Recently, I admonished fellow young conservatives in a tweet to beware making an idol of capitalism. I met some reactions of disapproval and mockery, but others of approbation and endorsement.
A reminder to my young conservative friends: stop making an idol of capitalism.
— Thomas C. (@Thomas_Conerty) 25 December 2016
When I issued this reminder, I had observed for over a year an unrelenting wave of colorful shirts and signs directing viewers to thank capitalism for the material blessings they had received. I witnessed obsession with books discussing the free market, and I watched as young conservatives flocked to distant conferences to refine their ability to disseminate the tenets of capitalism. All forms of prosperity seemed to emanate from this economic system, and only incessant chanting seemed to suffice to demonstrate gratefulness.
I am a loyal proponent of capitalism. It is obviously superior to other forms of arrangement at improving the lot of its members, and it best allows for people to freely choose their economic lifestyle.
Yet for so many, the posturing toward capitalism has grown perverse. Capitalism is an economic system; it is not a source of fulfillment or truth, and we do not owe any form of gratefulness to it. Indeed, when one extends thanks to an abstract idea or system in this way, one effectively makes an idol of it, for he raises it to some level of transcendence.
“Young conservatives have organized to betray Weaver’s warning: they have undertaken to understand the economic motives of mankind the central governing faculty of man, rather than delving into the vast battle theatre hosting cosmic conflicts that is the human heart.”
I write this specifically from the point of view of a Christian, and I have witnessed other professing Christians my age precisely treating capitalism as if the blessings they have enjoyed living in a relatively free market economy flowed from the system, rather than a gracious God dispersing His favor.
Idols manifest in a number of ways: John Calvin once wrote, “The heart is an idol factory,” and when Christians (or anyone) rely on anything other than God to provide emotional fulfillment or treat anything beside God as a source of blessing, one has committed idolatry. Thus an idol is anything to which humans afford excessive reverence, and devoting the mass of one’s energies and resources toward learning about and making disciples to capitalism, adorned in the garb of the school and vociferously chanting its songs, constitutes the clear erection of an idol.
In James’ address to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations,” he writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” Yet the mantra mechanically repeated by today’s young conservatives treats capitalism as the true cure to some of the world’s most pressing problems. In effect, the material advances humans have achieved are, according to these conservatives, the result of an economic system, and any departure therefrom merits mockery and ridicule; and when a fellow conservative such as myself merely reminds his contemporaries to avoid idolatry, he is met with a condemnation equal to the force of heresy. I hadn’t even criticized capitalism itself!
In effect, the reaction proved my point. Young conservatives are more dedicated to preserving and advancing capitalism than they are their faith in important ways: many will flock to distant conferences to learn the ways of activism, but don’t attend church on Sundays; some have read countless books about the merits of the free market without having read the whole Bible; some can articulate in lengthy essays the benefits of capitalism but could not recite the Lord’s prayer or articulate in a few hundred words their theological views.
I have watched for over a year as young conservatives attributed mankind’s strides to capitalism and not to a gracious Father, from Whom all blessings flow. I have watched as young conservatives have prescribed capitalism as a cure to the world’s ailments, as if it constitutes some form of infallible truth from which mankind ought to derive meaning or understanding about the world. I have witnessed accusations of heresy or outright idiocy, the issuance of which failed to comport with even basic human dignity, whenever a soul dared question the material or moral efficacy of capitalism.
“Capitalism is not the cure to the world’s ailments, nor is it a source of truth from which we ought to derive the meaning or significance of our life.”
Richard Weaver, a quintessential conservative mind of the 20th Century, wrote in his Ideas Have Consequences, “The great pageant of history thus became reducible to the economic endeavors of individuals and classes… Man created in the divine image, the protagonist of a great drama in which he soul was at stake, was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and –consuming animal.” Yet young conservatives have organized to betray Weaver’s warning: they have undertaken to understand the economic motives of mankind the central governing faculty of man, rather than delving into the vast battle theatre hosting cosmic conflicts that is the human heart. Man is no longer a complex being with insatiable spiritual curiosity about the nature of the good and of existence, but a consumer whose vexations could be addressed if only his government would get out of the damn economy.
There is nothing wrong with advocating for free markets per se, and I have never suggested that mere advocacy is in itself problematic. But when the central pursuit of one’s energies revolves around advancing capitalism rather than the Kingdom of God, one has erected an idol.
Indeed, it seems as if many young conservatives are waiting for Moses to return from Mount Sinai to deliver the Lord’s Law, instead growing impatient and erecting a calf of (fittingly) gold to rally around and to which to sing praises.
It is easy to anticipate the reaction to this essay: anger; justification; shouts of hypocrisy; and hopefully some self-reflection. When an idol is revealed to be false, its followers generally develop resentment, but it is not my intention to make people mad, especially many whom I consider friends. But a movement that allows the wrong idea to rest atop its mount in supremacy will never look beyond its base idol to our Heavenly Father.
Is this then all to say that we ought not try to advance capitalism? Of course not. It is, however, to say that capitalism is not the cure to the world’s ailments, nor is it a source of truth from which we ought to derive the meaning or significance of our life, and that means that we also ought not to derive meaning or significance from movements crafted principally to endorse capitalism.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed this phenomenon for as long as I have been plugged into youth conservatism. It is my hope that we can restore the legacy of Weaver and elevate man’s soul beyond his base economic and materialistic wants to a level of spiritual curiosity and fulfillment in the infinite set of solutions that resides within the incomprehensible sacrifice by Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of sin.