Is God a Closet Capitalist?


Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology, by Michael Novak, Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 311 pages, $14.95

Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism, by Ronald H. Nash, Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 223 pages, $8.95

Why do so many Christian thinkers condemn capitalism? And are their criticisms justified? Those questions have been around for a long time. Marx and Engels commented on them in The Communist Manifesto, concluding that "Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heartburnings of the aristocrat." The discussion has waxed and waned since 1848 and seems currently to be well advanced into a waxing phase. While each new phase inevitably resurrects a fair number of tired arguments that were long ago resolved to the satisfaction of everyone who was paying attention, the controversy has never settled down into a completely predictable pattern of claims and counterclaims.

In large part this is due to the continuing evolution of both capitalism and Christianity. Whatever "capitalism" meant to Marx, it would have to be described very differently today. So would Christianity. Whether it is old truths that are being recovered or new errors that are being invented, there can be no doubt that the actual teachings and practices of professed Christians have undergone significant changes since "capitalism" first caught the attention of moral theologians.

One of these new developments is "liberation theology," the subject of Michael Novak's latest book, Will It Liberate? Novak spends very little time on the explicitly theological considerations that generated liberation theology in Latin America about 20 years ago, because he believes the issues in contention are almost entirely in the realm of political economy. The crucial issue, as he sees it, is the rejection of capitalism. Liberation theologians hate capitalism. They endorse socialism and even identify it in some cases with the establishment of God's reign on earth.

Novak's response is that they do not understand capitalism, largely because they have hardly experienced it. What they know is not capitalism at all but the statist, semi-feudal, traditionalist, elitist social systems that dominate Latin America. Their intense and thoroughgoing repudiation of what they mistakenly identify as capitalism has prompted liberation theologians to subscribe to a Marxist (or semi-Marxist) view of social systems that blinds them both to the achievements of capitalism and to the dismal record of socialism. They consequently repudiate the only system of political economy that has actually produced liberation—from ignorance, tyranny, and poverty—even as they urge, in the name of God, a vaguely defined socialism with no demonstrated capacity to liberate anyone.

Novak struggles to make his case carefully and fairly. He wants to change the perceptions of those with whom he is arguing, not simply to win a debate at their expense. The account in the appendix of his conversations with Hugo Assmann exemplifies this earnestly dialectical intention. "All parties to the debate share one same Christian faith," Novak asserts, which implies for him that reconciliation of deeply opposed viewpoints is possible if the contending parties will argue strenuously while listening to one another and paying attention to the evidence.

Although Novak makes no attempt to spell out for the reader the theological considerations that have helped to produce liberation theology, he does devote a considerable part of the book to an explication of his own "theology of the liberal society." I wonder if he hasn't chosen exactly the wrong pair of options at this point.

The trouble with theological arguments is that they too often transform already complex questions into even more complex ones—precisely what happens in Novak's chapter "The Constitution of Liberty." The presentation moves on a level of abstraction so high that it could never be persuasive to anyone not convinced in advance. His theologizing will mainly be useful, I suspect, to those who wish to reject entirely Novak's arguments against socialism and on behalf of capitalism, and who will be able to excuse themselves from serious consideration of those arguments by focusing on and then repudiating his theology.

It is hardly surprising, after all, that Novak can construct a theology to support his own social analysis. A more difficult and perhaps more helpful task would have been to show that his social analysis can be reconciled with the theology or ideology of his opponents. This would, of course, require an articulation of the explicitly theological and more particularly Biblical elements in liberation theology. It would bring out the strongly antihierarchical thrust of liberation theology, just possibly calling into question Novak's assumption that the writers with whom he is contending share his own, Roman Catholic, understanding of the Christian faith.

I simply do not believe that any substantial number of liberation theologians are going to enter the dialogue that Novak wants to foster unless they are first persuaded that the defenders of capitalism have understood the theological roots of their position. They will want to know how "the spirit of democratic capitalism," celebrated by Novak in an earlier book with that title and again in the present volume, can be reconciled with the New Testament emphasis on the "kingdom of God" and on the subordination of self in a community characterized by concrete acts of mutual care and sharing. Because Novak does not address that question, I fear that his commendable efforts to stimulate dialogue will end largely in frustration.

Ronald Nash, by contrast, does not seem to be much interested in dialogue. His book Poverty and Wealth has very little to say about "the Christian debate over capitalism," despite its subtitle. There are a few brief discussions of explicitly Christian arguments about the appropriate organization of economic life, frequent citations from the writings of economists who are also Christians, and numerous references to Christian concerns, interests, and obligations. Essentially, however, this is a book on economics. As Nash tells us at the end of the first chapter: "I have written this book in the hope that it can make some small contribution toward reducing the bad consequences that have resulted from bad economics."

The economics that Nash teaches is basically the Austrian variant, emphasizing the subjective, individualized value of goods. He presents it simply, clearly, forcefully, and with hardly a hint that there are some important issues in economics on which intelligent, well-informed, and well-intentioned people might legitimately disagree. For him, the truth is known. All that remains is to disseminate it, especially among those who want to improve the lot of the poor. They must be shown that only capitalism can accomplish this task and that "interventionism" (government intervention in economic matters) is not compatible with but rather fundamentally subversive of capitalism. Nash asserts that "every instance of governmental intervention with the economy will fail and produce consequences opposite to what was expected."

Every instance? There are readers of this magazine who would probably agree, and no doubt a lot of Christians who will sound a loud amen to this and similar statements made by Nash. That may in fact be the function of the book: to elicit amens. The book will certainly not convince the unconverted, who won't think of reading it. Nor will it help anyone understand why so many Christians—including, in recent years, a growing number of theologically conservative Christians—entertain deep misgivings about capitalism. References to the sordid war of the Christian left against economics indicate the depth of the author's own convictions, but they don't really explain why Nash finds capitalism consistent with, almost mandated by, a Biblically based theology, while others, equally committed to Biblical authority, come to conclusions that are almost directly opposite.

It is always possible, of course, that one's opponents are insincere or that they are in the grip of an ideology that finally blinds them to the truth. For an author who wants to discuss the Christian debate over capitalism, however, that would have to be the conclusion of the argument, not its premise.

Paul Heyne is a professor of economics at the University of Washington.