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Five Theses on Christianity and Political Economy

May 19th, 2016 | 10 min read

By Charlie Clark

For too long, evangelicals have taken the party line on economic issues without bringing any distinct principles of their own to the conversation. I think Brad Littlejohn is right. America’s current political moment is an opportune one for evangelicals, and Christians more broadly, to reengage the discipline of political economy. I would like to make five additional observations about recovering a distinctly Christian interpretation of economic life.

Christianity Should Set the Terms of Our Economic Discourse

It might seem paradoxical, but the emerging divides between a moderate leadership and more ideological base in both of America’s political parties reveal how narrow the Overton window is in which our economic debates take place. A century ago, both social Darwinism and state Socialism could attract interest from the American public. By contrast, today’s liberal democratic consensus is so powerful that proposals even slightly left or right of mainstream (for example, single payer healthcare or a flat income tax) are essentially dead on arrival.

For decades, the menu of policy choices has been generated by this liberal democratic consensus, and debate has been reduced to taking sides on its preselected questions. Christian engagement with economics has too often meant offering clumsy biblical or theological arguments for which side to take. Rarely do Christians generate policy questions or proposals based on their own premises. Instead they accept the terms of the debate as established by secular economic discourse.

Other philosophies have already seized the opportunity of our current political turmoil to reject the discursive limits placed on political economy. For the first time in a century, America has serious Jacobins and Jacobites openly advocating for political and economic positions well outside the liberal democratic consensus. They have their own vision of justice, freedom, and prosperity, and they are pursuing an agenda arising directly out of that vision.

Christianity ought to do the same. Our doctrine forms in us an image of the good life that is distinct from that offered either by the American mainstream or any other tradition. That image of the good life has economic implications, and we should be translating those implications into our own proposals—not just using doctrine to proof text a prefabricated platform. This approach would be literally “radical,” insisting on a political economy that is Christian “at its roots,” not a secular political economy pruned into a cross-shaped topiary.

What Man Has Made, Man Can Unmake

Any radical approach to political economy is suspected of being impractical. But as Chesterton observed in What’s Wrong with the World, an unswerving idealism is the only possible basis for any real compromise: “No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get.… We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want.” In other words, a satisfactory compromise always depends on the clear definition of the two competing interests. It is, therefore, quite practical for Christians to adopt a radical approach to theory, even if our ideal will always be subject to compromise in practice.

Moreover, concerns about practicality too often stem from an unduly limited imagination about the possibilities of change. History is long, and the upheavals it can effect are scarcely imaginable by those living inside it. In a world that has seen the Roman Empire rise and fall, nothing is “too big to fail.”

Our economic system is something we made up. We keep it in existence. We established the customs and wrote the laws. We produce, distribute, consume, and invest. And if we so choose, we can unmake or remake it as we see fit. Many changes would be politically difficult. None are logically impossible.

Man Was Not Made for the Market

Insofar as we develop a Christian theory of political economy, it will be especially distinct for the areas it marks “Off Limits” to markets and for those goods it marks “Not for Sale.” This is somewhat widely recognized in Christian resistance to the commodification of sex through prostitution or pornography. Christian tradition, however, includes many more exclusions from the market economy, and we would do well to revisit artifacts like the prohibition of usury or mandatory holidays that forbade the selling of things that either could not properly be said to exist or did not properly belong to the seller.

At any rate, even if we do not actually attempt to shrink or rollback the market, we should still be earnest in policing its borders. The market cannot be allowed to claim more time or allegiance than is just. As we see whole classes of people being consumed by consumer debt or careerism, we ought to take what steps we can to curb the power of the market to order human lives.  

Of the Economy, the Measure Is Man

The third point point leads to an observation about economic priorities generally. If there is one intervention in economic discourse that Christianity is distinctly well-positioned to make, it is the recovery of an objective standard to govern political economy. Liberal economics is fundamentally nonteleological and thus powerless to address substantive questions about human needs and wants. Christianity can supply a positive anthropology and establish the good of humanity as the criterion by which economic proposals can be judged.

The human scale gives the economy both direction and limits. Christians believe that certain things about human nature are fixed and ineradicable: an imago dei that cannot be erased, a body that has been ratified by the Incarnation, and so on. The homo economicus is plagued by all manner of atrophies and hypertrophies because status quo economics is agnostic about what people actually are (much less what they are for).  

Concerning the good of humanity, Christianity can offer an alternative to utilitarianism by reviving critical debate about the nature of human happiness and offering a picture of happiness as a robust beatitude that transcends mere pleasure. Such a revitalized definition of happiness could be a potent source of resistance to an overbearing market economy. In Outline of Sanity, Chesterton wrote about happiness, “There is no law of logic or nature or anything else forcing us to prefer anything else. There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier.”

All Economics Is Home Economics

Finally, Christianity needs not only radical economic theorists but radical economic practitioners. Anyone at all sympathetic to “the Benedict Option,” must realize that every community has an economic foundation. It will be impossible to build Christian communities if, six and a half days a week, all their members are on loan to Mammon. We must recognize that all economic activity is productive of culture, and be wary lest our unconscious “getting and spending” contradict and undermine our intentional culture making.

Unfortunately, like attempts at a distinctly Christian economic theory, attempts at a Christian economic practice are also routinely co-opted by the very order they ought to be opposing. Consider that reimagining Christian participation in the economy is so often defined by “conscious consumerism,” where Christians, like all good people, choose to buy organic, fair trade, or local. At the very least, Christians must also consider how their productive activities—who they sell their labor to or where they invest their capital—can grow out of their convictions about the purposes of human life and the role of the market in achieving them.

Radical practice, which calls the jobs we take and the investments we make into question, is still more impractical than radical theory. However, if it seems impossible, we should be concerned about the freedom of the church to live out its confession.

Balances of Justice

As the substance of these five principles reflects, questions of political economy are unavoidably moral. The activities that feed and shelter us, that keep body and soul together, are not matters of value-neutral calculation. Reducing the debate over economic customs and policies to mere quantities has not clarified it; it has sterilized it. As Ruskin wrote in “The Roots of Honour,” “All endeavour to deduce rules of action from balance of expediency is in vain. And it is meant to be in vain. For no human actions were ever intended by the Maker of men to be guide by balances of expediency, but by balances of justice.” As Christians we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to turn the conversation back, wherever possible, to fundamental questions of the common good and the ethical principles by which we pursue it.

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