Capitalism, Democratic Socialism, and American Christianity – Episode #9

Today’s podcast is dedicated to exploring how economics, government, and American Christianity intersect. I seek to define what capitalism and democratic socialism is, and the issues that these economic systems and associated forms of government ask of us as Christian livings in America.

Part of my reflections on this topic was spurred on by a recent vacation I took to a little town known as “Old Salem” (currently Winston-Salem, NC). Old Salem is a former Moravian settlement established prior to the American Revolution.

The Moravian’s were a Christian missionary society established in the 1700’s in Herrnhut, Germany by a minister named Count Zinzendorf. As part of their missionary activity, they established a communal society in Bethlehem, PA, and Salem, NC. These communal societies existed to help fund missions in America. Members of the Moravian church that lived in these two cities held all property in common with one another, and they labored together in industry in America, with all profits their societies earned ultimately going towards the funding of missionary activity. Internally these two Moravian societies practiced a communal form of society, however, to outsiders, they demonstrated very strong capitalist impulses.

(For more information about the Moravians, I recommend you check out the book “Religion and Profit” by Katherine Carte Engel.)

What Is Capitalism?

Capitalism at it’s most fundamental level is about the ability of individuals to engage in free trade with little to no government oversight. Capitalism is about the right of the individual or a group of people to use their private assets as they see fit. It says if you have $1,000 and want to use it to hold onto it forever you can, or if you want to use that $1,000 to buy x, y, and z, or put it together with other people and start a business, you have the freedom to do such. Capitalism in essence is about private property rights and your ability to determine and control that property as you see fit.

What Is Democratic Socialism?

Democratic socialism is a form of socialism.

Socialism at it’s core says that most, if not everything is to be owned and controlled by the state. Socialists would say everything is collectively owned by society, and that the state is responsible for determining how everything is to be used. In socialism, the government not only controls the means of production, but it also controls the distribution of all resources. Such requires heavy centralized planning.

Democratic socialism differs slightly from socialism. Instead of being centrally owned and operated under one big government banner, democratic socialists believe that individuals should be able to own things and participate in markets. However the use of private capital and participation in these markets is to be tightly regulated by a democratic process that determines how things are produced and how resources and profits are distributed.

So where do we fit in as Christians? Should we be capitalists, democratic socialists, or something in-between?

The Bible Isn’t Very Clear About Economic Models

Old Testament Economics

In the garden of Eden, God doesn’t ever define who owns anything. It appears that God owns everything jointly with Adam and Eve being given the responsibility for naming things and tending to a garden together. Adam and Eve appear to be nothing more than stewards of God’s garden.

After the garden we are told that God still owns everything, but He doesn’t ever give much in the way of explicit instructions as to how society should organize itself once they left the garden.

When the tribal federation of Israel was formed, there was a great deal of individual economic liberty given to individuals. Personal property rights were clearly recognized, as you weren’t allowed to steal other folks stuff. But there were also some light regulations about work and how resources were to be used for the better of the nation.

For example, you had to rest on the sabbath. You couldn’t let your animals kill other people or other animals. Loans to Israelite’s had to be interest free, but non Israelite’s could be charged interest.

There was a slight welfare state, but not an absolute one. You were required to tithe, and those tithes went towards the upkeep of the priesthood and caring for the poor. If you were a farmer, you were required to leave behind “the gleanings” for the poor. Every 7 years, debts were to be canceled, slaves were to be set free, and every 50 years all lands were to revert to their original owners or their heirs.

However beyond these basic regulations, people were pretty free to make their own economic choices. And even if people didn’t comply with some of these regulations that God put in place, there wasn’t much in the way of an enforcement agency apart from God Himself. Violating the sabbath was a capital offense, theft could be punished and restitution demanded, but if you didn’t bring your tithes or failed to leave your gleanings, nobody would come along and force you to do such.

And interestingly enough, Biblical history teaches Israel largely ignored a lot of these laws. The prophets would raise their voices about these economic issues being overlooked and the poor being oppressed. But, apart from God, nobody else really seemed to care.

New Testament Economics

In the New Testament Jesus took a seemingly hostile tone towards the rich (see my podcast message ‘To Hell With The Rich”). Jesus regularly warned the wealthy about damnation in connection to riches. He clearly expected His followers to be very generous to the poor and needy, and to live simple lives free from crass materialism. John the Baptist taught those who have two of something should give their extra to the one that had none.

But beyond this, we don’t see Jesus indicating Israel needed to reorganize itself to have a deeper welfare state than what was previously established. Nor did He indicate Rome needed to do such either.

After Jesus’s ascension, early Christians freely sold property and gave the proceeds to the apostles to redistribute. Some made promises to do so, but ultimately backed out of their prior commitments. And some Christians were noted for being wealthy or very industrious, but very charitable.

Individuals like the apostle Paul encouraged the church to remember the poor, and to sacrifice deeply for their needs, reminding the church that their surpluses were meant by God for the benefit of those in need. However, charity was to be freely participated in, and wasn’t an act to be done out of compulsory obligation.

However, in spite of the highly communal style practices, there was also a sense in which Christians were expected to be self-reliant and not a financial burden to the rest of the church.

Each man was to take care of his family, and failure to do could cause him to be considered as worse than an infidel. And if you were a widow, there were qualifications for being on the church’s charity list. Your immediate family was expected to take care of you, but if they could not, charity towards widows was based on a number of predetermined criteria.

Therefore even though there was a sense in which the New Testament appears to teach that as a church we have an ethical obligation to care for the least of these and those without, no automatic overarching system was put in place that demanded a redistribution of wealth, or controlled the means of production, or forced anyone to be charitable. Additionally, pressures were put on people to take care of their own families first and foremost, and the redistribution of wealth to others was limited and qualified.

Our Blended Economic System In America

We live in a very blended society in America, somewhere between capitalism and democratic socialism.

The typical nuclear family unit practices outright socialism. But the family collectively acts on their own self interest, putting their needs above the needs of other families, and engaging in very capitalist minded activities outside of the home.

In a family, all property is held in common between spouses, and shared with the children. All resources are pooled, each according to his ability and redistributed each according to their need. This socialism typically lasts until children become adults, in which they are weaned off their parents support and form their own families.

However, families often continue to share among one another in some degree after this depending on each members own financial success or failure. When the parents die any wealth leftover becomes their heirs, and so the process repeats.

But families operate with a strong capitalist mindset. Most nuclear families seek to maximize their income, and to limit their expenses. From the family unit, individuals launch out to do everything for the better of their family unit, largely in exclusion of all other families.

Individuals within the family unit strike out on their own, taking jobs, engaging in trade, drawing up contracts, forming businesses, and revolutionizing industry.

(And some become politicians… ha ha ha)

And as all these individuals engage in trade, looking out for their own self interest, people begin to compete for scarce resources, and whatever it is that allows them and their respective family to get ahead.

But, not everyone makes it.

Not everyone is able to get their hands on everything they want or need.

People and/or their businesses begin screwing each other over, using their own self interest to take advantage of others.

Families sometimes become dysfunctional and break down. Individuals with weaker family dynamics, or who for a variety reasons, fail to gather enough resources to support everyone, ultimately start to fall through the cracks of a social Darwinism that undermines everything, resulting in people living in poverty, or worse.

Of course, not everyone likes this arrangement, and thinking of others besides themselves, people seek to help their fellow man. They do this one by one, or by forming charitable organizations, or government agencies to address those issues, all in attempt to spread the wealth by one means of another.

But these are not without issue. Some people expect that when they scratch your back that you’ll scratch theirs in return. Helping others, getting involved with charities, or getting involved with government agencies often becomes messy. And before you know it, all the aforementioned become abused and suffer exploitation.

And when the government gets involved, elements of force often come into play. Powerful people arise that say they can “help” others, but also hurt others through the power of the gun the government ultimately wields and holds over all who fail to comply.

And that’s how we get where we are today in America.

There’s many ways in which we are socialists. But there’s many ways we are capitalists. And both remain in constant tension. We are gradually becoming more and more like democratic socialists, but there is a lot of resistance in our national DNA that prevents us from becoming such outright.

How Should Christians Respond To Capitalism And Democratic Socialism?

How as Christians should we respond to the inevitable social Darwinism that capitalism ultimately fosters and promotes? What about those who, for a wide variety of reasons, are incapable of participating in free markets? How do we respond to men who seek nothing but excessive levels of wealth while overlooking the needs of others?

How as Christians should we respond to the mob rule and violent force that is ultimately required in a democratic socialist system? If the government is a gun or resembles and apocalyptic beast, at what point can we support all the ways it attempts to “help” others. And why should other people have the right to take what belongs to me and my family by force, and give it to someone else? On what basis is there for someone else to form a mob that votes to take what belongs to me? And, if something is taken from me by force, is that a form of theft? And if theft, am I owed restitution as a form of justice?

And the question that really bothers me, that I ultimately find myself asking these days, if my family unit is socialist by disposition, but I am a capitalist outside of my family unit… then how big is my family?

Is my family just me and my wife, my theoretical future kids, my siblings, my parents, their children? Or is it even bigger? Does it extend to distant relatives? How distant, as I come from a huge family? Does it extend beyond them?

These are tough questions that we need to ask. And I for one don’t pretend to have the answers. I do think we need to asking better questions though.

And either way, I have a feeling at some point God is taking us back to the garden.

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