With Liberty and Justice for Whom?

Gay identifies three distinct positions on capitalism among evangelicals: those held by the evangelical left, right, and center. Each of their positions are treated with utmost fairness, a feat which by itself makes the book, and Gay himself, worthy of high praise.

Many of the criticisms raised against capitalism by the evangelical left are familiar, and not unlike those raised by the secular left. In addition, evangelicals on the left raise a number of biblically based criticisms of capitalism, including the allegation that capitalism is inconsistent with much of the Mosaic legislation and with the teaching of Jesus (e.g. the story of the rich young ruler).

Anyone familiar with the economic pronouncements of mainline Protestant denominations and the World Council of Churches will already be well acquainted with these arguments. Equally familiar will be the proposed solutions which rely heavily on the expansion of government programs.

Those assigned by Gay to the evangelical right are linked mainly by their “largely positive assessment” of capitalism. Included here are fundamentalist preachers such as Jerry Falwell, prominent economists such as P.J. Hill and Brian Griffiths, and a variety of “neo-evangelical” authors (Ronald Nash, E. Calvin Beisner, Herbert Schlossberg). Similar to the evangelical left, the evangelical right relies on a (sometimes strange) mixture of secular and biblically based arguments. On the secular side we find arguments drawn from libertarianism (including Austrian economics), traditional conservatism and neoconservatism.

Again, the arguments are familiar and their use of biblical material is often aimed at refuting (successfully, in my view) the charges of the evangelical left, though some (e.g. Gary North and other Christian Reconstructionists) attempt to build from the Bible a positive case for capitalism.

Of particular interest to Gay is the evangelical center, where capitalism is neither wholly embraced nor condemned, but is viewed as a “cause for concern.” Included here are three distinct groups, which together include “the majority of evangelical intellectuals”: the “evangelical mainstream” associated with the magazine Christianity Today, a group of “younger progressive evangelical economists” and the “neo-Calvinist” followers of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper. Once again we find within and across these groups a tremendous range of opinion, though all “take the productive capacity of capitalism as axiomatic” and all advocate some degree of government intervention in the economy.

Gay finds that the center is moving leftward, exhibiting “a general movement away from the defense of the market economy and toward the advocacy of increased state involvement in economic and social life” because its members are increasingly becoming influenced by the intellectual culture which is secular and generally hostile toward capitalism and business activity. However, in spite of this trend the evangelical center remains decidedly pro-capitalist with the degree of necessary intervention being the major point of contention.

Gay concludes with some suggestions for developing a “coherent evangelical economic ethic” which avoids the ideological entanglements of left and right, an effort which I find laudable. However, I am not optimistic that his proposal will find general acceptance given the many and often conflicting theological traditions which comprise the evangelical movement.