Is capitalism biblical? You don't have to be a pope to ask that question


It has always been my understanding from Proverbs (condemning the “sluggard”), and Paul’s instruction that missionaries earn their keep and not be a burden, that the Bible encouraged hard work and a responsibility to give of our blessings to the poor — personal responsibility vs. government responsibility. The trend toward government socialism seems to discourage that. Is capitalism biblical?


In America, it’s springtime for socialism. A Harvard survey of those ages 18–29 showed 33 percent support socialism compared with 42 percent for capitalism, and socialist support reached 50 percent among Democrats. A poll of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers found 43 percent considered themselves socialist vs. 38 percent capitalist. Sliding regard for big business accompanies the related success of Socialist-plus-Democrat Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Sanders is arguably the most secularized candidate ever to wage a major presidential run (can you name any competitors?). Even so, he was the only U.S. politician the Vatican invited to speak at an April economics conference (Sanders cited no Bible verses), where he briefly met Pope Francis. That was called a courtesy, not endorsement, but the pontiff appears soft on socialism, which sets conservative Catholics abuzz.

Francis joins previous popes in teaching biblical tenets of concern toward the needy and against the sins of greed and materialism. But he’s more outspoken than his predecessors in assailing free markets and urging government redistribution of wealth. Given Poland’s experience, John Paul II was understandably cooler toward state collectivism in his important 1991 economics encyclical Centesimus Annus. (For more on modern popes and economics click here.)

Through history, biblical believers have practiced all sorts of economies. Catholicism defends private property under the scriptural commandment “you shall not steal,” though not as an absolute right divorced from “the common good.” Democratic forms of socialism are popular with Catholic and Protestant Europeans. But churches have mostly spurned one version of socialism, Communism, due to its human rights abuses and hatred toward religion.

Although Scripture shaped the thinking of John Paul II and Francis, they cited no Bible passages in the hundreds of footnotes to Centesimus and Francis’ first social encyclical Laudato Si (2015).

Specifically, what does the Bible say? A few observations:

In Acts 2:44-45 the rush of idealism among the small band of earliest Christians produced a voluntary quasi-communism: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” That practice wasn’t mandatory and died out, but charity toward those inside and outside the fellowship was a Christian hallmark. The biblically zealous “Pilgrims” who settled Plymouth colony operated a communal economy but then a switch to private property “had very good success for it made all hands very industrious,” Governor Bradford wrote.

The questioner is correct that the Bible repeatedly commends personal effort and thrift plus personal charity.

Continue reading "Is capitalism biblical?" by Richard Ostling.

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