The Market’s Place
God and Money: The Moral Challenge of Our Capitalist Culture
reviewed by Gillis J. Harp
When the heir to the Coors beer fortune ran for the US Senate as a conservative Republican in 2004, he declared that “our company’s values are our family’s values.” NBC’s Tim Russert pressed Peter Coors on whether the brewery’s sponsorship of the homosexualist “Black and Blue Festival” in Montreal was consistent with family values. Coors declared that there was no contradiction.
Americans, notes Charles McDaniel in God and Money, “have achieved the ability to dissociate their economic activities from their moral consciences.” Such dissociation endangers their ethical reasoning, since capitalist societies are not “morally self-sustaining” but contain within themselves “corrosive elements.”
McDaniel, visiting professor of church-state relations at Baylor University, offers, in contrast to what he believes some Christians’ uncritical acceptance of the market, the critical perspectives of G. K. Chesterton, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Pope John Paul II, whose personalism respects both human individuality and the common good, and “provides the foundation for a consistently prophetic Christian voice on economic issues.”
But McDaniel is not following the religious left. By “prophetic,” he does not mean a secular collectivism. Indeed, he notes how the thinking of many social gospel advocates was profoundly shaped by secular ideology.
Such advocates tried “to assimilate the economic ethos of the time and dissolve tensions between secular and religious institutions.” At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, for example, “the illuminati of European socialism provided what leaders of the Social Gospel movement believed was the key to the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Such ideological accommodation did not occur only on the left. By the 1970s and 1980s, some conservative Christians embraced a radically anti-statist individualism. Though he argued for a theocratic political order, the Evangelical Gary North made extensive use of libertarian economic theory and jettisoned state functions traditionally accepted by conservatives, insisting, for example, “that the only way to avoid destruction is by deregulating the banking industry and developing a system of ‘private coinage.’”
McDaniel argues that other, more popular, conservative leaders such as Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel adopted Friedrich von Hayek’s unqualified celebration of liberty. His “radical elevation of individual freedom,” McDaniel warns, “has the commensurate effect of denigrating collective contributions to the social good. . . . Hayek and other Austrian philosophers make a ‘foundational claim’ for ‘methodological individualism that devalues all social claims and ideals.’”
Some Evangelicals, such as George Gilder, even expressed exasperation with Hayek and neo-classical economists like Milton Friedman for not going far enough. “Freedom is good in itself and also makes us rich,” concluded Gilder.
It would be difficult to reconcile such a celebration of freedom for its own sake with traditional Christian warnings about the dangers of unfettered liberty and the easy slide into license. Some conservative Christians’ individualism leads them to dismiss the discourse of “social justice” and the “common good” (central to Catholic social thought) as not only abstract but dangerously misleading.
McDaniel is especially puzzled by the readiness of some Christians to overlook the subjectivist ethic of Hayek—he believed that, “however much we dislike it, we are again and again forced to recognize that there are no truly absolute values whatever”—and his decidedly utilitarian attitude to religious belief.
In the second half of the book, “Envisioning a Morally Redemptive Economy,” McDaniel explores the economic views of Chesterton, Niebuhr, and John Paul II. He does not explain his choice of these three but contends that, despite their differences, they share an “insistence on the preservation of personalism in economic relations and on the need to structure society so as to achieve an organicism not possible in the mechanical relations of socialism or the raw interactions of industrial capitalism.”
Chesterton articulated a social vision based upon a humane, small-scale, proprietary system. Although his plans for establishing a “distributist” model bordered on fanciful, he understood that Christians cannot embrace a system that often claims indifference “to social and moral outcomes.”
On the one hand, McDaniel argues, though Chesterton opposed collectivism, he “insisted that some vision must substitute for collectivist utopianism; a society sans teleology makes the determination of progress impossible and engenders a deterministic materialism not unlike that of the socialism he abhorred.” On the other hand, he writes, Chesterton “recognized what many contemporary libertarians and conservatives do not: once economic power has become concentrated to such a degree as to require a mass bureaucracy with its conformity of behavior, it matters little whether the source of the concentration is government, a ‘private’ corporation, or even a dominant ideology.”
The mature Niebuhr repudiated the socialist utopianism of his youth, concluding that both Marxism and capitalism placed “too great reliance upon the human capacity for transcendence over self-interest.” McDaniel is less clear about exactly what alternatives Niebuhr proposed, but that may be more a flaw of Niebuhr’s than of the author’s treatment.
Similarly, John Paul II, though appreciative of the virtues of free markets, rejected the common view of them as “morally neutral arbiter[s] of social values.” “Of itself,” he argued, “an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality.” On its own, the market can’t identify for humans what are the higher ends truly worth pursuing.
“The market,” McDaniel comments wisely in his conclusion: “is an important component to a redemptive economy for the arbitration of social values that cannot be accomplished by other institutions. Yet there are sources of values and means of distilling them that offer a different perspective from the market.” God and Money represents a helpful guide to a few key sources and a useful manual in the essential and difficult task of distillation.
Contributing editor Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield). He and his family are helping to plant a mission parish in the Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh.
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“The Market’s Place” first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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