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The Problem of Inequality in America: Capitalism and the Christian Witness

Founding Fathers sign the Constitution/Wikipedia
Founding Fathers sign the Constitution/Wikipedia

Six years after the American Revolutionary War, Congressmen from 12 states ratified the United States Constitution. However, the ratification process did not go as smoothly as many would have desired, and several members of congress needed to persuade their constituents. In fact, under the pseudonym Publius, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote a series of 85 papers to persuade the citizens of New York to vote in favor of the proposed Constitution. These documents, known as The Federalist Papers, give modern Americans a unique and interesting insight into the rationale and intent of our founding fathers. By revisiting The Federalist Papers, it is possible to understand what the founding fathers feared most about human nature, government and power. However, unforeseeable bodies of power and influence have emerged in the United States. Immense income disparity has segmented American society in such a way that it is vital to revisit the concerns of Madison, Hamilton and Jay in order to understand the potential implications of economic inequality. The increasing income disparity between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the American public has created a menacing faction — a majority of power and influence that threatens the future and survival of the United States. Being both Christian and American, we need not only to rethink the current economic structure that perpetuates this ominous faction, but also to consider the danger that emerges when we place our faith and hope in the market instead of God.

Hamilton, Madison and John Jay were the product of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. They were among a group of thinkers that defied the tide of European culture and norms by stressing the ideas of reason, freedom and tolerance. Many of their predecessors like John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau would have understood the complications in creating a free, just, and democratic society. This is why the revolutionary aspect of the United States formation was so important and remains so today.

The Declaration of Independence rested on an axiom that ensured “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The drafted United States Constitution preserved the principles laid out by Thomas Jefferson, and The Federalist Papers served an instrumental role in persuading American citizens to ratify the Constitution. The key principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence were a response to failed governments throughout Europe. For example, Madison writes in The Federalist Papers that complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. 

In other words, Madison recognized the danger of an unstable government that favored the majority interests over the minorities. Madison called these overbearing and unstable interests “factions.”

A faction can be described as a united majority or minority, which disregards the interests of the community and the rights of other citizens in order to advance their passions and interests. Madison believed that controlling and regulating these factions was “the principal task of modern legislation.”  In addition, Madison charged that these factions “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Therefore, controlling the effects of these factions happened to be the foremost task in preserving the existence of the United States.
To the founding fathers, the most obvious and dangerous source of factions was the unequal distribution of property. During the 18th century, property represented much more than a plot of land. As 18th century political philosopher John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government, “every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”  Locke elaborates further saying that “as different degrees of industry were apt to give men possessions in different proportions, so this invention of money gave them the opportunity to enlarge them.”  In essence, Locke proposed that land and labor rounded out the attributes of man. These words inspired the founding fathers in a profound way because like Locke, the founding fathers believed that property defined the self. It can be argued that this mindset was a product of feudalism, which placed the accumulation of land and property as the most important asset to a person in society. Even during the infancy of the United States, property determined voting rights, control over the means of production, and social status. Consequently, according to the founding fathers, the human desire for more property divides the social, political, and economic fabric of a country, causing dangerous factions that threaten the country’s stability.

Although Madison, Hamilton and Jay understood the danger in income inequality, it is difficult to know if they could have foreseen the exorbitant accumulation of wealth that some Americans realize today. In fact, comparing income disparity in the United States today to the warnings heeded by the founding fathers more than 200 years ago is similar to comparing David and Goliath. Today, “the top five percent of the population owns 67.5 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the top twenty percent owns 91.3 percent of the nation’s wealth.”  However, money alone does not create factions (The Federalist Papers provide evidence to this fact), instead it plays an instrumental role in forming different interests within society. The incomprehensible gap between the top twenty percent of Americans has given birth to a dangerous faction, and reversing its potential effects could include a drastic overhaul in American thought.

Given both the alarming nature of today’s income statistics and the warnings specified by the founding fathers, it is critical to understand and question the principles of free market economics, which seem to foster income inequality. In his book, No Rising Tide, Theologian Joerg Rieger not only questions these laissez faire principles, but also posits that Christian Americans need to completely rethink and challenge their view of the economic structure. Like the authors of The Federalist Papers, Rieger understands that “money is not just purchasing power but also social power—a power that shapes everything.” 

However, Rieger expands on the founding fathers worries by illustrating the paradox in Christian American thinking toward the economic system, namely how money impacts a persons faith and distorts our image of God. In particular, Rieger confronts American church communities that perpetuate the myth he calls the “Gospel of Prosperity.” The Gospel of Prosperity propounds the idea that “if your faith in God is strong enough, you will continue to move up the economic ladder of happiness and prosperity.”

Another more pressing issue according to Rieger is the American public’s blind faith in the free market. Interestingly, Rieger draws the curtain back from the American public’s heart and calls into question the source of faith and hope of most Americans. For example, the “invisible hand,” a term used to describe the self-regulating powers of the free market, is often parroted through a chain of political authority until it is inculcated into the minds of the American public. Beginning with influential economists like Alan Greenspan, the invisible hand doctrine makes its way through the rhetoric of politicians and finally into the minds of the American citizens. Although this doctrine has proven unsuccessful, the theory of the invisible hand requires complete faith. Otherwise, natural selfishness, self-interest, and the other “virtues” of the free market cannot be successful.

Rieger proposes that the transcendent nature of the invisible hand has become a form of theology so strong “that it ultimately transcends the realm of the purely economic and shapes all other areas of life. The economic order of the free market is, thus, turned into the blueprint for the order of society.”  In other words, the idea of the free market, driven by the deity known as the invisible hand, requires blind faith. It requires citizens to turn a blind eye to disasters like the recession of 2008 and the Great Depression. More importantly however, it requires the American people to place their hope in the market instead of God. This perpetuates the fabricated notion that there is a direct relationship between the accumulation of wealth and happiness, prosperity and holiness.

Given the influence of free market economics over the American way of life it is difficult to challenge those who benefit most from the system. Growing income disparity creates a social hegemony of power and influence that appears to parallel the concerns of our founding fathers. The influence that the wealthiest Americans wield resembles, as Madison put it, “a number of citizens…united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens…”  This faction, or this 20 percent of society, has grown so powerful there is no doubt that the founding fathers would have balked and questioned the institution that gave rise to such inequality. A majority of United States citizens would classify themselves as Christian Americans. As the latter it is important that we revisit the concerns of our founders. As the former it is imperative that we examine where we place our hope and faith. Based on the growing gap between the nations wealthiest and the rest, it is time to question free market economics as a Christian community.

However, the relationship between free market capitalism and American society is important for most Americans. In fact, many Christian Americans are quick to associate free market principles — economic freedom, competition, and individualism — as archetypal Christian principles. In fact, as the Gospel of Prosperity illustrates, the synthesis of free market capitalism and Christian virtue is so strong, many Christian Americans see capitalism as a sacrosanct economic philosophy.

But the free-market philosophy of Adam Smith is not above criticism. It does not require blind faith. Actually, as Christian Americans, we can play a vital role in questioning the precepts of laissez faire economics in a way that many others cannot. Especially in the twentieth-century, the Christian witness has provided us with numerous examples of faithful Christian Americans who questioned the precepts of free market economics in a constructive, faithful, and non-violent way. Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement showed us that the free market “virtues” of self interest and profit were not a given. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People Campaign reminded us of the true justice God asks us all to strive for.

Often times, especially within our current political climate, any questions raised to speak out against the systemic problems of capitalism are met with forceful opposition. But asking questions, especially when the gap between the nations richest and everyone else is widening, reminds that our hope and trust need to be drawn from God, not the forces of the free market.

Daniel Nealon is  a recent graduate of political science and history at Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska and will be attending seminary in the fall of 2013.

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2 comments

  1. Is anyone under 40 still seriously a capitalist? I guess it took the youngest generation of American adults to really get screwed over by “the American Dream” to show us how full of holes and rot capitalism really is. I find it absurd to think that our country will uphold it as a value for too much longer. Good riddance. I want the benefits of socialism that the rest of the civilized world gets to enjoy. Why do I have to get screwed on health care and education just because I’m supposed to be “patriotic” and hate socialism? L-O-L.

  2. I remember hearing on Moody radio a few years back on one of the shows how God’s Will was revealed through the invisible hand of the markets. When government interfered with the markets, they were therefore interfering with the will of God. Thankfully I haven’t heard much of this kind of talk recently.

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