A Christian Defense of Capitalism


The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, by Michael Novak, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982, 433 pp., $17.50.

Few disciplines seem quite so incompatible, according to contemporary habits of mind, as economics and religion. So much so, in fact, that economics conjoined with religion has nearly replaced politics as the dinner table taboo; indeed, politics—partially informed politics, at that—has become nearly de rigeur as dinnertime conversation.

There are reasons aplenty for this uneasiness, but the fault lies in both camps, the pure economists and the ardent religionists. In America, the old share-the-wealth Social Gospelers have left their imprint on economic policies, however obscure this source to quasi-socialist policymakers. In Europe, too many theologians—Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish—have simply neglected to think through the necessary comparisons of economic systems, variously intoning antiquated "solutions" to the problem of poverty without bothering to check which system has historically lifted more of human kind out of poverty.

Then there are the libertarian individualists with their worldly philosophy. Many of libertarianism's leading intellectual lights verily pontificate (think for a moment on the source of that word) on what is truly acceptable for any right-thinking free-market individualist. They allow little room for religion, which they pejoratively call mystical or irrational.

Much of this hostility to religion is the legacy of the late novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, who wrote with great clarity and courage about which economic system actually relieves human suffering and which systems do not. Naturally, Rand found herself at odds with the Social Gospel's legatees; that division became enshrined by Rand's votaries, who persistently confused the irrational with the nonrational. The result is profoundly unlearned attempts to disprove the existence of God, a vast potential outreach that has scarcely been tapped, and, worse, a source (some would say the source) of ecstasy, joy, and the meaning of life from which many libertarians have estranged themselves.

Exceptions to this untoward hostility intrude on the mind, of course. The Rev. Edmund Opitz of the Foundation for Economic Education wrote a fine book a few years back entitled Religion and Capitalism: Allies Not Enemies. A fellowship of Christian libertarians (or libertarian Christians; I am not sure of their preference) circulates a newsletter to a scattered fellowship. The powerful but unpublished writings of Rodney Boyer one day will surface. And on the "theology" of self-esteem, one of television's most prominent evangelists, the Rev. Robert Schuller, preaches movingly, perhaps even more cogently than Nathaniel Branden (a one-time associate of Ayn Rand who places self-esteem at the center of his psychological writings and therapy).

All this to build up (I suppose necessarily in a magazine that rarely, if ever, reviews books on religion) to The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a landmark book, a book neither free-market individualist nor complacent Christian socialist can ignore. Michael Novak, who is rapidly becoming one of the free society's most important spiritual and intellectual resources, wrote it. Fittingly enough for its thesis—that political and economic freedoms not only are united but grow out of the religious traditions of the West—this is a life-giving book. It gives new life to a perspective that few have cared to take seriously. And it argues its case so compellingly that antagonists henceforth may have to show cause why they should be taken seriously.

Novak, currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., is a lay Catholic theologian noted for his sociological studies of ethnicity in modern America. He has written movingly on the institution of marriage and lyrically of the joy of sports. For a too-short period in the late 1970s, Novak was an editorial page editor's dream, producing with a lovely economy of language a twice-weekly syndicated column that proved to be a topical-yet-timeless journalistic apologia for the free society.

Novak began an intellectual-political odyssey as a left-leaning supporter of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. His early thinking, he freely admits, was shaped by church attitudes that, stressing selflessness and compassion, decried the greed so often grotesquely associated with big business. The non sequitur, of course, was state intervention that gave rise to something only dimly understood to be un-Christian: a new elitism. As his understanding grew, Novak began to be numbered among the prominent neoconservative intellectuals; surely as his manifold writings show, he stands out as one of the most liberty- and individuality-loving members of that movement.

As Novak shed many of the unofficial, anticapitalist dogmas, he focused more intensely on one of the most central Christian ideals: caritas, love and compassion for human beings. Decidedly un-Randian, to be sure, but thoroughly, joyfully procapitalistic. The evidence is just overwhelming: compassion must be linked to productivity; hence, capitalism, virtually synonymous with productivity, must be adopted by the truly compassionate. With this new insight, together with such truths as the Pauline "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," Novak commenced a prodigious rethinking.

Resisting the temptation to preach, along with George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty), that capitalism istic, Novak nevertheless finds great nobility of spirit in an economy of creativity and free exchange. "Humankind," he writes, "could give rein to a generous instinct, trusting that God's nature would offer reward in kind. Up and outward went the thrust of democratic capitalism. First came investment and effort, later the return. The spirit was not that of the zero-sum nor that of the miser nor that of the primitive fear, but that of the experimenting follower of dreams."

This is not the heroic rhetoric of the Social Gospeler a la Martin Luther King. The "experimenting follower of dreams" is not a social engineer but the citizen exploiting his own talents according to a personal inspiration (another word of which we might consider the source). Novak's willingness, nay his faith, in distributing creativity among a multitude of volitional individuals goes quite unabashedly back to Adam Smith, who gets a reverent treatment in these pages rarely seen in popular religious or theological writings.

It is John Locke's revolutionary suggestion of a new possibility for economic organization, beyond the stagnant mercantilism of his era, that Novak puts in theological terms: "Creation left to itself is incomplete, and humans are called to be co-creators with God, bringing forth the potentialities the Creator has hidden. Creation is full of secrets waiting to be discovered, riddles which human intelligence is expected by the Creator to unlock. The world did not spring from the hand of God as wealthy humans might make it. After the Fall, ignorance and disorder became commonplace."

In those sentences we find a sense of possibility and a sense of sin—both essentially religious concepts that utopians and antiutopians alike have attempted, however awkwardly, to secularize. And we find a transcendent, extramundane source of rights—still the best defense against a government infected with hubris and dogmatism.

A critic could protest that Novak is simply trying to put a little religious English on the Lockean idea of progress. Could say that—but not if such a critic spends any time with a book as rich in scriptural lineaments and theological traditions as this. Nor does Novak flinch from the tyrannical, indeed demonic, chapters in church history. He gives more of his time, though, to taking apart the ignorant economic presuppositions of influential theologians, clergymen, and church fathers. The book is aimed not only at those who deride capitalism as bereft of spiritual values but also at those believers who accept the criticism as gospel—for these people, especially, have not studied their own traditions with the discipline and illumination required of them.

The "liberation theology" that has gripped and politicized church leaders in Latin America undergoes, in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, some of the most vigorous punching it has ever felt. Novak warms up: "The theme of liberation, one might have thought, would lead theologians away from socialism and toward 'the natural system of liberty' described so often in the Anglo-Saxon Whig tradition. It did not. The Anglo-Saxon tradition is perhaps the least known among Catholic theologians trained (as most liberation theologians have been) in Europe." There go their credentials, their very right to the word liberation. The knockout comes when Novak shows that Latin American economies have failed abjectly in their purported rescue of the poor, especially in comparison with North American (more fundamentally capitalist) economies.

Like the Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr and the Catholic Jacques Maritain before him, Novak has traveled a dramatic distance from a kind of late-adolescent, church socialism to a profound appreciation for the success capitalism has brought America and much of the Western world. For those who have heretofore dismissed any connection between economics and religion, this book can open doors of perception and inspiration. An utterly cocksure free-market individualist would be advised to be careful, however: someone has made Michael Novak not only a shepherd extending a crook to fugitive theologians, but a fisher of libertarians as well.

K.E. Grubbs, Jr., is editor and publisher of Greenhow Newspapers, Inc., a chain of small dailies and weeklies in upstate New York.