Capitalism is a Christian value

The Public Religion Research Institute finds that most Americans are unable to comport capitalism with Christianity:

Jamelle Bouie nods in agreement:

As it happens, they are absolutely correct; the Gospels are incredibly short on issues we associate with modern "values voting" — abortion and homosexuality, mostly — and incredibly long on reverence for the poor and disdain for the wealthy. Of course, that hasn’t made much of a difference to the United States, which through its history, has combined religious piety with stunning accumulations of wealth.

The “social gospel” has been with us since at least the late 19th century, but Jamelle seems to be talking about a different problem than capitalism.  In fact, capitalism is firmly supported by the Scriptures and by our God-given faculties. 

From the very beginning, man was put to a life of toil to provide for his needs by the sweat of his brow:

17To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

   “Cursed is the ground because of you;
   through painful toil you will eat food from it
   all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
   and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
   you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
   since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
   and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:17-19.  Paul confirmed this rule when he stated to the Thessalonians that “if any would not work, neither should he eat.”  2 Thessalonians 3:10.  The Mosaic injunction against theft at Exodus 20:15 establishes the right to property, which itself contains the germ, the atom that explodes into the whole system of Christian ethics.  The parable of the talents at Matthew chapter 25 demonstrates the Biblical injunction to be fruitful with one’s labor and property.  The parable of the workers in the vineyard at Matthew chapter 20 demonstrates the natural right to freedom of contract when the employer rhetorically asks at verse 15 “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”

The Scriptures are filled with prescriptions to work, to be shrewd, to be fruitful, to observe the God-given rights in others just as you recognize those rights in yourself, and so on.  At its core, then, the modern social gospelists simply misunderstand what capitalism truly is.  As Max Weber observes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism.  This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars.  One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given.  It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all.  Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit.  Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.  But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.  For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction.

(Boldface added.)

In other words, capitalism, properly understood, is concerned primarily with the production, not the product.  While capitalism carries a rightful expectation to profit in exchange for the discharge of one’s natural duty to engage in useful enterprise, the right to profit cannot neither be taken away from nor made superior to the primary obligation to commit oneself to productive labor. 

Weber goes on:

Now, in glancing at Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest, or his Christian Dictionary, or similar works of others, one is struck at first glance by the emphasis placed, in the discussion of wealth and its acquisition, on the ebionitic elements of the New Testament.  Wealth as such is a great danger; its temptations never end, and its pursuit is not only senseless as compared with the dominating importance of the Kingdom of God, but it is morally suspect.  Here asceticism seems to have turned much more sharply against of earthly goods than it did in Calvin, who saw no hindrance to the effectiveness of the clergy in their wealth, but rather a thoroughly desirable enhancement of their prestige.  Hence he permitted them to employ their means profitably.  Examples of the condemnation of the pursuit of money and goods may be gathered without end from Puritan writings, and may be contrasted with the late medieval ethical literature, which was much more open-minded on this point.

Moreover, these doubts were meant with perfect seriousness; only it is necessary to examine them somewhat more closely in order to understand their true ethical significance and implications.  The real moral objection is to relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life.  In fact, it is only because possession involves this danger of relaxation that it is objectionable at all.  For the saints’ everlasting rest is in the next world; on earth man must, to be certain of his state of grace, “do the works of him who sent him, as long as it is yet day”.  Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will.

. . . .

Wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care.  But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.  The parable of the servant who was rejected because he did not increase the talent which was entrusted to him seemed to say so directly.  To wish to be poor was, it was often argued, the same as wishing to be unhealthy; it is objectionable as a glorification of works and derogatory to the glory of God.  Especially begging, on the part of one able to work, is not only the sin of slothfulness, but a violation of the duty of brotherly love according to the Apostle’s own word. 

(Boldface added.)

Of course, the Bible also prescribes generosity and modesty and to care for others.  But there is nothing inconsistent with these prescriptions and capitalism properly understood.  And these general prescriptions certainly do not suggest we ought to ignore the specific prescriptions to be productive with our labor and property and to respect the labor and property of others.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. Of course, the Bible also prescribes generosity and modesty and to care for others. But there is nothing inconsistent with these prescriptions and capitalism properly understood. And these general prescriptions certainly do not suggest we ought to ignore the specific prescriptions to be productive with our labor and property and to respect the labor and property of others.

    I guess part of the question is, what is capitalism, “properly understood”? The respondents to the survey you cited seem to believe that capitalism is something inconsistent with modesty, generosity, and care/concern for others. The trick, I think, is more to define capitalism than it is to determine whether or not it correlates with “Christian” values.

    It is also important to define carefully what is meant by “Christian values”: is it the values that most professing Christians claim to share by virtue of being Christian? is it the values that necessarily inhere in Christianity, properly understood, regardless of what percentage of professing Christians claim to believe them? is it something else?

    • I offered the passages from Weber for one view of what capitalism is. Surely there are others, but I do like Weber’s.

      I would not subject the meaning of “Christian values” to consensus. They must mean something objective and permanent if they mean anything at all.

  2. Hi

    We ALL see the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA one dollar bill. We ALL see the servitude infestation in capitalism. We ALL see the “pay up or lose your wellbeing” Chicago mob-like felony extortion widespread within capitalism. We ALL see the “join or starve” felony extortion done to the 18 year olds… by this ugly competer’s church called capitalism. We ALL see how forcing competer’s religions onto 18 year olds, and/or LURING them into it with bling-dangling and promises of empowerments… kills membership in the cooperator’s church (Christianity/socialism). We ALL understand that AmWay (American Way) (New World Order) got “the exclusive” (legal tender) on the TYPE of survival coupons (money) accepted in supply depots (stores) and leverages 18 year olds into the organization via that felony activity. (It puts AmWay-coupon slaving requirements called price tags… on all the survival goods). We ALL understand how sure-to-collapse farmyard pyramids work… from our childhoods. Upper 1/3 are “heads in the clouds” while the kids on the bottom ALWAYS GET HURT from the weight of the world’s knees in their backs. And, we ALL see how such systems are illegal, immoral, and just plain sick.

    We American Christian socialists are patiently awaiting the natural fall of the pyramid-o-servitude, or the busting of the free marketeers felony… by the USA Dept of Justice. We Christians are VERY CLOSE to issuing a cease and desist order until the servitude and inequality goes away… which means it turns into a commune. Commune is a word we LOVE when used in the word “community”… but its one the caps HATE when used in the word “commune-ism”. Go fig. PROGRAMMED!!

    Do a Google IMAGE SEARCH for ‘pyramid of capitalist’ to see a full color picture made way back in 1911, when capitalism was first discovered to be a con/sham instigated by the Free Masons/Illuminati. Folks sure bought into the thing… hook, line, and sinker just the same. The caps didn’t even check if a string was attached! Now THAT’S easy fishing, eh?

    Time to level the felony pyramid scheme called capitalism. Abolish economies and ownershipism worldwide, and hurry. Economies just cause rat-racing, and rat-racing causes felony pyramiding. BUST IT, America! Look to the USA military supply/survival system… (and the USA public library system) for socialism and morals done right. Equal, owner-less, money-less, bill-less, timecard-less, and concerned with growth of value-criteria OTHER THAN money-value. Quit doing monetary discrimination immediately, and make it illegal. There are MANY measurement criteria of “value”… not just dollars. Try morals, efficiency, discrimination-levels, repairability, etc etc. Economies are cancerous tumors, and to cheer for their growth… is just insane. Profiting causes inflation, so if caps LIKE inflation, and if they LIKE a terrible time in afterlife when they meet the planet’s ORIGINAL OWNER before caps tried to squat it all with ownershipism, then keep it up with the felony pyramiding. I dare you. While us Christians are finally bulldozing that pyramid scheme back to level, lets make servitude and “join or starve” (get a job or die) illegal in the USA, and lets level the architecture seen in USA courtrooms, too. Right now, USA courtrooms are church simulators or “fear chambers”, by special design. Sick.

    Isn’t that back-of-the-dollar pyramid… a Columbian freemason symbol? And WHERE is the USA gov located? District of Columbia? (Not even part of the USA!) How much more blatant can ya get? The “Fed” runs a pyramid scheme called the free marketeers. If you’re using the “federal reserve note” certificates, or using no-other-living-thing-on-the-planet entitles of ownership, you’re bought into a servitude/slavery con/sham… called capitalism. Pyramiding 101.

    Larry “Wingnut” Wendlandt
    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right
    Bessemer MI USA

  3. Jesus contra wealth

    Matthew 6:19-21 – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

    Matthew 19:24 – “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    Jesus contra Ownership, Period

    Luke 12:33 – “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

    The Bible contra lending money at interest – the very BASIS of Capitalism

    Deuteronomy 23:19 – “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest.” (Yes, 23:20 allows interest against foreigners, but the Gospels eliminate the Jew/Gentile distinction so it’s no longer relevant.)

    Jesus contra Repayment of Loans

    Luke 6:34-35 – “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

    The Early Church contra Capitalism

    Acts 4:32-35 – “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.”

    • Alex,

      Thanks for setting out those verses. I think they demonstrate some interesting distinctions about the various facets of Christian ethics – e.g., the role it plays in the faith of the believer as well as benefiting the world, or, you might say, how they have both deontological and utilitarian components. They are also interesting because they presuppose a natural right to ownership, even while they warn of the corrupting power of ownership. Thus, the point of the Christian struggle is not to abandon the world and live as ascetics, or to withhold our productive energies from society. To the contrary, the call of Christianity is to live and work among the world while being vigilant not to let the accumulation of profits dominate our imaginations, and to remember the First Commandment. This, I think, is the proper understanding of Jesus’s teachings, and I think it comports with Weber’s conception of capitalism.

      The Old Testament proscription against lending at interest might be brushed off as antiquated; or it might be explained, as you acknowledge, as applying only to Hebrews and not to foreigners. Personally, I have a bit of an irrational streak when it comes to finance, and I sometimes wonder if there’s something to Jefferson’s and Jackson’s aversion to a national bank. At bottom, I have more than a little trouble comporting a notion of capitalism as “hard, virtuous work” with the notion of capitalism as “sitting back and letting the interest roll in.”

      Finally, I think the example in Acts was a special case, in which a large number of new converts who had traveled great distances sought to stay on with the new church to continue growing in the faith. The Jerusalem Christians generously sold their possessions to permit the new converts to stay. Again, this does not suggest there is no such thing as a right to property in civil society. Even if we were to take the example of the early church as prescriptive rather than merely descriptive, it suggests only that, among believers in the family of God, property ought to be made subservient to spiritual needs—and this by the free choice of the believer, not through the coercion of others, and especially not by the state. By its very terms, then, such a doctrine would not purport to extend to civil political systems.

  4. I think this is just one more in a long long history of humans letting their favored philosophies shape their interpretations of religious texts, rather than letting their religious texts shape their interpretations of philosophy. Thus, while it comes to a different conclusion than, for example, liberation theology, it’s underlying impulse is not really any different.

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’d like to complicate things a bit, if I may.

    You write:

    “Thus, the point of the Christian struggle is not to abandon the world and live as ascetics, or to withhold our productive energies from society. To the contrary, the call of Christianity is to live and work among the world….”

    Like your citations from Weber, and your recourse to Biblical proof-texts, this indicates to me that your argument might better be phrased as “Capitalism is a Calvinist Value.”

    With that, I think, you would get no argument.

    As a Roman Catholic, I’d like to remind you that there are other forms of Christianity for which “asceticism” is, though not “the point of the Christian struggle,” still far from denigrated. St. Francis’ devotion to “Lady Poverty” is an example. Thus there are forms of Christianity, long predating Barton’s American imagining of Christ as the “the founder of modern business” in “The Man Nobody Knows” in which your totalizing formula that “to live and work among the world” is “THE call of Christianity” (emphasis added) would allow room for the choice of forms of human flourishing other than Weberian producerism and self-actualizing consumerism. So while capitalism, rightly restrained, is not inconsistent with Christianity, please remember that an ascetic focus on laying up treasure in Heaven is a valid form of the Christian life as well–at least for some Christian traditions.

    I’ll also note, from within one of those traditions, that while private property, including private capital, are defended by the Catholic Church as institutions recommended to our prudence by Natural Law, the Church’s social encyclicals have always sought to emphasize the “small is beautiful” insights of susidiarity, and to steer a family-centered middle course between the Scylla of corporate-capitalist atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of state-communist bureaucratic collectivism; Chesterton’s work on Distributism embodies this in its concern that in corporate capitalism, we have lost the world of the yeoman proprietor–“there are two few capitalists.”

    In that spirit, I leave you with this reflection on globalization from the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” of Benedict XVI:

    “These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions.”

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