Sunday, February 29, 2004
Michael Novak is probably the foremost Christian thinker on the economy. Any of his books reward study, but The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is undoubtedly his magnum opus. In this classic text, which has now been updated and revised, Novak joins issue with theologians like Paul Tillich who contend that "any serious Christian must be a socialist." It appeared in a samizdat (underground) edition in Poland during the 1980s and had an obvious impact on the Solidarity movement. Its reasoned defense of democratic capitalism as being grounded in the humane values of the Judeo-Christian tradition also helped give a moral center to the neo-conservative movement.
In Democratic Capitalism, Novak addresses the consistency of capitalism with church teachings on wealth. Novak recognizes that church teaching has been hostile to capitalism, as with much else of modernity. Yet, Novak contends that arguments against capitalism serve mainly to give aid and comfort to the Leviathan state. Indeed, Novak persuasively (if controversially) attributes Christian opposition to capitalism to two main sources: ignorance and antique world views. Church leaders and theologians tend to have either a pre-capitalist or a frankly socialist set of ideals about political economy.
To be clear, Novak does not believe that faith should be subordinated to capitalism. To the contrary, he recognizes that the divine plan was that we should enjoy the fruits of the earth and of our own industry. He simply contends that capitalism is the best way Fallen humans have yet devised to obey the Biblical command that we are to be stewards of God's world. Novak never loses sight of the basic proposition that it was equally the divine plan that God should be worshiped, obeyed, and feared. The fear of the Lord, he would argue, is the beginning of capitalist wisdom, just as it is of any other kind of wisdom.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Novak's analysis has begun to impact the way the church - or at least a segment of it - thinks about capitalism. Granted, our fearless leader Mark Sargent thinks Novak is an outlier in CST. Granted also that some people have gone too far in claiming that Novak has prompted Pope John Paul II to embrace free market capitalism. Having said that, however, it is hard to deny that John Paul II’s encyclicals temper much of the hostility to capitalism expressed in some CST sources (such as the US Bishops' pastoral letter on economic justice). In my view, rather then embracing free market capitalism, what John Paul II has done is too create a big tent in which those of us who hold to the ideal of free markets, a free people, and a free Church can find a home. In my view, much of the credit for that development must go to Michael Novak and this classic text.