My father was a born again businessman. A fervent Evangelical Christian, he owned and operated a chain of six men’s clothing stores in South Carolina. Sometimes his fellow Christians would ask, “Jim don’t you feel a bit guilty making so much profit?” “Not at all!” my Dad would grin, “I want to make as much money as possible so that I can give that much more to fund the Lord’s work.”
Fund the Lord’s work he did. As we were growing up we knew Dad tithed ten percent of his income to the church before taxes. Then he added another five percent as his “love offering” to the Lord. When I was in ninth grade we gathered the data of our family’s finances and produced pie charts showing income and expenditure. As I was finishing mine in class, the teacher came to have a look, “Dwight you made a mistake there in the section showing the amount your family gives to charity. You put 15%. It should be 1.5%.” I still feel the surge of pride I felt as I said, “No sir. That isn’t a mistake. My father gives 15% to our church.” The teacher fainted.
He didn’t really faint, but he was shocked. Not only did my father give that much, he did so with five children, a stay at home wife and for many years, a business that was going down the drain. Only in his fifties did he turn it around and with hard work, honest dedication, shrewd business sense and experience become as wealthy as he deserved to be.
Then he started to give even more. He and my mother lived modestly in a three bedroomed ranch home and supported their local church, funded mission trips, Christian camps, radio stations, missionary families and children’s ministries. What he exhibited at the grass roots level was no less than a radical form of truly Christian economics.
Too often economic principles are imposed from above rather than developed from below. Theoreticians and ideologues work from abstract principles or idealistic theories which they then seek to impose on a population with legislation, economic manipulation, brute force or a combination of all three. Most often the theories are derived not from economics at all, but from historical theories regarding class warfare or high religious ideals bolted on to economic models.
When it comes to economics, ideologies and theories are largely useless. They might help to modify an existing economic model, but they cannot provide the primary principles of economics. A good metaphor is the emission control system of a car. Emission control systems were mandated by an ideological motive: the desire for a cleaner environment. The existence of emission control systems for the protection of the environment make an existing invention better.
However, to make the emission control system the main raison d’etre of the car would be foolish. The emission control system exists for the car, the car does not exist for the emission control system. Likewise economic theories and ideologies should help to refine, improve and control an essentially practical economic system. Using an ideology or theory to design an economic system is putting the car before the horsepower.
The historian Christopher Dawson wrote an inspiring essay on “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” in which he condemns the bourgeois for being interested only in making money. Catholics, he thinks, should be more high minded than that. He thus perpetuates the cultured European attitude that “grubbing for money” is demeaning. Many Catholics have adopted the same snobbery, adding a spiritual dimension that I call faux Franciscanism–a sentimental preference for, and a pretense of poverty. Poverty is glamorized and “the rich” demonized.
While Dawson’s interpretation of history provides brilliant insights on the importance of Catholicism for the development of European history, his observations on economics leave something to be desired. John Zmirak comments acerbically on the matter in this essay. He offers choice quotations from Dawson’s essay, calling them “bits of broken glass that make him so dangerous to swallow.”
Quoting Dawson he writes: “The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the ‘open’ type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction.” Zmirak says, “This statement muddles two starkly different issues: The quantitative attitude of the Pharisees toward accumulating religious merits, and the ordinary good sense required in managing any earthly enterprise — from a bakery to a family.”
In other words, the poverty of spirit and generosity which Jesus praises in the beatitudes is not the same thing as financial poverty, nor is the total self giving required in the spiritual life a foundational principle for economic theory. If it were, all Christians would have to be poor mendicants–drifting about like sky-clad Sadhus–in a trance of self denial. While similar extremes are not unknown to Christian religious, it is not the default setting for all Christians any more than celibacy. If all Christians were celibate there would soon be no Christians. Likewise if all Christians attempted absolute poverty.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that Protestantism gave rise to the spirit of modern capitalism, but Samuel Gregg in Tea Party Catholic shows that medieval Catholic Europe was robustly and healthily capitalist–especially at the dawn of Protestantism. What we must question therefore is not whether capitalism is the product of Catholicism or Protestantism, but whether it is the product of common sense and practicality.
Put bluntly–capitalism works. As Michael Novak has pointed out in his memoir, Writing from Left to Right, none of the ideologically driven systems of economics work. They’re like British sports cars from the 1970s–beautifully designed but badly engineered. Capitalism, on the other hand, is like an old Ford pickup. It’s a practical workhorse, but it needs some fixing up, repairs and constant tinkering.
Dawson sneers at people like my father because they are bourgeois and want to make money. At the same time he argues for a Catholicism that is wildly generous, even extravagant in its expenditure on Catholic culture, charity and the common life. Perhaps he would put my father down as evidence that Protestantism and Capitalism are two ugly sisters. Dawson is right that Catholics should be extravagant in their expenditure, the problem is, he didn’t work out where the money should come from in the first place. Catholics are to be extravagant, but they’re not to be money grubbing?
Dawson uses the example of sixteenth century Spain and Zmirak points out that the money so exuberantly spent by the Spanish was the result of the rapacious conquistadors who did not work hard like honest Protestant bourgeois shopkeepers, but instead looted the Aztec treasures and enslaved the native Americans.
The issue therefore is not making money, but how you make the money and what you do with it. People need to be reminded that the Bible verse does not say, “Money is the root of all evil, but the love of money is the root of all evil.” Too many American Catholics have picked up the worst from Protestantism and combined it with the worst of Catholicism. They have pounced on the Protestant work ethic and the motive to make as much money as possible, but they have combined it with a faux Franciscan suspicion of money and the conviction that a person is somehow better if he’s poor.
What they mean by this is that the clergy are supposed to be poor, and the church is supposed to operate on a pittance. Consequently a good number of American Catholics, like their bourgeois Protestant neighbors, make as much money as they possibly can, but (because Catholics are supposed to be poor) they also give as little as they possibly can. Should the priest encourage them to give generously and live generously they complain bitterly that “All Father ever talks about is money.”
What the Catholic critics of Protestant capitalism miss is that along with their enthusiasm for free enterprise, the classic Protestant was also taught to tithe radically. How often in my little Evangelical church we heard unapologetic sermons on the text, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver!” and we were told that the word “cheerful” could be translated “hilarious.”
Yes, yes, we all know about the “prosperity gospel”, the money grubbing televangelists and the preachers with expensive suits, mansions and weeping wives with botox and big hair. Likewise we have all heard about “Bishops of Bling, Borgia Popes and Papal Palaces.” Judas is ubiquitous as well as iniquitous and the irresponsible rich religious you shall have with you always. Their irresponsibility does not mean all Christians should be poor. It is simply a reminder that to whom much is given much is required.
My father as a God-fearing, Bible believing old fashioned Protestant had it right. He worked hard, avoided debt, invested shrewdly, lived honestly and made as much money as possible, then gave as much money as possible–first for the good of his family, then of his church, then for the world. He never begged or expected the government to bail him out. He was good and he was gifted and he took the principle of noblesse oblige and extended it to bourgeois oblige.
The economics that work for individuals also work for families, communities, parishes, dioceses and nations. The solution is simple but difficult: all of us should be working as hard as we can to make as much money as we can, and then living full, abundant and modest lives–taking full responsibility first for ourselves and our families; then we should spend that money extravagantly on fabulous good works for the glory of God and the flourishing of our fellow man.
If we all had done this as individuals and communities we would not now be living in an entitlement culture–a culture where poverty is glorified and riches are vilified. Instead the rich would not be living incredibly opulent lifestyle, nor would they be responsible for grandiose ideologically driven schemes to change the world but instead they would be simply responsible for their own communities, neighbors and friends.
This was the example of our immigrant Catholic great grandfathers–who worked long hours in demeaning jobs and lived full lives with their families while building the beautiful churches in our Northeastern cities. Another example of this was born again Protestant businessman R.G.LeTourneau. LeTourneau invented earth moving machinery and made millions. During his lifetime, the committed Christian was blamed for living like a prince. After his death in 1969 his critics discovered that he gave away 90% of his income and lived like a prince on the other 10%.
Therefore, forgive me if I’m not interested in macro economic theories and ideologies. I have the micro examples of practical, exciting and authentically Christian economics lodged in the backyard of my memory.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.