opinion | The culture war that more Christians should be fighting

One finds similar-sounding language among Christian leaders throughout history—Lactantius, Augustine, and Martin Luther. The healing of the social order, according to these leaders, required that the rich change their motives in the light of Christ and use their wealth not for private interests but for the common good. One by one, a chorus of voices condemned usury—the lending of money at interest—except in very narrow cases. At the very least, you have to question what Augustine or Basil would say about student loan reform, credit card interest rates, or the call for a minimum wage increase.

We can view these statements from church history as mere idealism, products of a naïve era when the dynamism and benefits of capitalism were still undiscovered. But we find similar ideas repeated in modern times.

Reformation-era figures such as England’s Bishop John Hooper railed against the rich in his diocese as “robbers and eaters of the poor” and proclaimed that “unless they repent, these men cannot be saved.” Hooper certainly believed in the need for private charity, but not to the exclusion of systemic economic change. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary under King Edward VI. asked Hooper for “reparations” that the wealth of “every county” would not “be taken into the hands of a few men” and that the rich should not buy “when things stand.” good cheap, then sell it dearly.” He called for what we would today call economic regulation.

Jonathan Edwards, famous for his chilling sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (and thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda for being Aaron Burr’s grandfather), warned of hellfire and brimstone to capitalism’s winners – those who “would buy.” sell as cheaply and as dearly as possible”—as well as to those who commit sexual immorality. Those who denounce “greedflation” will find a surprising ally in this puritanical preacher. A recent biographer of Edwards said he believed “catastrophic price swings” could be traced back to “a greedy spirit” in those who would “transfer their private interests to the great loss and damage to public society.” Edwards went so far as to preach, after widespread crop failures, that God, as judgment on the rich, redistributed poverty from famine because his church did not redistribute its wealth to meet the needs of the poor.

The 19th-century Anglican bishop Brooke Foss Westcott also insisted that Christianity was “not only concerned with personal character” but “also with the state, with classes, with social conditions”. He urged his priests to monitor working conditions in their parishes and strive for economic justice. Christian leaders continued to advocate for economic reform into the 20th century, but the controversy between fundamentalists and modernists divided the Protestant churches in America. Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and others with more theologically conservative religious beliefs have become increasingly mute about economic justice. There are important exceptions to this. Catholic social teaching – and leaders like Dorothy Day – championed the labor movement. Black church traditions also held together beliefs that divided white conservatives and progressives. Even among white Western evangelicals, voices like John Stott, Ron Sider and Jim Wallis called on their movement to address economic inequality.

Likewise, the global church, which grew exponentially in the 20th century, continued to advocate for economic justice. David Gitari, Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya from 1997 to 2002, identified as Evangelical and was conservative on social issues. But he criticized American evangelicals for their tendency to “focus more on spiritual issues and ignore the socio-political issues that also affect the whole individual.” However, because of divisions among white Christians, advocating for economic justice and tackling income inequality is often seen as the preserve of a small subculture of religious progressivism, rather than what it is: a major concern of traditional Christian orthodoxy that has evolved over the course of the century reflects time.

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