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.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Posted by Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a degree in Classics, he earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He now works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors. He has a homepage at boroist.com.

  • Physiocrat

    I like the idea of working out from first-principles since you actually create a coherent framework; I also echo the Home Economics part. However my main issue is that Clark does not define what the market actually is. In its broadest meaning the market is just voluntary exchange and cooperation. In fact under such a view the Church is a form of market activity. Also liberal economics need not necessarily be non-teleological. It does practice explanatory value subjectivism (that is it explains individual behaviour in terms of their own values) however it does not necessarily imply normative value subjectivism (there are no shared ends for each human). Now it is true many economists believe the latter, however in most cases the important question is, to what extent and how should one person interfere with the life of another.

  • hoosier_bob

    Have you considered that the consensus that we see today on economic issues may well reflect that neoliberalism is correct? What have you proffered here that stands up to the work of Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Douglass North, Richard Posner, Gary Becker et al.? Sorry, I don’t see it. I’ll stick with the view that good and evil are measured in terms of minimizing transactional costs. After all, in a world of limited resources, the gravest sin is inefficiency.

    • Physiocrat

      Looks like we’re the only ones interested in economics here; this is rather depressing. Maybe we need more Trump articles to bring in the comments.

      • hoosier_bob

        Looks like it. As an antitrust attorney, I’m neck deep in economics every day. I certainly see the deficiencies of neoliberalism from an idealist perspective. But idealist theories often don’t fare too well in a fallen world. Thus, the pragmatism of neoliberalism seems fairly robust, despite its absence of a solid grounding in first principles. The entire world economy revolves around it. I see no practical way of replacing it.

        I agree with your comment below too. Neoliberalism is certainly teleological, just not in a subjectivist sense.

  • Dan Grubbs

    Long comment follows:

    Yes, Christians should lead in the discussion of economy. But, not the money economy.

    The great assumption I perceive being made here in Mr. Clark’s posting and in almost every discussion on economics is the assumption that the only economy worth considering is a money economy. This is a terrible and perpetual mistake Christians make. We have been shown, as believers, a model of an economy that is not based on money, but another kind of value. And, there is much value in the economy that both Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry contemplatively refer to as an all-inclusive Kingdom of God.

    Berry wrote: “For the thing that troubles us about the industrial economy is exactly that it is not comprehensive enough, that, moreover, it tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and that it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend. In attempting to criticize such an economy, we naturally pose against it an economy that does not leave anything out, and we can say without presuming too much that the first principle of the Kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not.”

    Based on this idea, I claim that a money economy is far too limiting and does everything it can to keep the world within its confines. Proponents of a money economy will immediately dispense with so great an economy as the Kingdom of God claiming it is impractical and dismiss any real dialog about it … to their detriment. The economy that we believers should espouse and exclaim is one designed by the Creator who developed a human habitation in which mankind was to live in wholeness and peace. Focusing on a money economy as the only viable arena for human consideration is like expecting an alien to fully comprehend human beings by only giving it one of our principle internal organs. It is deconstructionist thinking rivaled only by post-modern science.

    Moving from understanding the comprehensiveness of The Kingdom of God as an economy juxtaposed to some subordinate “little” economy, such as the money economy, I must now hint at what differentiates this larger, more inclusive economy. Berry alludes to Matthew 6 which teaches us that the Kingdom of God includes everything. Thus, the economy the Christian must concern themselves with is one that considers everything. If it necessarily includes all things, by definition it includes the physical created place where God placed man. The money economy makes so little a consideration for creation that it is practically not considered at all except where its resources become exploitable, such as soil, fossil water, and fossil fuels.

    I’ll argue from the vantage point where I have some grasp. The money economy has a subset known as modern agriculture. The economy of agriculture is such a significant component of the larger money economy that it tempts nations to exercise control of it. These controls work to narrow the money flow through targeted channels. The controlling forces during the last 30 years have taken little regard for the created world. So much so that it has designed agricultural techniques that intentionally destroy created beings in order to exercise some predictability and control all in the name of increased production per acre while lowering overhead per acre — a kind of classic definition of industrialization. As this industrialization of agriculture grew during the last 30 years and has taken its lofty seat at the policy table, it will work to protect itself against all perceived threats, which includes the raised objections that the system itself is destroying and killing the God-created environment. Why? What’s the motivation? Avarice, an unavoidable reality within a money economy.

    The blind hubris of practicing industrial agriculture even though it destroys another part of the larger economy is by default valuing the outcome of industrial agriculture more than the created place that God Himself spoke into existence and commanded man to steward. This false understanding of value is blasphemy because it desecrates sacred places and is a violation of biblical teaching.

    Consider Berry’s words on this false value: “When humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value. Money value, for instance, can be said to be true only when it justly and stably represents the value of necessary goods, such as clothing, food, and shelter, which originate ultimately in the [Kingdome of God]. Humans can originate money value in the abstract, but only by inflation and usury, which falsify the value of necessary things and damage their natural and human resources. Inflation and usury and the damages that follow can be understood, per haps, as retributions for the presumption that humans can make value.”

    What are we to make of the economic system that appropriately views its subsets as having legitimate reason to exist and flourish while still addresses our needs as human beings that need to eat and protect ourselves? Berry again gives us another model of the functioning of the Kingdom of God. He asks us to consider the interconnectedness of a neighborhood. In that neighborhood, man exists as individuals that live as neighbors that are independently interdependent.

    Berry wrote: “Then, because in the [Kingdom of God] all transactions count and the account is never ‘closed,’ the ideal changes. We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the [Kingdom of God], the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be ‘the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,’ which both defines and requires neighborly love.”

    A money economy cannot place a value on neighborly love. But a Christian living in a community can easily do so, though it is not measured in a quantifiable sense, such as with cash or even trade. However, the community cannot exist without neighborly love. The love is not just an exchange between humans. When one member of a neighborhood expresses some kind of selfless care for another member of the community the neighborhood is strengthened and the neighbor is edified. Neighbors in this neighborhood include soil microbes, fungi, trees, water, air, as well as, the family down the road.

    Want a more pragmatic explanation of the Kingdom of God as an all-inclusive economy? Look no further than Christ’s five discourses of Matthew as the guidebook for the good neighborhood. Christ’s discourses go a tremendous distance in helping us understand the economic exchanges that occur in the Kingdom of God.

    The difference in the world would be indescribable if humans – all creatures – lived as neighbors together. This is the economy of the Kingdom of God as opposed to a limited and self-destructive money economy. This economy known as the Kingdom of God is the one for which Christians should be apologists.

  • As an economics major, I can safely say that the best book on the subject of Christian political economy has been John D Mueller’s Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element (ISI Books, 2014). I highly recommend it.