Christianity and Capitalism

From an economic, theological and moral point of view there is much that is of value in the market economy: for the Christian the challenge is to incorporate those aspects within a framework that is distinctively subject to Christian value.

Editor’s Note: The article by Brian Griffiths below — and the one following, by William Oddie — are reprinted with permission from The Kindness That Kills: The Churches’ Simplistic Response to Complex Social Issues, edited by Digby Anderson and published earlier this year by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (Holy Trinity Church. Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DU). The volume brings together fifteen incisive essays by Christian sociologists and economists who critically examine some two dozen recent reports by the Church of England on a wide range of economic issues. Topics treated include: unemployment; racism; wealth creation; state welfare; and the relationship of Christianity to capitalism, Marxism and Christian Socialism.

The authors find these reports to be “sloppy, ill-thought out, ignorant, one-sided, addicted to secular fashions, hysterical, theologically dessicated and uncharitable to those who disagree.” A severe indictment, that, but one which is supported by facts and arguments cogently marshaled. Such criticisms are very much needed at present, since many Christian activists, though admirably motivated by compassion for the poor and disadvantaged, nonetheless support programs which, e.g., perpetuate poverty instead of eliminating it. As the editor trenchantly puts it, “Careless care may hurt the very people its well-meaning exponents claim to help. There is a kindness that kills.”

Widely reviewed in England, both in the religious and national press, this provocative little volume deserves a wide readership in the United States. We are pleased to offer Crisis readers a sample of this refreshingly realistic approach to Christian engagement of social and economic issues.


The basic ethos of capitalism is definitely anti-Christian: it is the maximizing of economic gain, the raising of man’s grasping impulse, the idolizing of the strong, the subordination of man to economic production. Humanization is for capitalism an unintended by-product … solidarity is for capitalism accidental.

The market is the institutionalization of individualism and non- responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself.

The Christian Church has never found it easy to come to terms with the market place. Since the early Church’s first short-lived experiment with communism, there have been Christians for whom private property, interest and profit are at best dubious and at worst immoral. Statements by contemporary Christians, such as those above, suggest that a more virulent and widespread antagonism towards the market economy has developed within the Church during the last quarter of a century. The dependence of the market economic system on the profit motive, individualistic self-interest and the competitive spirit render it morally indefensible in the eyes of its critics. And the materialistic and unequal society it seems to foster is judged to be utterly at variance with the teachings of Jesus on wealth, poverty and community.


But the problem of capitalism’s legitimacy is more complex than this rhetoric implies. As a matter of historical fact, the market economy has been responsible for the transformation of the Western world from widespread poverty and degradation to an unprecedented spreading of prosperity. Similarly in the contemporary world, the market economies of the West have been able to create wealth more efficiently and have secured for the poorest of their people a far higher level of per capita consumption than have the state-owned and state-planned economies of the socialist bloc. In the Third World today, the remarkable success of market-oriented economies such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore in East Asia, and to a lesser but significant extent the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Malawi in Africa, in harnessing the inventiveness and entrepreneurial resources of their peoples is in marked contrast to the disappointing economic performance of countries that have relied on state-planning and regulation, such as India, Tanzania and Mozambique. Three crucially important factors that have enabled market economies to generate wealth more effectively than state-dominated ones are their greater reliance on private rather than state enterprise as the driving force of economic development, the larger scope given to choice in free markets, and their active encouragement of international trade and foreign investment. It is these which have produced relative success.

Taken on its own, this economic superiority would be of little significance if the raising of living standards were not such a matter of concern to political leaders and churchmen alike — a concern echoed in the ceaseless demands for more redistribution of wealth in favor of the poor both on a national and global scale. The case for an anti-poverty policy is certainly a strong one since higher rates of economic growth cannot by themselves be relied upon to achieve a reduction in absolute poverty. However, the redistribution of wealth alone will not solve the world’s economic problem. Indeed, by breeding dependence on handouts, the redistribution of wealth through the coercive power of the state can make matters worse.

For Christians concerned about poverty, the relation-ship between capitalism and development in the case of Taiwan is particularly instructive. Here is a Third World country with a rapidly growing economy that has experienced a reduction in levels of absolute poverty and a greater equality of income distribution. Growth with equity has been achieved through policies that provide for an initial redistribution of assets by land reform, the privatization of public enterprises in the early stages of the country’s growth, the removal of protectionist controls on commodity and labor prices, the pursuit of export- oriented rather than import-substitution policies together with an open-door policy to foreign investment, and a policy of decentralization that has encouraged the development of small- scale industry in rural areas.


Similar examples demonstrate that there is a strong economic case to be made for the market economy as the most efficient system for the creation of wealth. There is furthermore ample evidence to refute the claim that the market economy is necessarily hostile to equitable development. But this is only one, and perhaps for many Christians, the least important dimension of the problem of the legitimacy of capitalism. Much more difficult is the apparent inconsistency between the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and the very principles on which the market economy depends for success.

Contrary to the claims of some contemporary theologians, it is not possible to deduce socialism from Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. Neither is it possible to regard the market economy as a logical outgrowth of that Kingdom. The messianic claims of Jesus and his proclamation of the Kingdom of God were never intended to be understood in political terms. Much as some modern Christians would have liked him to, Jesus did not address himself directly to practical questions concerning the creation of wealth or the removal of poverty, and it is significant that he chose not to do so. Because the Kingdom of God depends for its very existence on an inward supernatural power, it is impossible to translate it into contemporary social, political and economic institutions. An attempt to legislate the ideals of the Kingdom of God into practice immediately comes up against the fact that the real world is made up of fallen human beings and is not a community of saints. To cope with this reality, we need stronger social and economic disciplines than those that would be appropriate for a community radically and inwardly transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as the Judaeo-Christian religion deals with principles for ordering socio-economic life in a fallen world, it is to the laws of the Pentateuch rather than the spontaneous sharing of the early Church that we should look. Above all, the Old Testament background is fundamental to an understanding of Jesus’ teaching on economic matters.


Central to the Hebrew view of the material world is the belief that it is created by God and that it is intrinsically good. There is in creation an abundance and bounty, the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Poverty, famine and misery are not a part of the Creator’s intention for the world. Man, created in the image of God, has been delegated authority to subdue and rule the physical world. Indeed, the urge to harness and control the resources of nature is part of what it means to be made in God’s image. This “creation mandate” is not however an excuse for provoking an ecological crisis, since man is accountable to God as a trustee for the preservation and care of the material world.

This distinctive biblical view of the material world and of man’s task within it has major implications for economic life. It gives complete legitimacy to what an economist would refer to as a responsible form of wealth creation — the transformation of the material world so that it is of more use to fellow human beings. A businessman concerned with construction, manufacturing, agriculture, extraction or services is therefore involved in the complex task of fulfilling this “creation mandate.” But to allow the legitimacy of wealth creation is not to endow it with autonomy — to do so would be to justify a philosophy of materialism. The world God created is also spiritual and the call to seek first the Kingdom of God enjoins us to live by the laws of his Kingdom within the material world. The challenge for the Christian then is not to reject the material world and the business of wealth creation in favor of some higher spiritual priority, but to serve others through the process of wealth creation in the process of serving God.

As regards property rights, there is never any suggestion in the Pentateuch that the state or community should be accorded rights of ownership over the land, For Christians who believe some form of common ownership is more just or equitable than private property rights, the pattern of land distribution that followed the Israelite’s entry to the Promised Land is hard to explain. If ever there were a situation that might have called for a policy of collective ownership — similar perhaps to Nyerere’s Ujaama policy in Tanzania — it was then. Yet each family received a parcel of land to which absolute rights of ownership were attached. Far from violating the principle of God’s ultimate ownership of land and man’s responsibility as trustee, the granting of inviolable property rights to individual families was essential to its maintenance. If the land were communally owned and controlled by the priests, for example, the whole concept of trusteeship (in the sense of each person being responsible before God for his use of the resources entrusted to him) would have been redundant.

It is also true, however, that constraints were built into the Mosaic law to put a sharp brake on the accumulation of property in a few hands. The Jubilee laws, with their provision for the cancellation of debt, the release of slaves and the return of property to its original owner every fiftieth year, were designed to prevent the development of a cycle of permanent deprivation. And behind this principle was the idea that the people were the tenants of Yahweh.

In their outspoken criticism of the social and economic injustices of ancient Israelite society, the Old Testament prophets have proved a potent source of inspiration for many contemporary Christian critics of capitalism. However, although the prophets exposed the social malaise of their societies, the attack on injustice was never conducted in purely socio-economic terms. The prophets indicted the rich for exploiting the poor, yet they never suggested that the remedy was therefore a redistribution of wealth undertaken in some sort of religious vacuum. They invariably pinpointed the root cause of the trouble as spiritual and in this they showed great insight. Economic injustice was one consequence of the nation’s departure from God. Without a simultaneous commitment to changed values and behavior (which is what repentance means), socio-economic reform by means of the legal and coercive powers of the state would be of no avail.

From those Old Testament attitudes to the material world, property and justice — assumed by Jesus in all his teaching — a number of principles emerge. Private property rather than social ownership of wealth and the means of production is the norm. Permanent access by each family to a stake in economic life is guaranteed. And some form of anti-poverty program is written into the laws to ensure just and compassionate treatment for the economically weak. In all this there is nothing to suggest that the basic institutions of Western market economies are incompatible with a Christian world view. Indeed these biblical principles seem more compatible with the modern concept of a social market economy than with some variant of Marxism.


Let us now turn to the major ethical objections to the market economy. The condemnation of capitalism as a system founded on greed and self -interest involves three false assumptions. Firstly, it implies that we can live in two worlds — a world of the market place in which the profit motive reduces all behavior to the low pursuit of self-interest, and the world of the family, local community, and voluntary service in which caring attitudes and a spirit of service prevail. Such a division would be impossible to justify either logically or empirically. It is not the environment that determines the morality of behavior but the individuals making the decisions. Selfish aggressive individuals can be found in families, schools, hospitals and public service as well as in business. Similarly a businessman committed to certain moral principles can actively seek the welfare of his staff and clients in the context of his commercial activities.

Secondly, it is assumed that the profit motive which dominates the market economy is necessarily a corrupting influence. However, profit-seeking is not confined to the business community and is not judged in the same severe fashion when it appears in other contexts, A trade unionist seeking the best deal for his members or the housewife shopping for the best bargain is acting no differently in principle from a business executive trying to cut costs in the interests of customers, markets, and shareholders. Nor is the church committee which seeks competitive tenders for the repair of the fabric. It is furthermore impossible to make a logical connection between profits and single-minded subservience to the profit motive. The fact that businesses have to operate within a budget (as do families, charities and governments) does not mean that financial considerations alone determine business behavior: one cannot move automatically from an accounting concept to a psychological theory.

Finally, self-interest is not synonymous with selfishness. As the dominical command to love our neighbor as ourselves confirms, it can be characteristic of the highest as well as the lowest forms of human behavior. Self-interest is not a consequence of the fall, although its distortion as selfishness is. The Christian should accept that self-interest as well as selfishness are hallmarks of the world in which we live. There is no point therefore in designing economic systems based on an unrealistic view of man and expecting governments to manipulate that system for the common good. In this light, the Christian might acknowledge the wisdom of Adam Smith, who faced up to the challenge of how to use both legitimate self-interest and selfishness in the interests of the wider community.


Another major criticism of the market economy is that the competition on which it depends for success is in direct conflict with the Christian ideal of co-operation, with the implication that collectivism in one form or another is morally superior to competitive markets. In thinking about competition it is important to define it in as neutral a way as possible, by saying that it is essentially a way of resolving conflicts of interest and judgment that result from trying to make the best use of scarce resources. Indeed if one analyzes the Latin root of the word, one could define competition as the act of striving together with others in pursuit of the best solution to a problem. In economics, competition is to be distinguished sharply both from low rivalry and criminal behavior. It is, moreover, a means to an end and not an end in itself. In judging the ethics of competition therefore we have to compare them with the ethics of alternative systems, such as the allocation of resources according to political criteria. However, all this avoids the basic question of whether competition can be regarded as a Christian ideal. Clearly, if one examines the teaching and experience of the early Church, competition is not something to which the Church, as the Body of Christ, aspires explicitly, though certainly the disciples competed in service of their Master. However in a world far removed from the Christian ideal and in which scarcity is still a fundamental problem, there is a case for competitive markets as a superior method of allocating resources to benefit the greatest number of ordinary people.

Another moral objection to the market economy is that it produces inequality. For the Christian, the starting point in relating inequality to biblical concepts of justice is the recognition of the basic differences which exist in creation and which are thrown into even greater contrast by the fall, and of the sanctity attached to individual property rights in the Mosaic law. Within this framework, there is no problem in defending the morality of economic inequalities that result from differences in skills, energy, ambition and the freedom to work, innovate, invest and trade. Whilst we cannot justify every kind of inequality thrown up by a market economy, within a fallen world inequality of income is an essential aspect of Christian justice. Of course as Hayek and others specifically acknowledge, differences in income do not correspond to differences in moral worth. For the Christian who sees his work as a vocation, its moral worth in the sight of God is unrelated to the economic value attached to it in the market place. The challenge for the Christian is this: a certain degree of inequality is necessary in society if human dignity and freedom are to be preserved and if basic standards of justice are to be achieved (it is important that people receive a just reward for their work). But at the same time, wealth involves responsibility and the Christian as a steward is called to share his resources voluntarily with others. From this perspective, the libertarian defense of inequality is unacceptable in that it emphasizes property rights to the exclusion of any responsibility to others, particularly the economically weak members of society; but egalitarianism is also one-sided in that it emphasizes responsibilities to the exclusion of rights. The Christian perspective is unique in that it emphasizes both rights and responsibilities. The more we can persuade people to act in this spirit, the closer economic behavior will coincide with our Christian ideals. But free choice is essential for moral conduct.


The last major criticism of the market economy is that it presupposes a philosophy and spirit of individualism, or worse still of “possessive individualism.” This is a very important objection to the market economy and care is needed in tracing its theological and philosophical roots. The foundations of modern individualism go back to Stoic philosophy and political individualism, from which it is but a short step to economic individualism and capitalism. The origins of this kind of individualism are profoundly anti-Christian in that rational self-development is seen as the purpose of life. Man is accorded final sovereignty over himself, his capacities and his property, and the community is regarded as an association of freely consenting adults joined together in pursuit of self-determined goals. Yet while this form of individualism is alien to a Christian understanding of man, individuality is part of creation itself and certain of the insights of individualism are valuable. The rival doctrine of man that sees society as dominated by class and group interests and the individual as no more than a tool of the collective, is simply a deficient view of what it means to be human.


So far we have considered the moral objections to the market economy; now it is time to put forward the positive side. The basic argument for a market economy is that for all its imperfections, it is a system that pays respect to human dignity because it allows human freedom. It permits individuals the freedom to buy and sell, save and invest, choose their preferred form of employment and develop the skills they feel appropriate. It allows minorities the same rights too. Socialism does not: it pays scant respect to human dignity because it denies human freedom and forever restricts economic choices. Both systems have been put to the test and we can examine the record, comparing fact with fact and ideal with ideal. If we look at the facts we observe that in one country after another the attempt to create a socialist utopia with property rights vested in the state, has led to the direction of investment and labor, a loss of personal freedom and the growth of the totalitarian state.

The final dimension of the relation between capitalism and Christianity is ideological. Capitalism can be thought of as a historical phenomenon or as an economic system, but it also encompasses ideological elements. Over the past two hundred years, there have been many outstanding attempts to defend the capitalist system. What is interesting is that each of them has been firmly grounded in the prevailing philosophical outlook of its time and none of them can be considered independently of ideology. Whether we look at Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century, or Friedman and Hayek in our own, all the major intellectual defenses of capitalism as an economic system have been conducted within the context of a thoroughly secular philosophy, which is a direct product of the Enlightenment. The common feature is that they all attempt to present economic life as something which is impersonal, amoral, which can be ex-pressed as a “system” and which, as a system, has a natural tendency to equilibrium. God is pushed into the background and economic life becomes independent of anything divine or indeed, ultimately, anything human as well.

It is difficult on Christian grounds to accept the ideological underpinnings of these defenses of capitalism. Firstly, economic life has to be judged within a moral framework — efficiency is not enough. Secondly, it is important to think about economics as actions of individual people not systems. The belief in the system’s tendency towards equilibrium emphasizes the economic machine to the exclusion of people. It is imperative therefore from a Christian point of view to rescue the market economy from its narrow secular ideology. From an economic, theological and moral point of view there is much that is of value in the market economy: for the Christian the challenge is to incorporate those aspects within a framework that is distinctively Christian and subject to Christian values.


  • Brian Griffiths

    Brian Griffiths, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach (born 27 December 1941) has been an international advisor and vice-chairman at Goldman Sachs since 1991. He was head of Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit from 1985 to 1990, and, before that, Dean of the City University Business School and Director of the Centre for Banking and International Finance at the City University of London. He has written and broadcast extensively in the field of money and finance and also on the theological and ethical aspects of economic life.

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