Christian Perspectives on Capitalism

Discussion Group, March 5, 2020


Opening Prayer

Lord, thank You for the people You have divinely placed in our lives who speak holy truth, love and words of wisdom. Give us hearts of discernment to know when You are using someone to speak instruction into our hearts and our circumstances, and give us each the strength and courage to follow through with that advice, even when it’s hard.  Fill us with peace in knowing that even if we take a wrong turn, Your purpose will prevail. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


"Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life. You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail.” Proverbs 19:20-21 (NLT)


Notes on Chapter 1


Merriam-Webster definition of capitalism:

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

Michael Novak’s defintion:

the invention-based economic system made possible by laws protecting intellectual property, plus personal habits of economic initiative, enterprise, and practical wisdom, and in which the main cause of wealth is fresh ideas, ventures, and exercised know-how

At this point we will watch the video “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read.


Free markets are a part of capitalism, but they are not its entirety.  Free markets have existed from before history; we know about the interchange between cultures in neolithic times by the artifacts that were traded from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.  Capitalism only began near the end of the 1700’s.


Capitalism is not simply a system based on private property.  Private property existed in the second book in the bible.  Exodus 20:15 says  "Do not steal.”  But ancient Jerusalem was not a center of modern capitalism; Jerusalem was a market place at the intersection of three continents.


Novak is careful to emphasize this triangle: moral/cultural; political; and economic.  This tripartite description of capitalism woven into a broader tapestry will be an important part of our Lenten discussion series.  The economic sphere cannot work without a polity of law and respectful of  natural rights.  The polity cannot work without the habits of the heart that respect the law and the rights of very other person.  The culture of civic republicanism cannot survive under a hostile economic system driven by cupidity, envy, smothering control by the state, or personal moral headlessness.   Cultural habits support all three systems simultaneously.  (p. 22) 


This passage is an outright rejection of "greed is good.”  Painting capitalism as a social evil by using Gordon Gecko as caricature is analogous to rejecting Christianity because the the Inquisitors were priests.


Adam Smith in the *Theory of Moral Sentiments*"


The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand [emphasis added] to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”


Pope John Paul II wrote, “It is precisely the ability to foresee both the needs of others and and the combinations of productive factors most adapted to satisfying those needs that constitutes another important source of wealth in modern society.  To sum up, capitalism is a mind-centered system , springing form the creative power of insight , invention and discovery.” (p. 25)  "Open markets are not the essence of capitalism, but they are an important social institution.”


Free societies are inherently fragile.


When people are destitute, political freedom and cultural flourishing are luxuries"


The big question in these matters is not whether the poor must be helped.  It is not even whether the federal government should play a necessary role in providing that assistance.  The answer to both of these questions must be yes.  The main question, rather, is how: What means and methods are best to do this?” (p. 28)  "In truth, all agree that one of the greatest moral imperatives facing the world today is to to help the remaining billion people out of poverty." (p. 29). 


All things come of thee, oh Lord.
And of thine own have we given thee.


Michael Novak’s magnum opus was *The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism*.  It is recommended for further reading.


Discussion Questions

1. What are your prejudices?  Do you have preconceived notions about capitalism?

2. Is Novak’s definition of capitalism appropriate?

3. Have you ever lived in a society that was not capitalist?  Have you ever lived in a country that only had a weak rule of law?  Have you ever lived in a country that had a culture where respect for the individual was muted?

4. Is it true that capitalism, pluralistic democracy, and a culture of respect for the individual reinforce one another?

5. What are our responsibilities as Christians to help the poor?  How can helping our marginalized brothers and sisters best be achieved?

6. Is the Holy Spirit at work in fashioning the pencil I gave you?


Closing prayer

Lord, we stand on Holy Ground, surrounded by wonders.  Let us not perish for the lack of wonder, but give us the wisdom to see the beauty of Thy creation in everything we do, in everything that is done for us.  Let us be ever mindful of others less fortunate than we.  All these things, we ask through Christ our Lord.

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