Saturday, June 4, 2016

Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            If politics makes strange bedfellows, there are no more strange bedfellows than capitalism and Christianity.  Christianity is governed by the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus that condemn greed and emphasize caring for others and communitarian needs.  Capitalism is governed by the self-centered morality of Ayn Rand’s objectivism that emphasizes making a profit by competing with and exploiting others, thus making greed more a virtue than a vice.

            Despite this incongruity, Christianity has conformed its doctrines to accept capitalism as necessary for a free and  productive economy.  The church has even sanctified capitalism as a virtue of the Christian religion with the Puritan work ethic.  But Pope Francis has been critical of the unrestrained greed of capitalism, and he recently invited Bernie Sanders to the Vatican to discuss socialist alternatives to counter it.

            When Soviet Communism collapsed more than 25 years ago, it was hailed as the victory of capitalism over communism, but that declaration of victory may have been premature.  Today America has socialist programs that consume most of its budget: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act); and the recession of 2008 confirmed the dangers of unrestrained capitalism.  There is now a receptive audience for the socialist principles of Bernie Sanders, as evidenced by his impressive support from millennials.  It indicates that future U.S. political leaders will have to consider socialist approaches to limit the excesses of capitalism that have exploited and diminished America’s middle class. 

             Bernie Sanders stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump and the lords of Wall Street, who should not to be confused with the more modest capitalists of Main Street.  But despite his bluster and rude and crude insults to all who question him, Trump has generated an impressive following.  It indicates that the election could be close; and even if Trump loses, the remnants of the Republican Party will likely seek to vindicate his grandiose and dangerous claims.

            Most evangelical Christians support GOP politicians, and are reluctant to admit that many of the proposals of Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, are closer to the teachings of Jesus than GOP proposals.  The old labels of liberal and conservative are not suitable for today's economy.  Take on Wall Street is a liberal movement advocating economic reforms that are as conservative as they are liberal.  It would restore traditional economic policies by breaking up big banks and limiting them to consumer banking as did the old Glass-Steagall law, and limit the merger-mania that has reduced competition and exploited the middle class.

            Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack represent the kind of irresponsible banking that led to the 2008 recession.  They bought, packaged and sold substandard mortgages to Wall Street, and when the mortgages defaulted they were bailed out as too big to fail.  A bill has been introduced in Congress by Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) that "...would set Fannie and Freddie, unreformed, loose on the marketplace again and do so under terms wildly favorable to the hedge funds."  It is an egregious example of how Congress continues to feed the beast of Wall Street.   

            Donald Trump claims his business success qualifies him to be president, but the purpose of government is not to make a profit but to serve the public interest.  And unlike businesses and state and local governments, the federal government is not required to balance its budget.  Even so, federal budget deficits are a major political issue.  Some economists advocate government borrowing to create new jobs and discount the danger of budget deficits, while others warn of the danger of increasing deficits.  Donald Trump has said the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about paying its debts since it can create the money to pay them—but that’s not good economics. 

            The federal government can create new money to stimulate the economy, but that is inflationary since new money reduces the value of each dollar in circulation.  The “easy money” policies of the Federal Reserve after 2008 (quantitative easing) had little inflationary effect in the U.S. since the dollar is the world’s currency.  But even with the stimulation of “easy money” the economy has remained sluggish.  And while a few mega-corporations are awash in enough cash to stimulate the economy, they are not investing it in new jobs.  The “new normal” since 2008 seems to favor larger corporations and fewer jobs; but it is an unacceptable normal for Americans who are not employed by the mega-corporations of Wall Street or Silicon Valley.

           The ability of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare to serve an increasing number of beneficiaries will depend on a healthy economy, new taxes and/or borrowing, as well as limiting benefits.  In November voters will choose the members of Congress who make their economic policy.  Democrats and Republicans must follow their leaders, unless they disavow them: For Democrats it will be Hillary Clinton, and for Republicans, Donald Trump. If voters are unhappy with economic policy, it’s their own fault since they elect those who make it. 

            Christianity and capitalism will continue to be strange bedfellows in politics since they represent conflicting communitarian and individualistic ideals.  The greatest commandment to love God and your neighbor as yourself is the moral imperative of Christianity, and it is closer to socialism than to capitalism; but America’s obsession with individual freedom favors capitalism over socialism.  American voters will have a daunting challenge in November to reconcile those conflicting ideals as they shape the future of their democracy.

Notes and References to Related Blogs:

Kathleen Parker has compared Pope Francis’ criticism of capitalism with Bernie Sanders’ socialism at

On Trump saying the U.S. will never default on its debt ”because you print the money,” see

On the emergence of a new campaign to hold Wall Street accountable that would restore the traditional regulations of big businesses and banks that protect the middle class from the excesses of Wall Street, see

On the “recap and release” proposal of Congressman Mick Mulvaney to revive Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack and “recreate the private-gain, public-risk conflict that helped sink them” and initiate the 2008 recession, see
On A third of cash owned by Five U.S. Companies (Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Alphabet (Google), and Oracle), see
On Donald Trump’s indifference to and even contempt for the rule of law, see

See the following related blogs in the Archives of The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice, March 8, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; God, Money and Politics, October 18, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics, February 27, 2016;  The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Democracy and Human Depravity, March 19, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; The Relevance of Religion to Politics, April 30, 2016; Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 7, 2016; and Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation, May 21, 2016.

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