For many white North American evangelicals, the basic assumption that capitalism is Christian and socialism is hostile to Christian faith has been an unquestioned assumption. This is an expectation that is grounded in beliefs about major developments in European politics from the nineteenth century.
New socialist movements, especially the form of socialism developed and championed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, gained prominence and rode a wave of popular dissent in the mid 1800s. Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people,” meaning that it was used to pacify and distract the working classes from the oppression being inflicted on them by the upper classes, a fact that made many Christians view Marxist socialism as inherently anti-Christian.
The policy of state atheism implemented after the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s cemented this perception. Socialism, or communism (most westerners did not differentiate between the two) was atheistic. Therefore, capitalism, the system operative in the west where Christianity is practised freely, must be the Christian alternative.
But here’s an interesting fact. In 2011, an online article in Christianity Today reported the results of a Public Religion Research Institute survey asking Americans whether they believed Christian values and capitalism are at odds. Tellingly, more respondents answered they are at odds than that they are compatible (44 to 36 per cent). What was particularly interesting was that the responses differed according to race, income, and gender.
White evangelical men with higher incomes were more likely to be more favourably disposed toward capitalism, while Christians from minority groups, especially those with lower incomes, had more concerns. This seems to be a good example of how context affects one’s theological perspective in a key ethical issue.
What’s a theologian to do? First, we need to define our terms, because capitalism and socialism encompass a variety of expressions. Because we are framing the discussion theologically, our definitions will be fairly simple and modest. For our purposes, socialism will be defined as a socioeconomic system based on some form of collective ownership of, and centralized control of the economy (i.e., production, distribution, and exchange) intended to maximize benefits for all members of society.
Capitalism is “an economic system based on wage labour in which the means of production is controlled by private or corporate interests for the purpose of profit, with prices determined largely by competition in a free market.”
Next, we need to think about the assumptions and principles underlying the two systems. Socialist economies are somewhat neutral in their expectations about human nature and the goal of the system. Individual participation is expected based on the benefit one will receive, as well as on a commitment to the common good. The integrity of the system depends in large part on the structures set up to control the economy.
Socialist economies built on democratic governments create better accountability than those that are controlled by a small group or a dictator. This can also influence the overall expectation that citizens are contributing to the common good. This is not an explicitly Christian aim, but it is not too far from the goal of mutual edification expressed about Christian community in the New Testament.
A more definitive answer would rely on how one understands the common good. This is a consideration that transcends our evaluation, but it may or may not be friendly to Christian values. A socialist economy will produce goods according to a plan that is intended to match production to the needs of the citizens, so that in a best case scenario, people are producing basically most or all of the goods that they need.
What does the real world evidence tell us? A variety of cultural and other contextual factors can influence what a socialist economy might look like – for example, socialism will look very different in Finland compared to Venezuela, but the reasons may have little to do with the economic system in use and more to do with other political and cultural factors.
According to global economic indicators, democratic socialist countries are some of the countries with the highest standard of living in the world, and the countries with the highest happiness index in the world. For reference, happiness was measured by evaluating six categories: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make your own life choices, generosity of the general population, and perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.
Capitalism takes a different set of presuppositions as a starting point. The primary motivating factors in capitalist systems are self-interest, the profit motive, and regulation of the market by natural market forces (although most capitalist systems employ some regulation).
While the original expectation was that capitalist markets would be motivated by individuals operating according to principles of “enlightened self-interest” – meaning that they were assumed to be guided by at least residually Christian scruples that should restrain their baser instincts for profit – the principle of self-interest is not a Christian principle. Rather, it is more obviously connected to root issues that lead to sinful behaviour than righteous.
Similarly, the desire to make profit, not inherently problematic in itself, can become problematic if it is unrestrained by conscience. Capitalist markets rely on individuals to restrain themselves, as well as on market forces like the law of supply and demand to help the market find equilibrium.
In theological perspective, in the absence of explicit regulatory controls, it would appear that only impersonal forces restrain the greed of individuals in capitalist markets. It seems difficult to reconcile capitalism with Christian values, unless one has profited in a capitalist economy. Then, as the survey I cited indicates, a wealthier, more privileged person is more likely to give an endorsement.
What precedents in the Christian tradition might Christians find to give clarity in this matter? The teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church in Acts 2 lends weight to the idea that Jesus taught a form of socialism. Church teaching in Paul’s letters seems to corroborate this by exhorting believers to renounce self-interest and look to the needs of others.
Extending these thoughts into economic matters seems to point toward socialism more than capitalism. Certainly, socialism can be exploited, but it can also contribute to Christian community, and arguably better than unrestrained capitalism does.
How did capitalism become prevalent in societies that saw themselves as in some way Christian? The answer seems to centre on the principles of personal freedom and responsibility. Freedom was initially viewed in relation to religious freedom in Europe, in contrast to religious oppression, the enforcement of some form of religious conformity.
Religious freedom led to freedoms in other areas, and in the context of an evolving economy and other social forces, it led to the acceptance of ideas about economic freedom, especially those with economic resources at their disposal. Personal responsibility in economic matters is an extension of personal theological responsibility, the corollary of which is that one’s economic level was seen as an indicator of one’s moral uprightness.
So those who became rich were righteous. Those who became poor must have brought misfortune upon themselves. The free market became an evaluative tool for making moral judgments on a social scale. Today, ample evidence exists to show that wealth is distributed not according to righteousness, and certainly not equally, but along lines of race, class, and gender.
The distribution of wealth globally is becoming more unequal over time, with more wealth concentrated among fewer people than ever before. And there are more economic concerns that Christians need to help address. We not only can do better, we must.
 https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2011/april-online-only/do-christianity-capitalism-clash.html, accessed 16 September 2022.
 https://www-oed-com.twu.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/27454?rskey=zKWZl7&result=2#eid, accessed 16 September 2022.