In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Republican Christian influencers—leading politicians, pundits, and preachers—are eagerly promoting the idea that the Bible is a charter for free market capitalism. What are the tenets and presuppositions of this claim? Does it hold up to the standards of critical biblical scholarship?
See also: Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels (Oakland, CA: The University of California Press, 2020).
By Tony Keddie
Assistant Professor of Early Christian History and Literature
Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies
University of British Columbia
“Free Market Capitalism is God’s blueprint for growing a nation’s economy.”
“Throughout the Bible, the Almighty affirms private wealth creation.”
“The Bible’s teaching on the role of government gives support to the idea of a free market rather than socialism or communism.”
All three of the above quotes are by white male conservative Evangelical influencers who have been enthusiastic supporters of the Trump administration.
One of these men, Wayne Grudem, holds a PhD in New Testament from Cambridge and once was the president of the Evangelical Theology Society. He is now a professor of Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary and has written textbooks that are widely read in conservative seminaries (Wehner 2020; Du Mez 2020: 144, 167–69, 239–40, 261, 264). Another, Ralph Drollinger, is the lobbyist and pastor who runs regular Bible studies for elected officials in the White House and Congress (Stewart 2020: 34–53). And the third, Phil Robertson, is the wealthy hunter-businessman who was the star of the wildly popular “redneck reality” show Duck Dynasty (Du Mez 2020: 244–46, 269–71).
Can you match the quote with its author?
It is difficult to differentiate these quotes because they all appropriate the Bible as support for the same U.S. Republican agenda: Small Government. With some more context, you might find it easier to distinguish the president of the Duck Commander Company from the two seminarians. Still, on the whole, Drollinger’s Bible studies (the first quote), Robertson’s brand new (Aug. 2020) mass-market book Jesus Politics (the second quote), and Grudem’s 2010 seminary textbook Politics according to the Bible (the third quote) are remarkably consistent in their approaches to the Bible and the partisan lens they use to interpret it. In what follows, I investigate the interpretive strategies that these men and other Republican influencers have used in recent years to render the Bible as a blueprint for “free market capitalism.” Then, I proceed to expose biblical capitalism as a politically expedient right-wing fantasy.
Republican Biblical Interpretation
In her critical essay on the conservative Evangelical agenda of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (which Drollinger has been involved with), New Testament scholar Margaret Mitchell identifies a dangerous assumption of both the museum’s exhibits and right-wing inerrantist interpretations: “the Bible’s own meaning is perspicuous, not requiring interpretation.” Mitchell explains that “this is an evasion of responsibility or agency for interpretation and use of the biblical text.” She notes, however, that recognition of the process of interpretation does serve the end of drawing boundaries between what are considered right and wrong understandings of the Bible: “Where ‘the Bible’ has done good things, it did them on its own through its clear and unambiguous message; where it has appeared to side with racism or political domination or resistance to scientific discovery, that has involved ‘interpretations’ that can be questioned” (Mitchell 2019).
By concealing their own agency in the subjective processes of translation and interpretation, right-wing interpreters engage in what the religious studies scholar Stephen Young has described as “protective strategies” (Young 2015). They claim authority as disinterested transmitters of biblical teaching in a way that protects both the Bible itself and their own insider claims to biblical truth while demeaning conflicting views as biased “interpretations.” Grudem employs such strategies in the three pages of his 600-page textbook devoted to method. First, he rejects the idea that there is any “significant disagreement” among “interpreters who take the whole Bible to be the trustworthy Word of God.” He implies that this “widespread consensus” among “mainstream evangelical interpreters” and “many conservative Roman Catholic interpreters” exists because the Bible, viewed as a singular and uniformly “good” book, is clear and consistent on the principles conservatives uphold.
Grudem describes liberals’ approaches to the Bible, however, as “distortions” that are “designed” to misrepresent the Bible in order to lead people away from “obeying” it. He says that liberal objections to the clear biblical teachings of conservatives “can all be answered, one at a time, by saying, ‘You are interpreting the Bible incorrectly at this point, and here are the reasons why’” (Grudem 2010: 56–57, my emphasis). According to Grudem, interpretation only imposes bias when the interpreter is a liberal.
But, as many readers of this blog will appreciate, texts only take on meaning through interpretation. And every interpretation is shaped by the language, culture, identities, experiences, and political inclinations of the interpreter (see, for example, Segovia and Tolbert 1995). Many of the interpretations in Grudem’s book, as a result, are not so perspicuous to those outside of the U.S. Republican Christian echo-chamber—or even, for that matter, to interpreters outside of the modern U.S. I am often struck, in fact, by how often Evangelical students in classes at my Canadian university appear mystified by the economic conservatism of right-wing American Evangelical influencers (see Bean 2014). In my forthcoming book, Republican Jesus, I argue that Republican influencers’ interpretations of the New Testament on hot-button political issues are products of the distinctive cultural history of the U.S. Christian Right over the last century. They were cultivated, in large part, by corporate-backed Christian conservative leaders in reaction to the “Big Government” policies of FDR’s New Deal, in opposition to the menace of “communism” constructed to encompass liberal Christianity, and in defense of a conservative “biblical worldview” that indicts movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and, in more recent history, the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
Republicans’ Gospel of Small Government
A central assumption of many Republican interpretations is that the Bible is a divine mandate for “free market capitalism.” I refer to interpretations that take this perspective as the Republican Gospel of Small Government because these self-serving interpretations often promote limited government—such as limited taxes and regulations. These interpretations are built upon what Grudem highlights as two clear points of consensus among the Bible-obedient: that “God established civil government for our benefit” and that “there should be a distinction between those things that are governed by the church and those that are under the authority of civil government” (Grudem 2010: 56). According to Grudem’s interpretation, the government’s powe should be checked so as not to interfere in the affairs of Christian individuals and organizations.
The elaborations of these principles in Grudem’s book express a political ideology known as “neoliberalism,” a term that often causes confusion. Neoliberalism does not refer to a form of left-wing progressive (that is, “liberal”) politics, as the name might appear to suggest, but instead to a form of “classical liberalism” (laissez-faire economics) that was developed by twentieth-century conservatives and famously undergirded the politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. According to the political theorist David Harvey’s definition, “Neoliberalism is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade” (Harvey 2007: 25; see also Harvey 2005; Lofton 2015).
Neoliberalism’s policy hallmarks are tax cuts, the privatization of public institutions (e.g., schools, prisons, and the military), austerity measures, and anti-unionism. It is signaled in political rhetoric by language that casts “freedom” and “individualism” as remedies to the alleged evils of Big Government, socialism, and communism. And one of its most common symbols is the bootstrapper—a man who gains wealth by working hard to take advantage of the opportunities for economic success offered to him by the free market. Since neoliberalism is not limited to a single political party but is a widespread ideology that greases the wheels of consumer capitalism, bootstrappers often appear in mainstream New Testament scholarship as upwardly mobile fishermen, carpenters, tentmakers, and so on (Crossley 2014; Boer and Petterson 2017; Myles 2018).
Still, Republicans tend to be the most overt proponents of neoliberalism in the U.S. According to a 2017 poll, for example, Republicans were 4.3 times more likely to attribute poverty to laziness. White Evangelicals were 3.2 times more likely than someone unaffiliated with a religion (Zauzmer 2017; see also Werline 2016). The attribution of poverty to laziness is a direct correlate of the bootstrapper ideal: if a person does not succeed in the free market, they must not have pulled up their bootstraps and worked hard enough.
Here is where it becomes clear that neoliberalism is an ideology tied to white supremacy (Soss et al. 2011). Republicans are reluctant to acknowledge that institutionalized forms of discrimination (in hiring, wages, housing, education, healthcare, and the list goes on) create tremendous barriers to economic prosperity. These barriers disproportionately affect People of Color, and actively so. Recent Republican efforts to advance “religious freedom” ironically seek government intervention to guarantee the ability of Christian businesses and organizations to discriminate as they see fit (Posner 2020; Whitehead and Perry 2020). A familiar metaphor that reveals the racial prejudice of neoliberal discourse is the “welfare queen,” usually depicted as an overweight Black woman driving a flashy Cadillac to pick up her welfare check. Despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients are white, conservatives often imply that People of Color desire government dependence because they do not want to work (again, assuming free choice instead of recognizing structural constraints) (Lomax 2018).
In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the racial prejudices of neoliberalism are in plain sight: the Trump administration and Republican pundits cast the Black Lives Matter movement as thieves, thugs, cultural Marxists, socialists, and communists. Christian Republican influencers like Grudem, Drollinger, and Robertson have provided the biblical interpretations that support these views.
Do their interpretations stand up to critical scrutiny?
The Fallacy of Biblical Capitalism
The idea that the Bible is a mandate for capitalism because it affirms private property rights and the creation of wealth is widespread in modern U.S. conservativism. It is not, however, limited to contemporary U.S. Republicans; it has its roots in the philosophies of early-modern shapers of classical liberalism like Hugo Grotius and John Locke (Boer and Petterson 2014). I will focus on Grudem’s textbook here because it is the fullest and most systematic recent American treatment of the topic and because Drollinger and others cite it as an influence on their views.
Grudem’s enormous conservative screed covers nearly every hot-button political issue. Its case against affirmative action and its colonialist argument that Native Americans should stop “clinging” to their ancestral traditions are particularly disgraceful. Like the rest of the book, these arguments stem from Grudem’s neoliberal interpretation of property rights (e.g., Native Americans should be moved “from a system of tribal ownership of land to a system of private ownership,” in which they can then sell their land to non-Native Americans) (Grudem 2010: 548).
Considering that it is the foundation for most of his politics, Grudem’s biblical argument for private property rights is quite flimsy. His main point is that the commandments not to steal or covet (Exod 20:15, 17), as well as the more specific laws about theft in the Pentateuch, indicate that “The Bible regularly assumes and reinforces a system in which property belongs to individuals, not to the government or to society as a whole.” He concedes that landed property in ancient Israel cannot be sold “in perpetuity” because God is considered its ultimate sovereign (Lev 25:23). Grudem’s work-around is that God made humans in his image (Gen 1:27), and they are thus supposed to imitate him (Eph 5:1) by partaking in their own sovereignty over private property (Grudem 2010: 262–64).
There are important historical and biblical reasons why Grudem’s case for biblical capitalism founded on private property rights fails.
First, the historical: the modern democratic ideal of private property rights does not jive with ancient notions of property. In premodern agrarian societies like ancient Israel or the Roman Empire, the king or emperor could seize property in their domain at any time, even if this was viewed as legally and morally dubious (e.g., Ahab’s expropriation of Naboth’s vineyard) (Boer 2015).
Even more importantly, it is impossible for private property to be the cornerstone of a “free market” when a substantial proportion of the population is enslaved. If humans can be reduced to property, how can every human have the opportunity to succeed?
From a historical perspective, the conditions for capitalism did not exist in antiquity. Yes, individuals could be considered the owners of possessions, could accumulate surplus wealth through the sale of certain types of goods, and could convey their possessions as inheritances. But rulers had absolute ownership of the land, many humans were not “free” to own property, much commerce took the form of barter, economies were not fully monetized, local markets were only loosely integrated with one another, industrial technologies were relatively limited, and there was no market for credit investment. By most definitions of capitalism, the ancient Mediterranean does not fit the bill (Monson and Scheidel 2015).
Grudem’s argument may also be invalidated on biblical grounds. Grudem is quick to assert individuals’ property rights as guaranteed by God’s sovereignty over the land. But the Holiness Legislation’s notion of Israelites as tenants on God’s land (Lev 25:23: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants”) underpins a political-economic system in which legal regulations exist to limit the ways that an Israelite can economically exploit another Israelite. Leviticus 25 outlines legal regulations on prices and interest, among other things. Additionally, it instructs that every fiftieth year should be a jubilee, in which “you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family” (25:10). Grudem emphasizes that the instruction to return to one’s own “property” affirms individual property ownership. Yet, this conclusion conveniently downplays a key idea in this chapter that also appears elsewhere in the Bible: no individual owns land; they just possess plots allotted to them by God (see also Deut 3:20; 19:14). Slaves, too, should be freed during the jubilee according to Lev 25:40, or during each sabbatical (seventh) year according to Exod 21:2 and Deut 15:12 (though this only applies to Israelite slaves). Deuteronomy 15:1–11 adds that debts owed by other Israelites should be released every sabbatical year (tellingly, Grudem does not mention Deut 15 once in his book). The Bible, therefore, prescribes some very explicit legal regulations to prevent certain types of economic exploitation.
The sundry texts in the New Testament are also by no means uniform in their economic ethics. There are, for instance, some passages that only condemn greed and the love of money rather than wealth accumulation per se (e.g., 1 Tim 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”). Republican interpreters tend to cite these passages as though they are the most significant warnings about economic exploitation in the New Testament and as though they are merely indictments of the attitudes of corrupt individuals rather than criticisms of free market capitalism itself.
But there is a wide range of other perspectives on economic ethics in the New Testament (see Friesen 2008). There are some texts that endorse giving a portion of one’s wealth to the poor (e.g., Jesus commends the chief tax collector Zacchaeus for giving half of his possessions to the poor in Luke 19:8), other texts that call for the rich to divest themselves entirely (e.g., in Mark 10:21, Jesus tells a rich man that he must do the following to attain eternal life: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”; see also Matt 19:21; Luke 18:22), and other texts that portray the communal redistribution of wealth (e.g., Acts 2:44–45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”). These diverse perspectives do not neatly congeal into a theological foundation for privatized wealth accumulation. The tradition of hostility toward wealth in some parts of the gospels may, in fact, be a response to the expansion of private property rights that facilitated the accumulation of wealth by elites in Jesus’ day (Keddie 2019: 71–110).
Luke’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is particularly noteworthy, for it portrays Jesus declaring a jubilee. He preached in the synagogue at Nazareth from Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Invoking the ancient Israelite jubilee, Luke’s Jesus proclaimed his mission as messiah as an intervention against unjust social structures that oppress people who are poor, disabled, and held in captivity.
Grudem, Drollinger, and Robertson—three very different Republican Evangelical influencers—all pose the same question as a “protective strategy" to appear as disinterested messengers of biblical truth: Does the Bible support capitalism or communism? Unsurprisingly, they all arrive at the same predetermined answer: “that God is a capitalist, not a communist” (Drollinger, “Government”).
The Republican influencers who disseminate the fallacy of biblical capitalism obscure the preindustrial agrarian contexts in which biblical texts were produced, ignore or downplay biblical texts that promote social justice through economic regulations and fail to reflect on their own agency as interpreters. When these right-wing interpreters identify “free market capitalism” in texts that often condone slavery and then proceed to disregard those biblical texts that call for the emancipation of (certain) slaves, they reveal their investment in a neoliberal ideology primed to perpetuate the very unjust social structures of which they are the beneficiaries.
Bean, Lydia. 2014. The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Boer, Roland. 2015. The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Boer, Roland, and Christina Petterson. 2014. Idols of Nations: Biblical Myth at the Origins of Capitalism. Minneapolis: Fortress.
———. 2017. Time of Troubles: A New Economic Framework for Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Crossley, James G. 2014. Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology. London: Routledge.
Drollinger, Ralph. “Free Markets and Regulation.” Capitol Ministries. No date. https://capmin.org/free-markets-and-regulation/.
———. “Government and Economics: Capitalism vs. Communism.” Capitol Ministries. No date. https://capmin.org/government-and-economics-capitalism-vs-communism/.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. 2020. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright.
Friesen, Steven J. 2008. “Injustice or God’s Will: Early Christian Explanations of Poverty.” Pages 17–36 in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Edited by Susan R. Holman. Grand Rapids: Baker.
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———. 2007. “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610: 22–44.
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Mitchell, Margaret M. 2019. “‘It’s Complicated.’ ‘No, It’s Not.’: The Museum of the Bible, Problems and Solutions.” Pages 3–35 in The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction. Edited by Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon. Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress Academic.
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Posner, Sarah. 2020. Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. New York: Random House.
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Young, Stephen L. 2015. “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship.” Biblical Interpretation 23: 1–35.
Zauzmer, Julie. “Christians Are More Than Twice as Likely to Blame a Person’s Poverty on Lack of Effort.” Washington Post. August 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/03/christians-are-more-than-twice-as-likely-to-blame-a-persons-poverty-on-lack-of-effort/.
Often overlooked, the sabbath Fourth Commandment has rich exegetical potential as anti-capitalism one day out of seven, laborers' rights, intervention into and disruption of reifications of libertarian mutual-agreement contract ideology in which poor laborers freely agree (sic) to exchange present and future productive energies for sustenance. The sabbath can be read as guaranteed laborers' rights, guaranteed paid vacations, limits on workweeks and work hours, limits on neo-liberal ideologies of contractual agreement as the moral basis for large-scale neo-feudalism economic arrangements in which inherited-wealth owners are born into lifelong streams of unearned passive income from sharecroppers. It is as if exegetically the Fourth Commandment--which broadens to include ancient stories of seventh-year and jubilee redistributions of land and inherited wealth and periodic large-scale zeroings of personal debt--was markets six days, socialism the seventh, in a rhythm and cycle. Social-conscience evangelicals understand this, earlier evangelicals of the social gospel and Salvation Army understood this. But social-conscience evangelicals in America today are vastly outnumbered by a toxic marriage of conservative political ideology to a bastardized form of evangelical gospel focused on ending control of women over the insides of their bodies, this last always promised but never delivered by the major powers of the Republican Party in exchange for evangelical voter support for imperial and neoliberal economic agendas benefitting rapacious concentrations of wealth. These biblical texts--stories and ancient legal codes, literatures of ancient peoples under superpower conquest, read and exegeted and translated into modern meanings over two thousand years later in our worlds today far removed--are like Rorschach Inkblot diagnoses of primal soul, and what is read out of such texts, whether legitimization of slavery in earlier days, neo-feudalist economic ideology today, or conscience on behalf of oppressed children of God wherever they may be in our world, is telling. I agree with your essay.