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Perspectives on Religion and Capitalism

By Edmund Opitz

The two major terms in my title are subject to extravagant misunderstanding and occasional abuse. Some of this is natural, due to limited knowledge; much of it is willful and ideological. It is appropriate, therefore, that I try to elucidate at the very beginning how the term “religion” is to be used in this paper. The meanings I attach to “capitalism” will be clarified as we proceed.

It is my understanding that religion, at bottom, is not one sector of human experience separate from other portions of human experience; it is more like a common core. A college or university, for academic purposes, may have a department of religion alongside departments of chemistry, history, mathematics, or whatever, and this fact may mislead. In actual living, and in its deepest sense, your religion is not one subject among other subjects; your religion is the fundamental way you approach, understand, and evaluate all subjects. It consists of your first principles, the truths you regard as self-evident, the basic axioms you take for granted, and through which you view everything else. Your religion colors your outlook upon the universe, affecting the way you look upon life, your relation to other people, your treatment of things.

Religion is many faceted; it has its history, its doctrines, its exercises, its rituals, its ecclesiastical structures, and so on. But the central core of every religion is its vision of the cosmos, its understanding of the nature of ultimate reality. For the purpose of this paper I shall put aside several important elements of religion and use the term as equivalent to world-view, or Weltanschauung. Everyone entertains some image of the entire scheme of things, a mental picture of what the totality—in the final analysis—is like. Some have pictured the universe as an immense and intricate piece of clockwork, a mechanism; others regard it as a gigantic organism, or as the great ocean of being, or as a feature less Absolute. Everyone operates in terms of some image of the nature-of-things, for to be human is to be a metaphysician. My own world-view is that of Christian theism.

A Creative Intelligence

Those who entertain the religious—or theistic—world-view conduct their lives on the premise that a Creative Intelligence is working out its mighty purposes through nature, in history, and above all, by means of persons. The Divine Intelligence is creative, as witness the continuing emergence of novelty on the world scene; the Divine Creativity is intelligent, because wherever we look we find a deft and ingenious adaptation of means to ends. There is order, beauty, elegance, economy and balance from one end of this universe to the other. Human beings may come to a sense of kinship with this Creative Intelligence by aligning themselves with the movement and configuration of its thrust.

At the same time we may become keenly aware that vast stretches of this universe appear to be indifferent to us. I refer to the natural order, the realm of nature subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and the other sciences. Cause and effect operate inexorably in nature, independent of our fears and wishes. A stone falls to earth in response to the tug of gravity, and we have no choice but to adjust our actions to this and other physical laws. Natural forces affect our actions, and natural disasters cause human injury and sometimes death. The natural world piques our curiosity, and we seek to understand it so as to cope with it more successfully. Nature will never surrender unconditionally to man, but nature’s stubborn otherness provides a necessary condition for the exercise of human freedom.

The nature we confront is a nonhuman Other, and this Other is neutral, so far as we as individuals are concerned; the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. But if this were not so—if the Other were responsive to the conflicting and the constantly changing whims of billions of human beings, submissive to our rituals and incantations—if the Other were not largely neutral and/or indifferent it would be chaotic.

Actually, the Other is an order, a vast and comprehensible order consisting in discoverable patterns and recurrences. The neutral orderliness of nature provides a basis for understanding and explanation; it affords a significant measure of predictability, allowing us to plan our lives and achieve our goals. A neutral order provides the necessary condition for exercise of the freedoms and powers proper to human nature. And as we come into a working relationship with the Other a sense of kinship begins to develop.

Let me illustrate: A man confronts a portion of the Other in the form of a body of water; a pond or a stream. He complains because the water is cold, wet, and indifferent to him; furthermore, the water is an obstruction, impeding him as he wades through it. But this same water, to an expert swimmer, is the necessary vehicle for his freedom as a swimmer. The swimmer does not complain about the water’s friction, even though it does impede his progress through it and slows his speed. For him, the friction of the water is the same thing as its buoyancy, and without the buoyancy swimming would be impossible. The exhilaration our athlete derives from a vigorous swim begets his belief in the friendliness of at least this little segment of the cosmos—which now appears to have been constructed just for his delight. The relation is symbiotic. There is resonance between ourselves and the Other.

The realm of nature out there may sometimes appear arbitrary, indifferent to human values, or even antagonistic. But shirt perspective even slightly and we realize that if nature were not neutral—that is, if nature could be bent to the human will we would not be free beings. If nature were not largely recalcitrant and unyielding, we free beings would have no incentive to cooperate intelligently with it, making use of its forces to advance our purposes—simultaneously strengthening our own powers and refining our skills as we do so.

Human Capacity for Choice

It is obvious that we human beings do not merely react mechanically to external stimuli—we are capable of a creative response to our environment. B. F. Skinner and his behaviorists declare that human beings are capable of little more than a Pavlovian reaction to a stimulus; they speak for themselves. They don’t speak for us, for at the very core of our being we bear the imprint of the Creative Intelligence which is back of all things. We are gifted with free will, and it is this capacity for choice which makes us partakers of the primordial creativity.

Let me offer you some words of the great Russian religious philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev: “God created man in his own image and likeness, i.e., made him a creator too, calling him to free spontaneous activity and not to formal obedience to His power. Free creativeness is the creature’s answer to the great call of its creator. Man’s creative work is the fulfillment of the Creator’s secret will.”

Human nature is threefold; we are implicated in nature, we are part of some society, and we are touched by the sacred. We human beings, with a portion of our being, are directly geared into nature. Drop us from a height and gravity operates on us just as it does on a sack of grain. The chemical processes going on inside our bodies differ little from the way those chemicals interact outside our bodies. We are largely within the same network of causal sequences which characterize nature.

We are natural beings, but that’s not all we are. We are also social beings, involved in history. Occurrences in nature are explained in terms of causes; actions in history and society are explained in terms of choices. Society is our natural habitat. Society is a spontaneous order—as F. A. Hayek has taught us—emerging out of human choices but not resulting from conscious human design.

Social order—comprising both the written and the unwritten law, together with custom, convention, habit and taste—social order may occasionally appear to stand athwart the individual to frustrate his immediate intentions. But everyone knows, on sober second thought, that our very survival as individuals depends on social cooperation under the division of labor; human beings are interdependent. Everyone, therefore, has a personal stake in the fashioning, the strengthening and the refining of the structures of a free society. The free society provides the optimum environment for every productive, peaceful person.

Participants in a Divine Order

There are natural elements in our make-up, and everyone carries a portion of some society in his very being. And there is a third thing. Analyze human nature and you discover elements in it which are not reducible to either nature or society, important as those facets of human nature are. We participate in an order of reality which is beyond nature and beyond society. Call this the sacred order or the divine order, if you wish; or call it God—the unconditioned Creative Intelligence in which all contingent existence, including our own, is grounded.

The word “supernatural” has been battered beyond use, and in any event, it is completely “natural” for the person to bear the marks of sacredness in his own being. This fact has important political implications. In the 18th century, this central sacredness in the person—as he is conceived within the theistic world-view—was politically translated. The sacred in persons found secular expression as the idea of inherent individual rights “endowed by the Creator,” the rights referred to in our Declaration of Independence.

Given the idea of individual rights, in virtue of what a person genuinely is in his true being, it is the task of political philosophy to fashion a legal structure designed to protect every person’s private domain, secure the rights of all persons equally, and maximize everyone’s opportunity to choose and pursue his personal goals. A uniquely religious political philosophy oriented toward these ends was called Whiggism in the 18th century, and Liberalism during much of the 19th. Whiggism and Liberalism endeavored to protect each person in his life, his liberty and his property. The free economy, or capitalism, is the natural counterpart to Whiggism; you get capitalism in the second place when you have Whiggism in the first place. Whiggism lays the necessary political ground work for the set of economic arrangements called capitalism.

The Capitalistic Order

As 19th-century Classical Liberalism turned into the diametrically opposed thing called liberalism today, the economic order became less and less free market as governmental regulations and controls progressively expanded over the economy. Capitalism—ideally—means simply private property, individual liberty, and the voluntary exchange of goods and services between freely contracting parties.

Capitalism is what happens in the realm of industry and trade when force and fraud are eliminated from that realm. It involves peaceful competition for the privilege of serving consumers better, with a reward in the form of profit going to anyone the consumers believe has served them well. Capitalism is the only productive economic order, and the only equitable one; it submits everyone’s offering of goods and services to the collective judgment of his peers and rewards him according to his contribution—as his peers assess it.

I firmly believe that a society of free people is impossible if economic actions are fettered and controlled by the government bureaucracy. The free market economy, or capitalism, is the only way free people can organize their bread and butter activities—business, industry and trade. This mode of economic activity—capitalism—enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the legal system and political structures called Whiggism in the 18th century. Whiggism and capitalism are the two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other.

Whiggery goes back to the 17th century—although Lord Acton made a good point when he referred to St. Thomas Aquinas as the first Whig. The Puritan religious movement in

17th-century England spawned a political arm of Dissenters and Nonconformists in opposition to the court party, whose members were contemptuously called Whiggamores—a Scottish term for horse thieves. Whiggery bore its best fruit on these shores, in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers.

Whiggery in America

Whiggery gave rise to political structures designed around the sovereign individual person, to secure his rights, protect his private domain and afford him maximum scope to pursue his personal goals. These legal and political structures—which are the earmark of a free society—represent the secular projection of a religious vision of man and the universe unique to western civilization.

The introduction of Christianity into the Classical World of two thousand years ago had important political consequences, for this religion taught that only a part of man is social, a portion of his being is God’s. That which is God’s is sharply marked off from that which is Caesar’s. The realm which is Caesar’s becomes a mere province in the all-encompassing Kingdom which is God’s.

There are half-gods, false gods, and tribal deities—idols all. We worship the gods of power, wealth, fame or pleasure—or whatever else evokes our highest priorities. Some god you must have. Whatever thing you value so much that you would sacrifice all other values to it; whatever elicits your ultimate devotion; that which you invest your most at-dent emotions in—this is your god. The nation state in our time usurps a god-like role as the arbiter of men’s destiny. It is a chief characteristic of the 20th century that multitudes of men and women in the world-wide mass movements of our time—secular faiths like Communism, Fascism and Naziism—have consecrated first-rate loyalty and devotion to fifth-rate dictators.

Every human being is capable of first-rate loyalty and dedication, and logically we need to match this up with a first-rate object, the Object of ultimate concern—the one true God. Only the Supreme Being, God, merits the utmost devotion and consecration of which human beings are capable.

Religious Premises

If there is to be a society—in the sense of a culture—there must be a measure of agreement as to the relation between God and man, and as to the nature of man and his proper end. There must be some agreement as to what constitutes justice, honor and virtue. The source from which a society derives its understanding of these matters is its religion. In this sense, every society is cradled in some religion, Christian or otherwise. The culture of China is unthinkable without Confucianism; Indian society is the expression of Hinduism; and Islam is composed of followers of Mohammed. In like fashion, our western culture stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition; we are a branch of Christendom.

Our own institutions and way of life are intimately related to the basic dogmas of the Christian religion. From this faith we derive our notions of the meaning of life, the moral order, the dignity of persons, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. Ours is a religious society, but it has its counterpart in a secular state. The Constitution forbids an official church, an act which permits religion to exercise its unique authority directly, unhampered by ecclesiasticism.

Capitalism Under Fire

The word “capitalism” itself has always been controversial, having been brought into use by Marxist writers for polemical purposes. Werner Sombart, a Marxist, claims to have been the first to use the term “capitalism” systematically in his analyses published around the turn of the century. The term still has pejorative connotations, as many people use it, including those who prepare ecclesiastical pronouncements.

The World Council of Churches was launched at a meeting of churchmen in Amsterdam in 1948. This ecumenical group appointed a commission on The Church and the Disorder of Society, chaired by one of my former teachers, John C. Bennett. The report of this commission kicked up a considerable stir because it recommended that “The Christian Churches should reject the ideologies of both laissez faire capitalism and communism . . .” When the press asked Dr. Bennett what he had in mind as the middle ground between communism and capitalism, he said it was British Trades Union socialism.

Precisely what did Dr. Bennett and his commission think they were rejecting when they turned their backs on capitalism? Well, they told us, by listing the four earmarks of the thing they dismissed. I quote from their report. (1) “Capitalism tends to subordinate what should be the primary task of any economy—the meeting of human needs—to the economic advantages of those who have most power over its institutions; (2) it tends to produce serious inequalities; (3) it has developed a practical form of materialism among Western nations in spite of their Christian backgrounds, for it has placed the greatest emphasis upon success in making money; (4) it has also kept the people of capitalist countries subject to a kind of fate which has taken the form of such social catastrophes as mass unemployment.”

Everyone who has had even a limited exposure to the economic thought of men like Mises, Hayek, Friedman or Hazlitt recognizes the flavor of schoolboy Marxism in these allegations. If there is a form of social organization which gives economic advantages to the powerful at the expense of the rest of us, makes money grubbing the highest good, and periodically throws masses of people out of work—then every person of good sense and good will would oppose that system.

But if you really want to dismantle the thing Dr. Bennett and his cohorts ignorantly label “capitalism,” there’s only one way to do it, and that is to labor on behalf of the free society on all three of its levels; the free market economy, the Whig political structures which sustain it, and the theistic Weltanschauung on which all the rest depends.

The Rule of Law

Whiggery insists on the Rule of Law—one law for all persons alike, because all are one in their essential humanness. Equality before the bar of justice means maximum liberty for all persons. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith speaks of his “liberal system of liberty, equality and justice.” People are free to the extent that such ideals come to prevail in practice, and the only economic arrangement compatible with a free people is the market economy, or capitalism properly understood.

I should like to speak for a moment about the important distinction between principle and practice, or theory and history. Many good illustrations of this point are to be found in the history of the Church over the past nineteen centuries, where we find several instances of a wide discrepancy between Gospel Christianity and the practices of the Church in certain eras. The Church has occasionally sanctioned tyrannous political rule, it has lent its support to persecutions, inquisitions and crusades. It has forgotten its primary mission while pursuing secular ends like wealth and power.

In the economic realm, too, principle is sometimes obscured by malpractice. The late Wilhelm Roepke put it this way: “We must make a sharp distinction between the principle of a market economy as such . . . and the actual development which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has led to the historical form of market economy. One is a philosophical category, the other an historical individuality . . . a non-recurrent compound of economic, social, legal, political, moral and cultural elements . . .”

The theory of free market economics is one thing; the way some people used or misused such economic freedom as was available to them in 1870 or 1910 or 1960 is something else again. A listing of the misuse or abuse of any specific freedom cannot be made part of a case against that freedom, for a mere multiplication of instances does not constitute proof one way or another. The case for freedom of the press does not stand or fall, depending on any evidence you might muster that editors are idiots and reporters knaves.

It is absolutely certain that freedom will be misused, simply because we are human beings. The fact that people sometimes misuse their freedom is indeed bad, but to try to correct the misuse of freedom by the denial of freedom would be infinitely worse. If there were a Richter Scale to measure social dislocation, the misuse of freedom would be one or two; the denial of freedom would be seven or eight—disaster.

Take this matter of academic freedom—a principle nobly exemplified by many educational institutions. Academic freedom does not justify the expectation that you will have Einsteins in the physics department, Nobel prize winners in chemistry, or a Whitehead in philosophy. Academic freedom could be justified on its own terms even if it could be demonstrated that the majority of professors had mail order degrees, turned up tipsy in class, and never cracked a book. Given these conditions on a campus there would be good grounds for a faculty house-cleaning; but a catalogue of these bad conditions does not add up to the first step in the argument against the principle of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a sound principle even if many teachers are incompetent and others betray their profession. We defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press even though we are dismayed by the inferior quality of much of the spoken and written word. Freedom of wor ship is a good thing and we stand for separation of church and state even though some of the results are not to our liking. And by the same token we believe in freedom of economic enterprise—even though consumer demands and producer responses to them fall short of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. As do the efforts of some contemporary philosophers, I dare say.

Economic Freedom

Economic freedom is to be cherished for itself, just as we cherish every one of our liberties. But economic freedom is doubly important because it sustains all the rest; economic freedom is the means to every one of our other ends. Economic freedom represents our livelihood, and whoever controls our livelihood has acquired critical leverage over every other aspect of our lives as well.

We stress private property as an absolutely essential ingredient of a society of free people, an ancient bit of wisdom which Alexander Hamilton referred to twice in The Federalist. In the 79th Paper Hamilton wrote: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” Control the economy and you control people. So it is not simply for the sake of economic freedom and the prosperity it creates that we argue that business, industry and trade should come within the Rule of Law and be freed from governmental dictates, and bureaucratic regulations.

Incidentally, the free economy does not go unregulated—operating within the Rule of Law, the economy is regulated by the buying habits of consumers. We defend economic freedom—voluntary exchanges of goods and services between freely contracting parties—because every one of our more important freedoms depends critically on private property and free exchange.

It is my contention that a society of free people has a free economic order as an essential element of it. John Maynard Keynes, in backhanded fashion, lends support to my contention by declaring that his theory of economic planning adapts nicely to a totalitarian political order. In a Foreword to the 1936 German translation of his General Theory, Keynes had this to say: “The theory of aggregate production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state than . . . under conditions of free production and a large degree of laissez-faire.”

Axioms of a Free Society

Capitalism—the free economy—appeared on the political foundation laid down during the eighteenth century by Whiggism in a period when the cultural climate of the West was at least vestigially Christian. The intellectual soil of Europe still bore the marks of centuries of tilling by the teachings of the Church. Theism had yielded to Deism in the eighteenth century but Deism was not secularism, and Deism did lay great stress on the three basic axioms of a free society: (1) each person is endowed with certain rights; (2) each person is gifted with free will; and (3) there is a moral law binding on all persons alike.

The eighteenth century’s faith in reason really constitutes a fourth axiom; this was the belief that the universe is rationally structured, and so, by taking thought, unaided by revelation, we could convincingly prove that human beings possess inherent rights, free will, and a conscience which attaches them to the moral law. These four items constitute the heart of the religious Weltanschauung. If your image of the cosmos has three ingredients—reason, rights, free will and the moral law—you have the proper religious foundation for the free society, of which the economic expression is capitalism.

The nineteenth century brought about a complete change in world-view, from Deism to Materialism. The latter finds its explicit and most familiar exposition in the Dialectical Materialism of Marx. The world-view of Marxism has no genuine place for reason, free will, the moral law, or the sacredness of persons. The same is true of every other variety of Materialism. Materialism sometimes goes by other labels, such as Naturalism, or Secularism, or Positivism, or Humanism.

Whatever the name, the thing here discussed is the theory which maintains that reality is reducible, ultimately, to mechanical arrangements of material particles. This is the non-theistic Weltanschauung, logically denying everything the theistic Weltanschauung affirms: inherent rights, reason, free will, and the moral law. Some Materialists may assert one or more of these religious axioms, but none of these axioms can logically be grounded in a universe consisting ultimately of nothing more than material particles, electrical charges, or whatever.

We hear much talk these days about “rights,” but to call something a “right” does not make it a right. Privileges, granted or withheld at the discretion of the state, may be called “rights,” but this notion is worlds apart from the idea of individual sovereignty in virtue of a sacredness in the very being of each person.

Free Will and Morality

Free will is incompatible with philosophical Materialism. If man is wholly natural, and if Nature is all-there-is, and if Nature is the realm where cause and effect operate inexorably, then men and women are as much caught up in causal sequences as water, stones, gases, and everything else. It follows that free will is a delusion, determinism a fact. “Man is unconditionally subject to the natural conditions of his environment,” a leading thinker tells us. Man does not act; like everything else in nature he is acted upon; he merely reacts.

A mechanistic universe has no moral dimension; there is no right and wrong per se. But people can’t avoid making moral decisions; human beings are habituated to thinking in moral terms, or perhaps the human mind is so constructed that it cannot function outside the moral categories. Those who assert that the universe lacks a moral dimension, frequently argue that the social system determines what is right and what is wrong—which is to subordinate ethics to politics.

Again, one hears it said that each person decides for himself what is right and wrong for him. The inference is that the private will of each person is his only “authority”—there being no external norms or standards universally binding, to which the will and actions of every person should conform. Every man rolls his own and does his own thing. Whim, impulse, instinct, inclination, are the spurs of action. “If it feels good, do it,” is the contemporary folk wisdom conveyed by bumper stickers.

If the cosmos provides no clues for human conduct; if justice is of merely human contrivance, representing the interest of the powerful, then no one has any moral obligation to do anything when he happens to feel like doing something else. By the same token, no one has any warrant for telling anyone else what he ought to do, or not do. This is what each person decides for himself, each getting his kicks in his own way, each doing whatever turns him on. The old covenant has been shattered, the rule book discarded.

Having reached this point, the argument is hoist with its own petard. The weak doing their thing are at the mercy of the strong doing theirs. The unscrupulous doing their thing is why good guys finish last. Some people get their kicks by preventing other people from getting theirs, and there is no rule to say them nay. Those who want to live and let live are put under the thumb of those who strive for ascendancy over others because for these latter the exercise of power “feels good.” You cannot tell those who hanker after power that tyranny is “wrong,” because they will tell you that wielding power is “their thing,” which you have been at such pains to tell them to pursue!

The non-theistic world view has no real niche for the concepts of inherent rights and free will; it has discarded the norms without which no genuine ethical decision is possible; it makes reason the tool of class interest. Materialism is the appropriate ideology for a totalitarian society, but the Materialist who seeks to provide a rationale for the free society has saddled himself with an impossible task.

The Moral Foundations

Economic arguments for capitalism fall on deaf ears unless people, on other grounds, have first era-braced a philosophy of man and society which incites them to seek their own good while working for the well-being of the whole community, that is to say, when they have given proper weight to the argument for the free society based on ethics, inherent rights, and free will.

The ethical argument for the free society limits governmental power by surrounding it with moral restraints. There is not one law for magistrates and another for citizens; rulers and ruled are alike under the moral law. Statutes must conform to a higher law, or divine law, superior to the enactments of legislators, discovered by reason and intuition.

The argument from inherent rights views society’s political agency as having the negative function of securing each person’s private domain, protecting his life, liberty, and property, in order that he might have maximum freedom to pursue his personal goals.

The argument from free will is that the free society-free economy—Whiggism-Capitalism—provides the only social arrangements consonant with the nature of a creature gifted with the capacity to choose. The fact that each person is in charge of his own life, responsible for making the countless decisions required to bring his life toward completion, requires social conditions of maximum opportunity for choice. Human nature and the free society are complementary, two sides of the same coin. A society humane and just needs economic arrangements to match, and this means capitalism.

The free economy does not beget itself; the free economy appears only after we have the free society. And the free society emerges only after generations of exposure to the idea that there is a sacredness in persons which, in the political and economic spheres, demands liberty and justice for all. It is a mandate of our better nature as well as a requirement of our religion, that we work toward a society where every person has the widest possible scope to exercise his capacity as a freely choosing person, guiding his life by reason, within the moral law.

Is it not true—as Thomas Jefferson reminded us—that “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”


Originally published in The Freeman, December 1981.

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