Should we put capitalism and traditional views of marriage back on the table?

That’s the claim that James Davison Hunter made in the question and answer period.  It was obviously a direct reply to my remarks, even though he didn’t say so.   In fact, he said it as though he expected me to disagree.

I don’t.

Of course we should question capitalism and how the structure of traditional marriage.  And while we’re at it, let’s question the reliability of Scripture, the possibility of God’s goodness existing along with horrendous evils in this world, and whether the Heat are going to win 70 games next year.

As far as I’m concerned, we oughta question it all, if only because it’s the only possible way to dignify the ideas and ourselves.  And those ideas that are the closest to the center of our understanding of the world are the ideas that demand the hardest questions.

Which is to say, we ought to think.  And to the extent that we do that, we need to be open to revising our opinions on capitalism, the family, and God in light of what we discover.

Look, social conservatives have found themselves in the difficult position have having almost all the right conclusions (I think), but without decent reasons for those conclusions.  That’s certainly true of “normal” social conservatives.  But I sometimes wonder how much the leadership even thinks about the philosophical and theological issues that undergird their political action.  It’s tempting to get caught up in strategy all the time, a temptation I’m told pro-lifers in Congress succumb tooften.  If that’s accurate–and I don’t much care either way–a dose of solid questioning would do them a world of good.

I’m no skeptic, nor do I think “question everything” is much of a slogan to live by.  But we ought to occasionally pull the assumptions of our personal and political action up from beneath the surfaces of our lives and consider whether they are true, lest we waste our time chasing leprechauns.

I think that’s what we do here at Mere-O.  That’s what we want to do.  And if we fail at that, I trust you’ll let us know.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • When I heard the introductory remarks before Dr. Hunter spoke, I felt there was something disquieting about AEI’s Project on Values & Capitalism, defined as “an initiative aimed at elucidating the congruence between the values of Christian faith and the American system of democratic capitalism.” Yikes! I’d love to hear what Christian cultural historian Eugene McCarrahar, author of the forthcoming book The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination, would say. It wouldn’t be pretty.

    Look at the words in the description of the project and the realities they name. The word value is a successor to “v” words that once prevailed: virtue and vice. Values flatten and relativize the old polarity, swallowing up vice. It’s now all about “your values” and “my values.” So, I’m uncomfortable speaking about “the values of Christian faith,” which already suggests a moral accommodation to our age.

    Next, I’m uncomfortable speaking about congruence with “the American system of democratic capitalism.” The word “congruence” assumes too much, namely a harmony where there might be conflict or a relation where shouldn’t be one. Does this word choice imply an assimilation of the church into a foreign polity (the American system of democratic capitalism) when the church ought to acting as a counter-polity that critiques and challenges it? I view the church as sand in the oyster, rubbing against the system rather than being a part of it. And no, I’m not an Anabaptist. This analogy originates from my understanding of the Reformation doctrine of two kingdoms.

  • Christopher,

    Regarding values, https://mereorthodoxy.com/?p=1489.

    Regarding capitalism, maybe the first movement of Christianity in America needs to be one of affirmation, not negation and critique? I hear James Davison Hunter has an interesting book that touches on this. : )

    • Matt: Ah, it’s nice to know that my criticism of the word choice “values” is in good company with David Wells and Allan Bloom. I laughed when I read this: “Regarding capitalism, maybe the first movement of Christianity in America needs to be one of affirmation, not negation and critique?” Are you kidding me? Christianity in America already affirms capitalism. It has been in bed with capitalism and produced some freaky offspring. What we need, my friend, are prophetic utterances about capitalism. That’s why I welcome the critiques of corporate capitalism and/or consumer culture from the likes of Wendell Berry, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene McCarraher, even if I’m not in full agreement.

      George Marsden: “Today’s political conservatives, shaped as they often are by nineteenth-century liberalism, typically defend capitalism with an optimism about human nature comparable to that of their twenty-first century liberal counterparts. The principal difference is that today’s conservatives focus their optimism on individuals’ abilities to help themselves through personal discipline and hard work, in contrast to political liberals’ focus on collective ability to correct economic and social problems. Those political conservatives who are also religiously conservative, however, are more likely than their secular allies to believe that some sort of religious transformation may be necessary to overcome the defects that keep many individuals from discipline and virtue” (qtd. from “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past, edited by Wilfred McClay).

      From the Mars Hill Audio profile on Eugene McCarraher:
      Historian Eugene McCarraher discusses the role corporations play in American culture and his essay “Me, Myself, and Inc.: ‘Social Selfhood,’ Corporate Humanism, and Religious Longing in American Management Theory 1908-1956,” published in the anthology Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past. McCarraher explains the term “social selfhood,” noting that in the early twentieth century Progressives were optimistic about how corporate labor would shape people’s understanding of their place in society. They thought it would foster interdependence instead of individualism. Those who wrote about corporations in the early days were hopeful that they would come to fill the space religion and art vacated at the moral and cultural center of American life. In many ways, he says, corporations have done just that, donning religious language in their operations, setting the standards for how many contemporary churches look and operate.

      An excerpt from The Other Journal interview with Eugene McCarraher

      TOJ: You have argued that our culture in North America is one that thrives on death, “from poverty, unemployment, and alienation, to abortion, capitol punishment, and war,” and that as Christians our most urgent duty is the affirmation of life. What do we, in the fall of 2007, urgently need to be doing to affirm life? Furthermore, if we are really to affirm life, how do we disinfect ourselves of the pervading libido dominandi, which you describe as “the love of domination, which corrupts everything we are and create”?

      EM: On one level, it’s quite simple: don’t participate in wars; don’t have an abortion; protest the state-sponsored murder of offenders; create an economy that provides useful, remunerative, and cooperative employment. But clearly there’s more involved. First, Christians should practice the fundamentals: the sacraments, prayer, study of Scripture and tradition. As the defining practices of Christian faith, they’re the template for a culture of life, as they afford both participation in the divine life and the growing realization of what a gift life is, not something we have to earn or deserve. So much of libido dominandi is traceable to our acting as though we have to gain God’s approval or to acting as though we or others must be wanted or that we should deserve life—or death. (Fr. Herbert McCabe has some wonderful passages in his sermons on all of this.)

      Some of the other advice I’d offer probably won’t go down as easily. First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about consumerism. Consumerism is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a post-industrial society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

      As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a culture of death. Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we’re logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of choice or freedom. But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I’ll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You’ll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They’ll retort that capitalism doesn’t kill anyone in its normal operations, but first, that’s just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn’t matter, because the exercise of market autonomy has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. (“Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you’re still alive!”) When I say this, a lot of people retort that I’m changing the subject. In one way, yes, I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the autonomous individual, the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols and not just reproductive choice.

  • “I laughed when I read this: “Regarding capitalism, maybe the first movement of Christianity in America needs to be one of affirmation, not negation and critique?” Are you kidding me?”

    Yes, it’s a cheeky line to point out the potential intellectual inconsistency of affirming Hunter’s project while simultaneously making our first claims about capitalism critiques. Additionally, there’s a hint of selectivity at work in terms of the goods that we affirm. Should we affirm only those goods that no one is talking about? If we want to move away from a cultural discourse that is not based on negation, then maybe the critics of capitalism should start of by saying what they like about it. It’s not ALL bad, after all. And if they do that, don’t you think that their critiques would have a little more weight amongst those whom they are critiquing?

    “What we need, my friend, are prophetic utterances about capitalism.”

    If such utterances are “prophetic,” why do they seem to reach only the people that already agree with them? Seems like the surest way to gain an audience (especially among younger evangelicals) is to decry our captivity to capitalism. Good fun, that. My goal is to actually reach people who actually need to hear the critiques–but starting with a posture of hostility and negation toward their way of life (as most critics of capitalism do) might prevent the punches from actually landing the way they need to.

    matt

  • Matt: You invite us to “question capitalism” but then criticize those who do. What’s up with that? Following your proposal (“the critics of capitalism should start of by saying what they like about it”), should defenders of corporate capitalism start by saying what they don’t like about it? Who thinks capitalism is “ALL bad”? That sounds like a straw man.

    You ask: “If such utterances are ‘prophetic,’ why do they seem to reach only the people that already agree with them?” Answer: because many conservatives––political and religious––”follow the example of Odysseus in the presence of the Sirens and stop their ears” (Alan Jacobs). Of the three names I mentioned, Eugene McCarraher doesn’t get much of an audience from conservatives because he’s an avowed Christian socialist. Still, conservatives could learn a thing or two from his critiques. The excerpt I provided from an interview shows that he’s an incisive thinker. I’m glad that a largely conservative publication like Books & Culture features McCarraher in its pages. Anna Littauer Carrington, your fellow panelist at the AEI event, noted that Wendell Berry’s writings have gained traction across political ideologies. And Walter Brueggemann’s voice is unique because he has a following among Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals.

  • “You invite us to “question capitalism” but then criticism those who do. What’s up with that? Using your standard, should conservatives––political and religious––who defend corporate capitalism start by saying what’s wrong about it? Who thinks capitalism is “ALL bad”? That sounds like a straw man.”

    I didn’t know the way people make their critiques of capitalism were outside the bounds of criticism themselves. You grossly misunderstand my “standard” if you think that conservatives should start by saying what’s wrong with capitalism. The only thing I’ve said is that the first movement should be one of affirmation, not negation. “Find the good and praise it”–including the good of corporate capitalism. (The same would apply to conservative critiques of Christian socialists.)

    “Answer: because many conservatives––political and religious––”follow the example of Odysseus in the presence of the Sirens and stop their ears” (Alan Jacobs).”

    My only hypothesis is that maybe, just maybe, this has as much to do with the manner in which such critiques are offered as it does the individuals who are recipients of them. It’s easy to claim the mantle of “prophet” and then rejoice when no one listens to you. After all, it’s simply further confirmation of your prophetic status. And as I think Doug Wilson pointed out recently, in one sense “prophets” (especially those with, ahem, “skin in the game”) depend for their existence on no one listening to them. What books would we write then?

    I’m not suggesting that conservatives have nothing to learn from critiques. Yay for critiques! Question capitalism! Hoorah! But if your posture starts with critique, don’t be too surprised if the people you want to hear you, don’t.

    Best,

    matt

  • Matt: I never said “the way people make their critiques of capitalism were outside the bounds of criticism themselves.” Have you read the manner of critiques from Wendell Berry, Walter Brueggemann, and Eugene McCarrahar––or are you making this criticism in the abstract? Are the folks I mentioned guilty of negation before affirmation?

    To be fair, don’t you think defenders of corporate capitalism should begin by saying what they don’t like about it if critics of capitalism should begin by saying what they like about it? That would be an exercise in critical thinking, eh?

    A semantic quibble. You said: “If your posture starts with critique, don’t be too surprised if the people you want to hear you, don’t.” Critique, as I understand it, means “a detailed analysis and assessment of something,” whereas you seem to understand it as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” I hope all this questioning isn’t getting under your skin. I’m just accepting your invitation. ;-)

  • Benson,

    I’ve read Berry, and a host of others (Wallis, Sider, numerous academics, etc.). And yes, I do think Berry is guilty of negation before affirmation.

    “To be fair, don’t you think defenders of corporate capitalism should begin by saying what they don’t like about it if critics of capitalism should begin by saying what they like about it? That would be an exercise in critical thinking, eh?”

    Maybe. It’s worth considering. But it’s based on a different principle than I was arguing for.

    Best,

    matt

    • Matt: One final comment. Have you noticed there’s a gulf between Christian academics who critique corporate capitalism and consumer culture and the garden variety Christian who either thinks (A) “there ain’t a problem” or (B) “it ain’t a big deal.” How do we bridge the divide? How do we get Christians to recognize that corporate capitalism contributes to the culture of death (as McCarrahar says in the interview excerpt)? that corporations “fill the space religion and art vacated at the moral and cultural center of American life”? that corporations set “the standards for how many contemporary churches look and operate”? that “material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine”? Prophetic speech, as I conceive of it, means awareness of the problem (e.g., sin, covenantal disobedience) precedes its solution (e.g., repentance, covenantal obedience).

  • Benson,

    Yes, I know that divide well. Right in the middle of that is where Mere-O is trying to stand (and failing miserably, alas).

    “The prophetic office, as I conceive of it, means negation precedes affirmation, repentance precedes redemption, brokenness precedes blessedness.”

    I don’t know what the latter two couplets mean in a prophetic context, but I’m pretty sure I disagree with the third.

    Best,

    matt

  • Matt: I’ve edited my last statement for clarity: “Prophetic speech, as I conceive of it, means awareness of the problem precedes (e.g., sin, covenantal disobedience) its solution (e.g., repentance, covenantal obedience).”

  • Mark

    Eugene McCarrahar:

    “Consumerism is not the problem—capitalism is”

    “As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a culture of death. Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we’re logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of choice or freedom …”

    I’m with him so far and agree …

    “… But that, then, is to indict capitalism …”

    But this is pure nonsense.

    “… capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence”.

    I think this is nonsense too, but I haven’t read his book and am only judging from select quotes so I may be missing something. But I do have common ground with him as I’ll note below.

    Judging from the Eugene McCarrahar quotes above it seems like he may not distinguish between pre-industrial capitalism and post industrial capitalism. Matt seems to be distinguishing something from something by using the term “corporate capitalism”, but I’m not sure what it is. Laslet’s book “The World We Have Lost” is extremely helpful I think.

    Laslet:

    “Capitalism, then, is an incomplete description and historians’ language is marked by many other incomplete descriptions too … The historical distortions which come about from the uncritical use of ‘capitalism’ … have arisen from an obliquity which we an only now begin to correct. With the ‘capitalism changed the world’ way of thinking goes a division of history into the ancient, feudal, and bourgeois eras or stages. But the facts of the contrast which has to be drawn between the world we have lost and the world we now inhabit tends to make all such divisions into subdivisions. The time has now come to divide our European past in a simpler way with industrialization as the point of critical change.”

    As Laslet ably demonstrates, when the “whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size … that has gone forever” in pre-industrial England, it was capitalism that was the system operative in this world gone by. So I think it is entirely wrongheaded to see capitalism as “the problem”.

    But McCarrahar has a great point that consumerism is a symptom rather a cause, and that autonomy is the problem and source of the evil of abortion and end-of-life barbarity that we are awash in. This has been widely written on, for example: http://www.weeklystandard.com/print/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/408ytxle.asp . As I’ve pointed out before, the best Thomistic ethicists have been screaming this for decades. You can’t address the culture death in beginning of life issues and fail to see the connection to end-of-life issues. The anti-abortion camp is winning the fight by most measurable standards, though you’d never know that by the bitter carping of Christians who are excellent critiques but not “in the arena” and accept the words of their enemies. Still, while I’m encouraged greatly that the pro-life cause at the beginning of life is robust and advancing I am distressed that at the end-of-life it hasn’t even begun for Evangelicals. I hate abortion with the fire of a thousand suns and I’ll take any advance that we can make on that front, but I’m most fearful of the status of those towards the end-of-life and how Evangelicals haven’t even reached a consensus on that front, and don’t show much evidence of wanting to reach one. Babies are sweet and cuddly and unproblematic psychologically (if you can get past radical autonomy with the mother), while the elderly and impaired make us uncomfortable for the reasons based in our desire for autonomy as well. But both are made in the image of God.

    The church is fond of preaching how we learn about God from children, but seldom if ever have I heard how we learn about God by caring for others who are not so fun and pleasurable in the immediate sense. I’m not sure if that is anything at all what McCarrahar meant by “a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish”, but if so then I would agree with him on this point too.