(Disclaimer: This is not professional or legal advice. If it were, the article would be followed with an invoice. Do not expect to win any social media arguments by hyperlinking my articles. Chances are, we are both wrong).
The nature of Christianity and Capitalism and how/why they are intertwined was posed to me in a Facebook thread. I love history, but I loathe discussing politics online. It generally ends up being a sanctimonious and masturbatory session of tribalism and group-think. But this idea intrigued me. So, I approach the history of Capitalism and Christianity as neutered as possible- through secular eyes and as centrist as possible. NOTE:
With that being said: buckle up. This is going to be boring.
Capitalism usually assumed, budded around the same time as the Enlightenment-the eighteenth century. In fact, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was an important center for Capitalism's first flowerings. Today's historians find Capitalism much earlier than that in rural areas, where monasteries, especially those of the Cistercians, were the source for economic life. Most banks and loans were administered via the Church, and all capital was thus approved through the lenses of Rome.
I'll save you the lecture on the importance of the free market. Much smarter and less attractive historians can do that. Without the growth of Capitalism, technological discoveries would have been mere novelties. They would seldom have been put in the hands of ordinary human beings through a swift and smooth exchange. They would not have been studied and rapidly copied and improved by eager competitors. All this was made possible by freedom for enterprise, markets, and competition. The argument then is this was provided by the Catholic Church. The Church owned nearly a third of all the land of Europe. To give those vast holdings, it established a continent-wide canon law that tied together multiple legal controls of an empire, nation, religious order, chartered cities, merchants, entrepreneurs, traders, etc. It also provided local and regional administrative bureaucracy of jurists, negotiators, and judges, along with an international language, "canon law Latin." This was the playbook that Western Civilization would lean on for centuries.
The notion of banking and loans is birthed around this time as well. During the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem had a problem. They needed to pay for food, passage, and lodging during their journey across Europe, which could take months. They also didn't want to carry large amounts of valuable currency because they'd become a mark for robbers. This became a complication for them to worship appropriately. That's where the Knights Templar stepped in, powerful monks who defended Christian pilgrims. They had a solution to this cash issue. Pilgrims could leave money safely protected with the Knights Templar in England and withdraw it in Jerusalem. No cash needed. Pilgrims could just carry a letter of credit. It was a private bank before there was anything else like it. This was a pretty modern idea.
The high medieval Church provided the conditions for F. A. Hayek's famous "spontaneous order" of the market to emerge. This cannot happen in turbulent or crazy times; to function, Capitalism requires rules that allow for predictable economic activity. Under such regulations, if France needs wool, prosperity can build up to the English sheepherder who first increases his flock, directs his fleecers and combers, and improves his efficiency shipments.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by German economist Max Weber. Begun as a series of essays, the original German text was composed in 1904 and 1905. It was translated into English for the first time in 1930. It is considered a founding text in economic sociology and a milestone contribution to sociological thought in general. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced Capitalism's development. Religious devotion, Weber contends, is usually accompanied by a rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions. Weber notes that this is not a philosophy of mere greed, but a statement laden with moral language.
To emphasize the work ethic in Protestantism relative to Catholics, he notes a common problem that industrialists face when employing precapitalistic laborers: Agricultural entrepreneurs will try to encourage time spent harvesting by offering a higher wage, with the expectation that laborers will see time spent working as more valuable and so engage it longer. However, in precapitalistic societies, this often results in laborers spending less time harvesting. Laborers judge that they can earn the same while spending less time working and having more leisure. He also notes that societies having more Protestants are those that have a more developed capitalist economy. He defines the spirit of Capitalism as the ideas that favor the rational pursuit of economic gain.
Many contemporary critics of Capitalism--particularly those in the Church argue it is so focused on the present world, so willing to tolerate sin, and so unwilling to propose solutions to the problems that sin creates that it simply cannot promote moral growth while serving as the engine for economic growth. It ignores the great ethical questions of how to justly distribute goods, treat persons as something other than competitors, and address the suffering of those who are hurt by its processes. Slavery is the ultimate example of free, uncontrolled markets. It is the bastard of laissez-faire economics in its most tainted form. The Church blessed slave ships and expeditions to rape and destroy indigenous peoples, and one slave ship was even named Jesus. Earlier forms of the Christian Right supported the economic exploitation of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and found justification in the Bible. It is important to remember that liberty and Capitalism are bedfellows and intersect often. Historically peaking though they have not always coincided, and wrongs are so quickly swept under the rug by the Church. We must be wary of all invisible hands, whether they belong to Adam Smith or not.
Is Capitalism transposable with Christianity? The two have been forced together over the centuries and have fused. But I presume it all depends on which Christianity you use as your point of reference. The Christianity of the right-wing is the imperial, status quo Christianity that helps prop up the rich and the powerful. Then there's the other side of the coin -- the Christianity that believes in social justice, liberation theology, and caring for the least of these. This is the Christianity that believes it is easier for the camel to pass through an eye of a needle than it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, and is the Jesus who drove the money-changers, the Wall Street bankers of the day, out of the temple. Members of this school fought for the permanent ending of slavery. They struggled for racial and economic equality in the civil rights movement. As a historian, one cannot dismiss the involvement the Church had in shaping the capitalist society we currently reside in. But we must also not forget that no system is perfect. Both the Church and the economy have been weaponized by actors to bolster their political agendas.
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How Christianity Created Capitalism
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The Incompatibility of Christianity and American Capitalism
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Ryan Lancaster wears many hats. Dive into his website to learn about history, sports, and more!