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The Incompatibility of Christianity and American Capitalism

The inequality in this nation -- and the flagrant manner in which concentrated power flaunts its excesses -- is so perverse that it offends the moral sensibilities and belief systems of everyday folks.
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A very thought-provoking poll was released recently on Americans and their attitudes toward Christianity and capitalism. The survey found that more Americans believe that Christianity and the free market are in conflict (44 percent) than those think they are not (36 percent). This holds regardless of religious affiliation. Women, Democrats and those of low income are more likely to believe the two are incompatible. Meanwhile, Tea Party members, Republicans, college-educated and more affluent people were more likely to believe the two are not at odds.

White evangelicals are more likely than the general population to believe unregulated businesses would behave ethically. Meanwhile, Christians of color overwhelmingly (76 percent) want the church to speak out on social justice matters, and economic issues such as foreclosures devastating the community.

So what should we make of this? At first glance, it tells me that there is hope. Today's economic troubles are opening the eyes of Americans, perhaps. The inequality in this nation -- and the flagrant manner in which concentrated power flaunts its excesses -- is so perverse that it offends the moral sensibilities and belief systems of everyday folks. If there is any chance of reforming or changing our institutions, it all begins with asking if we expect -- or demand -- moral and ethical institutions that bend towards justice. Like the flailing, bankrupt Communist system in the final days of the USSR, American capitalism has revealed itself as a sham religion that promises much and operates under deceptive rhetoric, yet ultimately benefits a scant few. Right now, the system seems to be thriving perversely on the economic inequality that is eating society alive. Wall Street profits and executive bonuses are up, rewards for their plunder of the rest of us.

And yet, isn't this the way it was supposed to be? Did capitalism ever have a moral compass? And haven't capitalism and Christianity always operated in tandem for centuries?

Slavery has to be the ultimate example of unfettered, unregulated markets, laissez faire in its purest sense. The Church blessed slave ships and expeditions to rape and pillage indigenous peoples, and one slave ship was even named Jesus. Earlier forms of the Christian Right endorsed the economic exploitation of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and found justification in the Bible. Even today, some so-called Christians give their stamp of approval on cuts in crucial government programs that serve poor families, or the despoliation of the land by oil companies in the name of economic growth. They even compare the hand of the free market to the hand of God. After all, gun manufacturers have to make a buck, too, the way Jesus wanted it.

So, is capitalism at odds with Christianity? I suppose 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. Adherents to this school fought for the abolition of slavery and struggled for racial and economic equality in the civil rights movement. Like Martin Luther King, they fought for sanitation workers.

The early twenty-first century is not the first time that capitalism has run roughshod over the people's rights, nor, sadly, will it likely be the last. The problem is that the counterbalance to capitalism -- call it a social safety net, social welfare, the New Deal, socialism or what have you -- has eroded in the U.S. And while good people of faith (or no faith at all) struggle to restore it, other so-called people of faith welcome its demise, if they do not manipulate their religion to justify that demise. Sadly, that is as much a condemnation of religion and the way it is practiced as it is an indictment of capitalism.

It is easy for Americans to point to the oppression in certain Muslim nations and shake their heads in disbelief. It is quite another thing to look inward at the injustice, the poverty, the hunger and the unemployment that is tolerated in a nation where so many would preach to others about Jesus Christ.

Regardless of faith, Americans should be challenged to expect better from government and from society. Many followers of the cult of capitalism drank the kool-aid, believing in the virtues of chasing a dollar above all else. They were convinced, as some still are convinced despite the lack of evidence, that by redistributing the nation's money in an upward direction, it would trickle down. And why would you want to tax the rich when capitalism has convinced you that you will become rich someday? Of course, for most of us that won't happen in the land of opportunity, which is the least economically mobile society in the developed world. Moreover, the Tea Party-infused GOP has convinced its followers to vote against their own interests. The diehard followers of the right wing oppose healthcare and social programs that ameliorate the effects of capitalism on the grounds that blacks and Latinos will benefit the most.

Rather than blindly place our faith in institutions that are paving the way for our downfall -- yet we dare not touch them because we deem them sacrosanct -- America must strive to build systems that nurture us and make us whole. We can create whatever we want. The propped-up, broken structures need to be fixed or replaced. Capitalism as practiced in the U.S. -- under-regulated, unaccountable and based on winners and losers and short-term gain -- is a system of privatized profits and socialized risk. And it is killing us. But should an economic system be moral? I certainly hope so.

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