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Rising to the Challenge of Modern Capitalism (Or Not)

What is the relationship between Christianity and the modern world? Is the spirit of capitalism fundamentally incompatible with the requirements of charity that were first formulated in the New Testament? While these have always been important questions for Christians, they have taken on a renewed sense of urgency. The recent terrorist attacks on New York and Washington forcefully reminded Americans that they cannot escape the question of the relationship between God and politics. On that day, the most economically and politically successful of all modern states was attacked by men who claimed to be defending the integrity of the Islamic religion. Since then, many American Christians have begun to wonder how their religion relates to the economic and political arrangements that constitute a modern democracy such as the United States.

The new book, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church, raises many important questions about the relationship of Christianity to the modern world. Michael Budde, a political economist, and Robert Brimlow, a philosophy professor, have written a highly readable, factually informative book; this attractive, slim volume can easily be read in one sitting. Combining political, economic, and theological analysis, the authors issue a timely warning: “Christianity shouldn’t be so naive to think that churches can imitate the corporate giants without risking some essentials of their faith and mission,” they write. “When [Christianity] lends its stories, symbols, and integrity to the corporate world, it always gets them back in need of some serious dry cleaning and repair.” Budde and Brimlow realize that their “gospel and church-centered analysis” of Christianity, capitalism, and liberal democracy is bound to “make people uncomfortable.” And, indeed, it will. Their book is replete with examples of how corporations currently use new-age, Christian spirituality to further their own fiscal gain and how both Protestant and Catholic thinkers periodically have embraced the theories behind capitalist democracy too closely. Unfortunately, the “church-centered” economic and political analysis that Budde and Brimlow offer finally is not dialectical enough. Truth be told, their analysis cannot do justice either to the complexity of the fundamental religious and political questions their book raises or to the necessarily prudential responses that Christianity must give to these questions.

Protesting the Prostitution of the Gospel

Slightly more than half of this book details various instances of what the authors call “Christianity Incorporated in action.” In the first four chapters, Budde and Brimlow map out the “peculiar cross-dressing in which the church further internalizes the ideologies and practices of for-profit firms” while these same firms appropriate “Christian symbols, stories, and meaning structures” to further their own corporate advantage. The authors do a good job of showing just how widespread and lucrative so-called “corporate spirituality initiatives” have become. They shed a deservedly harsh light on Laurie Beth Jones, the best-selling author of Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. For Jones, Jesus is not the Son of God who became flesh in order to ransom man from sin but, rather, a “practitioner” of a highly successful “Omega management style,” which, fortunately, “can be implemented by anyone who dares.” Jones parlayed the success of her 1995 best-seller into a virtual traveling salvation and commercialization show. She founded the Jesus CEO Foundation and continues to publish the Jesus CEO News—a publication with the motto, “Power You Can Use.” Such prostitution of the Gospel, the authors rightly note, “floods the culture with degraded forms of spiritual and religious engagement and cheapens whatever living religious traditions it ransacks.”

The problem with Christianity Incorporated begins when Budde and Brimlow move away from presenting social science–based analysis to considering the “intellectual and theological assumptions … facilitating the subordination of the church to capitalist democracy.” (While Budde and Brimlow identify themselves as Roman Catholics, it is difficult to discern exactly what they mean by church.) Budde and Brimlow criticize documents such as the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ “Justice for All Creation” and the United Church of Christ’s “Christian Faith and Economic Life,” but they reserve the bulk of their criticisms for the kind of cheerleading “chaplaincy church” that they feel is advocated by Pope John Paul II. Chapter five of Christianity Incorporated, unjustly titled, “John Locke in Ecclesial Drag? The Problem with Centesimus Annus,” revolves around the authors’ half-serious claim that “one might … think that Centesimus Annus was promulgated not to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum but the three hundredth anniversary of [John Locke’s] Second Treatise.”

For Budde and Brimlow, John Paul’s encyclical does not offer a prudential defense of capitalism and liberal democracy, inspired, in part, by the palpable failure of communist totalitarianism. Rather, they remarkably argue that John Paul gives an account of the individual and his right to private ownership that “is virtually identical to that made by John Locke.” John Paul not only practically accepts the “theoretical basis” of Lockean liberalism but also comes dangerously close to subjugating the Gospel to the “American liberal, capitalist ideology.” But a careful reading of the encyclical makes these kinds of claims impossible to sustain. To take just three examples: Centesimus Annus repeatedly criticizes the “atheism” informing Lockean liberalism; it opposes philosophic liberalism’s “dehumanizing,” materialist account of human beings; and, in the name of Christianity, it insists on the universal destination of material goods.

The Question and How Not to Address It

Over and against the Lockean liberalism they detect in John Paul’s work, the authors offer a model of the “Church as oikos.” Drawing on the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount, they sketch an “economics of discipleship,” an approach that embodies many of the “labor sharing” initiatives upheld by the Catholic Workers’ movement. By returning to the demands of “basic Christian charity,” the economics of discipleship would help correct the now “too familiar” consequences of “neoliberal philosophy—abandonment of the poor, stagnant real wages, [and] rapidly increased levels of economic and political inequality.” Aside from the highly questionable empirical evidence behind this claim, it is important to see that Budde and Brimlow can make this claim only by downplaying the transcendent trajectory of the Sermon on the Mount. Christ, after all, blesses not simply the poor but also those who are “poor in spirit”; not simply those who hunger and thirst but also those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Despite what the authors suggest, because the Sermon on the Mount is meant to fulfill, not abolish, the law, it does not easily translate into effective prescriptions for social and economic policy.

Christianity Incorporated finally fails because, in the name of preserving the integrity of Christian faith, its authors oversimplify the question of Christianity’s relationship to the social, political, and economic arrangements of the modern state. Whether one agrees with the prudential, theological accommodation that Centesimus Annus tries to forge with capitalist liberal democracy, one has to view the encyclical as a model of prudential Christian thinking. Such thinking appreciates the fact that the Incarnation calls Christianity to engage the world. But such engagement presents a particular challenge—a challenge that Budde and Brimlow do not fully appreciate. Christian theological reflection is called to speak to the world in a language that the world can understand; yet this does not mean that it should speak the exact same language as the world. The theological approach offered by John Paul in Centesimus Annus, contrary to what Budde and Brimlow claim, takes up this challenge. The encyclical presents prudential reflection on capitalist democracy that finally appeals to theological truth that transcends the limited categories of capitalism and democracy. John Paul’s success at meeting this theological challenge is, of course, a question open to debate. That there are sound, theological reasons that this kind of challenge must be faced, however, is not.

Christianity Incorporated demonstrates that there are no easy solutions to Christianity’s relationship to the modern world. Its authors are right: A discussion of this important question should make both Christians and non-Christians uncomfortable. However, one has to think about this question far more seriously than this book does.