Are capitalism and Christianity really compatible?
A protestor in front of St Paul's Cathedral, 2011. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images   

The story of the relationship between Christianity and capitalism usually begins with Jesus talking about camels not being able to pass through needles, and proceeds via the hostility of the early church towards this worldly material wealth and its regular condemnations of usury. It goes on to tell a grubby side story about how Christians outsourced their money-lending requirements to Jews and then blamed them for being money lenders, and concludes with the dawning of a different attitude with the Reformation and Calvin’s theological justification of lending money at a reasonable rate of interest.

Max Weber has an influential addendum to this story: that Calvinism came to think of hard work and thrift as indicators of a life that is saved by God. And as such, the characteristics of a financially successful life became fused with a particular understanding of religious piety – hence the Protestant work ethic. Others have argued that it was Catholicism, and specifically patterns of financial stewardship developed by the late medieval monasteries, that produced a concern for financial efficiency that reflected many of the later concerns of capitalism.

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But whatever the variations on this general account, the basic problem is that capitalism didn’t exist during that time period. Capitalism, both as a word and as a developed idea, is a product of the mid-nineteenth century. Even Adam Smith, writing in the eighteenth century, wasn’t really discussing capitalism as such. His concern was with markets and commercial society more generally.

If you want to understand the relationship between capitalism and Christianity, therefore, you have to look at a much shorter time frame – which also has the advantage of helping to avoid some of the soggy generalisations that characterise many of the more familiar approaches to this subject.

Capitalism, in anything like the form we now know it, is something that came into being in Britain around the 1840’s and 50’s with the introduction into law of the stock company as an independent legal personality, and with the idea of limited liability.

The idea that individuals could group together and pool their capital for common commercial enterprise was itself nothing new. The East India Company was given a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600 for this very purpose. But it was the legal protections afforded by the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844 and the Limited Liability Act 1855 that created the private company as we now know it. Coupled with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, this was the period when old style state mercantilism gave way to free enterprise driven by private interest.

The hostility to the Corn Laws – and to import duties more generally – was led and financed by non-conformist mill owners in the North West who attacked the established church as benefiting from corn prices kept artificially high by the imposition of duties on cheaper imports. The tithes that the clergy of the established church were able to collect from their parish were based on the average price of corn over seven years, and so they, along with the agricultural landowners, had a financial interest in maintaining import duties.

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But the Church of England was more than just a high Tory alliance between church and the landed aristocracy. For it was during this period that a theological revolution was taking place within the Church of England, namely the Oxford Movement. Originally a reaction against the growing forces of Whig secularism – the government’s decision to reduce the number of Irish bishops was the spark that ignited it – the Oxford Movement sought to re-introduce into the Church of England an emphasis on the importance of liturgy and the beauty of holiness.

This led to many being distrusted by a broadly evangelical church leadership, with the consequence that Oxford Movement clergy were denied the best livings and forced to work in the slums. And it was as a result of this association that the Oxford Movement came to develop a particular concern for social justice, having a ring side view of the impact that industrialisation was having on mid-nineteenth century Britain.

The Oxford Movement clergy were highly scathing in their condemnations of industrial capitalism as creating a new form of urban poverty

Conservative in nature, the Oxford Movement looked back to local forms of association that were thriving in the middle ages – the parish, the guilds, the historic connection between people and place – and contrasted this with the dark satanic mills of industrialisation, and particularly the free movement of labour which created social dislocation.

Those broadly of this group all had things to say about the so-called ‘Condition of England’ problem, and were generally highly scathing in their condemnations of industrial capitalism as creating a new form of urban poverty, with the poor cut off from their traditional forms of support. In other words, the earliest Christian critique of Capitalism originated from a broadly conservative, not progressive, perspective.

One such was John Ruskin who in 1860 published Unto This Last, a reference to the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” from Matthew’s Gospel. It was perhaps the first ever specific attack upon capitalist economics from a Christian perspective and generated much outright hostility from the general public.

Adam Smith may only have used the phrase once in The Wealth of Nations, but his “invisible hand” is the holy ghost of capitalism

Ruskin argued that all deserve a basic level of pay irrespective of their contribution to the economy. Credited with anticipating the welfare state, Ruskin was also developing ones of the earliest critiques of the labour market from a Christian perspective. The capitalist economics of his day was “the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind” wrote Ruskin. And Adam Smith was a “half-bred and half-witted Scotchman” who had taught the “deliberate blasphemy” that “thou shalt hate the Lord thy God, damn His laws, and covet thy neighbour’s goods”.

Among the various criticisms Ruskin had of the economic practices of his day, one of his most serious charges was that the division of labour inherent in the basic efficiency gains of the capitalist working model led to the worker being distanced and thus alienated from the overall purpose of his task.

On this, Smith and Ruskin agree. Where they differ, however, is on the whole subject of human motivation. Adam Smith may only have used the phrase once in The Wealth of Nations, but his “invisible hand” is the holy ghost of capitalism.

Self regard – or “self love” as Smith prefers – is the animating spirit that benefits all through the beneficial effects of trade. The idea that “self-love” can be a powerful force for good is at the heart of the moral defence of capitalism. Christians, however, will always be suspicious, pointing out, as Ruskin does, that it can produce as much “ilth” (Ruskin’s invented word for the opposite of wealth) as it does wealth. And those who maintain a robust commitment to original sin and human depravity will always be suspicious of a system driven along by so corrupted an engine. Capitalism, in contrast, is confident that it can harness the energy of selfishness for public benefit.

For Christianity, “self-love” is dangerous stuff. Indeed, for many theologians, it is precisely that from which we need saving

There is much more to say about all of this. Churches like the Church of England are generally in no position to mount an all out attack on capitalism, benefiting as they do from substantial investment portfolios. Oxford Movement radicalism has given way to an acceptance of the broad principles of the capitalist project. At most, the churches seek to moderate the worst excesses of greed and injustice – but have little to say about the nature of capitalism per se. And here, it seems, the Church has surrendered its principles too quickly.

Because Christianity and capitalism differ very substantially when it comes to their respective attitudes towards human motivation. For Christianity, “self-love” is dangerous stuff. Indeed, for many theologians, it is precisely that from which we need saving. The great aim of Christianity is to transfer the centre of interest from self to others.

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The experience of the 2008 banking crisis and the fact that the state had to spend hundreds of billions of pounds of public money to bail out reckless corporations that had been driven to excess by private greed suggests, at the very least, that the confidence that capitalism has in the moral safety of Smith’s “self love” ought to be thought through once again.

Capitalism has continued to change since it was invented not yet two centuries ago. But the human beings that power it remain very much the same. And when it comes to human beings themselves, Christianity may have the more realistic appraisal. Are they compatible? I fear not. For I suspect that the dangers of “self-love” will one day overpower all the undoubted good that capitalism does in bringing many out of poverty. Smith thought the market could be held in check by the exercise of his very residual Presbyterian values. In reality, however, he contributed to their erosion. And a market without values, driven by “self-love”, will eventually destroy itself.