christian values are shared by all denominations and instrumental in evaluating the consistency of capitalism with Christianity. The first tenet, free will, gives all Christians the ability to make their own choices; however, God reminds humans that choices may have consequences. In Galatians 6:7-8, it states that “For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” Another core tenet of Christian faith is the first of the Ten Commandments. In this, Christians are asked to love the Lord with all their heart and shall “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20: 2-17). This tenet also tells Christians that they are not to accumulate treasure as doing so shows worship to materials things and not to God. (insert cite from New Testament) The last tenet is to love thy neighbor as thyself. (insert cite from New Testament)This is often referred to as the golden rule, treating people the way one wants to be treated and being selfless and charitable to others. These basic tenets of Christianity help influence the set of morals and beliefs for how Christians should live their lives.
The United States economic system is based on capitalism, and while capitalism has many facets and complexity, there are a few key principles that define and guide it. First, capitalism provides people economic freedom, allowing them to choose their job, where they live, and what they purchase. Second, capitalism allows for a free market. In a free market, buyers and sellers make voluntary exchanges of goods and services and the market is subject to the guiding forces of competition. Third, profit is the main motivating factor in capitalism. Finally, capitalism provides for the right to own private property. With this, people have the freedom to accumulate wealth, own land and pass this on to their children. While the United States is not what might be called “purely capitalistic” as the government does apply some restraints on the markets, it is one of the most capitalist economies in the world (“Debate Brief: Socialism vs. Capitalism”). Despite being a mixed economy, these principles of capitalism still shape much of the United States economy.
Economic freedom in capitalism ensures that citizens have the liberty to choose how they will engage in the economy. This includes where they will work, what they will produce and sell, what they will purchase, and what they will do with their capital and their free time. The core idea here is that the government has as little impact as possible on these rights. God expects his followers to work and be paid for their labor, but he also wants his followers to give glory to God in all that they do. He wants them to use their talents and choose a path that allows them to be joyful in the work they do. As stated in the Bible, “wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion” (Ecclesiastes 3:22). Capitalism allows its citizens this freedom of choice and so allows Christians to find a path to give glory to God with their work. In capitalism, producers choose which products and services to provide based on demand. If Christianity is well represented in a society, demand will drive the market to produce goods that support Christian morals. As an example of a company choosing to honor Christian morality, the restaurant Chick-fil-a is closed on Sundays to observe the Sabbath, and they still have been incredibly successful and earn more per store than any other restaurant (McCreary). Freedom is a core tenet of both capitalism and Christianity so capitalism compliments Christianity with this tenet.
In capitalism, free markets allow citizens to make free exchanges of goods and services for profit. This exchange must provide value to both the seller and the buyer in order to drive the market. Free markets also encourage competition by allowing many producers and buyers to participate. Competition tends to drive down prices as sellers vie for buyers, promote efficiency in the use of resources, and enhance overall production levels. It also encourages innovation in order to produce the best products that consumers will want at the most competitive prices. In Genesis 1:28, God said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it.” (Insert Biblical Cite) A free market allows Christians to more efficiently provide food, shelter and security for themselves and their families, which enables them to raise and support larger families. Additionally, Christians are called to help the poor and needy. (Insert Biblical Cite) Capitalist societies often help the poor by raising the standard of living for everyone, including the poor, and making food and clothing cheaper and more affordable. (Insert Cite) Free markets allow Christian citizens to use their time and resources in a way that is consistent with what God is calling them to do, whether by funding charitable activities or producing goods and services for others.
One of the main aspects in a capitalist society is the right to own private property. This right is a strong motivator for citizens in a capitalistic market. Citizens are motivated to work hard in order to gather and maintain wealth, and this wealth can be passed on to their children. A main aspect of Christianity is to provide for one’s family, which is supported by private property rights. The ability to pass the land or wealth to their heirs allows Christians to continue providing for their families even after death. In fact, ownership of property is mentioned many times in the Bible. As examples, Proverbs 13:22 describes that “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” and Proverbs 19:14 states “Houses and wealth are inherited from parents.”(Insert Biblical Cite) Of course, Christians are expected to be charitable and the gathering of wealth helps them provide more charity to those in need as devout Christians will not gather excess wealth for themselves but return this favor to the needy. Wealth can allow Christians to do such things as: (a) fund religious organizations and activities, (b) fund missionary work within or outside of the country, and (c) fund organizations providing food, medicine or shelter to people even in the most remote areas of the world. U.S. individuals, businesses and foundations were responsible for providing over $400 billion in charitable donations in 2017(Insert Cite), far more on both an individual basis and on a country basis than anywhere else in the world (Insert Cite). Without the wealth generated from capitalism, many charitable activities would go unfunded and not be possible.
The ability to make a profit is perhaps the strongest force that drives a capitalist market. The promise of a profit is what drives people to participate in markets and what allows them to purchase property. Those that live with Christian morals are motivated by the need to provide food, shelter, security, and opportunity for their families. The motive for Christians to make a profit is to first provide for their family but then further gain excess money to participate in charity and help for the community. Earning a profit helps motivate citizens to work harder and longer in order to gain their desired profit. In the Psalm 104:23, it is stated that “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening,” and shows that God meant for his people to labor. (Insert Biblical Cite)The greater the profit motive the more work he will participate in. One of the Ten Commandments is “thou shall not steal,” (Insert Cite) so in order for someone to obtain goods they must work for them. God command his people to work, and the ability to earn a profit helps drive Christians to work to glory God and provide for their family and for those in need.
Capitalism, however, does have flaws that are not consistent with Christian beliefs such as greed, a greater divide between the rich and the poor, and the production of goods inconsistent with Christianity. God fully expects both good and evil to coexist on Earth. In Matthew 13, he makes the comparison that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea and netting every kind of fish; and when it is full they draw it out and sit on the beach and gather the good ones in baskets, but the bad they throw away.” (Insert Cite)In this passage God is asking his followers to be mindful of evil and to cast it aside. Christianity can coexist with capitalism even with its downfalls so long as Christians are willing to recognize where the evil exists and keep their path righteous. Greed is common in a capitalistic economy because the desire for profit is strong. Christians can desire for profit but must resist the temptation to horde the wealth all to themselves as they are commanded to not accumulate treasure. (Insert Biblical Cite) While capitalism can produce a divide between the rich and poor, the poor are generally better off in a capitalist society than other economies (insert cite), and the accumulation of wealth by Christians helps close this gap with the charity that they will provide. Since Christians and others do not always adhere to Christian morals, the demand for products, like pornography, that do not match Christian values will be present in a capitalist society. The fact that immoral products or services are produced by capitalism does not mean that capitalism is inconsistent with Christianity. It simply means that the society, as a whole, does not fully adhere to Christian values.
The United States has a functioning society where capitalism and Christian values can coexist. The basic foundations of capitalism, economic freedom, competition, private property rights, profit motive, are not only functional, but advantageous to the Christian faith in the United States. Capitalism has helped Christians prosper and enable them to provide for and raise families. God’s given plan for His people and their expected work ethic fits with the motivations to work. The overall charity demonstrated by the American people further evidences the benefits of capitalism in helping the poor and needy.
- Alper, Becka A., and Aleksandra Sandstrom. “If the U.S. Had 100 People: Charting Americans’ Religious Affiliations.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 14 Nov. 2016, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/14/if-the-u-s-had-100-people-charting-americans-religious-affiliations/.
- “Debate Brief: Socialism vs. Capitalism.” Coolidge Foundation, 2018, coolidgefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Socialism-versus-Capitalism-Brief-July-2018-Coolidge-Cup.pdf
- “Economy and Trade.” United States Trade Representative, Office of the United States Trade Representative, ustr.gov/issue-areas/economy-trade.
- Locke, et al. “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic Religion in Eighteenth-Century America.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Victor, 4 June 1998, www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel02.html.
- The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Version, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2001.
- McCreary, Matthew. “Chick-Fil-A Makes More Per Restaurant Than McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway Combined … and It’s Closed on Sundays.” Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur, 25 Sept. 2018, www.entrepreneur.com/article/320615.