I received an email from a faithful parishioner this week expressing his disagreement with a statement in my Sunday sermon where I said that capitalism is exploitative. I am so grateful for this kind of feedback. Sermon soundbites have a useful function when they trigger an opportunity for more extensive conversation.
As a Christian leader, I struggle to articulate as clearly as possible a Christian politics. By a Christian politics, I do not mean the politics of the white Evangelical right. These paradoxically conflict with a Biblically based Christian politics that takes as its inspiration the Bible’s consistent message; a message which from Moses to Jesus is remarkably consistent on social and economic justice.
Capitalism and Socialism are terms bandied about with increasing meaninglessness as we approach the 2020 election. The real difference is the degree to which the government regulates the movement of the free market. Most Western democracies, including our own, combine features of both systems to varying degrees. The central question is one of balance; what is best left to market forces alone, and when do these require regulation in the interests of a joined-up social policy that works in the interests of the many and not simply for the few?
This week I came across something that Dale Carnegie wrote in his 1889 book
The Gospel of Wealth:
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of the modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.
Note Carnegie’s deliberate borrowing of the term Gospel to indicate his Christian values underlying his vision. But what happens when the wealthy no longer share Carnegie’s vision of self-regulation in the interests of the common good? Regulation is essential for a stable society. Thus, this responsibility throughout the 20
th-century increasingly fell to our democratically elected officials - to ensure a level playing field for everyone to achieve their hopes and dreams in a society dedicated to universal human flourishing. We can see that this has been a checkered process as the effects of special interests, class, and racial prejudices distorted a clear vision for government action.
Christian Capitalism is a capitalism where the creative forces of the free market are regulated according to a set of overarching Biblical values articulated by Moses, reiterated by the Prophets, and finally reemphasized by Jesus. This means that we can no longer leave healthcare and education to name but two burning issues simply to market forces. While market forces have a role to play in ensuring the efficient generation of resources, the Christian Socialist principle of
free at the point of use relies on a well-regulated and fair system of taxation to collectively provide for the services that we all now increasingly rely on.
Winston Churchill described Christian Socialism as
what’s mine is yours. Between Carnegie and Churchill – great minds think alike.