Capitalism is Like Sex…

February 2, 2011 — 9 Comments


Capitalism is like sex. It can feel great and glorify God all at the same time, or it can be used to abuse and dehumanize. I think that capitalism by itself is morally neutral. I want to go ahead and get that out there in the beginning so there is no confusion on where I stand. My own personal experience has led me to a place of great caution (which borders on fear and paranoia, at times) when it comes to capitalistic machinations. However, I realize that my viewpoint is the result of my particular life path and may not accurately reflect the breadth and depth all that capitalism has to offer. Still, the adage “once bitten, twice shy” applies in my case.

As a Christian among other Christians it is, at the very least, uncomfortable to question capitalism’s benefits against its risks. There are many who believe that capitalism is literally a God-send. It enables the spread of democracy and the gospel, allows for wealth creation and stewardship, and offers opportunities for people to find meaning through earning a wage in their “calling” (more on that later). The trouble comes when questioning capitalism by pointing out its potential downside–avarice and hoarding, tendencies toward monopoly and/or oligarchy, exploitation, environmental destruction, and usury–a move usually interpreted as questioning the God who is assumed to have ordained the capitalistic-democratic society. But how did it get this way? Where did this idea come from that good Christians = good capitalists?

Max Weber, in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism sets out to answer that question. The book is divided into two parts: The Problem and The Practical Ethics and Ascetic Branches of Protestantism. The remainder of this post will focus on The Problem with next week’s post looking more closely at part two. So what is the “problem?” In the opening chapter of the book, Weber observes that Protestants have a much larger share of the wealth, business ownership, and political influence, than their Catholic counterparts in Western European and American capitalistic economies. He writes, “Protestants . . . both as ruling classes and as ruled, both as majority and as minority, have shown a special tendency to develop economic rationalism which cannot be observed to the same extent among Catholics either in the one situation or the other” (Kindle loc. 639).

He theorizes that it is the “character of their religious beliefs” which may account for the disparity. Before exploring the exact nature and genesis of these particular religious beliefs, Weber takes a moment to describe the “spirit of capitalism.” Using Benjamin Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” (ca. 1748) as his example, Weber paints a picture of the spirit of capitalism:

The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the idea of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is not treated as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (loc. 779)

Weber’s summation of the peculiar ethic typified by Franklin’s writing still rings true today. When one questions the necessity of increasing one’s personal capital, that person is viewed as an oddball at best but more often as a lazy freeloader unwilling to contribute to society. He has forgotten his “duty.”

It is from Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that we get the maxim “time is money.” Franklin explains that when one earns a daily wage, any day of leisure must have the value of the lost wage calculated as an expense in addition to any actual out of pocket expenditures. You might as well throw that amount of money into the sea, he offers. That is easy enough to calculate for the hourly or daily wage earner, but what about salaried workers?

In my context, a wealthy suburban professional county near a major metropolis, the obsession with time as unrealized monetary gain is seen most strikingly among parents of young children. In many of these dual-income houses any time not spent and work or school is filled up with organized activities for the children, usually sports or dance. Every weekday afternoon and evening is spent on some combination of homework, practice, or rehearsal, and weekends are spent at games and recitals. The modern family has little time for leisure or religion. Those that do squeeze in church are more likely to attend twice a month, when it doesn’t conflict with the kids’ extracurricular activities on Sunday mornings. Any expectation of involvement during the week is ignored. Why is this?

At first blush these parents just “want the best” for their children. I can understand that. I’m a parent myself with grade-school aged children. Yet when pressed, “the best” means something much more than childhood friendships and fun competition. Here’s how a typical conversation with a parent might go:

“Hey! You guys coming to church this Sunday? Haven’t seen you around in a few weeks.”

“Oh, well we’ve been really busy. Sara is playing travel soccer and most of her games are on Sunday afternoons. It’s nearly impossible for us to make it from church to the games on time.”

“Yeah, that must be tough. Seems like Sara’s pretty busy with sports. She plays tee-ball and dances too, right?”

“Uh-huh, and plays piano. Most nights we’re running off to some practice or rehearsal! But she loves it.”

“Seems like a lot for a 7-year-old.”

“Well, we just want what’s best for her.”

“Have you thought about having her focus on just one thing for a little while? It might make things seem a little less crazy.”

“Right now we’re just trying to expose her to as much as possible, see what she likes, and then we’ll really hone in on that.”

“Oh. Why is that?”

“For her to be competitive in Junior High and High School, we need to get a good base developed now.”

“Yeah? Why does she need to be able to compete in Junior High?”

“So she make varsity sports as a Sophomore, or maybe even a Freshman.”

“Varsity? Wow! Good for her. But why varsity?”

“Because it helps round out her college application. I mean, she’ll also be involved in Girl Scouts, so that will help. And we’ve started lining up some volunteer work for later on down the line. We’re not just holding out hopes she’ll be a jock.”

“I had no idea that colleges were that competitive these days.”

“The best ones are. And we want the best for her.”

“I’ve heard that the community college here is a hidden treasure. It has really good academics and instructors with a bent towards practical application. Plus, as a resident she’s virtually guaranteed admission.”

“I’m sure that’s fine for people who need that kind of thing. But Sara has so much potential. We really think that she is Ivy League material.”

“That’s great! But those schools cost a lot of money.”

“That’s why we’re saving now. We opened a 529 in her name when she was born and have had her grandparents and relatives make contributions to that in lieu of birthday and Christmas gifts each year. Plus she’ll probably get an academic scholarship if she studies hard and either a dance, piano, or sports scholarship, too. If she has to take out loans that’s okay also, because once she graduates, she’ll be able to start making a pretty good living, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. Sounds like it. So that’s the plan, huh?”

“Yup. I mean, we can’t know for sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we just want her to be happy.”

“So, maybe I’ll see you at church next Sunday then?”

“Hmm. Probably not. Playoffs start next weekend. If her team wins their two games on Saturday, which they should–they’re the best team in the league, we made sure of that by checking out the coaches before we signed her up–then they’ll have the semi-finals and finals next Sunday.”

“Okay. Well hopefully the following Sunday!”

“You bet, unless that slot in Ms. Palinchenko’s intermediate ballet class opens up. Fingers crossed!”

For these parents, “the best” means trying to assure from a young age that their child will grow up able to become wealthy. They think they’re chasing happiness, but what they’re really chasing is money. Money in the form of “duty” and “obligation.” And many of them do this as “good Christians.” In a misguided attempt to try and secure opportunity and a bright future, these parents are binding over an entire value system oriented around being “dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life” (loc. 807).

Weber’s final chapter of the first part begins to explore the roots of this peculiar economic rationalism. He starts by conceding that avarice is not, in and of itself, new. Yet there is something different about this particular marriage of religion and personal acquisition. He writes, “one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This it was which inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling in this sense” (loc. 1135).

He traces this back to the Reformation and Luther, in particular. Though Luther’s conception of calling never strayed far from a more traditional idea of a divine appointment by God to ministry, he did till the soil in which Calvinists and Puritans would later plant the seeds of capitalism. An increasing emphasis on the role of the individual in salvation and the Pauline priesthood of all believers, coupled with a burgeoning middle class led to an increase of individual earning potential and individual responsibility in responding to the salvific work of Christ.

Weber closes the first half of the book with a reminder that the “spirit of capitalism” we’re exploring was present only in a nascent sense in the lives of reformers like Calvin. We shouldn’t expect to look back at their lives and writings and see a fully developed spirit of capitalism. Yet without understanding its origins, it is difficult to understand our present dilemma.

Anderson Campbell


  • Michael Ratliff

    I was a little disappointed that your license plate is on a Toyota and not a Lexus – we should always aspire to the best, right?You described the lives of many of the families in churches where I have served. The “conversation” in your post reflects actual exchanges I’ve had with parents, and as they get older, their youth. I wonder if our current reality economically will cause change, or if it is too late when a young person realized that working hard and getting a degree from a good college/university no longer means you get a great job so you can work hard to save and some day retire and travel the country in a motor home?Thanks for identifying the “problem” with such clarity.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Michael – When we were on the sharp downward slide of the economic turn a couple years ago, there was much talk of people simplifying their lives and figuring out “what really matters.” I thought that maybe these would turn into permanent changes as the recovery looked to be a slow one. However it seems, anecdotally at least, that even our modest recovery/stabilization has vaulted most people back into the feeding frenzy they were in before. To use housing as an example, the huge inventory of houses has led to a crop of extreme bargain hunters. Since it is such a “buyers market,” would-be buyers are biding their time trying to get the largest house they can afford for the absolute least amount of money they can get away with spending. Gone is the assessment of “what really matters.” It has been replaced again by acquisition. So, I think that in some respects our attitudes toward money and acquisition require much more than an economic downturn to see any formidable change.

  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie, I must admit there are negative aspects to Capitalism. If I have learned one thing about history is that when one thing goes away another thing takes its place. My thought is looking at history and the various forms of government and economies if Capitalism was to be change what changes would be made…or what would take its place? Since we live in a corrupt world, would its negative aspect be worse than Capitalism. I confess that I have thought about selling most of my possessions and given things away in order to live a more simple life. Sometimes I wonder if another option of trade/work would really be better. One last thought, we call the work we do jobs, the word vocation is from a Latin word vocatio(n-) and means “a call.” Our “jobs” should be our “vocation” something that God has given us to do to glorify Him, no matter if it is postman or waiter, this calling is something that we should passionately pursue in order to bring glory to God through our lives. This was the premise for the protestant work ethic…we have lost the focus from glory to Christ through our “vocations” to working for ourselves through our “jobs.” Just some things I am thinking through…what are your thoughts? #dmingml

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – not only did Calvin et al not think, nor imagine any one would, that his theological work would be [might be? maybe was?] used to undergird what Weber calles ‘rationalistic capitalism, Weber didn’t think that Calvin et al. did either, or at least he writes as such [‘unforeseen and even unwished for’, p. 90]. Interestingly it seems that Weber understood capitalism as the pursuit of profit [contra the traditional economy of meeting needs], yet not as ‘the pursuit of selfish interests by the making of money….this was not the ‘spirit of capitalism’ as he understood it [or in his mind Franklin]…but distorted or ‘backwards ‘bourgeois-capitalistic development’. [p.57]. It seems for Weber capitalism like sex, when functioning with the right ‘spirit’ is good, but if it has the wrong ‘spirit’ then it doesn’t lead to the summum bonum.((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Rodger – that is very helpful clarification. I think that I may have misread or misremembered Weber at points when he talks about the seeds of rationalistic capitalism being sown by the Reformers, even though they were not practitioners or, as you have pointed out, could have even foreseen or imagined capitalism wedded with Christianity in the way it is today.

  • Anderson Campbell

    Michael – I keep coming back around to the job-vocation tension. I mentioned this over on Tim's post, to call something a vocation is to imply a Caller – for there to be a "calling" to something, one must be doing the calling. So, that begs the question: Are all jobs also vocations? Can one, in effect, turn a job into a vocation by overlaying a Caller onto it? Are there legitimate jobs that would not qualify as vocations? Why or why not? I am uneasy about both poles–that job=vocation if you're a Christian or, on the other end, vocation="spiritual" work, job="secular" work–neither work for me.

  • Bill Westfall

    Eddie…you just totally tore apart my view of heaven: Capitalism at its finest. Just kidding.Wow…loved the “conversation” in your post. It well typifies the thinking of many parents in our nation. Is it no wonder the young people entering the university today are also totally driven by the consumerist mentality? I spoke of this topic in my brief blog post yesterday, “Telos and Praxis.” What we believe the meaning of life to be (the end, telos) will determine our method for getting there (the means, praxis). [Garber’s book “Fabric of Faithfulness” was awesome…thanks for recommending it to me.]I am with you…it is not the particular economic system that is good or evil. The system is neutral. It is a tool and can be used either to accomplish good or evil. The people within the particular system, and their motives, will determine the outcome.I’m trying to figure out how to “expose” the faulty thinking in students. How do I get them to see their telos? (OK…let the jokes begin from that comment) If they could compare the telos of the kingdom of God with the consumeristic telos, perhaps some lights would come on.

  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,I can understand your tension between the idea of jobs vs. vocations. This is some of my thought process on this…you wrote “vocation is to imply a Caller – for there to be a “calling” to something, one must be doing the calling” in Genesis God calls us to subdue the earth and have dominion over creation, this is man’s responsibility. “One must be doing the calling” God makes this statement so He is doing the calling…this vocation is not always spiritual vs. secular in terms of how we usually think…even Adam was called to till the ground this was part of his calling.”Are there legitimate jobs that would not qualify as vocations” I believe using the word “legitimate” means jobs that have value in some basic form and do not contradict scripture in moral or ethical areas. I would have to say, yes, all would be vocations. When the Louvre was having some excavation done in Paris they found blocks with a cross carved out in them. When researching why these blocks were made this way they found out that Christian masons wanted to make sure they did not force blocks to fit in areas they should not be, but wanted every block they made to be perfect for the glory of God. They understood their work was not a job but a vocation, a calling to something bigger. These are just a few of my thoughts what do you think? I am still trying to process Weber myself but this is where I am ending up.

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – thanks as always for insight into interesting questions of faith and living it out. I have to think more about the relationship between job and vocation. As you know Luther would see whatever ‘job’ or life situation one was born into as the calling of God. I don’t think Luther would use ‘vocation’ to describe this [but I really don’t know…Weber speaks to this in Chapter 3]. And re are there jobs that would not be Christian ‘vocation’ etc…my heads hurts :)…in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was discussion among some Christian groups in the USA and Canada that would answer yes to that question…jobs in the weapons industry for example.((tags:dmingml)) #dmingml