Capitalism and faith: A tangled history

Tracking the historical lineage of a movement or an ideology is seldom easy, but untangling the origins of the American baptism of free-market capitalism has been especially fraught. Max Weber famously suggested that Protes­tant anxiety over election, coupled with the Calvinist aversion to conspicuous consumption, created conditions conducive to the “spirit of capitalism.” But the teachings of Jesus—blessedness of the poor, care for the least of these—hardly lend themselves to an apology for capitalism. And the book of Acts suggests that the earliest Christians were socialists, although that designation should be understood in a context shorn of socialism’s 20th-century statist distortions.

Building their case from scripture, evangelical reformers in the 19th and early 20th centuries excoriated capitalism as inherently inconsistent with the mandates of the New Testament. Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential evangelical of the 19th century, exalted Bible societies as models for commerce and opined that Christian businessman is an oxymoron because capitalism necessarily elevates avarice over altruism. During the Progressive Era, Protestants—the liberal Social Gospel theologians as well as the redoubtable William Jennings Bryan—sought to protect workers from the ravages of unbridled capitalism.

The Protestant embrace of capitalism appears to have evolved over the past century or so, and its comprehensiveness is evident in everything from sermons to stump speeches. To give just one example, in Listen, America! Jerry Falwell wrote that “the free enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs.” But how did we get here? Several books in recent years have illuminated this evolution. Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt traces the movement of evangelicals from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas to work in the defense industries of southern California. The Family, Jeff Sharlet’s worthy though occasionally hyperbolic study of the Fellowship Foundation, shows linkages between Christian businesspeople and politicians. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart should also be added to the roster.