By Gregory Paul
Editor's Note: This commentary was first published August 12, 2011, by The Washington Post.
A truly strange thing has happened to American Christianity. A set of profound contradictions have developed within modern conservative Christianity, big and telling inconsistencies that have long slipped under the radar of public knowledge, and are only now beginning to be explicitly noted by critics of the religious and economic right.
Here is what is peculiar. Many conservative Christians, mostly Protestant but also a number of Catholics, have come to believe and proudly proclaim that the creator of the universe favors free wheeling, deregulated, union busting, minimal taxes especially for wealthy investors, plutocrat-boosting capitalism as the ideal earthly scheme for his human creations. And many of these Christian capitalists are ardent followers of Ayn Rand, who was one of – and many of whose followers are – the most hard-line anti-Christian atheist/s you can get. Meanwhile many Christians who support the capitalist policies associated with social Darwinistic strenuously denounce Darwin’s evolutionary science because it supposedly leads to, well, social Darwinism!
Meanwhile atheists, secularists and evolutionist are denounced as inventing the egalitarian evils of anti-socially Darwinistic socialism and communism. It’s such a weird stew of incongruities that it sets one’s head spinning. Social researchers like myself ask, how did these internal conflict come about? And why are not liberals and progressives doing the logical thing and taking full advantage of the inconsistencies of right wing libertarianism by loudly exposing the contradictions?
To understand why the pro-capitalist stance of many modern religious conservatives is at odds with Christian doctrine we need to start with the Gospels.
Jesus is no free marketeer. Improving one’s earthly financial circumstances is not nearly as critical as preparing for the end times that will arrive at any minute. He does offer substantial encouragement for the poor, and warns the wealthy that they are in grave danger of blowing their prospects of reaching paradise, as per the metaphor of a rich person entering heaven being as difficult as a camel passing through the eye of the needle (a narrow passageway designed to hinder intruders). This caution makes sense: sociological research is confirming that the more securely prosperous individuals and societies are, the more likely they are to lose the faith. A basic point of core Christian doctrine is that the wealthy have no more access to heaven than anyone else (and in fact may have less), offering hope to the impoverished rejected by cults that court the elites. This remains true in Catholicism, in which being poor does not constitute evidence of a personal deficiency, and church authorities decry the excesses of unrestrained capital at the expense of social justice.
But to understand just how non-capitalistic Christianity is supposed to be we turn to the first chapter after the gospels, Acts, which describes the events of the early church. Chapters 2 and 4 state that all “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. . . . No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. . . . There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx – who likely got the general idea from the gospels.
The pro-capitalist Christians who are aware of these passages wave them away even though it is the only explicit description of Christian economics in the Bible.
To get just how central collectivism is to Christian canon, consider that the Bible contains the first description of socialism in history. Anti-socialist Christians also claim that the Biblical version was voluntary. Aside from it being obvious that the biblical version of God was not the anti-socialist Christian capitalists commonly proclaim he was, some dark passages in Acts indicate how deeply pro-socialist the New Testament deity is. Chapter 5 details how when a church member fails to turn over all his property to the church “he fell down and died,” when his wife later did the same “she fell down . . . and died. . . . Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
Dear readers, does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death? Not only is socialism a Christian invention, so is its extreme communistic variant. The claim by many Christians that Christ hates socialism is untrue, while no explicit description of capitalism is found in the Bible – not surprising because it had not yet evolved.
So how did so much of Christianity come to reject socialism? That is not hard to figure out. In the early Protestant Netherlands, Switzerland and England capital became the dominant economic driver. Of course members of a religion want to think that God approves of what they are up to. So many (but not all) Protestants began to cherry pick those Biblical passages that could be massaged to seemingly support laissez-faire markets while pretty much ignoring those that clearly don’t. This works because, as surveys show, most Christians don’t actually read the bulk of the Bible, and people are mentally skilled at dismissing the awkward passages they do come across. Christians really took the theory that God is pro-capital to its extreme in what has be come the least socialistic and most Jesus-following of the advanced democracies, the USA, where many see the nation as an exceptional, God blessed “Shining City on the Hill” they think stands as the exemplar of Godly capitalism to the world.
In Puritan doctrine only the few destined for heaven can enjoy earthly wealth – that’s why there aren’t many rich folks – and poverty is the widespread sign of being destined for hell. But Puritanism was too dour for most Americans, so the notion that God wants his many followers to become as well-heeled as possible really took off with the emergence of the celebratory, self help oriented evangelical and Pentecostal Prosperity Christianity that the likes of Amy McPherson began to promote at the same time the modern corporate-consumer culture arose after the First World War.
The intellectual foundations for the alliance between capital and God were laid after the Second World War by Catholic William Buckley, who, like some others contrived to maneuver around their churches’ skepticism about mercantile interests, worked to convert frugal church goers into materialistic consumers who spend their Sundays watching spectator sports and charging up interest loaded debt at the mall.
Back in the 1800s the non-theist Herbert Spencer adapted the evolutionary science developed by Darwin into what has become known as social Darwinism – even though the biologist had little interest in socioeconomic issues, as well as a live and let live attitude about religion. It was Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest” that Darwin worked into later editions of his biology texts. Many Christians – logically concerned at the threat that a naturalistic explanation of human origins posed for popular belief in a supernatural creator – reacted by blaming harsh Darwinian biology for creating the similarly harsh “Darwinian” socioeconomics that they saw as responsible for the ills of the modern world.
At the same time socialists and communists were adapting those aspects of evolutionary science that they liked (a god-free origin of our world) while rejecting those they did not (the anti-egalitarianism integral to survival of the fittest free markets caused Marx and Engels to denounce evolution as a “bitter satire” on man and nature, and Stalin would ban pre-deterministic genetics for contradicting the blank slate theory of communism). While the communists drove the reasonable concept of social equality into the ground, Ayn Rand did the same with individual liberty. Because she hated the teeniest expression of socialism, and because the concept was in the archaic Bible long before some non-theists decided it was the wave of the future, she promoted an anti-Christian, pro-evolution atheism so extreme that even most atheists including myself reject her claim to have philosophically absolutely disproved the existence of any god. But many influential conservative Christians have embraced her expressly atheistic theory of Objectivism that in her books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, they propose that government must be shrunk to a bare minimum so socially Darwinist that it dances with anarchy. Only then can entrepreneurial greed have the free run that liberty demands. Hence Rand’s more nobly titled Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are required reading for the staff of Paul Ryan.
Reagan’s economic advisor, Milton Friedman, was an anti-religious Objectivist Rand devotee. So is Alan Greenspan. Skeptics Penn and Teller and Michael Shermer are atheistic libertarians. In the Randian hyper-materialistic world those who are on the financial make are the exalted makers, the impoverished that accept tax payer assistance are parasitic takers who need to fend for themselves. A radical modernist ideology in greater antithesis to the traditional scriptural favoring of the poor over the rich can hardly be imagined. Yet the economics of the plutocratic Republican Party that embraces the Christian, anti-Darwinist creationist right are essentially those of the uberatheist, anti-creationist, Darwin-adoring Christianity-loathing Ayn Rand. So we have Christian creationists like Jay Richards writing books titled Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. Can a stranger amalgam of opposing opinions be devised?
What I do not get from a sociological perspective is why – rather than letting the right avoid being called out for decade after decade – progressives from pious to atheist (most being liberals) as well as the mainstream news media have not been exposing the fascinating incoherence of the right wing’s anti-Darwinian biology, pro-Darwinian economics? Logically Stewart, Maddow, Olbermann, Maher et al. should on a regular basis challenge Christian libertarians on how Palin, Bachmann, Coulter, Beck, Limbaugh, Gingrich et al. can reject as ungodly evil the hard line socialism that is explicitly enforced by their God in the Bible they profess to read and believe? And how can those libertarians who manage to be devout Christians fawn over Ayn Rand whose entire philosophy is a condemnation of Christian doctrine? Also that O’Reilly and Bennett explain how they can continue to be in opposition to their pope who issued the newest encyclical reaffirming the churches opposition to libertarian economics. And ask if a person opposes evolution because it leads to ungodly societal chaos then how can the same person endorse the economics that most closely replicate biological evolution? It does not make practical sense for progressives to fail to use the deep, hypocritical conflicts that mar the right to try to split the movement at its weakest links. The right cannot reply in kind because progressives are less internally conflicted; although liberals too range from devout to atheist they share a secular sense of social tolerance, concur that the gospels are economically progressive, and agree that organisms have evolved over deep time.
In educational terms mainstream press coverage of the issue would be a public service giving the public the information it needs to decide whether or not current conservatism is fatally disingenuous. In a Washington Post column liberal Catholic E. J. Dionne Jr. got things rolling by pointing out that the Rand whose books so many Christian conservatives treat as scripture was a flaming atheist.
It’s a start.
And why are progressives not regularly putting forward the fast growing body of technical research proving that it is the most secular, liberal democracies that are enjoying the overall best socioeconomic circumstances in history, including lower rates of homicide, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, STD infections, abortion, teen pregnancy, mental illness, illicit drug use, and so on compared to the more libertarian USA, and superior levels of economic security, upward mobility and education?
And finally, if you don’t like socialism and communism stop blaming atheists and other secularists for concocting egalitarian collectivism backed by fear of death. It got its start long ago in the Good Book.
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He wrote this article for washingtonpost.com/onfaith.
Image: "Last Supper" by Bohdan Piasecki (1998).