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Money, God and Greed: The Tea Party and Capitalism

Social and economic conservatism have gone hand in hand -- rather than merely coexisted -- throughout the Religious Right's history.
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In the recent efforts to understand something about the seemingly incomprehensible Tea Partiers, a lot has been made about the upsurge in sales of Ayn Rand's capitalist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged. But there's another book making the rounds among Tea Partiers, especially of the religious bent, this year that also deserves attention. Jay W. Richards' Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem presents an evangelical defense of capitalism, arguing that the economic system is based on Biblical values rather greed. His book offers, as the tagline on the back cover explains, the "Good News About Capitalism."

Free market capitalists and evangelical Christians alike may take issue with some of Richards' contentions, but the popularity of this book says something about where the Religious Right is headed -- attacking tax rates in addition to abortion -- and how exactly conservative Christianity intersects with the Tea Party movement.

Money, Greed, and God promises to defend capitalism by dismantling eight of its most persistent myths. In the end, however, the book's most lasting accomplishment may be in how it exposes secular culture's greatest myth about the Religious Right. That story has had many narrators, but the consistent theme has been this: the Republican Party hoodwinks evangelicals and other conservative Christians to vote against their economic interests by keeping the culture war raging through constant talk of issues, namely abortion and gay rights, it never intends to deliver on.

Yet if its critics and scholars looked past some of the more sensational rhetoric the Religious Right has deployed for the last 30 years or more about feminists, abortionists, and secular humanists, they'd find an almost equally staunch defense of free market capitalism. Consider just one example. Jerry Falwell's screed, Listen, America!, released just shortly before Ronald Reagan's walloping win in 1980, argued that "the free enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs." This, of course, is not nearly as entertaining as Falwell's quips on the "homosexual revolution" or the "satanic effects of humanism," but it reminds us that social and economic conservatism have gone hand in hand -- rather than merely coexisted -- throughout the Religious Right's history.

Still, Jay Richards' book does offer something new to the conversation for both evangelical conservatives and their watchers. While other leaders of the Religious Right endorsed capitalism for containing Biblical principles, Richards argues that Christianity itself created capitalism. (Richards notes the famed German sociologist Max Weber's landmark thesis that Calvinism created capitalism, but argues instead that Weber should have "located the sources of capitalism ... in Christianity more broadly.") In understanding this, and in accepting how he topples the supposed eight myths about capitalism, Richards wants his readers to embrace unregulated free enterprise as one of God's gifts to humankind. In doing so, Richards hopes evangelicals will save capitalism from, predictably, the socialists. But, more importantly and provocatively, Richards argues Christians need to reclaim capitalism from secular capitalists who have themselves perpetrated myths that ultimately undermine the defense of the economic system itself. These myths exist, Richards contends, because secular capitalists don't understand that the real invisible hand of capitalism is Providence, not the market.

Perhaps unaware, Richards' attempt to locate the "truth" about economic reality -- capitalism is superior to socialism; but, Christianity, not Randian objectivism, provides the real basis of capitalism -- mirrors the repositioning modern American evangelicals carried out for conservative Christianity during the mid-twentieth century. Following World War II, these Christians, calling themselves neo-evangelicals at the time, argued that true Christianity stood apart from both the Social Gospel message of mainline liberal Protestantism and the angry separatism of Christian fundamentalism. Liberal Protestantism (like socialism) just got the message of the Gospel wrong, neo-evangelicals argued, while fundamentalism (like secular capitalism) understood the letter of the law but not the gracious and generous spirit of real Christianity. Richards also wants his readers to resist the polar attitudes he sees operating within evangelical thought about capitalism. One end champions the gaudy prosperity gospel message that teaches followers to "name it and claim it" because God truly desires his people to enjoy life's richest blessings. The other end, in part repulsed by their prosperity gospel brethren, has hesitated to defend capitalism with much vigor, worried that its values of consumption, greed, and materialism are antithetical to Gospel virtues. Richards counters that the true message of capitalism's Christian origins and principles, however, stands between these two poles and allows evangelicals to embrace and defend capitalism without reservation.

As a theological text, then, Richards' work stands firmly within the evangelical writing tradition that has both defended and defined the faith. But Money, Greed, and God considers itself foremost a work of economic theory, and one bent on exposing the eight myths that persist about capitalism. These include the Nirvana Myth (Myth No. 1) where its critics blame capitalism for not living up to an unattainable ideal rather than contrasting it with the lesser economic alternatives that actually exist. Since perfection can never be reached in this world, as Richards points out all true Christians understand, Americans should select the best available option, and unregulated free market capitalism remains the clear choice. To make his argument, Richards contrasts capitalism with communism. Considering in the very first sentence of his book Richards writes, "In the great twentieth-century battle between communism and capitalism, capitalism won," it's curious why he must devote so much space to detailing the extensive evils and failures of communism, yet communism with its tales of large-scale massacres and mass starvations presents an obviously useful foil for capitalism's far more humane faults. Yes, capitalism is imperfect, Richards acknowledges, but it hasn't killed nearly 100 million people like communism did. Of course, the choice is a false one in a country that, as Richards points out, has never flirted seriously with communism, but the extreme example of communism helps Richards best contrast the comparatively beautiful extreme of a completely unregulated economy.

Other myths like the Zero-Sum Game Myth (Myth No. 3: "believing that trade requires a winner and a loser") and the Materialist Myth (Myth No. 4: "believing that wealth isn't created, it's simply transferred") allow Richards to walk his reader through basic economic principles that most conservative economists would endorse. Of course, these economists would likely utilize good data to support their arguments. But Richards is often better at providing extensive evidence that document the evil excesses of communism than he is at backing up some of his most positive assertions about capitalism with hard numbers. For example, in a section where Richards argues against living wage legislation, he also contends that most Americans who enter minimum-wage jobs don't stay there forever. Surely this is something that an economist or two has collected extensive research on, but Richards footnotes no sources to validate his claim.

Here it may be useful to say a little something more about the author. Jay Richards is not an economist, but rather a trained minister with graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, in philosophy and theology. While this background might not land Richards a job on Wall Street or in most economics departments -- his author bio, however, indicates that he "has lectured on economic myths to members of the U.S. Congress," perhaps unintentionally proving Richards' larger argument that government shouldn't be trusted -- his training in philosophy and theology helps Richards make some of the most interesting and original arguments of his book.

None is more compelling, if not also debatable, than Myth No. 5: the Greed Myth, "believing that the essence of capitalism is greed." Located at the center of the book, the chapter on the Greed Myth also forms the ideological core of Richards' argument. It is also where Richards parts ways most significantly with secular capitalists.

Richards notes our cultural conceptions of capitalism drip with notions of greed-driven capitalists, none more famous than Gordon Gekko, the protagonist of the 1987 movie "Wall Street" who famously declared, "Greed is good." Closer to reality, Ayn Rand, the patron saint of the Tea Partiers, spent her career defending greed as the basis of capitalism and as the highest virtue. But most Christians would be unable to see greed as anything but a vice. And Rand, an avowed and even vicious atheist, understandably discomforts most evangelicals. Richards counters, however, that Rand got it wrong. The root of capitalism isn't selfishness, but self-interest, what Richards contends Adam Smith meant but Ayn Rand misinterpreted. Self-interest, unlike selfishness, is not concerned only with the self because it is in the interest of the individual to care for his or her family, friends, communities, and causes. The true capitalist wants to get ahead so she can provide for her family, contribute to her chosen charities, and reinvest in her business so that it can grow even more. If capitalism was about merely selfish greed, the system would implode on itself as the wealthy hoarder hid away all his riches or squandered them all on self-serving pursuits. But capitalism succeeds, Richards maintains, because the true capitalist operates from a self-interest that benefits far more than the individual.

Richards' presentation of capitalism as an altruistic, almost selfless, act would infuriate Rand -- she found altruism and capitalism incompatible and thought Christian altruism and socialism were pretty much the same thing -- but his message is clearly designed for younger evangelicals who, he proudly notes, care deeply about issues of justice and fairness. Richards worries these valid concerns will lead them to embrace questionable economic practices and policies like tougher regulation, fair trade, and higher taxes that redistribute wealth. What these young evangelicals should do instead is back a free market system that will create more wealth for everyone the less the economy is controlled by government bureaucrats. It's not a new argument, of course, and critics might easily point to the many ways an unregulated economy hasn't lived up to all the promises of its advocates - this is likely one reason why Richards almost entirely avoids the historical example of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American industrial capitalism. But Richards' contribution is to imbue capitalism with Biblical values he claims have always been at its truest heart.

Considering how popular the book is among Tea Partiers, Money, Greed, and God's biggest surprise may be its measured, restrained tone. Aside from a few cringe-worthy barbs, like the only remaining communists living "mostly in places like Harvard and Havana," Richards' work displays none of the fiery and sensationalist bromides we've come to expect from Tea Partiers. There's no culture war at work here, but instead a sober theological and economic treatise being made. In fact, "abortion" garners only one mention. (Richards tells us abortion rates are always higher in communist countries than in free ones. He, however, provides no sources for the assertion.) But this calm and even pastorly tone reveals one way the Religious Right might continue to coexist with the Tea Party movement. Of late, some evangelicals have begun to worry aloud about the overly libertarian leanings of Tea Party leaders. While conservative evangelicals support the economic and political objectives of the Tea Party movement, many have begun to fear that its explicitly libertarian justifications lack the moral basis and theological principles they believe should be at the heart of any politics. Jay Richards delivers that Biblical rationale. At a moment in which debates over the economic future of the nation, rather than abortion or even gay marriage, have brought together one of the most vibrant and passionate political movements we've seen in a while, works like Money, Greed, and God may help hold together that diverse coalition, allowing evangelical Christians to understand the invisible hand of the free market as no less than the unstoppable hand of God.

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