A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christianity-capitalism rift grows

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Dec. 24, 25 or 26

In this time, one of Christianity’s holiest seasons, the connection between the church, conservatives and capitalism increasingly seems contrived, and may be fraying.

In “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” author Michael J. Sandel writes, “a Bridgeport, Ct., high school teacher ends the year without enough paper for final exams,” and he connects that with socioeconomic upheaval elsewhere in the United States: 60,000 poor Pennsylvanians, most disabled, lost their $200 monthly assistance grants and in Monterey, Calif., stalking victims unsuccessfully ask for restraining orders from a judicial system cut back – all while billions of tax dollars are diverted to the wealthy.

This has become the rule, not the exception, confirms the study “Executive Excess 2012: The CEO Hands in Uncle Sam’s Pocket” from the Institute for Policy Studies, its 19th annual report on excessive executive compensation. It notes that in 2010 and 2011 about one-fourth of the nation’s 100 highest-paid CEOs took home more in pay than their corporations paid the U.S. in taxes.

In many ways, it’s always Christmas for the elite – for capitalism.

“What is capitalism?” asks Arthur Jones, an editor with National Catholic Reporter. “Free market has a lovely, Independence Day ring to it as a way to describe robbing from the poor to give to the rich.”

Mammon – meaning wealth as an evil influence or an object of worship and devotion – is increasingly exposed. And Mammon can be considered an almost inevitable result of capitalism, or of the corporate model, which exists (regardless of being granted human status by the U.S. Supreme Court) exclusively to maximize profits.

Not to made good products.

Not to be fair to workers.

And certainly not to love neighbors – or enemies (Matthew 5:44).

Capitalism has three stages, Jones says: Entrepreneurship that sparks economic activity, unregulated capitalism run amok, and “Mammon as Midas,” when “greed reigns, thoroughly corrupted, corrupting everything it touches – from politicians to the public domain, from the commonwealth to the common good.”

For instance, Sandel asserts that “everything is for sale” and lists examples, from $8 car-pool access and $82-per-night prison-cell upgrades, to hiring a surrogate mother for $6,250 and buying a U.S. green card (up to $500,000). Dubbing the phenomenon “market triumphalism,” Sandel – a Harvard University professor and creator of the public TV series “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?” – spells out the lack of moral limits when capitalism is unleashed.

That lack of moral values is starting to register more with Christians, especially during Advent.

“The economic interests of capitalists (defined as those who earn most of their income from capital) are beginning to diverge significantly from the interests of social conservatives,” wrote Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst economics professor who contributes to the New York Times’ “Economix” blog.

“In other words, the symbolic marriage of capitalism and conservatism is showing signs of strain.”

The suspicion is not new. Edmund Burke, an 18th century founder of conservatism, warned of the destructiveness of unbridled selfishness, of uncontrolled sectors of society – economic as well as political: capital as well as government.

Regulations – laws or rules of conduct, whatever they’re called – are not worthless, he said.

“You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils,” Burke wrote. “You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain.”

The growing divide between the faithful celebrating Christmas this season and the investment bankers and their puppets on Capitol Hill is being hastened, Folbre said, by three trends: the increasing disparity of wealth (especially income inequality); the conflicting interests of Big Banks and community businesses (the Wall Street/Main Street schism); and the deteriorating loyalty of corporations to the country – creating employment overseas and avoiding tax obligations through foreign shelters.

Even conservative Newt Gingrich, during the Republican presidential primaries, condemned Bain Capital, the private equity firm that Mitt Romney helped build, as “vulture capitalism.”

The political pendulum could be swinging back, back to respecting workers at least as much as bosses, and labor at least as much as financial speculation.

"Human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject,” wrote Pope John Paul II In his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens.”

As Christianity celebrates the birth of Jesus this week, it may rediscover readings beyond the Nativity.

“The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few,” says Luke 10:2, “so ask the Master of the harvest to send out laborers for His harvest.”

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