Is free market Capitalism Christian? Any discussion of theology and economics is bound to arrive at this question sooner or later. There are at least three ways of interpreting the question.
If the question is whether or not free market capitalism is the biblically prescribed model for the economic life, then the answer is an emphatic “No.” There is no culturally transcendent economic model given in the bible. Therefore, no economic model is Christian. Those that would take capitalism (or any other economic system) down to the river and baptize it as THE Christian model engage in idolatry.
If the question is whether or not free market capitalism emerged from a society with a distinctively Christian ethos, then the answer would clearly be “Yes.” The ideas of human beings created in the image of God, linear time, progress, future orientation, and vision oriented ethics, were the soil from which capitalism grew. This is NOT to say that free market capitalism is the best of all economic systems that can, or ever will be, conceived. It is merely to acknowledge the roots from which it sprang.
The third way of interpreting this question is to evaluate the degree to which free market capitalism moves us in the direction of the coming age of shalom. It is this evaluation that has to be asked about every human construction, always with an eye to the fallen state of humanity and the inability to achieve utopia in our present age.
Detractors of free market capitalism have a litany of charges to file against the concept and readily denounce it as anti-Christian. Inequality of economic outcomes, exploitation of the economically vulnerable, environmental harm, and consumerism are just a few of the charges leveled. Examples of all the above clearly happen. Isn’t the presence of these realities evidence enough that free market capitalism is not Christian? Let us look at this by way of an analogy.
Cell phone technology has come into its own over the last decade or so. Because of the technology, people are able to stay in touch like never before. People are able to coordinate activities with each other from almost anywhere on the globe. Emergencies can more effectively be reported and responded to. We can now even catch news video and do text-messaging with this technology. It is made a marvelous contribution to human existence.
However, cell phones have also made it easier for unscrupulous governments to track the moves of unsuspecting citizens. It has contributed to automobile accidents by distracted cell phone users. It has needlessly interrupted countless concerts, worship services, and meetings. It is used by illicit lovers to make rendezvous and drug dealers to sale their goods. Recently captured terrorists in Canada were creating explosives that could be remotely detonated by cell phone. Isn’t the presence of these realities evidence enough that cell phones are not Christian?
Take an even more simple technology: The hammer. I can use it to hammer nails as I construct shelving in my basement, as I build a Habitat for Humanity home, or as I hang beautiful artwork on my wall. I could also use it to walk by the cars on my street and smash their windows. Hammers have also been used as murder weapons. Isn’t the presence of these realities evidence enough that hammers are not Christian?
Just like cellular technology and hammers, the institutions and practices of free market capitalism are tools that allow us to amplify and magnify human behavior. They amplify and magnify the good that we do. They also amplify and magnify the evil we do. They are not guarantors of moral outcomes. The moral outcomes are rooted in the users of the “technology” not the “technology” itself. It is one thing to acknowledge that evil can emerge from a technology and set appropriate boundaries for its use. It is another to conclude that the technology itself is evil.
We could eliminate any given technology and thereby eliminate its evil uses. Yet we also eliminate the good that it does along with it. There is no alternative technology that can not be used for evil. To point to the evils that occur within free market capitalist societies as the grounds for condemnation of the system itself is to live by the illusion that there exists some economic “technology” out their that will allow us to live in a state economic perfection.
No economic system is Christian because there is no economic system given in the Bible. No economic system is Christian in that no economic system can bring us into a state of perfect economic morality. We can only talk in terms of which options move us closer to, or further from, the vision of the New (Jeru)shalom.