The free market and American Christianity

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in History, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

In my last post, I summarized Mark Noll’s (America’s God) belief that American evangelicals in the early 19th century generally accepted the developing free market, which brought great economic and social change to the new U.S.  I thought that Noll’s fuller explanation deserved an extended quote:

European Protestants, who for the most part maintained the ideal of Christendom, regularly thought in terms of all-encompassing models of life-as-a-whole, including economics, [sic] But since the United States’ disestablishmentarian evangelicals had given up earlier ideals of Christendom, they often found themselves reacting to changes and circumstances in the economic arena over which their ancestors had once tried to exert self-conscious control.  In their choice for voluntary spiritual suasion, they set aside self-conscious attention to the structures of society.  American evangelicals largely stopped trying to construct complete worldviews; in practice, their pietism drove them to a function division of life into a sacred sphere, which received comprehensive and self-conscious attention, and a secular sphere, which did not…. By limiting the goals of their activity [to transforming society through religious revivals, which were successful], the evangelicals also increased the likelihood that dimensions of society they now neglected would influence them unself-consciously. (224)

Today, when politically conservative American Christians talk about a “biblical worldview,” the free market seems to find its way in as nearly an article of faith.  (Please correct me if I’m in error about this.)  Don’t get me wrong: a compelling Christian case can be (and often has been) made for free market capitalism governed by Christian ethics, and it’s a system that I think is the best, even with its flaws.  But I don’t buy the idea that free market capitalism is the only logical economic philosophy that one can draw from the Scriptures.

Noll writes in the footnote to the passage that I quoted above that American Christians did not begin to write in a disciplined way about  “political economy” until the 1830s and 1840s.  The new market system had developed for several decades by that time.  Noll’s explanation might help to explain the entrenchment of the free market in American Christian thought.

  1. haven’t given much thought to the relation of free economics with the Christian faith. as a stephen colbert would maybe say, “isn’t it self-evident”, so don’t question it. honestly i advocate a pragmatic approach on economics and would detach it from “thus saith the Lord”. Give to Caesar what belongs to him is easy when under a monarchy or form of totalitarianism….but when you live in a form of democracy and have a small say in the matter, then Christians can engage the issue of economics, use of wealth, etc. dunno. thanks for your insight.

  2. Kevin says:

    I agree with Rick. A coherent economic policy is rather difficult to wring from Scripture, even as I would like to believe that Christian ethics would be most consistent with and therefore ultimately lead to the best policy.

    Given that we can extrapolate in many directions, what other economic philosophies do you draw from Scripture? And if “free market capitalism governed by Christian ethics” is the best option, should that be the most consistent with the principles in Scripture?

  3. Scott Kistler says:

    Good comments, Rick and Kevin. It’s hard to tell exactly what economic principles come from Scripture. Probably first and foremost is that economics is not the ultimate reality, and that things must pale in comparison to God and that the things that we have are to be used for God’s purposes. But following that is that people’s ownership of property should be respected: you shall not steal, or even covet someone else’s things. We’re also expected to participate in the economy by working.

    Then there are the limitations on wealth in the Old Testament law: debts had to be canceled every 7 years (Deut. 15), you could only go over your crops once to leave them for the poor and the alien (Deut. 24), and land was to go back to its owners every 7 years (Lev. 25).

    That’s my start. What do you guys think?

  4. Kevin says:

    Good summary, Scott. God should certainly be our priority. I think a good part of the question is, to what extent should we force other people to make God their priority as we define it? In other words, when is it our personal responsibility to help others, and when should we force everyone to help others?

    I think the OT laws you mention try to address the problems of persistent debt and the ability to survive without land. These are valid concerns, but as coerced solutions they have subtle (and probably unintended) side effects such as economic stagnation, discouraging lending or selling land, particularly nearing the Jubilee. Maybe Jubilees actually occurred and worked well over time, but I haven’t read about it, nor have I heard about its enforcement which would seem to be a fundamental factor.

    Apologies for the delay. 🙂

  5. Scott Kistler says:

    Kevin, we were able to talk about this a bit in person, but I agree with you that we should be very careful about where we advocate the coercive power of the state. We as Christians probably need to figure out our own priorities first before we enjoin society to go by these values.

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