Biblical Capitalism?: Use of the Hebrew Scripture in Contemporary Social Discourse


For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on two poles of a larger divide within our contemporary religious culture on the issue of a biblical economic ethic. On the one side we have the “pro-capitalist” discourse that roots itself on a individualist interpretation of the seventh (or eighth) commandment “thou shalt not steal,” and the 10th commandment “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, servants, cattle, or anything that belongs to him.” On the other side we find the “anti-capitalist” position embodied in the Dr. King’s quoting Amos, “Let justice roll down like water; righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” As with any over-simplification, there is a great deal of middle ground in the discourse about the Hebrew Bible’s economic principles, but for our purposes, we will let the starker polarity to stand. The times in which we are living seem to force a more black and white reality than ever before, and the religious discourse on economic theologies is one area of sharp conflict.

The standpoint from which one views this discourse is not disinterested, for in economics no human can claim to be outside the impact of economic systems and religious discourse is a widely held source of economic judgment. It matters very much whether one has known severe economic hardship, or was born into privilege and wealth, for such life circumstances will deeply shape one’s view of both the secular economic realities and how one interprets the religious traditions that speak to these realities.

This writer’s standpoint is that of being born into an intensely religious Pentecostal family as the son of a third generation Pentecostal minister. This family lived on the edge of poverty for a significant portion of this writer’s life. As an adult, this writer fell into real poverty and carrying his religious faith and convictions into this harsh circumstance profoundly shaped how his religious faith evolved, especially on matters of economic theology. This essay will explore key religious discourses of the era in which the writer’s economic theology was formed and how the Hebrew Bible was deployed in that period.

The “pro-capitalist” religious discourse that will be explored here can be identified specifically with the “New Christian Right” which emerged in the United States in the 1970s. However, prior to the middle of that decade, the default economic philosophy of the US could be characterized as the “welfare capitalism” that was forged during the several terms of President Franklin Roosevelt as the “New Deal” programs reshaped the relation of the US federal government and taxation to the economic hardships of its poorest citizens. Arising out of the Great Depression, the New Deal attempted to address the massive poverty that spread across the US by creating social programs aimed to alleviate that poverty. Prior administrations would have found such programs unthinkable and they were a quite shocking departure from previous policy. The Great Depression was such an undeniable catastrophe for unfettered capitalism that even the minimal reforms ushered in by the New Deal were practically “common sense.”

Religious discourse in this period that favored the New Deal was not uncommon. Harold Meyerson in his article “God and the New Deal” cites the influence of Catholic Social Teaching embodied in the encyclicals of Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) which deployed the biblical themes of Creation, God’s oversight of human affairs including economics, and the dignity of labor. This melioristic shift to “the left” persisted somewhat tenuously throughout the “American Century” from the close of World War 2 up to the middle of the 1970s. An unprecedented prosperity that grew out of the military expansion of the US industry during World War 2, meant that capitalism was actually able to afford greater taxation for a significant stretch of years from 1932-1982, the era bookended by the FDR and Ronald Reagan administrations.

The drastic shift in the top earner income tax rate under Ronald Reagan from 70% to 50% was propelled by the economic turmoil of the 1970s. Some analysts maintain that global capitalism hit an economic wall in the late 1960s, rebounded slightly in the 1980s, and then turned down decisively in 1985 never to return to pre-1970s highs. It was during the economic downturn from 1967-1976 that the “New Christian Right” was born. A chief architect of the NCR was Rousas Rushdoony, author of the magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law (hereafter TIoBL) in 1973 which elaborated in detail the theology that came to be known as “Theonomism” or “Christian Reconstruction.” TIoBL was an 890 page discourse on political, economic, and moral issues framed as theological study on the Ten Commandments. In his chapter on the “Eighth Commandment” Rushdoony proclaims:

Man was created in the image of God and commanded to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it (Gen. 1:26-27). Not only is it man’s calling to exercise dominion, but it is also his nature to do so. Since God is the absolute and sovereign Lord and Creator, whose dominion is total and whose power is without limits, man, created in His image, shares in this communicable attribute of God. Man was created to exercise dominion under God and as God’s appointed vicegerent over the earth. Dominion is thus a basic urge of man’s nature.

Rushdoony takes aim at the anti-capitalists a few pages later:

…evolutionists began to emphasize “the plasticity and creativity of man, of the dynamic character of an environment and of the reciprocal relation between it and man.”[827] For them, the state became this “dynamic” environment whereby man could remake himself. Property for these evolutionists is simply a tool whereby the state shapes man and the world. As a result, property is again under lawless attack, first from individuals and corporations, now from the state. Since property is a form of power, the totalitarian state seeks to control or to seize private property in order to prevent the people from having any power independently of the state.

Rushdoony’s theology began to influence conservative Christians in the late 1970s through the work of Francis Schaeffer who acknowledges Rushdoony’s influence on his thinking. Schaeffer’s work on the crisis of Christian truth and the political consequences of biblical faith, most sensationally in a film showed in thousands of churches “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?,” gave a great deal of energy to the subsequent formation of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in 1979, just in time to become a pivotal factor in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan’s 20% tax cut in 1982 brings our story of pro-capitalist biblical interpretation on public policy to one of its earliest victories.

Crossing the aisle to consider the “anti-capitalist” religious discourse, the most prominent example is the “Liberation Theology” that emerged from the global unrest of the 1960s. Liberation Theology took shape in two vastly different contexts in that era; the Latin American version that was largely Roman Catholic and heavily influenced by Marxism, and the African American version that grew out of the “Black Power” movement of the latter 60s in a distinct departure from the more moderate theology of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was Latin American Liberation Theology that most fully developed the anti-capitalist use of the biblical texts and will furnish the next focus of analysis.

The seminal text for Latinx Liberation Theology is Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation published in 1971, two years prior to Rushdoony’s Institutes. (James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was published in 1970.) In contrast to Rushdoony’s emphasis on creation and human “dominion,” Gutierrez imbeds his understanding of Creation in the event of the Hebrew Exodus:

Creation, as we have mentioned above, is regarded in terms of the Exodus, a historical-salvific fact which structures the faith of Israel. And this fact is a political liberation through which Yahweh expresses love for the people and the gift of total liberation is received. 

From the Hebrew scriptures, Gutierrez develops a theology that centers itself on the liberation of the poor and oppressed:

The prophets announce a kingdom of peace. But peace presupposes the establishment of justice: “Righteousness shall yield peace and its fruit [shall] be quietness and confidence forever” (Isa. 32:17; cf. also Ps. 85).77 It presupposes the defense of the rights of the poor, punishment of the oppressors, a life free from the fear of being enslaved by others, the liberation of the oppressed. Peace, justice, love, and freedom are not private realities; they are not only internal attitudes. 

Latinx Liberation Theology flourished under duress from the latter 1960s through the early 2000s. It can claim notable successes in the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 and the “Workers Party” of Brazil founded in 1980, which won the Brazilian presidency in 2002. In the US context, Liberation Theology formed a counterpoint to the pro-capitalist theology of the New Christian Right and the more moderate liberal theologies dominant among Protestants. Since the Great Recession of 2008, interest in Liberation Theology with an economic focus has re-emerged. As the new era of President Trump presents challenges to even the triumphant liberalism of the Obama era, it remains to be seen whether the tide will shift again to the anti-capitalist side of religious discourse. Early signs indicate such a shift may be happening as the recent immigration controversy has been expressed in religious terms by prolific quoting of Leviticus 19:33-34:

Do not take advantage of foreigners in your land; do not wrong them. 34 They must be treated like any other citizen; love them as yourself, for remember that you too were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

The standpoint of this writer is evident in its sympathy for the “anti-capitalist” theology discussed. While it would be overreaching to flatly assert that the Liberation Theologians have a superior biblical hermeneutics, such a conclusion can be asserted if one recognizes that the centering of the Exodus narrative in Liberation Theology versus the “created for dominion” stance of Christian Reconstruction is based on a more inclusive social viewpoint.


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