“Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism” by Kathryn Tanner: an argument for a wholesale reorganization of economic life

I recently read Kathryn Tanner’s Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (2019, Yale University Press). Her argument, in short, is that modern finance-dominated capitalism creates patterns of thought and behavior in human beings that are antithetic to some very basic principles of Christianity.

For example, Tanner argues that modern capitalism incentivizes humans to equate their value with their “productivity.” Christianity, in contrast, argues that all people have intrinsic value in the eyes of God regardless of whatever economic value they happen (or not) to produce. Whereas capitalism tethers people to their past selves in the form of debt and credit scores, Christianity instead aims to separate people from their past selves when they become “new creatures in Christ” through the death and rebirth of baptism. Where capitalism encourages us to understand that our success comes from our own labor and efforts, Christianity says that we can do nothing without God.

I tend to agree with the contrasts that Tanner presents between modern liberal capitalism and a Christian ethos. It’s fairly obvious (to me at least) that the principles in the Sermon on the Mount are not congruent with Adam Smith’s assertion that “by pursuing [our] own interest [we] frequently promote that of the society more effectually than when [we] really intend to promote it” (Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX of The Wealth of Nations).

Tanner specifies in her book that her goal is not to provide a plan of action or implementation, but rather simply to illustrate the contrasts between Christian ethos and capitalism. This, though, is the reason I purchased and read the book in the first place. I’m someone who sweats the details and am the stick-in-the-mud who says “yes but how are we actually going to do this in practice?”

And there’s the quandary (to me at least) that free-market liberalism has done a lot of good over the last five centuries. There is good evidence that it has pulled billions of people out of poverty and starvation. It has allowed for the creation of wealth and innovation that indirectly allowed us as a species to put a human being on the moon and create a vaccine for COVID-19 in less than a year. But I also agree that it has also produced massive economic inequality that is oppressive to billions and oriented the ethos of generations of human beings toward self-interest at the expense of their neighbor.

I left this book with the same basic questions as when I started: how can we practically implement a Christian economic system, either individually or communally, in a world that has been dominated by liberal capitalism for several centuries? What is the “program for change”? Given that change is unlikely, how can individual Christians behave ethically in a capitalist economic system?

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