I think the time has come for Christians to become more sophisticated when it comes to economics.
It’s not enough to shout free market capitalism anymore. The reality is that free market capitalism has come under such a fire from its critics and from inside the church that those who deeply believe that the imperfect system of capitalism is better than all other imperfect options are going to have to go to the mat in the debate.
Why should Christians be debating this at all? Shouldn’t we merely focus on the Gospel itself? Let me respond by asking another question. Should Christians who have found themselves living in a place that has done more through its economic system to bless their fellow man than any other system to date invest themselves in speaking up for what helps rather than hinders their citizenry? Or, to ask another question, what is a Christian’s obligation to an economic system that has done more to enable the church to live in peace and quiet (as the Apostle Paul puts it) and to have the means to support gospel ministry so that Christ can be proclaimed to the uttermost part of the earth than any other economic system? Do we have an obligations of some sort, secondary though it be?
Forces within the church (Jim Wallis and company) are deeply ambivalent about capitalism and are immersed in efforts to enforce the moral codes of the church upon the state which will then enforce those moral codes at the point of a gun. Wallis seems to have a softer and more compassionate approach to human suffering. But make no mistake here, Wallis wants to give the power of the sword to the government to force it redistribute wealth and to bend the trajectory toward socialism.
As the state’s inability to keep up with the demands of a welfare society is constantly manifesting itself, the debate will heat up. Many leftist Christians will demand of the state more “safety nets” until the burden of taxation becomes an impossibly heavy demand.
How much we tax and what we tax are moral issues. For instance, heavy taxation contributes to the further breakdown of the family by two factors. First, it demands of families that both mom and dad earn income outside the home so that they can afford their taxes. It’s not merely lower wages and less job opportunity that hurt families. It is also the amount they have to earn so they can afford taxes which is also at work – property taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, federal, state and sometimes city income taxes, etc. Secondly, single parent households in significant measure exist by state largess. Tax laws, tax credits, benefits, etc., in significant measure take into account that many parents are having to raise children alone. In many cases, it is less economically troublesome for couples to not get married so that one of the parents can continue to receive benefits as a single parent.
This debate is going to get fierce as the number of people whose economic planning includes government benefits grows and the number of “forgotten people” shrinks. The “forgotten man” is a phrase used by FDR but it has been used otherwise by some economists to refer to the process by which person A decides that person B should have more of person C’s money. Person C is the forgotten man. When there are enough A’s and enough B’s, person C becomes the slave of the system. This is often what concerned Ayn Rand, whatever one thinks about her positivism.
I am increasingly of the mindset that Christians who live in this country are facing the real choice of how much they are going to risk in struggling to maintain free market capitalism as the cards are increasingly stacked against it. Christians are not free to simply walk away from the argument as if, since their kingdom is not of this word, then whatever happens in this world is not any of their concern. If it matters in any sense that men and women live free, that the church live in peace and quietness, that the moral center does not lose its weight and substantivity, then my hunch is that they are going to be in a battle over economic systems.
If they don’t, Jim Wallis will.