Evangelicals and Capitalism: Cultural Despisers and Cultural Accommodators

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Cultural Despisers

William Connolly, in his 2008 work Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, sets out firstly to diagnose how the ‘capitalist project’ has been perverted and warped by its resonant relationship with conservative right-wing Christian religious beliefs.[1] The religious right within Evangelicalism in America in relation to capitalism has given rise to a variety of pathological behaviours. Central to this contention and diagnosis is that, whilst early capitalist consumption was resisted by a religious ethos, its later manifestations arose owing to the development of a right-wing Evangelical religious ethos.[2] Connolly sees all political economies as having an embodied ethos within them. It is not that capitalist markets have disembedded from any religious ethos, but rather that they have taken their current shape from a new religious ethos provided by right-wing Evangelicals.[3] Connolly describes how this relationship between an Evangelical right-wing ethos and capitalism is best understood through ‘assemblages’ of media, churches, cultural consciousness, and a ‘spiral of resonances’ that produce the Evangelical capitalist resonance machine.[4] Connolly is sensitive to the multiple forms of capitalism and suggests that historical, ideological, and institutional variations are best understood through the methodology of assemblage, which can be discerned in its contact and resonance with present US right-wing Christian assemblages.[5] Connolly uses the work of Weber, Deleuze, and St. Augustine for his philosophical argument in order to establish how religious beliefs such as the Protestant work ethic and issues of providence in creation are the basis for the resonances that these beliefs have with the capitalist system.

Connolly’s response to this contention and diagnosis is to suggest that it is within an alternative and ‘counter political movement’,[6] a democratic and left-wing visualisation of a new ethos, that capitalism might be redeemed.[7] In particular, this vision requires a ‘world without divine providence, a self-regulating market, or consummate capacities of human mastery of the world’.[8] He assumes that capitalist markets are redeemable and that this liberal democratic vision stands in contrast to the Evangelical religious ethos, and suggests that those on the edge of the ‘evangelical resonance machine’ might connect with this vision.[9] All of these arguments are highly questionable. Is capitalism in need of redeeming and in fact redeemable; is his diagnosis of the relationship of Evangelicalism and the market accurate; and is our (speaking for myself, I remain an Evangelical) only hope a move out and away from Evangelicalism into a left-wing political movement?

Connolly’s work correlates with that of John Milbank, who also determines Evangelicalism (of a particular type) to be intrinsic to capitalism. For Millbank what ails capitalism is the Evangelical Christian belief that gives form to it in late capitalism. Evangelicalism is unable, within the accounts of Milbank and Connolly, to respond to the problems of life in late-capitalist market societies and is the root cause of those problems. My scope and remit in this post is not to explore the nature of capitalism per se but its nature in the relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism and how this affects Christian identity formation and ecclesiology. And Milbank offers little hope for my own church context, other than a turn away from Evangelical faith.

But Milbank does provide a needed methodological warning, that I must avoid my own account being merely correlationist.  I cannot locate the measures for belief and practice outside the Christian faith – in the supposedly “neutral” and “objective” accounts from social theory, such as economics, sociology and evolutionary psychology.  For these accounts are far from neutral, with their own traditioned and anti theologies as extra-Scriptural authorities.[10]

So any alternative account I want to make  cannot merely “correlate” Christian faith with the traditioned findings of other authorities be they social theories or theologies from christian traditions. Here  I have in mind methodologically the Semper aggiornamento, “always reforming” method of the reformation. Within this we are to be located in the ongoing work of tradition, the labour of ‘arguing about what constitutes a faithful extension of the tradition’.[11]  And by extension I am asking if Evangelicalism has a tradition that can be faithfully narrated and then extended?  All this contrasts with a correlationist “updating” in that it anchors any accounting within the ‘center of gravity in the tradition’, and prioritises the authorities of that tradition (claiming that Evangelicalism as has its own tradition and centre of gravity).[12]

Cultural Accomodators

Pete Ward, in his 2002 work Liquid Church, offers an account of the relationship with Evangelicalism to capitalism that contrasts starkly with those of Milbank and Connolly. Where Milbank and Connolly seemingly despise the culture of capitalism and perceive complicity with Evangelical faith, Ward, whilst critical of the relationship between Christianity and capitalist markets, sees that a very different response is required. Ward begins his work by responding to the epiphenomena  of the church’s general ineffectiveness in connecting to those outside it and to Christians who have long since left it.[13] Ward claims that a theological description of church can be mapped directly against contemporary ‘sociological descriptions of contemporary economic life’ such that the shape of church should be determined by the socio-logic of those forms of contemporary economic life.[14] This is what Ward imagines as ‘liquid church’, whereby it is not that Christianity has conformed too closely to and set the agenda for contemporary economic life, but rather it is that church has not gone far enough in accommodating to the possibilities of our new ‘network’ society.[15] There is a ‘resonance’ between church and the ‘sociological theory of consumption’ that necessitates church as liquid church to conform to this social theory, such that it ‘must emerge from a connection to the spiritual desires and preferences of those who are so far outside of Church life’.[16] Or so Ward warns us.

Where Milbank would warn us of the complicity of the Evangelical Church in conforming to the practices of capitalism, and Connolly of the pathologies of the Christian ethos that shapes those practices, Ward critiques the Church for failing to embrace commodification as a spiritual practice and suggests that the Church should be engaged with it even more. For ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’[17] Where the underwriting of commodification by ecclesial practice is inherently evil for Milbank, according to Ward it is a vital and theologically necessary ecclesial practice to the Church.

Ward at first offer me something more positive than Milbank and Connolly, at least in the possibility of not immediately turning away from Evangelicalism, whilst diagnosing the relationship of Christianity to late-capitalist markets and providing something other than a turn to the Anglican Parish as a model for my ecclesiology. Yet Ward’s liquid church does seem to turn even further away from the Church. If my key concern is of how people in late-capitalist societies consume the resources of the Christian faith without establishing a life in common with Christians outside the socio-logic of capitalist markets, what does Ward really offer me? His suggestion at first glance seems to offer only more of the same, which is the provision of religious resources and experiences for self-agency within alternative lived realities of late-capitalist markets.

Ward and Connolly/Milbank offer two polarities: the despising of culture on the one hand, and an extreme accommodation to culture on the other. I am left asking whether their accounts of the relationship of Christianity to capitalist markets are correct and whether their suggestions in response are the only alternatives available to us. Is there something between them, a via media that offers an understanding of Evangelical Christianity better nuanced with regard to its relationship with capitalist markets? And would this account enable Evangelicals to perceive alternative ecclesial practices that neither overly refute the market nor accommodate it, whilst taking seriously the critiques of the Church and market? My next postings will outline my suggestions of how such an account might be made, the shape of such an account and the possibilities for Evangelicals that it might offer.

How do you understand the relationship between Evangelicals and Capitalism?


[1] William E. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), xixii.

[2] Ibid., xiii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, xi.

[5] Ibid., 922.

[6] Ibid., xii.

[7] Ibid., xiiixiv.

[8] Ibid., xiv.

[9] Ibid.

[10] James K.A Smith highlights such a correlationism with reference the mid-century “updating” by Catholic theologians within their aggiornamento method, where they attempted to have Church ruling standards updated and conformed to modern social theories.  James K. A. Smith, “Introducing Radical Orthodoxy : Mapping a Post-Secular Theology,”  (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press ; Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, 2004). [page?]

[11] For a detailed explanation of this method see James K. A. Smith, “Semper Aggiornamento? On “Always Reforming”” http://tinyurl.com/34urtpt (accessed 2nd December 2010).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pete Ward, Liquid Church (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002), 9.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 1112.

[16] Ward, Liquid Church, 12.

[17] Ibid., 75.

Further Reading: