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38811850-1f88-483e-8664-4326b17d005cMy father was a born again businessman. A fervent Evangelical Christian, he owned and operated a chain of six men’s clothing stores in South Carolina. Sometimes his fellow Christians would ask, “Jim don’t you feel a bit guilty making so much profit?” “Not at all!” my Dad would grin, “I want to make as much money as possible so that I can give that much more to fund the Lord’s work.”

Fund the Lord’s work he did. As we were growing up we knew Dad tithed ten percent of his income to the church before taxes. Then he added another five percent as his “love offering” to the Lord. When I was in ninth grade we gathered the data of our family’s finances and produced pie charts showing income and expenditure. As I was finishing mine in class, the teacher came to have a look, “Dwight you made a mistake there in the section showing the amount your family gives to charity. You put 15%. It should be 1.5%.” I still feel the surge of pride I felt as I said, “No sir. That isn’t a mistake. My father gives 15% to our church.” The teacher fainted.

He didn’t really faint, but he was shocked. Not only did my father give that much, he did so with five children, a stay at home wife and for many years, a business that was going down the drain. Only in his fifties did he turn it around and with hard work, honest dedication, shrewd business sense and experience become as wealthy as he deserved to be.

Then he started to give even more. He and my mother lived modestly in a three bedroomed ranch home and supported their local church, funded mission trips, Christian camps, radio stations, missionary families and children’s ministries. What he exhibited at the grass roots level was no less than a radical form of truly Christian economics.

Too often economic principles are imposed from above rather than developed from below. Theoreticians and ideologues work from abstract principles or idealistic theories which they then seek to impose on a population with legislation, economic manipulation, brute force or a combination of all three. Most often the theories are derived not from economics at all, but from historical theories regarding class warfare or high religious ideals bolted on to economic models.

When it comes to economics, ideologies and theories are largely useless. They might help to modify an existing economic model, but they cannot provide the primary principles of economics. A good metaphor is the emission control system of a car.  Emission control systems were mandated by an ideological motive: the desire for a cleaner environment. The existence of emission control systems for the protection of the environment make an existing invention better.

However, to make the emission control system the main raison d’etre of the car would be foolish. The emission control system exists for the car, the car does not exist for the emission control system. Likewise economic theories and ideologies should help to refine, improve and control an essentially practical economic system. Using an ideology or theory to design an economic system is putting the car before the horsepower.

The historian Christopher Dawson wrote an inspiring essay on “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” in which he condemns the bourgeois for being interested only in making money. Catholics, he thinks, should be more high minded than that. He thus perpetuates the cultured European attitude that “grubbing for money” is demeaning. Many Catholics have adopted the same snobbery, adding a spiritual dimension that I call faux Franciscanism–a sentimental preference for, and a pretense of poverty. Poverty is glamorized and “the rich” demonized.

While Dawson’s interpretation of history provides brilliant insights on the importance of Catholicism for the development of European history, his observations on economics leave something to be desired. John Zmirak comments acerbically on the matter in this essay. He offers choice quotations from Dawson’s essay, calling them “bits of broken glass that make him so dangerous to swallow.”

Quoting Dawson he writes: “The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the ‘open’ type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction.”  Zmirak says, “This statement muddles two starkly different issues: The quantitative attitude of the Pharisees toward accumulating religious merits, and the ordinary good sense required in managing any earthly enterprise — from a bakery to a family.”

In other words, the poverty of spirit and generosity which Jesus praises in the beatitudes is not the same thing as financial poverty, nor is the total self giving required in the spiritual life a foundational principle for economic theory. If it were, all Christians would have to be poor mendicants–drifting about like sky-clad Sadhus–in a trance of self denial. While similar extremes are not unknown to Christian religious, it is not the default setting for all Christians any more than celibacy. If all Christians were celibate there would soon be no Christians. Likewise if all Christians attempted absolute poverty.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of CapitalismMax Weber argued that Protestantism gave rise to the spirit of modern capitalism, but Samuel Gregg in Tea Party Catholishows that medieval Catholic Europe was robustly and healthily capitalist–especially at the dawn of Protestantism. What we must question therefore is not whether capitalism is the product of Catholicism or Protestantism, but whether it is the product of common sense and practicality.

Put bluntly–capitalism works. As Michael Novak has pointed out in his memoir, Writing from Left to Right, none of the ideologically driven systems of economics work. They’re like British sports cars from the 1970s–beautifully designed but badly engineered. Capitalism, on the other hand, is like an old Ford pickup. It’s a practical workhorse, but it needs some fixing up, repairs and constant tinkering.

Dawson sneers at people like my father because they are bourgeois and want to make money.  At the same time he argues for a Catholicism that is wildly generous, even extravagant in its expenditure on Catholic culture, charity and the common life. Perhaps he would put my father down as evidence that Protestantism and Capitalism are two ugly sisters. Dawson is right that Catholics should be extravagant in their expenditure, the problem is, he didn’t work out where the money should come from in the first place. Catholics are to be extravagant, but they’re not to be money grubbing?

Dawson uses the example of sixteenth century Spain and Zmirak points out that the money so exuberantly spent by the Spanish was the result of the rapacious conquistadors who did not work hard like honest Protestant bourgeois shopkeepers, but instead looted the Aztec treasures and enslaved the native Americans.

The issue therefore is not making money, but how you make the money and what you do with it. People need to be reminded that the Bible verse does not say, “Money is the root of all evil, but the love of money is the root of all evil.” Too many American Catholics have picked up the worst from Protestantism and combined it with the worst of Catholicism. They have pounced on the Protestant work ethic and the motive to make as much money as possible, but they have combined it with a faux Franciscan suspicion of money and the conviction that a person is somehow better if he’s poor.

What they mean by this is that the clergy are supposed to be poor, and the church is supposed to operate on a pittance. Consequently a good number of American Catholics, like their bourgeois Protestant neighbors, make as much money as they possibly can, but (because Catholics are supposed to be poor) they also give as little as they possibly can. Should the priest encourage them to give generously and live generously they complain bitterly that “All Father ever talks about is money.”

What the Catholic critics of Protestant capitalism miss is that along with their enthusiasm for free enterprise, the classic Protestant was also taught to tithe radically. How often in my little Evangelical church we heard unapologetic sermons on the text, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver!” and we were told that the word “cheerful” could be translated “hilarious.”

Yes, yes, we all know about the “prosperity gospel”, the money grubbing televangelists and the preachers with expensive suits, mansions and weeping wives with botox and big hair. Likewise we have all heard about “Bishops of Bling, Borgia Popes and Papal Palaces.” Judas is ubiquitous as well as iniquitous and the irresponsible rich religious you shall have with you always. Their irresponsibility does not mean all Christians should be poor. It is simply a reminder that to whom much is given much is required.

My father as a God-fearing, Bible believing old fashioned Protestant had it right. He worked hard, avoided debt, invested shrewdly, lived honestly and made as much money as possible, then gave as much money as possible–first for the good of his family, then of his church, then for the world. He never begged or expected the government to bail him out. He was good and he was gifted and he took the principle of noblesse oblige and extended it to bourgeois oblige.

The economics that work for individuals also work for families, communities, parishes, dioceses and nations. The solution is simple but difficult: all of us should be working as hard as we can to make as much money as we can, and then living full, abundant and modest lives–taking full responsibility first for ourselves and our families; then we should spend that money extravagantly on fabulous good works for the glory of God and the flourishing of our fellow man.

If we all had done this as individuals and communities we would not now be living in an entitlement culture–a culture where poverty is glorified and riches are vilified. Instead the rich would not be living incredibly opulent lifestyle, nor would they be responsible for grandiose ideologically driven schemes to change the world but instead they would be simply responsible for their own communities, neighbors and friends.

This was the example of our immigrant Catholic great grandfathers–who worked long hours in demeaning jobs and lived full lives with their families while building the beautiful churches in our Northeastern cities. Another example of this was born again Protestant businessman R.G.LeTourneau. LeTourneau invented earth moving machinery and made millions. During his lifetime, the committed Christian was blamed for living like a prince. After his death in 1969 his critics discovered that he gave away 90% of his income and lived like a prince on the other 10%.

Therefore, forgive me if I’m not interested in macro economic theories and ideologies. I have the micro examples of practical, exciting and authentically Christian economics lodged in the backyard of my memory.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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11 replies to this post
  1. After reading your article, I wish I had had the opportunity to meet your father. And judging from his approximate age, I can bet he had views about military service and public service to my own father (a WWII veteran). There were so many remarkable things about that generation. I would love to hear thoughts about what made them so independent and compassionate for others…was it having been through the Great Depression? Was it a superior education that did not hesitate to embrace Christian virtue? Was it the lack of obscenity filled self-serving entertainment options from movies to video games? Was it the lack of moral relativism and secular humanism? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

  2. Wow! One of the most interesting essays that I have read. I would add that Max Weber might very well have been wrong regarding the rise of capitalism. My professor at Lincoln University in Missouri traced the origins and foundations of capitalism back to the founding of the city of Venice in the fourth century. He was a strange bird. He would spend five minutes giving a statement as to what the text book in sociology should have said. Then he would spend about 50 minutes telling how communism was going to beat the snot out of capitalism (my loose translation of his erudite lecture). The students, black and white (Lincoln was a Black University integrated in reverse) would all talk after class, agreeing that he had to be a communist. Later, a friend who was one of the real anticommunist crusaders (that is to say, he had a Master’s from Yale and one from Columbia where he was invited to join the communist conspiracy) who said my professor was one of the theoreticians of world communism. Then at South Carolina State a visiting professor from Princeton called my professor, “one of the unsung Marxist heroes.” Later, our son started to take a course in Marxian theorists. He came in my office one day and laid his course outline on my desk and then said, “Dad, I’m going to study your professor.” There in the middle of the semester was my Sociology professor. He eventually dropped the course, saying, the whole thing was falling part, but I thought he was a bit premature as the evidence these days clearly indicates. Certain wealthy folks have wanted this kind of control for several centuries.

  3. Dear Reverend, this is a pretty good effort from one who was trained as a preacher, and not an economist or businessman or politician. Though, I believe that Catholic Social Teaching is so much richer than what you present here.

    I love that you provide the anecdote about your father – he sounds like a very loving man. But it wouldn’t hurt to intersperse some citations from the Magisterium. One question that kept recurring in my mind was “how did his dad treat his employees?” One very important criteria for judging a businessman’s success in the eyes of the Church is how he treats his employees. You mention your father’s love for the church, his family, and his charitable pursuits. But what did he teach you about his responsibility (as an owner) to his employees? This is where I believe CST has much to teach us about looking beyond our own “backyard” of common sense and understanding the wide reach of our actions, in light of the Gospel. Yes “for the good of his family, then of his church, then for the world” is a commendable start, and perhaps far enough for a Protestant with less rich theology than our Tradition. However, as Catholics we would do well to immerse ourselves in the wider consideration of our stakeholders.

    No bleeding heart liberal am I, and I like your reference to subsidiarity: “The economics that work for individuals also work for families, communities, parishes, dioceses and nations.” Thus, I think CST is applicable not just to Catholics (this isn’t a Catholic website after all) but all men of good will.

    I think I can agree with you in spirit when you say “When it comes to economics, ideologies and theories are largely useless.” But to take a teaching moment from the other extreme, a narrow focus on your family experience, is somewhat useless as a base for one’s economic principles.

    If nothing else, I enjoyed hearing about your father’s business endeavors. Thanks again, take care and happy Easter.

  4. Several thoughts.
    As an old Anglican, how could you have omitted John Wesley?
    “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
    “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can”
    “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

    A funny bit of faux-Latin, “Noveau riche non oblige”. Because it is the peasant, living hand to mouth who is obsessively concerned with ROI and accumulation. It is the bourgeois who can look up and contemplate other than survival. And oblige is for only the truly noble. Regardless of station in life. Your Pop was Nobility in every sense.

    Another quote from who knows where, “It ain’t the money in the bank, it’s the dog in the manger.”

    Good essay, Padre.

  5. Quote: “Therefore, forgive me if I’m not interested in macro economic theories and ideologies. I have the micro examples of practical, exciting and authentically Christian economics lodged in the backyard of my memory.”

    Unfortunately, if those who genuinely mean well are not in the debate over which of those “macro economic theories and ideologies” are applied to a society, a bad one is likely to become dominant and all the 15% giving by individuals won’t fix the resulting harm, even assuming those in power allow such efforts to continue. By failing to do all the good that is necessary, they’ve done bad. You might call that sinning by omission.

    Protestants, reaching back to Martin Luther’s often excessive willingness to please the local princes who protected him, have a disturbing tendency to retreat into a personal, pious faith. Often they display an undue pride in their lack of interest in larger ideas. They’re proud of what ought to embarrass.

    The historical results are less than impressive. During Hitler’s rise to power, far more opposition to Nazism came from Catholicism, which had its Zentrum party, than from Protestants, scattered among a host of parties. In fact Protestant pastors had a reputation for being (like Luther) excessive in their Germanic nationalism and nationalism was Nazism’s chief appeal to the public.

    Limited to their piety, some Germans did the right thing personally and some did not. But there was no institutional opposition to Nazism from Protestants until after it was too late. Hitler had taken power and his ‘macro theories and ideologies’ were invading what Protestants had long regarded as their personal space. Their church governments were, in most cases, captured by rabidly Nazi ‘German Christians.’ Their youth organization were disbanded, replaced by the Hitler Youth, and the public schools began to teach pagan ideas and sneering as Christianity as being for weaklings. Only then did the Protestants protest with the Confessing Church and by then it was too late. Personally piety had been utterly stomped on by a macro ideology. Tens of millions would die, unhelped by any tithing by businessmen.

    It’s not wrong for any particular Protestant or Evangelical believer to focus on the personal as opposed to larger and more all-encompassing ideas. But what someone can’t do, perhaps because they haven’t had the proper education or because their work doesn’t give them the time, doesn’t have to be something they devalue. What is wrong is to disdain those who do take those larger ideas seriously. You might even call it a “more micro than thou” form of pride

    Here is a real life example. I know almost nothing about brain surgery, but I value highly those who do. The same ought to be true of Christian believers and ideas about politics and economics that most of us don’t have the time to study and learn. We should respect and value those who do and learn from them. We should at least show the interest our time and talents permit.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis and My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  6. What an excellent piece. God bless your father, and like the person above i would have loved to have met him. I couldn’t do 15% before taxes. I don’t even save that much in a year. We should all do what we can.

  7. Yet another conservative intellectual who completely misses Dawson’s point, builds a straw-man with Dawson’s named pinned onto it and is self-congratulatory when he smashes his own scarecrow.

    In this piece Longenecker misconstrues Dawson’s argument into “the cultured European attitude that ‘grubbing for money’ is demeaning. Many Catholics have adopted the same snobbery, adding a spiritual dimension that I call faux Franciscanism–a sentimental preference for, and a pretence of poverty. Poverty is glamorized and ‘the rich’ demonized.” This is a gross distortion.

    Putting aside bible quotes on eyes of needles and the story of the rich young man asking Jesus how to be saved. If one wants to critique Dawson one should bother to find out what he and Catholicism are saying on the matter.

    Catholics are called to advocate a system first laid out by Leo XIII in his letter “Rerum Novarum” which calls for distributive justice – so their system is called Distributism. This is neither capitalism nor socialism. Distributism calls for people to spend locally and avoid interacting with anything that comes close to monopoly. It holds that ideally people should have the means to be self-sufficient and that both socialism and capitalism are systems that are odds with the small property holder, one seizing things for the state and one arranging the state for ever bigger business to wind up with more and more property in fewer and fewer hands.

    Dawson and Catholicism hold that the Bourgeois are in a bad position in this because they put wealth (a condition) ahead of human happiness (an end). A business that just exists to make money is a business that in itself does not contribute anything to the common good. Stacking pieces of paper does not create anything, and today seeing lines of digital ones and zeros on a spreadsheet doesn’t even do anything physical.

    Under Distributism if Longenecker’s father was a tailor, then he creates something and in his actions is able to express his true nature being an image of god – he creates. While only god can create out of nothing, a tailor is able to express the nature that god gave him and express himself in his works. If on the other hand his father just buys suits cheap and sells them for a profit, he is just a middle man that has brought nothing into the world and with no creation expresses nothing of his inner nature. His work does not unite him to his true self. This gets especially bad if he uses his market position to underprice local tailors and drive him out of business to get more market share for the sake of more profits. Catholicism holds that Christ calls people to have Jesus in mind in everything they do, so its not just what happens to the profits that matter, but how those profits are gathered and if in doing so it brings people to understand they are images of god, and with a better understanding of themselves and the creation they can grow closer to their creator even in seemingly everyday work.

    A grace flowing through everything you do approach rather than an act at the end to claim justification for profits. The love of having enough to provide for your family, the love of making useful and beautiful things for your society, the love of making and providing food and shelter for yourself or others is not condemned it is the love of money that is condemned as the root of all evil. One of its branches is pride, such as being able to brag about how godly one is in how much they give.

    To support his misreading of Dawson, Longenecker doesn’t quote him but rather quotes Zmirak’s piece that also misrepresented him. This would be like Biden quoting Obama talking about Reagan. It’s unlikely that they quite understand the root of his position. Zmirak slanders Catholicism in holding that the Spanish government’s use of slaves reflected on it, when the papacy condemned slavery and in response the Spanish declared the Indians were to recognize the Spanish throne or be enslaved (it was not an attempted at forcible conversion to RC). But why should Longenecker actually do research when he can repeat groundless slanders if they support his argument. Why do all that hard work?

    Longenecker brags that his father “made as much money as possible”, Catholicism would say his priorities were misdirected – he should’ve made as much money as necessary and redirected the rest of his energies to his family and his community.

    It may seem out of bounds to question Longenecker pointing to the thing that he admires his father for, but he has structured this piece to hold up his father as a some-kind of Protestant saint with the heroic virtue of profit, or profit that is not to be second-guessed because it has been redeemed in the blood of tithing. Therefor rather than speak in abstracts Longenecker puts his position in personal terms which can not be directly addressed without engaging his personal tale.

    Its likely that Longenecker would disagree with Dawson’s actual position if he had bothered to figure out what it was. It is also likely that reasonable and penetrating argument could be made against Dawson’s take – but we get none of that. I would hold that this is not due to bad faith on Longenecker’s part, but intellectual laziness. This is odd since as he goes on at such length praising hard-work.

    Longenecker condemns those Protestant preaching the “‘prosperity gospel’, the money grubbing televangelists” but he doesn’t tell us what they are doing wrong as they are following his advice “working as hard as we can to make as much money as we can”? They say their example of living shows the gifts that Christ wants to give all who love him. How are they to be condemned as “immodest” then? How is modesty a virtue under Longenecker’s scheme? What purpose does it have? Could not the prosperity preachers hold that their example gives goals to those unaware of the heights Christ and hard work can lift them to? These mega churches do not build or maintain themselves are they to be condemned for their hardwork in the name of Christ? Is their worldwide ministry not beaming forth across the globe with more effect than the tithe of a man who owns a bunch of suit shops? By what measure are they mete?

    If one would like to understand Dawson’s actual position better one should start with G.K. Chesterton’s works on Distributism which are written in a more approachable style. If one would like to just call people you don’t understand a bunch of “snobs” who sentimentalize and put on pretenses while demonizing others – well quit your search now, no need for any hard work to move toward the truth – Longenecker has already done that for you, you can go back to fretting over if your neighbor is making more than you.

    Again it is regrettable that Longenecker has cast this in such personal terms,that one appears to be attacking his love for his father rather than his arguments. Let me point this out then, I have never heard of his father before this essay and the only thing his son has told me is not whether he went around in his city befriending the poor, not whether he counseled those in the sex-trade that they had other options, not whether he even sacrificed time he could’ve been at work to attend his children’s sports games, he may very well have done these things. But the thing that Longenecker tells us is solely that he made a lot of money, which he is proud of, and that he only kept 85% of it. If that is the extent of what he did – my apologies. If he was indeed, as I suspect, more than just that – Longenecker diminishes him by reducing him in this presentation of him to the world as an agent that just makes money – a cog in a machine. The fact that this could be a representation one puts forward with pride, is the very mindset Catholicism, Dawson, and Chesterton would call on Longencker to question.

    • Well, Mr. Matthews, did Catholics get their distributive views from the Jesuit experiments with communism in Uruguay and Paraguay back in the late 1600s and early 1700s? Nothing like a bucket of ice water on a very inspiring example item from Dr. Longenecker. Reminds me that perhaps, I might want to take my comments elsewhere.

      • Not quite sure what your in reference to other than the Jesuit Reductions. They were organized in a more defensive fort like system to hold off slave raiders, they trained and armed native tribesmen to ride horses and fire muskets to serve as a militia to defend themselves. Hard to experiment in other economic systems when you have to keep on the alert to avoid the indignity of being enslaved.

  8. A good story. Still Catholic Spain and Portugal were not robust capitalists and the Counter Reformation wasn’t either. Luther and Calvin’s Reformation encouraged capitalism as did The Brits. Socialist Catholics do not encourage capitalism either in either pre or post WWII. But, odd that without the rich providing jobs and innovations in products, none of the Empires would have ridden high nor would have the USA if we had simply taken usury as a way of life.

  9. “odd that without the rich providing jobs and innovations in products” – I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

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