This is the 9th episode in our series examining the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we take a look at the influence the Faith had on property rights & individual freedom.
I begin by saying I know what follows, some will take great exception to. While some of what follows will sound like politicizing, I will attempt to steer clear of that. There is an undeniable political component to this topic but I’m not politicking here. I’m simply trying to show how a Christian Worldview, that is, one that is Biblically consistent, does tend to promote a certain kind of economic system. And that system flows from what the Bible says about property rights.
Some listeners might wonder why CS, a church history podcast, as left off its narrative timeline to engage in this series we’re calling “The Change.” Well, really, it still is history. I’m attempting to show HOW the Christian Worldview has impacted WORLD history and how people live and think today. That’s when history becomes relevant, more than just academic fodder – when we understand how the past influences today.
In our last episode we took a look at Christianity’s impact on labor & economics. It shouldn’t take long to realize that 12 minutes isn’t long enough to deal with THAT massive subject. A 12 hour podcast would just scratch the surface of the Faith’s impact on economic theory & practice. A 12 month graduate course might make a bare beginning on the subject. Today, we’ll delve a little deeper, realizing that we’re really only dabbling in the shallows of a vast subject.
A person’s labor and finances have little dignity when he/she lacks the freedom and right to own property. Both are rooted in 2 of the Ten Commandments; Exodus 20:15, 17 =
“You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet”
Both these commandments assume the individual has the right and freedom to acquire, retain, and sell his/her property at their own discretion.
Private property rights are vital to people’s freedom. The 2 cannot be separated. Yet this most basic truth is not well recognized today. It’s rarely taught in public schools which seem bent on promoting socialism, which we’ll see in a moment is contrary to Scripture. Promoters of socialism often decry private property rights, arguing that “human rights” are more important. This sophistry is deceptive and lacks historical support, because where there are no private property rights there are also virtually no human or civil rights. What rights did the people under Communism have in the former Soviet Union, where the state owned everything? Except for a few personal incidentals, private property rights didn’t existent. Not having the right to private property was closely linked to not having the right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press. Similarly, what human rights do the people have today in Cuba or China, where property rights are also nonexistent?
The American Founding Fathers, who were strongly influenced by biblical Christian values, knew that individual economic, political, and social freedom was intrinsically linked to private property rights. Even while still subjects of the British king, they made it clear property rights and liberty were inseparable. Arthur Lee of Virginia said, “The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive a people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.” That’s why when the Constitution was written, its formulators included private property rights in the Article I, Section 8. The 3rd Amendment gives citizens the right to grant or deny housing on their property to soldiers. And the 4th Amendment protects the property of citizens from unlawful search and seizure.
But ever since the appearance of Karl Marx’s economic and political philosophy known as Communism, private property has been politically attacked. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, written in 1848 says, “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
Immediately after the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin, the first Communist leader of Russia, took the words of the Manifesto seriously when he secretly ordered the destruction of all legal documents showing property ownership, making it impossible for former owners to prove title.
Following the founding of the Communist party, numerous politicians, writers, & even a few theologians, have argued that socialism, a term synonymous with Communism in the Manifesto, is the most compatible economic and political philosophy with Christian values.
For instance, during the Great Depression, Jerome Davis said Christianity, like socialism, holds human values as higher than property values. While that’s true, it’s also misleading. It suggests property values are the same as property rights. They aren’t. Davis argued that human values are God-given, while property rights are merely human constructs.
But nowhere in the Old or New Testament are property rights ever disparaged. On the contrary, the Commandment “You shall not steal” underscores such rights.
In his parables and other teachings, Jesus often referred to property and material goods, but He never condemned anyone for possessing them. He only condemned people’s over-attachment to possessions because that interfered with loving God and others. The parable of the Rich Young ruler in Matthew 19 well illustrates this. In another parable a chapter later, Jesus has the owner of a vineyard say to one of this hired hands, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” It would seem some socialists today would answer, “No you don’t! We’ll tell you what to do with that money.”
The book of Acts records Ananias as judged severely by God, not for withholding his property, but for lying to God. The possession of private property was assumed by Peter asking him, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold?”
Even though Christianity doesn’t espouse a specific economic ideology, it would be wrong to conclude that any & every economic theory is compatible with Christianity. Despite that, many look favorably upon socialism, which is an ideology that is in several regards contrary to Biblical doctrine.
A less discriminating student of scripture might assume that because early Christians sold their possessions and “had all things in common, & gave to each as anyone had need” or because they were expected to be their brother’s keeper, that socialistic governments are a reflection of Christianity. Such thinking makes at least 3 mistakes.
First, it fails to recall that not all of the early Christians sold their possessions. Mary, the mother of Mark, retained her house and received at least implied commendation for doing so as that’s where the church met. Simon, a tanner in Caesarea, retained his house where he hosted Peter in Acts 10.
Second, they fail to note that the supposed socialism some of the early Christians practiced was totally voluntary. Whatever they shared in common was out of love for that individual, not because it was forced upon them by government coercion. As we noted in a previous podcast, behavior that’s forced, no matter how noble its objective, is no longer Christian. This point is all too often overlooked today, even by many well-meaning but confused Christians.
Third, while Christ wanted all to follow him, He also let them have the freedom to reject him, a precedent that God already established at the time of creation when he gave Adam and Eve the gift of a free will. Christ healed 10 lepers, but only 1 returned to thank him. He’d not denied the 9 the freedom to reject him. Another time He said that He wanted to gather Jerusalem’s people to himself spiritually, like a hen gathers her chicks, but they were unwilling. He wept over Jerusalem’s spiritual stubbornness, but compulsion was not his MO.
Just as God does not want people to be coerced in spiritual matters, so too He does not want them to be coerced in earthly matters, such as in their economic activities. There’s not a single reference in either the Old or New Testaments in which God denies economic freedom to people, as do fascism, socialism, and it’s Siamese twin, Communism. The parables of Jesus that touch on economic issues are always couched in the context of freedom. Consider his parable of the talents, which relates the case of 1 man having received 5 talents; another 2; and a third, 1 (Matthew 25:15-30). The implication is quite clear: each was free to invest or not; there was no compulsion.
If we fail to understand that the involuntary, coercive nature of socialism and its state programs is utterly incompatible with the economic practices some early Christians engaged in when they voluntarily had all things in common, we may think that socialism is a good way to practice Christianity. In 1848 this unfortunate thinking led F. D. Maurice to coin the term Christian socialism. Something done involuntarily or as a result of compulsion is no longer Christian. Christian socialism is an oxymoron. As the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek argued, socialism fails to tell people that its promises of freedom from economic care and want can only happen “by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of choice.” The prescient author Dostoyevsky expressed the incompatibility of socialism and Christianity by having Miusov, in The Brothers Karamazov, say, “The socialist who is a Christian is more to be dreaded than a socialist who is an atheist.”
Ever since the atheist and communist Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital in the mid-19th C, the economic system of capitalism has been both misunderstood and castigated, partly because of Marx’s definition of labor. He wrongly saw labor as an antithesis to capital, when in reality capital is just labor transformed. Marx’s definition has dominated the discussion, even though it’s based on a false premise. Another misunderstanding relates to capitalism itself. Although Marx didn’t use the term, it became a despised concept to his sympathizers who used it in their pro-socialist, and so necessarily anti-capitalistic propaganda. Capitalism is negatively portrayed in the mass media. Ironically, even many news anchors, celebrities, & university professors who are paid millions of dollars annually—a capitalist salary—cast aspersions on capitalism, biting the hand that feeds them.
In reality, capitalism is only a synonym for free enterprise & free markets. If these terms were consistently used instead of the word “capitalism,” socialists would have a more difficult time getting people to see capitalism as evil. This would be especially true in societies that have a strong tradition of freedom, such as the United States, Canada and Great Britain. People would ask: How can this economic system be evil if it’s the product of political and economic freedom and has never been found to exist without such freedom?
A definition of capitalism by Pope John Paul II is relevant. In 1996, he asked rhetorically whether the eastern European countries, where Communism failed, should opt for capitalism. Said the Pope, “If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative.” The Pope’s definition of capitalism underscores that it’s a synonym for free enterprise.
This is not to be understood to mean that Capitalism is the official Christian economic ideology. It’s merely that capitalism is a material by-product of the Mosaic law. Capitalism is a by-product of Christianity’s value of freedom applied to economic life and activities. The economic freedom of capitalism can be & IS sometimes abused and misused. It’s also the only thing anti-capitalists like communists & socialists attribute to capitalism. Karl Marx believed that the abuses in capitalism would inevitably destroy it. As an atheist, he couldn’t envision the humanitarian spirit of Christianity internalized by thousands of leaders in the West would correct economic abuse. So the free market has not only has survived, it’s given to a greater proportion of the world’s people more prosperity and freedom than any other economic system in history. As Milton Friedman has shown, in countries where the free market is not permitted to operate, the gap between the rich and poor is the widest.
It can be argued further that a free market economy as it practiced in America, is of all economic systems the most moral in that it does not coerce or compel individuals to make economic transactions. It permits individuals or companies to act voluntarily. Individuals need not buy or sell their products unless they so desire. Furthermore, individuals are not compelled to produce a product against their will as is the norm in socialist, or so-called “planned” economies.
Finally, given the positive relationship between economic freedom and a nation’s prosperity, the following question needs to be asked: Is it merely accidental that the greatest amount of freedom and the accompanying economic prosperity happen to exist in countries where Christianity has had, and continues to have, a dominant presence and influence? The evidence shows rather decisively that Christianity tends to create a capitalistic mode of life whenever siege conditions do not prevail.
On a deeper level, and maybe this gets more to the heart of the issue, is the question of the profit motive. Is the desire for profit inherently sinful, and if it is, should it be regulated by civil law and an economic system that makes profit something to be shunned?
In both the Old & New Testaments, the Bible says a worker is worthy of his/her wages. To pay those wages, the employer has to make a profit, or she/ he has nothing to pay the worker with.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus gave legitimacy to the profit motive. The crisis of the parable revolves around what each of the 3 servants did with what was given to them. The 2 who made a profits were commended while the one who had no interest in increasing what he’d received was condemned.
The idea that the profit motive is evil doesn’t come from the Bible or Christian theology. It was Karl Marx, the atheistic Communist, who said profit, which he called surplus value, was the result of labor not returned to the laborers. So, profit was cast as exploitation of workers. The Soviet Encyclopedia projects this belief when it states, “Under capitalism, the category of profit is a converted form of surplus value, the embodiment of unpaid labor of wage workers, which is appropriated without compensation by the capitalist.”
Contempt for the profit motive is common fare for some intellectuals who harbor socialistic ideas. They impugn profit by identifying abuses in the world of banking, industry and commerce. To be sure, profits can and have been abused—horribly. But if this is to be used as condemnation of free enterprise, then socialism has to be held to the same standard. When it is, it fares worse than the free market.
What’s important to note is that it’s the Christian ethic that ensures the abuses inherent in profit are kept at bay. The Apostle Paul warns that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. The NT repeatedly warns of greed & avarice, and their cousin, Envy.
Let’s take a look at a case study that well illustrates all this.
After the disaster at Roanoke Island and the mystery of the Lost Colony, the next English settlers in America landed in 1607 and called their settlement Jamestown. After a rough start that saw the colony nearly destroyed, Captain John Smith arrived & made moves to make it successful. The colonists were economically organized as a socialist community, requiring all the settlers to give all products of their labor to “the common store.” Individuals had no private property and no economic freedom. This system quickly turned disastrous, bringing famine and starvation. An early historian wrote, “It was a premium for idleness, and just suited the drones, who promptly decided that it was unnecessary to work themselves, since others would work for them.”‘ Smith’s threats that if a person didn’t work, he wouldn’t eat did little to improve the economic malaise. So, beginning in 1611, Governor Thomas Dale ended the common store, and 4 years later had the London Company deed 50 acres to each colonist if he would clear the trees and farm it. The injection of private property and economic freedom brought about a dramatic change in Jamestown. The colonists immediately went to work and prospered. The new economic system demonstrated that socialism does not work.
A similar situation happened among the Pilgrims at Plymouth. When they landed on the shores of Cape Cod in 1620 and set up their Colony, like Jamestown, they tried to equate Christianity with socialism. Their common store system failed as well. The colony experienced economic disaster. So in 1623 William Bradford, the colony’s governor, like Governor Dale in Jamestown, assigned all able-bodied persons a portion of land as their own. Before long the slothful and unproductive turned from laggards into willing, productive workers. Men who previously had “feigned sickness were now eager to get into the fields. Even the women went out to work eagerly…. They now took their children with them and happily engaged in labor for their own family. The result was that the following harvest was a tremendous, bountiful harvest, and abundant thanksgiving was celebrated in America.” With the common store, the Pilgrims had had little incentive to produce commodities other than those needed for their immediate sustenance.
The new system, based on economic freedom, revealed for the second time that when people own their own property, they become energetic rather than lethargic and dependent on others. Socialism could only work if human beings were sinless & always sought the best for their neighbor. That person, however, does not exist. As both the Old and New Testaments teach, man is a fallen, sinful creature who does not seek his neighbor’s welfare.
As stated earlier, while Christianity doesn’t advocate a specific economic ideology, its support of human freedom and private property rights provides fertile ground for the free enterprise economic system. Contrary to a socialist mentality that advocates a redistribution of wealth, Christianity encourages productivity and thrift, which often results in an individual’s wealth.
While Christianity isn’t opposed to individuals becoming wealthy, it doesn’t promote wealth as an end in itself. Christians have always been expected to use their acquired wealth to God’s glory and to the welfare of their neighbor, as Martin Luther and John Calvin often made clear.
Closely related to the dignity of labor and economic freedom is Christianity’s concept of time. The British historian Paul Johnson contends that one of Christianity’s great strengths lies in its concept of time. Unlike the Greeks, who saw time as cyclical, Christianity, with its background in Judaism, has always seen time as linear. Life and events proceed from one historical point to another. Groundhog Day is a fun movie, but it’s fiction.
Christianity’s linear concept of time led to the invention of mechanical clocks in the Middle Ages. In his fascinating books The Discoverers & The Creators, venerable American historian Daniel Boorstin says that for centuries “Man allowed his time to be parsed by the changing cycles of daylight, [and thereby remaining] a slave of the sun.” This changed when Christian monks needed to know the times for their appointed prayers, giving rise to Europe’s first mechanical clocks. The appointed periods of prayer in the monasteries became known as “canonical hours.”
Referring to his second coming , Jesus said, “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” This linear concept of time had the effect of Christians seeing time as limited and having an end point. Although Christ’s warning referred to his sudden return and the need for Christians to be prepared, Paul Johnson says this awareness caused Christians “a sense of anxiety about time, which made men dissatisfied by progress but for the same reason determined to pursue it.” This time-related anxiousness motivated Christians to make the most of their time, economically and religiously.
By giving dignity to labor and accenting the spirit of individual freedom, Christianity produced profound economic effects. Johnson says that “Christianity was one of the principal dynamic forces in the agricultural revolution on which the prosperity of Western Europe ultimately rested, and it was the haunting sense of time and its anxiety to accomplish, its urge to move and arrive, which gave men in the West the will to industrialize and create our modern material structure. . . Christianity provided the moral code, the drill and the discipline-as well as the destination-which enabled the unwieldy army of progress to lumber into the future.”