A New World: Christianity Encountering Democracy and Capitalism

In our adult faith Bible class at church, one of my co-teachers, Vic McCracken, asked us a question. Vic is an ethicist, and in the class he was asking us to explore how advances in science have created new and novel problems for Christian ethics. The Bible was written over 2,000 years ago, so its moral imagination hadn't envisioned something like stem cell research. How, then, do we apply the moral vision of Scripture to novel modern problems?

In getting us to ponder this issue, Vic asked us the question, "What is new in the world that wasn't around when the Bible was written?"

Most of the examples shared by the class were scientific and technological advances, and how these create ethical issues for us. But I raised my hand and shared this: "Democracy and capitalism. Those are new."

I don't know if you've noticed, but Christians can't get on the same page when it comes to how to think about democracy and capitalism. And a large part of that problem stems from the fact that the moral vision of the Bible was forged within a colonial outpost of an Imperial Empire with a patronage economy supported by various forms of servitude and slavery (think of Joseph in Egypt and the household codes for masters and slaves/servants in the Pauline epistles). The Biblical moral vision was worked out within those contexts, making it difficult for us to draw a straight line to our world of voting, political activism, Wall Street, paychecks, income taxes, and welfare. And because of this disjoint, confusion reigns. 

Consider the following moral questions.

Regarding democratic politics: Are Christians supposed to use their collective political power--their united vote--to make their nation states conform to Christian ideals and values? Or should Christians create a hospitable space in the public sphere, allowing diverse values and worldviews to exist side by side, even if Christians disagree with them?

Regarding capitalistic economies: Given the power of capitalism to lift the world out of poverty, should Christians step back to let the "invisible hand" of free-markets do the work in directing our shared economic life? Or should Christians ask the state to regulate markets in order to provide a more robust social safety net for its citizens, along with protections for the environment, even if these pursuits involve market inefficiency, perverse social and corporate incentives, and a greater tax burden? 

Most of the political and economic debates among Christians swirl around these two sets of questions. And what makes the debate so frustrating is that the Bible doesn't give clear guidance on these issues. What people tend to do is pick and choose Bible verses that support their preferred politics, ignoring countervailing texts that point in difference directions. 

Consequently, I am very skeptical of any viewpoint or position that purports to tell us exactly what Christians are to think or believe about politics and economic policy. 

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