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In reaction to lackluster Wall Street returns, rising income inequality, corporate losses (Sears and Macy’s) and gains (Amazon), and the government shutdown, there has been increased attention of late to the pluses and minuses of capitalism. Many social theorists and activists may not realize that a century ago in America the prominent voices analyzing capitalism were associated with the Social Gospel movement. Such Christians as Shailer Mathews, Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Charles Clayton Morrison (founder of the still influential magazine, The Christian Century) were mightily disturbed by the poverty, working conditions, malnutrition and economic imperialism created by the excesses of capitalist industry and commerce.

Identifying with currents of socialism, pacifism, and religious liberalism (openness to modern science and rational biblical analysis) in America at the turn of the century, the social gospelers optimistically advocated that America become a community of communities in which social and economic power is democratically accountable, thereby moving this nation ever closer to the just and compassionate ideals of the Kingdom of God. This vision was shattered politically by World War I, economically by the Great Depression, and theologically by the trenchant analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1932 book, "Moral Man and Immoral Society".

Though Niebuhr started out as a socialist, pacifist, and liberal, he perceived that the inadequacy of the Social Gospel movement was its shallow view of sin, evil and moral progress. Neither secular liberals with their appeal to reason nor Christian liberals with their appeal to love fathomed the haunting and tragic depths of human self-interest, especially the collective egotism demonstrated by corporations, nations, and racist and elitist ideologies. Neither capitalism nor socialism are evil in theory, but in either system sinful human nature intensifies the concentration of power that leads inevitably to inequality and injustice. For Niebuhr, economics and politics are about power, and justice calls for a realistic and democratic balance of power and self-interest. In his view (Niebuhr died in 1971), welfare-state capitalism is the closest America could come to the just society.

Niebuhr’s analysis has generally proven accurate, as has the verdict that democratic capitalism remains the most workable economic paradigm that is also adaptable to certain communitarian/socialistic programs (e.g., nationalized health care, Medicare, Medicaid, federal education grants, etc.). At the same time, the downsides of democratic capitalism continue to stir social planners and people of faith to seek corrective strategies to its implementation. The following strategies provide such food for thought and action.

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  • Build social equality while at the same time minimizing extreme economic inequality. To give an example many Montanans relate to, balance quality hunting and fishing for the general public with the trend to privatize and commercialize outdoor access for the minority who can afford it. Nothing less than an essential quality of our common freedom and character is at stake.
  • Build a culture that esteems social equality and social mobility more than the exaltation of wealth and privilege. For example, raise up the prestige of ordinary community and religious involvement more than the social ideal of beating your fellow citizens to the top of the corporate heap, having the highest celebrity income or winning the lottery. Social capital and financial capital are both indispensable, and social capital should not be dependent on financial capital.
  • Promote shared social goals in which success means striving for the participation of everyone. This can mean using individual and corporate taxation as a tool for incentivizing: 1. greater individual and corporate participation in democratic capitalism; 2. increased employee ownership of companies where profitability is shared and celebrated; 3. creation of large-scale public and private funds to provide access to health care and education for those who cannot otherwise afford those basic human requirements.
  • Emphasize the economic sustainability of individual nations and responsible stewardship of the earth as conditions of international trade.

Democratic capitalism thrives on the frank recognition that human beings exercise an innate instinct or drive for personal and collective acquisition. This acquisitive instinct is good insofar as it gives rise to human aspiration and creativity, and bad insofar as it gives rise to greed and exploitation. Moving capitalist society forward means knowing that its defining features of profit and material success are not the final measures of human success.

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The Rev. Paul J. Seastrand, PhD, is a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Billings.

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