All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1991

The Shame of the Church

Dr. Ream, who served for many years as pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, lives in retirement with his wife in Estes Park, Colorado.

In 1948 the World Council of Churches held its first assembly in Amsterdam, Holland. In Section III of its concluding report it issued a searing indictment of both Communism and capitalism in which the United States delegates heartily joined. Shortly thereafter, writing in The Christian Century, the Reverend John C. Bennett, a prominent American Protestant and a seminary professor, seeking to defend the Council’s report, laid out four major indictments of capitalism:

1. Capitalism tends to subordinate what should be the primary task of any economy—the meeting of human needs—to the economic advantages of those who have most power over its institutions.

2. Capitalism tends to produce serious inequalities.

3. Capitalism has developed a practical form of materialism in Western nations in spite of their Christian background, for it has placed the greatest emphasis upon success in making money.

4. Capitalism keeps people subject to a kind of fate which has taken the form of such social catastrophes as mass unemployment.

These same charges have been laid at the feet of capitalism by prominent church leaders of nearly every major denomination for the past 70 years. I can remember in the 1930s hearing a prominent Methodist bishop, just returned from a guided tour of the Soviet Union, extolling the virtues of Communism over those of capitalism. In my seminary days near Chicago, the then-conservative Chicago Tribune was consistently ridiculed and scorned by my professors for its defense of the limited government, private property, free market way of economic life.

Later on when I became a member of the social action committee of my denomination’s state body, and it was proposed to endorse the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that Eleanor Roosevelt had enthusiastically endorsed, I asked the other members of the committee how many had actually read the document. Not to my surprise, nary a one had done so. In their misguided idealism, they were supporting it because it sounded so good and were completely unaware of the traditional rights and privileges it would deny citizens of the capitalist United States.

Over and over again church leaders and church assemblies have passed resolutions that, in substance if not overtly, praised socialism and condemned capitalism. As a consequence, the Christian church and its leadership has made a large contribution to the denial of a higher standard of living and a larger measure of freedom to millions of men and women around the world.

No Perfect Society

Let us not hesitate to admit that capitalism has its faults. Those faults, however, are due primarily to the fact that human beings are human and capitalism gives these fallible human beings the largest measure of freedom in which to exercise their fallibility. As the church itself says, “All men and women are sinners.” Or as the Bible puts it, “There is none good but one, that is God.” (Matthew 19:17) Those same fallible men and women exist in every society and will exist under any and every economic system. That they continue to exist and don’t decrease in numbers is certainly due to a failure on the part of religion more than to a failure of the economic system.

There is no such thing as a perfect society, and there never will be. This has been acknowledged by the Christian church since its very beginning. Men and women, being sinners, frequently do what they ought not do and fail to do what they ought. Human beings are also partially ignorant, and thus make errors of judgment. The propensity to sin and the lack of perfection in knowledge and wisdom lead to an imperfect society. The most mankind can hope for is a society that is successful in providing the greatest good for the greatest number.

Without the slightest question, history and the millions of men and women who have lived behind the Iron Curtain of socialism and Communism (the ultimate form of socialism) now testify to the indisputable fact that capitalism is far superior to socialism in providing the necessities of life to the masses, and in doing so without denying them their individual freedom.

But ever since the Russian Revolution of 1917, church leaders have tried to convince church members that socialism meets the moral and ethical demands of Christianity better than does capitalism. They have done so by constantly comparing socialism as they believe it could be with capitalism as it is. In his recent excellent book, Capitalism, Arthur Seldon vividly points out that long ago we should have been comparing capitalism as it could be with socialism as it has actually operated in those parts of the world where it was enthusiastically adopted and is now being equally enthusiastically rejected.

The clergy who have praised and advocated socialism through the years have done so, for the most part, without any real knowledge or understanding of economics and political science. They have been well-intentioned and misguided idealists who have looked at the end desired and faded to examine the means and calculate the costs. They didn’t heed their Master’s admonition in His parable of the builder. (Luke 14:28ff) The clergy have been guilty of what F. A. Hayek calls “the fatal conceit.” They were certain they knew what was good for society and for each member of it, and when one is in that position it is difficult not to seek to impose one’s ideas and theories on all.

As already pointed out, the great weakness in the pro-socialist clergy’s argument has been the comparison of socialism as an idealistic theory with capitalism as an operating economic system. It would be far more appropriate to compare socialism as it has operated in the Soviet Union with capitalism as it has operated in the United States. That, of course, would immediately and obviously lose the argument for socialism. Socialism only “works” in theory and can work in no other way for it never takes into account human nature. It takes no notice of men and women’s burning desire for freedom, their inborn competitive nature, their desire to get ahead, to prosper and succeed, which the church itself has praised in urging them to use their talents and abilities to the full.

For seven decodes many, if not most, leaders of the major Christian denominations have advocated a system that is now seen by the entire world as an economic and political disaster. It has robbed millions of their freedom. It has denied them a higher standard of living that could have been theirs. This is the shame of the Christian Church. Joseph Schumpeter wrote in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that “. . . the impressive economic and the still more impressive cultural achievements of the capitalist order . . . could lift poverty from the shoulders of mankind.” Church leaders however preferred blind faith in an abstract idea over recognition of the positive benefits of capitalism.

Answering Capitalisms Critics

Let us now return to the indictment of the World Council of Churches and the criticisms of Professor Bennett, which are prototypical of all those made since.

The first charge is that capitalism does not devote itself to the primary responsibility of any economic system, which is the meeting of human needs. If economics is a science requiring a subtlety of understanding, then it is obvious that anyone making such a charge doesn’t understand capitalism.

When I was a freshman in college, I came across Edward Bellamy’s paean to socialism, Looking Backward. I recall urging my father, a small businessman of that day, to read the work, and gave it my own fulsome praise. My wise and experienced father responded by saying something like, “You can say things in books you can’t put into practice in the real world.” Many clergymen, however, have had little or no experience in the real world and, like politicians, look only at promised results, ignoring the tremendous costs of implementation.

Men and women will differ in their definitions of needs and luxuries, but no intelligent entrepreneur would go into business without being reasonably certain that he was responding to a felt need for his product. Thousands of businesses fail every year precisely because the owners miscalculated and discovered too late an absence of need.

Ask those who have lived in the Eastern dictatorships if the socialist economies met their needs. It is primarily because there are no free markets in those countries, and no private property, that socialism does not and cannot meet human needs in the same abundant fashion as can a free economy. Again it is a case of left-leaning church leaders looking at socialist promises and ignoring capitalist results.

The second indictment has been that capitalism tends to produce serious inequalities in society. There are indeed inequalities in any society. The primary blame, however, needs to be laid at the feet of God. The framers of the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, there is no sense in which all men and women are created equal. If, as Christianity demands, we use all our talents and abilities to the full, we will become less and less equal. God has greatly blessed some, while others seem terribly, deprived.

Egalitarianism plays well On the lips of politicians and the clergy, but in real life its goals are seldom if ever achieved. The Mayflower Pilgrims tried it and gave it up as unproductive. Wrote William Bradford of the experience, “For this community . . . was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.” It destroyed the will of the ambitious, and encouraged the lazy and indifferent to continue being so. Socialism equalizes by bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator (except the ruling class), while capitalism equalizes by tending to raise the living standards of all.

There may indeed be a sense in which capitalism promotes a form of materialism by making available to consumers so much more than socialism ever can. Nevertheless there is a kind of “materialism of misery” that grips those who have very little available to them and who must wait in long lines in order, they hope, to get that little. The “materialism of plenty” would be preferred by the vast majority of people in every country. But rather than being the result of capitalism, one could with equal verity claim that it was the result of politicians undertaking to convince the voters they deserved all of these “things” by right and promising to provide them in return for their votes. The church and the clergy also deserve part of the blame for their failure to effectively teach their people how to assess values.

The final charge is that capitalism subjects citizens to such social catastrophes as mass unemployment. That is the only “social catastrophe” mentioned, and one has difficulty thinking of any others that could be laid at the feet of capitalism.

Let us recall that there was no mass unemployment in Nazi Germany. There is, allegedly, no unemployment in the Soviet Union. But again one must count the cost: no personal liberty, no free markets, constant scarcities of consumer goods. The Soviet Union can make these claims, but it is the only industrial power in the world whose living standards are declining, the only such country where the life expectancy has been falling and infant mortality rates are rising. So much for the benefits of “full employment” under socialism.

Put against the criticisms of church and clergy is one irrefutable consideration: capitalism has produced more to meet human needs and aspirations than any other system known to mankind, and it has done so largely without depriving individuals of their personal freedom. One must insert the word “largely” because even in this country much of the progress made by capitalism has been in spite of the interference of politicians,-which results in a loss of freedom. Capitalism has proven itself in practice. Socialism has failed wherever it has been tried.

Capitalism is the morally and ethically superior system, and as such should have been supported, not condemned, by church and clergy. Had the church and clergy supported capitalism, millions of men and women around the world might well have known a larger liberty and a greater happiness. Even today, however, church leaders follow the lead of politicians and power-seekers, and while millions of people around the world reject socialism, they continue to embrace it.

  • Dr. Ream, who served for many years as pastor of the First Congregational Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, lives in retirement with his wife in Estes Park; Colorado.