This post from Ned Resnikoff highlights some interesting data about Americans’ views on the compatibility of capitalism and “Christian values.” As he notes, the number of people who see them as incompatible goes up when the sample is restricted to self-identified Christians.
I don’t think Christianity is necessarily anti-capitalist per se. Presumably a Christian should support whatever economic system best promotes human well-being. There’s a case to be made that some form of capitalism is the best candidate for this, at least given the available options.
But there are also some deep-seated Christian principles that tell against a full-throated embrace of capitalism. I’d put them under two broad headings:
(1) Christianity is against excessive wealth accumulation.
(2) Christianity is against the market as the ultimate arbiter of value.
The first point seems nearly incontrovertible to me based on a close reading of the gospels and a general familiarity with the history of Christian thought on these matters. Certainly the accumulation of wealth has rarely been upheld as a virute for Christians. I think this has partly to do with the idea that Christians should depend on God rather than wealth (you can’t serve two masters) and partly with our obligation to share from our excess with those in need. It’s certainly hard to argue that the disparities in wealth and the excess exhibited at the top of the income scale in contemporary America reflect sound Christian values.
What I mean by the second point is that Christianity sees all human beings (and indeed all living creatures, I’d argue) as having a certain intrinsic value, which is derived from their creation by God. A consequence of this is that all people are entitled, simply by virtue of exisiting, to the prerequisites of a meaningful life, such as adequate food, shelter, health care, education, etc. A thoroughgoing “market society” in which goods were distributed strictly according to the ability to pay would be flatly inconsistent with this Christian principle.
If this is right, the practical upshot is that Christians should support an economic system that limits great disparities in wealth and ensures that people’s basic value is respected independent of their “market value.” In my view, the evidence suggest that some kind of regulated capitalism with a generous social safety net and provision of high-quality public services is the best currently available system for doing this. There are multiple models here–North American, European, Asian–but all of them depart in significant ways from the laissez-faire ideal beloved of American right-wingers. (It’s worth noting that conservative Christian support for laissez-faire capitalism in the U.S. is both a historical and geographic anomaly.)
It’s possible that some as-yet-untried alternative to regulated capitalism would perform better according to these principles. And the search for such an alternative may become more pressing as we continue run up against limits to nonrenewable resources and the environmental consequences of ever-increasing material consumption. These circumstances are likely going to require us to come up with new economic arrangements that might look very different from capitalism as we know it. But if we are entering into an era that requires us to radically alter our patterns of production and consumption, it’s even more important that Christians (and other people of good will) work to ensure that any new economic arrangements respect every person’s God-given value and dignity.
UPDATE January 15, 2012: If I were writing this post now, I think I would change the first principle I cite to something like “Christianity regards all property and wealth as held in trust.” I think this gets more to the heart of the matter. Everything that is ultimately belongs to God and we only hold it in trust, as stewards. For Christianity there is no such thing as truly “private” property, and our possession of anything is inherently qualified to some extent by the claims of the well-being of others.
Similarly, while I would still affirm the second principle, it might be better stated positively, e.g. “Christianity regards all people as having intrinsic value as creatures of God.” This clearly implies that the market is not the ultimate arbiter of value, but better expresses why that is.