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Religion and Capitalism Are Antithetical: The Defenders of Capitalism Should Invoke Secularism and Reason, Not Religion and Faith, as Their Justification

Conservatives regularly insist that religion is the basis of capitalism. Theologian Michael Novak, for instance, claims that “the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was the main locus for the first flowerings of capitalism.” Politicians who purport to endorse free enterprise keep invoking the Bible for validation. The “religious right” calls the United States a Christian country and declares that our basic political choice is between godless communism — or godless liberalism — and religious capitalism.

But the truth is that religion and capitalism are incompatible — in practice and in theory. Consider the openly statist views of some prominent members of the “religious right.” Pat Buchanan, for example, opposes international free trade and wants to restrict immigration drastically. Gary Bauer applauds Washington’s antitrust case against Microsoft — calling the court’s recent ruling against the company a “victory for the small man” — and vows to renew the Justice Dept.’s efforts to “prosecute adult obscenity, especially on the Internet.”

Such positions should not come as a surprise, since religious teachings contradict the requirements of capitalism. The most obvious conflict centers on the religious belief that the profit motive is immoral. If we are all obligated to sacrifice ourselves on behalf of the have-nots, then private property, the pursuit of wealth, and the entire free enterprise system are evil. The only virtuous system, according to religious doctrine, would be one in which the goods of this earth are common property, to be used selflessly for the “public good” — i.e., a system of socialism. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have been particularly astute in recognizing this connection, as they have consistently argued for an increasing government presence in our economic lives, so that wealth can be redistributed from the productive to the non-productive.

Further, religion’s belief in man’s innate sinfulness leads to the same collectivist conclusion. A National Review article denounces some of the pro-capitalist policies of Steve Forbes, on the grounds that they ignore the “dark side” of people. Economic freedom — insists the leading magazine of religious conservatism — will lead unregulated corporations to trample the “little guy.” That is, it will lead to too much individualism. These are the exact sentiments expressed by Gary Bauer regarding the Microsoft antitrust case. Indeed, Bauer believes that the very purpose of government is “to counter man’s sin” by restricting his freedom. In other words, government controls are needed to ensure that each individual act as his brother’s keeper.

But underlying all this is a deeper point. Religion cannot be the basis of freedom and capitalism because of its inherently authoritarian nature. Religion demands acceptance on faith. It demands obedient followers. It demands the subordination of the individual’s mind and the individual’s interests to the dictates of some higher authority. Under capitalism, by contrast, the individual is supreme. Capitalism recognizes the autonomy of the individual citizen and the inalienability of his individual rights. This is the most fundamental reason why, where faith is culturally dominant — in the Dark Ages dominated by the medieval church or in the theocracy run by the ayatollahs of contemporary Iran — political/economic freedom is stifled.

In this country, too, whenever faith is employed in politics it leads to more government controls. This is true whether the employer is conservative or liberal — whether it is George W. Bush, who wants to use tax dollars to fund charity activities of various churches and whose “compassionate conservatism” is simply a more overtly religious form of the welfare state — or whether it is Al Gore, whose advisors have declared that “the Democratic Party is going to take back God,” and who invokes the New Testament’s concept of man’s selfless “stewardship” of the earth to support environmentalist regulations.

America’s Founding Fathers understood the threat posed by the introduction of religious dogma into politics. This is why they advocated a legal separation of church and state. They grounded America’s freedom in reason and individualism — they upheld the individual’s right to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. They did not regard the citizen as an obedient servant, but as a sovereign person, who ought to be left free to follow the conclusions of his own reasoning mind. They wanted a secular state. They established simultaneously the freedom to practice one’s religion privately and the freedom to be politically free from religious authority.

That is what made the United States the freest country in history, enabling the free enterprise system to develop. Those politicians who try to root capitalism in the soil of religion would do well to remember that.