In 2011, I graduated from Hillsdale College as a mild socialist sympathizer. My studies of history had convinced me that capitalism caused as much harm as good, and that the socialistic drive to distribute economic goods to care for the weak of society resonated with Christian compassion. Between 2011 and 2016, my view changed as I discovered a deeper understanding of the biblical view of economics. The 2016 election brought these competing economic visions into the national spotlight.
Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton both affirmed a socialistic view of economics, viewing the government as the best distributor of economic goods and services; Donald Trump, on the other hand, voiced a simplistic faith in the free market which the majority of Americans share (as evidenced by their votes). As multiple commentators noted, Bernie Sanders’ appeal to blatant socialism spoke to thousands of millennial voters. In one sense, this should be shocking: socialism runs counter to American individualism, and in most evangelical circles, counter to typical Christian political economy. Sanders’ success lay in telling a simple, compelling story: the struggle between socialism and capitalism is really the struggle between compassion (free college, free health care, affordable housing, etc) and greed (the evil corporate monsters are taking wealth away from ordinary people). Put into this framework, Sanders seems to align with Christianity; after all, Jesus told the rich young ruler to “give it all away.”
My journey from being a soft socialistic sympathizer to finding in capitalism an economic system which best aligns with biblical Christianity began when I learned a deeper, more true story. Let me be clear: Christianity is not synonymous with any particular economics system. It is instead the story of God’s redemptive work reconciling fallen humanity to himself. That redemption, however, tells us the true nature of the world and how we as creatures live best within God’s world. As such, I argue free market capitalism best aligns with the way God has made the world. Far from Bernie Sanders’ assertions that capitalism is grounded in human greed, capitalism is instead grounded in a strong vision of human dignity, the divine creation of reality, and the command for humans to take dominion of all reality.
Capitalism, when done right, creates more wealth in the world.
From Potential to Actual
A biblical view of economics begins in Genesis 1. Nothing was, and then God created all things. Reading the creation accounts is an encounter with divine creativity — God creates the land, the sea, the creatures and plants in all their diversity. At the conclusion of his creative work God determines to “make man in our image, in our likeness” and “male and female he created them.” In Genesis 2, Adam (representing all humanity) is given the command to take dominion of the earth. This dominion involves rule, but also cultivation. Adam’s (humanity’s) work is the task of bringing forth into reality what God had hidden as potential within creation. All our human efforts at making are efforts towards obeying this command; whether it is, as Andy Crouch considers in Culture Making, taking the raw resources of eggs and cultivating them into an omelet, or seeing a new possibility no one else sees (Facebook, Uber, Thales Academy, a church plant, etc), we human beings are always making actual the potential God placed within creation.
Capitalism is the economic system which reflects this reality. Permit a brief example following a typical investment pitch. Imagine a man named Bill approaches investors with an idea. After Bill pitches his idea, the investors must decide if Bill can make his idea move from potential to actual in such a way that other people will purchase the new service or product Bill envisioned. If they think Bill’s idea will succeed, they offer to use their money to fund Bill’s venture on two conditions: repayment of the investment and a share of the profits. Bill then develops, markets and sells his new product. It becomes wildly successful and he repays his initial investment and his interest requirement, and then has his own profit which he can use as he sees fit.
The key insight in this story involves the creation of new wealth. Bill’s success did not cost the success of others, nor did it involve abusive usury. His investors took a risk and were compensated accordingly. Bill moved from being a person without a business to having his own successful business. Capitalism, when done right, creates more wealth in the world.
Capitalism Done Right
The previous sentence has an important qualifier: “when done right.” Socialism does have a valid critique: capitalism is not always practiced a way which leads to human flourishing. As Christians, we cannot conduct business or life in the world with an eye only to profit. Our lives must be shaped vertically by the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and horizontally by the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Adam Smith recognized this second reality in The Wealth of Nations, arguing that ethical behavior by both seller (in advertising) and buyer (by fulfilling payment obligations) is a way of loving one’s neighbours in a secular society. A Christian understanding of free market economics must meet at least three obligations.
First, a Christian capitalism must recognize that poverty will never be eliminated. Jesus told his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you…” Poverty cannot be eliminated, but it can be softened. The past four centuries have seen an explosion of wealth in the world, and the lessening of global poverty (at the starvation level) is proof that free market enterprise creates more wealth and equips people with more opportunities. Yet expecting to eradicate poverty is a foolish goal which ignores clear biblical teaching.
Second, this capitalistic model works because it aligns with the way God has created reality, not because a government planned it. A planned economy cannot account for the complexities of humans, the uniqueness of their circumstances nor the details of the future.
Third, the government can and should work to ensure honesty in the marketplace. Because of original sin, there will always be hucksters, con artists and thievery masquerading as legitimate business. Romans 13 reminds us that the government’s role lies in rewarding the just and punishing evil. Christian economics does have a role for government, but that role looks more like a referee than a detailed blueprint to universal economic success.
Aligning Our Lives with Creation
Christianity is not tied irreversibly to free market economics, and Christians have legitimately disagreed on this topic for centuries. Yet a biblical view of creation, anthropology and life as embodied beings within the created order aligns most closely with a free market understanding of economics.
God is not in the business of making us rich, but we find flourishing when we align our lives with the structures of creation. Free market economics works not because people seize wealth from others, but because our God made all things and pronounced them “good” and “very good.” When we live as homo oeconomicus bearing the imago dei, we bring glory to God through stewarding his world.
 I first encountered this view of economics in a graduate level ethics class taught by Dr. David Jones at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fall, 2011) and encountered it again in a lecture given by Dr. Anne Rathbone Bradley at the Acton University conference (July, 2017). Jones has since written Every Good Thing: An Introduction to the Material World, which (I believe) contains many of these initial observations he made in his classroom.