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RE-THINKING MONEY, RELIGION & POLITICS

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The Ethic of Virtuous Capitalism

This is the 7th in a series introducing the book Redeeming Capitalism by Ken Barnes. You can pick up the start of this series here. See the chart here for the context of ETHIC in the major historic forms of capitalism.


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“While some may not want to admit it, economics has always had a moral impetus. Throughout [the book Redeeming Capitalism] we have looked at religion's significant role in defining the moral drivers of economic systems, especially in what we some­ times refer to as Christendom.


Traditionally, that ethic was rooted in the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church and the high church traditions of Anglicanism. The moral code that dominated the economic landscape was built on the Old Testament Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), the Golden Rule (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’), and what is commonly known as the Double Love Command (‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind;’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’).


These basic teachings, known and understood throughout the world, were constantly reinforced by the church, the state, and the culture at large. The general belief, though, was that economic activity was temporal and therefore not particularly important and that the moral code existed merely as a safeguard against injury and avarice.

 

During the modern era, the emphasis changed significantly, especially in countries where Reformed (especially Calvinist) theology dominated the religious landscape. In addition to those moral codes, the Calvinists took the words of Jesus in John 15:19 and John 17:14-16, where he speaks of his followers as being at enmity with the world, and those of the apostle Paul in Romans 12:2, where he admonishes believers not to conform to the ways of the world, and developed a theological construct of Christians being ‘in the world, but not of the world.'


This construct holds that believers can and should participate fully in economic and other worldly affairs, as long as they hold themselves to a higher moral standard. This provides Christians with the opportunity to demonstrate their righteousness, both in their economic success (that is, as evidence that they have been blessed by God) and in their moral asceticism. As we have seen, as the religious impetus for this thinking receded, the ethic that followed was one informed by moral relativism and self-gratification.

 

Earlier we looked at a definition of postmodern capitalism as largely ‘devoid of a moral compass and resistant, if not impervious, to ethical constraint.’ While this may be accurate at present, it does not preclude the possibility of capitalism finding a moral compass rooted in common grace and thereby becoming virtuous. The postmodern mood is nothing if not open to new ideas or even fresh expressions of old ideas, including those grounded in religious faith.

 

We looked at the numbers before, but it is helpful to review them here: despite the rise of secularism, atheism, and religious pluralism, most people (84 percent) still believe in God and still believe in the need for both public and private morality. The sensus divinitatis, [sense of divinity] which is the cornerstone of common grace, and the spiritual capital now dormant inside businesses and communities are available to our purpose. Unless we use them to reanimate a universal moral compass, virtuous capitalism is impossible to achieve. But if we are successful, virtuous capitalism is a certainty.” (Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, p. 195-6)(Emphasis throughout is ours).

 

We at BetterCapitalism.org are fond of the phrase, “Questions are the engines of thought and action.” From that posture, we invite you to give thought to a few of our questions.

  • Do you agree that capitalism/business includes a moral perspective or approach? Do you think everyone has the same approach or could there be multiple approaches?

  • What’s your moral approach to how you do capitalism/business? Can you summarize your approach (i.e., your ethic or theology) in a sentence, or just a few words?

  • Is your ethical or theological approach to capitalism consistent with your ethical or theological approach to other relationships? Do you view and treat people in your business relationships different than you view and treat people in social relationships?

  • If there is a difference in how you view and treat people in those two types of relationships, why do you choose to treat them differently?


How might these questions prod you to re-think your perspective of capitalism? How might these questions prod you to make different marketplace decisions? We'd love to hear your answers and so invite you to share them with us.

Stay tuned for future excerpts of Redeeming Capitalism. Or. Why wait for us? Buy and read a copy for yourself now.


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"This book merits close, sustained attention as a compelling move beyond both careless thinking and easy ideology."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary


"Better Capitalism is a sincere search for a better world."—Cato Institute

 



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