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Religion, Morality, and the Private Property Order

R&L: You have been long involved in the late-twentieth-century revival of the freedom philosophy, especially with your involvement in the Foundation for Economic Education (fee). In addition, you are a Congregationalist minister. Why do you think it is important for ministers to be grounded in sound economic thinking?

Opitz: Ministers today are learned and dedicated men and women. They buy books and subscribe to serious journals, striving to keep abreast of trends that affect religion and the church. They are involved in civic affairs; they are liked and respected, even by those who never go near a church. They are good company and have friends in the other professions, especially businessmen. It therefore would not hurt if they improved their understanding of business and the free economy. The discipline of economics, after all, does not dangle somewhere in outer space but is an integral and essential part of this God-created planet. Sound economics has a religious dimension, and the Acton Institute is bringing this truth home to a growing number of clergy.

Monotheism, as opposed to every brand of polytheism, implies a uni-verse, a cosmos of law and order with working rules in every sector–including the economic sector. Perhaps the most primary economic postulate is scarcity. Human wants are virtually limitless, but the means for satisfying our wants and needs are scarce. The discipline of economics emerged in response to the awkward fact that, struggle as we may, we will always desperately be trying to cope with our unfulfilled desires. Economics teaches us how to act responsibly and non-wastefully when dealing with the planet’s limited resources of human energy, raw materials, and time. “Why do we work?” asked Francis Bacon, and answered his own question: “For the glory of God and the improvement of Man’s estate.” And Jesus warned that “If you are not faithful in your use of worldly wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?”

R&L: This view of scarcity and stewardship is very different from that of planned economies, isn’t it?

Opitz: That’s right. What has happened is that modern man, freed from the “superstitions” of the past and energized by “Science,” believes he has become as God who can create the world anew and establish a heaven on earth. The teachings of the economists, however, stand directly athwart this mood. Wilhelm Roepke, a ranking economist and social philosopher of our time, reminds us that “Economics is an anti-utopian, anti-ideological, disillusioning science.” The great social drift during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is based on the delusion of a few thinkers involved in the French Revolution that “Mankind has now come of age and can take charge of its own affairs.” Translated into practice, this means that inordinate power comes into the hands of a self-chosen elite to operate a society as if it were an army, that is to say, by command and drill. Every variety of socialism has a Plan, a blueprint, to put the multitude through their paces. In contrast, the biblical teaching is that we human beings will not be able to attain ultimate felicity within this mundane order of space and time. We are created beings on a planet ordained for our instruction and testing, where we learn who we really are and what we may become, guided by God’s revelation.

R&L: How does the free economy, then, relate to this biblical view of man and his role here in creation?

Opitz: As I’ve said, God has laid down rules for us in every walk of life, including the proper organization of our economic affairs. The free economy is a system of voluntary arrangements that brings together people who have work skills, who use tools and machinery to increase their output, thus producing the incredible abundance of goods and services we enjoy as consumers. Economics, remember, is in the realm of means, but it supplies the essential means for enriching our lives in the realms of the mind and spirit; as well as in music, art, and literature. Now, the virtue of the economic order of a free society is that it is not politically controlled–it is run by the consumers. It is the multitude of people in the marketplace, buying this or not buying that, who provide entrepreneurs with the clues they need in deciding what to produce, in what sizes, colors, and so on. The collapse of socialism in our time demonstrates that a complex economy cannot be operated by a bureaucracy.

The free economy provides us with the things we want and need better than any other economic arrangement; in addition, a free economy provides a bulwark against unwarranted political intrusions into people’s lives. Very few Americans, and surely no ministers, want government regulation of their churches; nor do they want teachers to be regulated, or editors. Similarly, we should resist, on principle, the government regulation of businessmen and the economy. It is the function of government and law to maintain the peace of society by punishing anyone who breaks that peace. This rule should apply equally to all citizens: editors, clergy, teachers, and businessmen.

But in an era where millions of Americans are riding the government gravy train, it is only natural that some businessmen, too, would seek to use the public power for private advantage; it is crucial to note that when a businessman accepts such government handouts, he moves outside the free economy and into the shady area of government bureaucracy.

R&L: How did you first become exposed to the freedom philosophy?

Opitz: My college major was political science, with a minor in economics. Our text in the latter was Principles of Economics by Fairchild, Furness, and Buck. Fred Fairchild was a Yale professor and later, a founding trustee of fee. Thus, early on in my education I learned something about the free economy. After college, three years of theology, ordination, and two apprenticeships, I went to India as a Red Cross man during the latter part of World War II. In 1946, I was called to the venerable Second Parish in the town of Hingham, Massachusetts, located on the shore between Boston and Plymouth. By this time I had read and come to admire Albert Jay Nock. I had also worked through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and books like Social Statics and Man vs. the State by Herbert Spencer. I had been reading Newsweek ever since it began printing Henry Hazlitt’s column on economics, and I bought his wonderful Economics in One Lesson when it first appeared. By this time, I was teaching a college course part-time in American government and using Hazlitt’s book to explain the economic counterpart to the free society set forth in our Declaration and Constitution.

R&L: And then how did you become involved with fee?

Opitz: I spent most of my adult life on the staff of fee, joining in 1955. I got acquainted with Frank Chodorov in 1947 through his monthly newsletter analysis, and later spent considerable time with him. It was Frank who put me in touch with fee. The Foundation was producing a series of excellent pamphlets at the time, which very much impressed me. I met Leonard E. Read in 1950, and a year later moved to California to coordinate a conference program for ministers in the area of church, state, and economy. Leonard was on the board of the group that sponsored this.

Several years went by, during which Leonard and I became friends. He asked me in the mid-fifties if I would consider joining the staff of fee. “What would you want me to do?” I asked him. His response was, “ If I had to tell you what to do, I wouldn’t hire you!” Well, this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I still harbored the intention of getting back into parish ministry but new projects continued to pop up, which I just had to finish. Leonard was a charismatic personality, good company, and always searching for new ideas and fresh ways of expressing them. I learned a great deal from him and from my fellow staffers, a most congenial corps. For many years I had a secretary who knew more than I did, was a model of efficiency, took on extra chores cheerfully, and embraced the fee mission wholeheartedly. I wrote numerous essays for our journal, The Freeman, blending the three disciplines of religion, economics, and political philosophy. Several books resulted from these efforts.

I also carried on a ministry of sorts with an informal clerical fellowship called The Remnant, composed of ministers who were uneasy about the Social Gospel and the Christian Socialist trends in the mainline churches that were part of the National Council of Churches. The Remnant held regular luncheons in New York and in other parts of the country wherever my fee work took me. We had a newsletter and distributed books and pamphlets; as luncheon speakers we had some of the most distinguished economists and philosophers in the land, as well as one of my heroes, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who hails from Austria.

Meanwhile, fee was sponsoring a busy weekend seminar series in various parts of the nation, well over two hundred of them over a period of about twenty years. I conducted a Sunday chapel service at each of these seminars. fee was an unusual and important organization, and I am proud to have been a part of it.

R&L: Your book Religion and Capitalism: Allies not Enemies, now in its fourth printing, has had a profound influence on many people by demonstrating the compatibility of the Christian religion and the freedom philosophy. What prompted you to write Religion and Capitalism?

Opitz: Sometime in 1966, I picked up the phone and a voice identified itself as Ted Lit, senior editor at Arlington House, who wanted to talk with me. He came to fee, and I liked him immediately. “Arlington wants to publish a book showing the compatibility of Christianity and free-market capitalism,” he said, “and we think you’re the man to do it.” After the usual delays, the book was published and was the Conservative Book Club selection in June 1970. But I was never enthusiastic about the title!

Wilhelm Roepke disliked the term capitalism, as do I. He writes, “as coined and circulated by Marxism, the term has retained up to the present so much of its hate-filled significance and class-struggle overtones, that its usefulness for the purpose of scientific discussion has become extremely questionable.” Consult the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, which came out around 1935, and turn to the entry “Capitalism” written by Werner Sombart. I understand that Sombart was not a member of the communist party, but his thinking was certainly Marxist–just the right sort of man to write an impartial account of capitalism! Sombart claims that he was the first writer to use the label “Capitalism” systematically in his analyses, published around the turn of the century. The economic order of a free people is better termed “The Free Market Economy” or “The Private Property Order.”

R&L: In Religion and Capitalism you wrote, “The market will exhibit every shortcoming men exhibit… Catalog human shortcomings and you have compiled a list of the weaknesses and limitations of the market.” Could you explain what you mean by that and why this insight is important for defenders of the free market to understand?

Opitz: Every one of man’s institutions is operated by fallible human beings; the market is no exception and so, will also be fallible. But it does have a virtue that few other organizations exhibit: The market is not a power structure. The businessman plays a major role in the market economy, and he has no power beyond the quality of his products and his powers of persuasion. No businessman can compel anyone to work for him, or to buy his goods. The businessman is a mandatary of the customers; he follows their dictates as set by their buying habits. “The customer is always right,” as the old saying goes, and the businessman must please his customers, change his product line, or go out of business. Consumers are not given to sentimentality; if they see something they like at a price they can afford, they buy. Otherwise, they don’t. Every businessman is aware of this.

R&L: What is the relationship between political and economic freedom and the Judeo-Christian tradition of Western civilization?

Opitz: It is the function of the law, or call it government, to keep the peace of society by curbing those who break the peace by criminal actions. The peace is broken by an act of murder or by assault and battery. It is broken when a person is the victim of theft or when his property is damaged in any way. The peace is broken whenever a person bears false witness, as in the case of breach of contract. In short, the purpose of government is to maintain the integrity of the person and his rightful possessions, and in our culture, the laws for maintaining the peace of society are based on the moral commandments of the Decalogue. There is, of course, much more to the Decalogue than the several items that are especially relevant to maintaining the civil order, and deeper than the Decalogue is Jesus’ twofold summary of the Law: Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

R&L: You have written that “an economic system… functions within the framework of ethical and spiritual components… This means that the discussion of economic concepts cannot proceed very far without invoking spiritual concepts.” What do you mean by this, and exactly what spiritual concepts are important in economic discussions?

Opitz: The American Epic opens with a theological statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights…” The Declaration does not say that “all men hold these truths“ because this is not so. The Founders might have continued, ”We and our fellow countrymen hold that all men are created, and created equal, because we have been schooled by eighteen centuries of biblical teachings in the churches and schools of Christendom.“ They might have also gone on to say, ”We humans are not a chance excrescence on the surface of this earth tossed up somewhere between two ice ages; to the contrary, we are on this planet by divine intent; it is God’s will that we are here to serve His mighty purposes, and every human person is called to that service, body and soul. We share a common humanity; we are neither animals nor gods; we are equally God’s children; we are equal before the Law and equally entitled to an evenhanded justice in the courts.“

But the idea of equality does not carry us beyond this point. Human beings differ in ever so many ways. If this were not so, the human race could not continue. Individual differences spawn the enormous variety of talents that make for social cooperation under the division of labor and generate a free and prosperous commonwealth.

R&L: Many world religions posit a radical division between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh–many Eastern religions, for example, express this. Christianity, in contrast, has no such division. What is the significance of this for the study of economics?

Opitz: The Hindu word maya is derived from a Sanskrit root meaning “structure.” Maya is the term usually applied by Hindus to the world outside, the world of nature, the world of matter in contrast to the realm of mind and spirit. According to Hinduism, the material world is constantly changing and is therefore untrustworthy; it is illusory and therefore evil. In contradistinction, the biblical account of Creation tells us that God created the material world and called it very good. So, the earth is our proper environment, only awaiting its improvement as we learn to work the earth for food and all other things that enable us to survive and then to flourish. But, if matter is intrinsically evil, then the incentive to work weakens and society sinks into poverty.

R&L: It is often said that America is a Christian nation. In what sense do you think this is true?

Opitz: It is a fact of history that the early settlers on our eastern shore were spurred on by a religious impulse; they came here to a place where they might practice their brand of Christianity without being molested. The number of men and women who list their religion as “Christian” today in America far exceeds the number of all other religions combined, and it might still be said that we are a Christian nation in the values we live by or aspire to. You might say that Christianity is in our nation’s bloodstream, part of our cultural heredity as an offshoot of Christendom and the nature of the institutions set up on this continent by our early forebears. But to a large extent we have become a nation of nominal Christians with little influence in the public forum.

The prevailing ethos of these United States is secularism of one kind or another. Or, one might call it Humanism, a religion without God. Twenty years or more ago the American Humanist Association published a pamphlet titled The Fourth “R.” That pamphlet advanced the argument that in addition to the three established religions–Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism–there is now a fourth: Humanism. And now, as this century winds down, we might take note of the astonishing growth of a fifth religion in our country, Islam. So, in short, the phrase “This is a Christian nation” must be carefully explained and qualified.

Many interpret the phrase to mean that the churches are seeking to make Christianity the official religion of the United States, as Anglicanism is the official religion of Great Britain. The First Amendment guarantees that no church here shall have such a most favored status in the hierarchy of the State. But there is such a “religion” that does get large grants of aid: H. G. Wells once declared, “Socialism is to me a very great thing indeed; it is the only religion I profess.“ This ”religion“ is handsomely subsidized in virtually all modern states, so one must speak with extreme circumspection if he refers to ours as a Christian nation.

R&L: What thinkers have had the most influence on you? What figures do you most admire, and why?

Opitz: My indebtedness to those from whom I have learned is enormous; help always seemed to be available when I needed it, as when I enrolled for a seminar to study William Temple’s book Nature, Man, and God, the Gifford Lectures for, I think, 1934—35. I had no background in philosophy in college, and this book floored me. About a week into the course, I found a book titled Guide to Philosophy by C. E. M. Joad, a professor at the University of London. It was just what the title promised, and it opened up the subject for me. I read everything by Joad in the University of California library and eventually bought most of his works. Joad writes with grace and charm; he’s a good read, and I recommend him.

During the mid-forties I came across a book with an intriguing title: Darwin, Marx, Wagner by Jacques Barzun, of Columbia University. I was so taken by this book that I began to read and collect his other titles. The erudite Dr. Barzun is a true scholar, a polymath, and a polished writer in many disciplines.

Albert Jay Nock came within my orbit just before World War II, with his department in The American Mercury. But it was not until the spring of ’46, when I returned to the States, that I picked up Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I read it entirely during a forty-eight-hour coach ride from San Francisco to Chicago. From then on I was hooked! Fifteen years later three of us Nock fans formed the Nockian Society: “No officers; No dues; No meetings…”

I stumbled onto Christopher Dawson many years ago; he taught me much about Western civilization and Christendom that I had not learned in college or seminary. Another favorite historian of Christendom is W. G. de Burgh, a professor of philosophy at the University of Reading. His Legacy of the Ancient World is kept in print as a Penguin paperback; it’s worth owning.

Gerald Heard, a much-neglected thinker, came to America from England in the mid-thirties. He wrote on anthropology, history, and science, as well as philosophy. His Preface to Prayer is of particular interest to clergy, as are his short books on the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, The Creed of Christ and The Code of Christ.

There are many others to whom I am deeply indebted; most of them know who they are, and I hope I’ll be forgiven for not naming them.