Christianity and capitalism: peas in a pod or irreconcilable?

Is Christianity compatible with Capitalism? Are the two systems based on mutually exclusive ethical foundations that make them incompatible? This was the question asked in the recent debate held between Jennifer Roback Morse of the Acton Institute and Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute.

The debate was sponsored by two groups, each supporting one perspective of the issue. The Catholic Community at Stanford, a collective group of students and faculty dedicated to liturgical programs and well known for their community service initiatives, invited Mrs. Morse. The Stanford Objectivists, a student group dedicated to studying the philosophy of Ayn Rand and perhaps best known for their unsolicited e-mails to students, invited Dr. Brook.

The Debate

The debate followed a very interesting progression, due in part to its format. Similar to Lincoln-Douglas style debate (in which affirming and negating speakers are given the opportunity to present initial points and then rebut within shrinking time frames), but without cross-examinations, the two speakers honed in on specific facets of Christianity and capitalism to evaluate their compatibility. Around 200 people, ranging from intrigued students to members of the sponsoring organizations to faculty, attended the event, packed into the Geology Corner lecture hall. The debate evolved not so much into a consideration of whether the two systems could coexist, but rather into an evaluation of whether the beliefs they engendered contradicted each other.

Mrs. Morse, affirming the compatibility of the two, began the debate. She quickly clarified that she only sought to defend Catholicism, as Christianity itself lacked an overarching philosophy applicable to all branches. She defined capitalism as a “relatively free market” with private property, competitive firms, and investment and profit-seeking. Working with this framework, she made three central points: 1) that Papism affirms capitalism, 2) that capitalism needs the Church, and 3) that freedom necessitates the Church.

In an effort to emphasize the Church’s support of capitalism, Mrs. Morse stressed that Pope Leo XIII, in his Rarum Novarum, declared private property and free association a natural right, and proclaimed a Church position against socialists. On her second point, that capitalism needs the Church, she argued that the system of capitalism depends on a set of virtues – such as conscience – that cannot be produced by the market, but rather require the family and Church. Her final point argued that, in order to preserve freedom, family, the Church, and voluntary associations have the right to exist without being atomized into individuals by the market and state.

Dr. Brook answered Mrs. Morse’s points with an emphatic defense of capitalism, whose survival he claimed was incompatible with the Church’s ethical structure. Capitalism, he argued, is a social system, not just an economic system. What we have today, according to Dr. Brook, is not capitalism but state-controlled socialism; the only true capitalism is Laissez-Faire, which acknowledges the right to the pursuit of liberty. However, while capitalism is based on the idea that we are free and sovereign individuals, he noted, the Church asserts that we are not free, because God and the Pope, not people, are the final authority. Dr. Brook also pointed to the virtue of sacrifice upheld by the Church: whereas the Church prizes others over the self, he argued, the self as an end is necessary for capitalism, and accords with an ethical tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle. He concluded by noting that trade is a self-interested endeavor, in which both participants win, but that self-sacrifice is the opposite, because the sacrificing party is fated to lose in the exchange.

Mrs. Morse made 4 points in her rebuttal. The first was that, while we are all born free to pursue our interest, we need our families to raise us, structure our values, and instill ethics in us that allow us to rationally pursue our interest. Secondly, she argued, religion doesn’t hold that God is the final authority, only that ‘truth’ is the final authority – a tenet that capitalism, as a normative system, shares. Third, the idea of self-sacrifice as an exchange in which he or she who sacrifices loses is unrealistic, she said, because a) nobody is required to sacrifice themselves and b) sacrifice is in people’s self interest – people think that their sacrifice is better for them than their own comfort. Fourth, she noted that the Church itself, like capitalism, is based on Aristotelian ethic.

In his final response to Mrs. Morse, Dr. Brook made observations on her points before opening the floor up to questions. He dismissed her first argument by noting that capitalism, as a system, has nothing wrong with the family’s role in instilling values. On her second point, Dr. Brook agreed that truth should be the ultimate authority, but argued that truth cannot be found in a book or in mystical revelations, but is rather only accessible through reality and fact – faith, he claimed, is an irrational way to divine truth. Finally, he rebutted her third point by noting that sacrifice is only in someone’s self-interest if they think it will get them into heaven. Otherwise, he claimed, the word ‘sacrifice’ implicitly means giving up more than what one is getting, in this case giving up reason for faith.

The Outcome

After the debate, the floor was opened up to various provocative questions posed by audience members, in an effort to elucidate the speakers’ contentions or to provide counter-arguments to their points. The debate itself, ultimately, was mildly disappointing in its outcome. The two speakers presented a variety of multifaceted arguments in defense of their positions, but their perspectives resembled ships passing in the night more than a head-on collision of ideologies.

Mrs. Morse’s efforts of showing the Church’s endorsement of Christianity might have successfully prevented any ad hominem attacks, but really did nothing to show that Christianity actually was compatible with capitalism. Her argument that ethics, such as conscience, are necessary to a successful capitalist system were well made, but she failed to show why Christianity was the necessary moral source for providing these virtues. Finally, her point that the family and Church are free associations that cannot be shut down by a system that upholds freedom was neatly sidestepped by Dr. Brook, who pointed out that capitalism has no problem with the associations, just a disagreement with some of their ethical framework.

Dr. Brook, on his part, also made a few omissions and errors in his points that showed his counter-argument to have missed Mrs. Morse’s point. His distinction of socialism from capitalism was an interesting pre-emptive tactic to clarify the terms of the debate, but ultimately had little place in a dialogue on moral foundations, not modern institutions. He did not address Mrs. Morse’s observation that the Church does not mandate self-sacrifice, but rather only applauds it. This was poignant because the absence of compulsion in Christianity would imply that the two systems could exist together. Finally, Dr. Brook’s point about sacrifice implicitly meaning that one gives up more than they receive was well-made, but he failed to tie this to his original point that sacrifice can therefore never be in one’s self-interest. Without considering that sometimes the welfare of others is more in our self-interest than that of ourselves, he left the point open-ended.

Ultimately, the debate was a productive forum of ideas regarding two systems whose compatibility comes into question not only in philosophical circles but also in daily reality. It adeptly elucidated what values people do and should prioritize in a country founded on both elements, but failed to go into any significant depth on the issue of whether they were truly irreconcilable with each other.

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