Why Young Evangelicals should Support Hobby Lobby

The news yesterday that the Supreme Court is going to hear the Hobby Lobby case momentarily brought the question of religious liberty back to the forefront of our national consciousness.

There are a variety of aspects to the case, many of which are worth considering.  But one that I have been thinking about in recent months is the evolution of corporate social responsibility and how, if at all, its widespread adoption might shape people’s intuitions on this particular case.

At first glance, it seems a bit funny to think that corporations can have practices or beliefs that might be justified on religious grounds, like Hobby Lobby’s now infamous objections to contraception and their subsequent refusal to fund insurance plans that would cover it.  The Supreme Court has (notoriously!) decided that corporate personhood entails organizations can spend money in elections like, well, normal persons can.

But it’s not clear why we would object, given that money making corporations have made it very clear that they have ethical positions that are core to their company culture, regardless of the individual beliefs of the people who work there. Look at Amazon, Starbucks, and Google’s support of gay rights, both domestically and around the world:  whatever you make of that particular moral question, it seems that if we are willing to countenance corporations acting as corporations in those particular ways, as we clearly do, then denying that corporations can have similarly embedded religious outlooks and practices seems simply arbitrary.

And, indeed, many companies do act according to their religious principles and not only Christian business, either.  Many Jewish businesses must be closed on the Sabbath and Sharia banks are not simply in the Middle East (or so my fearsome Googling tells me!).

Of course, this is a point about business that young evangelicals have drunk deeply.  The generation that grew up with “worldview training” heard plenty about bridging the “sacred/secular” divide when we were young.  Now that we grow old, that mentality has been buttressed by the Kuyperian-influenced outlook of places like Q, where God’s involvement in “every square inch” of our lives and practices is as close to an orthodoxy as you’ll find.  But it’s also taken tangible form, as many younger evangelicals have started businesses that are aimed at “doing well by doing good,” integrating the pursuit of profits with the pursuit of justice for the disadvantaged.  The religious outlook of the founders is often buried; we like being more coy about how we integrate our Christianity into things, after all, so Bible verses on fry boats ain’t quite our style.  But the fundamental principle is the same:  Hobby Lobby is a more mature, more explicit model for what many young evangelicals have sought to build.

Of course, this is a case where the religious practices of the business are conflicting with the government’s directives about the sort of health care its employees are obligated to expect.  We’ve been through the arguments surrounding it before, so I’m not keen on repeating all of that.  I’ll simply point to this excellent paper that lays out the legal case for Hobby Lobby’s defense and open the floor, er, comments for anyone who reads it and disagrees to make the case.

But this case will be a real conflict for young evangelicals, for whom the distribution of birth control sometimes seems like a shibboleth that borders on a right.  For many of them, I suspect the wariness toward Hobby Lobby and the conservative case on this question has more to do with commitments to contraception personally and as a social good than any understanding of religious liberty or corporate religious beliefs.



Why ‘The Family’ Matters in Economics

Nick Schulz is frustrated. He’s frustrated that economists talk about the role of institutions in the American economy, yet ignore the most fundamental one of them all: the family. With a career built on writing about the roots of economic growth, Schulz has realized that you can’t understand today’s economy—from the need for human capital to rising inequality— without considering the platoons of moms, dads, and children that form the backbone of American society. And the situation is not pretty. The American family is in a state of crisis, which in turn is having a profound impact on the economy.

Yet too many experts remain silent for fear of becoming collateral damage in America’s culture wars. Nick Schulz wrote Home Economics bookHome Economics for these silent ones who have ignored the family’s role in the economy. He concludes as former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett did, finding that the “family is the original and best Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.”

Looking across 50 years of history, Schulz provides an introductory analysis of the forces buffeting the American family, but he doesn’t dwell on the root causes. They are far too complex, ranging from changes in technology, culture, habits, morality, religion, and economic forces, among others. The point is that America’s customs concerning the family and, more specifically, marriage, have shifted dramatically. Out-of-wedlock births are increasingly common, as are parents who never marry. For those who do walk down the aisle, they face long odds of remaining together “‘til death do us part.”

For those tempted to say, “So what?”, rising income inequality, wealth disparities, and disproportionate health outcomes are all impossible to understand without taking a hard look at families. As Jason DeParle wrote last year in The New York Times that “changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40% of the growth in certain measures of inequality.” David Leonhardt, also of the Times, noted a recent finding that “family structure was one of the four factors with a clear relationship to upward mobility.” As Schulz himself found, only 5% of married families were poor at any point this year, while 30% of single-parent households felt the blow of poverty. These data points paint a bleak portrait; those being raised without a mother and a father will face immense social and economic barriers. Continue reading

Social Justice Reconsidered: Report from the Philadelphia Society

I recently sat in on the Philadelphia Society’s annual meeting, an extended examination of the term “social justice.” In some ways, I like the term, given the way it is often used to remind us that every aspect of life is morally significant. At the same time, social justice sometimes serves as a substitute for careful thought, especially about economics. This short essay is my full evaluation and recommendation for the path forward. Do I get it right?

While the phrase “social justice” has been used since the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli coined the term in 1840, Friedrich Hayek never could found a good definition, due to two persistent problems. First, strictly speaking, the concept is incoherent. As Russell Kirk argued in his lecture “The Meaning of Justice,” Aristotle’s definition of justice as the virtue of an individual in “giving every man his due” has shaped Western civilization for millennia. It makes no sense, however, to describe impersonal states of affairs as just or unjust. The second problem is that those who use the term nowadays intentionally leave it undefined. According to Michael Novak, vagueness about what social justice actually is serves the interests of the state, ever-eager to consolidate power by using any god term available. For this reason, conservative critics are much quicker to delineate the idea, e.g., Joseph Johnson in his book The Limits of Government: “social justice is the reduction of social and economic inequality by force of the state.”

At the 49th National Meeting of the Philadelphia Society, members and guests reexamined social justice, seeking to discern the extent to which it continues to result in coercion and consolidation, as well as the prospects for articulating a contrast narrative. Joshua Hawley put it well on Sunday when he reminded the assembly of the question the Dutch theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper frequently asked: “What is the soundness of the social order in which we live?” Conservatives have just as much interest in this question as liberals. Novak argues that in his day Hayek himself did not oppose many of the ends of social justice. The term was especially common at the end of the nineteenth century as shorthand for the need to ensure the health of the masses of peasants who uprooted themselves to become urban factory workers. The means, however, often neglected the basic principles that made the English-speaking world great. Novak believes that the best way forward is to redefine social justice as a subspecies of justice itself, dealing with both the skill of cooperating in labor with others and the goal of benefitting a community, not just oneself. As Lee Edwards emphasized on Saturday, the space of civil society between public and private is both enormous and important: “300 billion dollars, 350,000 churches, 1.5 million charitable organizations including 3,800 non-profit hospitals…”

Based on the readings and the presentations, I believe the redefinition of social justice needs to center on three principles.

The freedom of individuals to work and create value must be protected. In his keynote address, Samuel Gregg affirmed the basic goodness of work, grounded in a Judeo-Christian anthropology that understands men and women as stewards of God’s inherently good creation. The free market was birthed in the High Middle Ages as a means of supporting the travel and trade of pilgrims and merchants; it eventually galvanized the development of tremendous wealth and opportunity. Intervention that stifles ingenuity and competition is actually unjust and harms both the common good and the liberty of individuals. As Anne Wortham asked, “Why would anyone consent to the forced redistribution of their property?” Beyond being coercive, centralized planning is also inefficient, an idea addressed by the second principle.

The solution to problems must be local and self-interested. To illustrate this idea, Brian Lee Crowley recounted the accidental discovery of glass-making by Phoenician sailors, who while moored on a sandy beach propped their cooking pots on lumps of nitrum. As the nitrum melted and mixed with sand, a translucent liquid was formed, and the sailors perceived how to make an invaluable new material. Crowley emphasized that glass and many other innovations (electricity, railroads, corporations, automobiles) disrupt the status quo profoundly; any centralized authority would never be able to predict or control such innovations. For this reason, genuine competition and free enterprise are essential for the pursuit of knowledge. In the same session, Roberta Herzberg described how rare it was for aid programs to ask low-income communities what they actually needed, and “solutions” were usually foreign and disempowering. For these reasons, i.e., the limits of both human knowledge and human virtue, matters ought be handled by those closest to them. Catholic social teachers call this notion “subsidiarity,” and it applies to both the state and culture. The breakout panel Helping People Help Themselves provided vivid examples of both the benefits of subsidiarity and the dangers of ignoring it. Jennifer Marshall explained how for 60 years the federal assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children encouraged women to not find jobs and avoid marrying anyone with a job, despite the fact that marriage is a better social safety net than any bureaucracy. Contrast this with B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., the entrepreneur and philanthropist whose charity work focuses on the restoration of the whole person: legally, socially, and vocationally, something possible only through close relationships and accountability. This brings us to the third principle.

Faith and virtue must be preserved within civic society. The glorification of secularism and what John Richard Neuhaus calls the “naked public square” has not helped individuals, families, or the culture. Agreeing with Novak, Samuel Gregg argued that any appropriation of social justice under the larger cardinal virtue of justice must be supported and informed by natural law and divine revelation. Such appropriation would also necessarily resist the consolidation of power by the “value neutral” government, which fails to account for the dignity and moral dimension of persons in its social welfare programs, its education curricula, and its orientation toward charities and non-profit organizations. In conclusion, for social justice to be truly just, it must recognize the liberty of everyone to create, the priority of localized self-interest, and the value of virtue and faith.

Stability and “Creative Destruction” in the Home and Economy

Ross Douthat, from a column that is in the running for the best of the year:

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.

This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.

Paul Krugman comments:

Every time you read someone extolling the dynamism of the modern economy, the virtues of risk-taking, declaring that everyone has to expect to have multiple jobs in his or her life and that you can never stop learning, etc,, etc., bear in mind that this is a portrait of an economy with no stability, no guarantees that hard work will provide a consistent living, and a constant possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And nothing people can do in their personal lives or behavior can change this. Your church and your traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of your 401(k), or make insurance affordable on the individual market.

So here’s the question: isn’t this exactly the kind of economy that should have a strong welfare state? Isn’t it much better to have guaranteed health care and a basic pension from Social Security rather than simply hanker for the corporate safety net that no longer exists? Might one not even argue that a bit of basic economic security would make our dynamic economy work better, by reducing the fear factor?

Sometimes people don’t see how a strong socially conservative position fits together with an emphasis on the so-called “creative destruction” of late-modern capitalism.  Indeed, I bet most social conservatives don’t actually see it themselves.  Prior to the rise of the Tea Party and the explosion of concern about debt, compassionate conservatism was a viable option.  And a few more losing elections may make it come back into style.

But in this bit between Ross and Krugman, there is a hint as to why the two fit together on such a deep level.  A country facing economic insecurity, or even territorial insecurity, will be more equipped to handle them if things are alright at home.  As long as every sphere of our lives is shaped by the felt threat of failure, then I suspect we will gravitate toward buttressing whatever social institution can signal the most strength and stability.  In this case, an expanding federal government that can print money and has nuclear warheads.  Yes, it will reduce “the fear factor,” as Krugman points out.  But at what (literal) cost, and for how long?

Allow me to frame this all as an inquiry, because I honestly don’t know the answer.  But it seems to me like taking entrepreneurial and business risks is a lot easier if we are operating in a context of relational stability.  George Will here suggests that immigration is an “entrepreneurial act,” and that’s an interesting way of thinking about it.  But I wonder how much entrepreneurial creativity is in fact motivated and grounded in a strong sense of familial ties and in a personal rootedness in a community?

Which is to say, Krugman is right that the church and traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of our 401(k).  But they may orient us toward more permanent and enduring goods and give us the confidence to risk those 401(k)s because we know that if things go wrong we’ll somehow be alright.  To reverse Krugman’s final question, might not one argue that a bit of basic relational security would make the people in our economy work better, simply by providing more emotional and intellectual reserves to be directed into their creative activity outside the home?

Therein lies a question.  It’s a germ of a thought, and doubtlessly could be pressed on and knocked down from a hundred different directions.  But if we’re trying to understand how economic and social conservatism might end up fitting together, it might provide a halfway decent start.

Man, Models and the Markets: Why Theology Has Something to Say About Economics

Ben Bernanke has gone soft.  The chairman of the Federal Reserve said this summer that economics should “understand and promote the enhancement of well-being.” His fellow economists have long worked with an ideal version of rationality to explain the “what” of how our economies function, he argued, while ignoring the irrational foibles of real people trying to grasp the “why” of the world.

I would argue that this is precisely the space in which theology should be speaking into economics. Yet for the most part, it doesn’t seem to be.

In recent years, economists have turned to psychology to better understand the realities of human behavior. While it’s been easy for economists to craft models based on their ideals of rationality, their understanding of humanity has been incomplete. As a result, behavioral economics has begun to influence economic assumptions about the rationality of man and markets in profound ways.

English: President Barack Obama confers with F...

English: President Barack Obama confers with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke following their meeting at the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Economics traditionally places humanity at the center of its study. Homo economicus roams freely in this area of study in all of his rational, self-centered glory. Birthed by John Stuart Mill, raised in its infancy by David Ricardo, and seen off to college by later economists like Gary Becker, homo economicus formed, in Becker’s words, the “heart of the economic approach to human behavior.”

The rational actor model of human behavior is a rough caricature, but it’s been incredibly useful as a basic assumption. It presupposes that at the micro level, human behavior can be subjected to rigorous examination with consistent outcomes. The broader market can be organized along certain set rules. The results can be tested, modeled, and invested with.

Most of the time, we look and sound pretty rational (or at least I like to think so). Our markets seem to function as they should and efficiently absorb much of the available information. Yet when rationality fails us, it can do so quite spectacularly. Financial crises lurk where logic has long since departed.   Continue reading

The Places Markets Shouldn’t Go

Michael Sandel on the moral limits of markets:

These examples illustrate a broader point: some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question—health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.

This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?


Poverty, the Limits of Materialism, and George MacDonald

Christianity Today recently put together a peculiarly insufficient list of ways to help the poor that was ably and summarily criticized by Peter Greer, whose work with Hope International stands somewhere in the nexus of awesome and jaw-dropping.

But they also in the same issue ran a particularly good piece by my friend Mark Galli, in which he rightly points to the role governments play in making macro-economic decisions.  While he didn’t quite specify closely enough that their role should be to free up enterprise to create jobs, the alteration wouldn’t be foreign to the piece, even if an improvement.

But what really caught my eye was this bit:

Thus the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal. I believe we instinctively understand this. This is why among the many antipoverty interventions offered, we evangelicals are so fond of child sponsorship, for example. It is not only a proven strategy for making a difference—it works—but more importantly, it is very relational and very personal.

Mark’s point here is perceptive, and unwittingly echoes a line from George MacDonald that has haunted me since I came across it:  ”We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The line is, frankly, worth repeating.  Read it slowly, and then again:  ”We are infested with a philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship.”

The alternative to that is aptly summarized by MacDonald’s protagonist who utters the remark, Robert Falconer:

“But it is right to do many things for [the poor] when you know them, which it would not be right to do for them until you know them.  I am amongst them; they know me; their children know me; and something is always occurring that makes this or that one come to me.  Once I have a footing, I seldom lose it.  So you see, in this my labour I am content do the thing that lies next to me.  I wait events.”

Or as he says it elsewhere, “No desire for the betterment of the masses, as they are stupidly called, can make up for a lack of faith in the individual”–a faith, presumably, in Falconer’s world that is not gained through the abstracting notions of humanity, but rather the intimate acquaintance with particular people.  ”We must do,” after all, “before we can know.”  That was Falconer too.

That to say, there is a humanity contained in the personal relations that the exchanging of gifts or monies can only approximate, but never truly capture.  Beyond jobs, and on their way to them, many folks in poverty need a helping hand that isn’t strictly metaphorical:  someone to watch the kids or help out with the chores.  As Mark points out, the types of giving that Christians are often drawn to attempt to integrate this dimension into our charitable efforts.  And so much the better.

But even still, a degraded and reductionistic materialism is ever at the door, seeking to erode our sense of the humanity of those involved by the abstract nouns of “social justice” and “end of poverty.”   And, for that matter, “job creation.”  The patterns of speech have a way of distancing ourselves from the situation, or more accurately, from the people who are in it.

Our charitable efforts must be person-first, if they are to be properly “ours” at all.  The only other alternative is to perpetuate the very materialism that often sits near the headwaters of the problem itself.


The (A)Morality of Material Resources

Following up on yesterday’s musings about the proper distribution of material resources, I thought I’d walk through a bit more O’Donovan for us all.

A lengthy section, no doubt, but one worth sitting through.  And besides, if there’s one rule I have in life, it’s that one can never get enough Oliver O.  With a few additional paragraph breaks and bold sentences, to make it easy on the eyes, then:

The critique of poverty (and of wealth with it) is not founded on a demand that material resources should be equally distributed.

There is no moral significance in distributing goods equally as such.  At graduation ceremonies one may present every child with a Bible, or an economics textbook, just as one may present a political leaflet to every passerby in the street; but in the absence of anything sensible the recipient can do with their new possessions, this scrupulous impartiality will not amount to a serious act of justice.

To ask about the justice of possessions is to ask about their human significance, i.e. how they empower the possessor to act, how they work as a resource for the exercise of human freedom.  And only in certain well-defined contexts can equal distribution confer something like an equal increment of freedom.

The children at the mealtable may demand fair shares, but that is because they have roughly equal appetites; it would make no sense to insist on piling Granny’s plate as high as that of the ravenous nine-year-old.  For the most part, freedoms won from a given material resource will vary as widely as our different histories and projects vary.  Equality of treatment never guarantees equality of outcome.  ”Outcome,” indeed, is a chimerical notion.  Economics can draw lines under its predictions only when it functions in an abstract mathematical mode.  Reinsert the predictions into history, and they are no more than trends.  New communications will always ensue to produce new inequalities.

Measures of equal distribution, then, can achieve only momentary states of equality, and are not a universal response to poverty.  They may or may not be a sensible strategy for dealing with it in any given circumstance.  Yet there is a categorical case for undertaking them on the threshold where social participation itself is threatened or denied.

Let us imagine a society confronting a serious problem of refugees, who have lost their homes and their possessions in a disaster or a war, and are sitting in large numbers in camps.  The first call they make, of course, given the predictable threats from starvation and disease, will be for a program of food, shelter, and medicine.  That is their claim to equal treatment on the threshold of death.

But when that provision is in place, something will have to be done about their resettlement and the provision of basic equipment for them to earn a living.  This, too, is simply the claim of equal humanity for equal treatment.  As we must respond to them on the threshold of death, so we must respond to them on the threshold of social exclusion.

Both responses are concerned with a minimal provision equally necessary to all human beings.  There may then be very good reasons to do more than the minimum:  to provide their children with educational opportunities, to assist them to learn new skills that might avert future such disasters, and so on.  But these further measures will not apply universally to every person by virtue of his or her bare humanity; so the argumentfor them will be made in terms of relative attributive claims, where one claim competes with another.

The criteria of human equality establishes the minimum demand, the demand on the threshold, which takes priority over all other possibilities of attributive justice.


A few thoughts on Wealth Inequality

What sort of problem is wealth inequality, if it is a problem at all?

That’s the question that’s been ably posed to me by a commenter, who wrote the following:

  • wealth distribution is more unequal in the US now than at any time in its history, including pre-Great Depression. executives now are paid 100s of times more than their employees, whereas just a few decades ago it was a tiny fraction of that. 40% of the US’s wealth is in the hands of 1%. The top 400 earners make as much as the bottom 1/3 of the country… yadayadayada
  • wealth inequality is bad for democracy: as disparity grows, the concerns of the two ends become disparate as isolated.
  • wealth inequality is bad socially: as it grows, people live much much different lives. The wealthy live in tiny isolated hovels of gated communities, private schools and private subcultures
  • wealth inequality is bad economics: as disparity grows, it hurts our GDP because there are less people able to buy products at affordable rates. Our economy is best with a strong middle class, but wealth disparity hollows out the middle class.
  • wealth inequality is bad THEOLOGY: 1/5 of the Bible’s verses deal with money, and a good portion of it talks about the negative effects of the disparity of the wealthy and the poor. Shalom entails some sort of shared community life.

For all those reasons and more, I don’t think you’re dealing squarely with the issue when you say “I don’t have a problem with wealth inequality.” Neither do I; I think you can make a sound theological argument for certain people earning more than someone else.

What I have a problem with is when the two ends of the spectrum become so disparate that you need bodyguards and gated communities because the two sides are so unequal. It’s a problem of degree, then; not fact. There is a BIG gap between socialism and where we are today, and I’m asking you to address that.

He prefaced the comment by tweaking me for having written a book on the “spirituality of the material” and giving unsatisfactory answers on the subject of just material distribution.  Fair enough, I suppose, though it does lead into my first thesis.

  • While material goods and their proper distribution is wrapped up with our physicality as humans, we can speak of the latter without speaking of the former because human bodies are unique in their physicality (to put it badly).  To put it differently, I exist in a different relationship with my body than I do my physical goods or the world around me.  We should think through this quite a bit more in order to figure out the relationship between property rights and the other rights we bear as humans.
  • Wealth inequality may lead to social fragmentation, but it need not necessarily do so.  I take it that’s partly the argument of Charles Murray’s new book, which if someone wants to buy me I’ll be happy to read and write about.  It’s social cohesion that matters, but that means the argument needs to get framed properly.  The question isn’t wealth inequality per se, but rather the forms of life that those with wealth choose to embrace.
  • That, of course, covers the Biblical point as well.  Shared community life is important, and we ought reflect about what charity actually means when disconnected from the context of genuine human relationships.  As Peter Leithart pointed out in an illuminating piece, within the structure of the Torah justice is attached to festivity.

But let’s return to the point about the just distribution of resources.  In an important sense, if we evaluate the question in strictly material terms–the way the question is originally posed, and the way most objectors to wealth inequality pose it–we will miss the actual injustice at work in a society.

As Oliver O’Donovan puts it, poverty is marked by “an insufficient command of material resources to take a part in the communications of society, so that one’s social role is impeded or denied altogether.”  The marginalization of those without means is certainly a problem:  but “wealth inequality” as a critique begs  the question between whom?, and more often than not we’ve already smuggled the social problem into the terms of the question itself.

As such, we do well to be concerned about the growing social divisions.  But that is a separate critique, and a more poignant one, than the critique of wealth disparity per se.  To stop there is to stay within the terms of the materialism at the heart of our society, and not to offer a meaningful and viable alternative.

Utopia and Capitalist Christianity

Dr. Craig Carter was gracious enough to respond to my write-up of the Wallis-Brooks non-throwdown.  Excerpts and brief replies follow.

What does it mean for society to be “consumerist” or “materialist”? What do these terms even mean? They do have a certain meaning when used within a Marxist analysis of the evils of capitalist society, but is that the same as their meaning within a Christian analysis of sin and sanctification? I suspect not. Many people use a Marxist approach to link economic growth, free enterprise, materialism and consumerism together as part of one great evil called capitalism. This seems to me to confuse matters greatly because the last two items on that list are sinful distortions of the first two items, which themselves are necessary to human flourishing.

I grant that I deployed the terms with a certain sort of looseness in hopes that everyone could get on with a casual recognition of them.   And it seemed that it works, as Dr. Carter (after raising the question) helpfully acknowledges that they are “sinful distortions of [economic growth and free enterprise].”  That is really all I meant to say, namely that the real vices of contemporary society can be decoupled from the economic structures that they currently exist in.  I’d co-opt Chesterton’s pithy line about Christianity being tried and found wanting, but I have overextended it already.

But Dr. Carter worries I’ve gone off the rails in this bit:  “But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life.”

Dr. Carter suggests I’ve gone in for the Utopian fallacy, or the affirmation of a reality that is intrinsically impossible in our world.  He goes on to say:

Capitalism is an economic system designed for a fallen world in which Christianity has great influence and part of that influence in the cultivation of a healthy skepticism about the degree to which fallen human nature can be overcome in this age between the first and second comings of Christ. Capitalism can be viewed as a set of institutional arrangements designed to civilize greed in much the same way as marriage is designed to civilize lust. A system that understands that (1) humans are selfish and (2) humans are social and need each other to flourish and then comes up with a plan to make #1 contribute to #2 is ingenious. Admittedly, this is not a very Utopian view of the world; but that is not a bug, as they say, but a feature.

Dr. Carter grants that both capitalism and socialism are sub-Christian, but contends that socialism is more sub-Christian than capitalism.  I have no interest in the question. Instead, I am intrigued by attempting to formulate the outlines of an economic theory that isn’t grounded in the response to the fall, but rather the renewed structure of creation in Christ.

To that end, where Dr. Carter sees similarities between capitalism and marriage, I am interested in the dissimilarities. Marriage clearly reaches back behind the fall to the original creation (which I know for a fact Dr. Carter agrees with).  But economic arrangements do as well, which suggests that if something like capitalism is true, we should tie it to the order of creation rather than understanding it as the best alternative in a world marked by the libido dominandi. Rooting our economic theory as a response to the fallen world is to establish an economics of negation, rather than an economics that is itself tied to human flourishing.  And that strikes me as problematic.

To put the question more starkly, Dr. Carter grants that Christianity can make capitalism work.  But can capitalism make Christianity work?  My worry is that inasmuch as capitalism takes its anthropological cues from an unnatural order (namely, humans under the domain of sin), it will ultimately undermine and work against the witness of the gospel through the Church.

Lingering in my mind is Jay Budziszewski’s phrase:  if you use dragons to keep wolves under control, you eventually have to reward the dragons.  And then they do what they want.  As I wrote then, “As Augustine points out, by using bad motives we eventually destroy the vestiges of virtue that we attempted to preserve.”

Again, I am not equating capitalism and socialism.  I am more interested in the question of whether capitalism is commensurate with Christianity, and how.  Perhaps there’s a Barthian streak to my critique, but I want to maintain a healthy wariness of any system that ultimately comes in competition with an ethic that is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.   My sense–and I posit this all quite tentatively–is that our economics needs to be eschatalogically oriented without immanentizing the eschaton.  That probably opens me up to the Utopian critique, but it is a charge I might be willing to accept.  Jerusalem may be the pattern, but I make no claims about who constructs it or how it is built.