Christians are typically known for what they’re opposed to. They’re often behind the curve, reactive. I see an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve.
We’re a year away from the US Presidential election. Capitalism is a hotly contested issue. Some candidates want to contain it. Others seem intent on killing it. Marc Benioff has a better idea. He says we need a new capitalism.
Benioff is the chairman and co-chief executive officer of Salesforce.com. He believes the current system of capitalism has led to profound inequality. To fix it, we need a new capitalism, where businesses value purpose alongside profit.
Cue CEO skepticism. In a 1970 essay, Milton Friedman wrote about “the short-sightedness” of executives who give speeches about social responsibility. “This may gain them kudos in the short run,” he wrote. “But it helps to strengthen the already too prevalent view that the pursuit of profits is wicked and immoral and must be controlled by external forces.” Friedman warned that once this view is widely believed, the result won’t be control by “social consciences” or “pontificating executives” but by “the iron fist of Government bureaucrats.”
Not necessarily. Friedman is short-sighted. “The farther back you can look,” Winston Churchill wrote, “the farther forward you are likely to see.” In looking back, we see Friedman didn’t understand the origins of capitalism or conscience. We also see an opportunity.
Start with capitalism. The early church touted commerce as the material bond among peoples. She grew primarily by businesspeople traveling commercial routes. Thanks to church theology, commerce developed into “religious capitalism” in the medieval economy. This capitalism flourished “within the safe havens provided by responsive states.”
This was capitalism with a conscience. Adam Smith described it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Free markets flourish when “the best head is joined to the best heart.” Only a virtuous people, people of good conscience, can produce virtuous capitalism.
This book set the stage for Smith’s celebrated second book, An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes Of The Wealth of Nations. He broadened the definition of wealth beyond gold and silver. Smith imagined a world of “universal affluence” (his phrase), a world in which every woman, man, and child will be liberated from the prison of poverty. Smith wasn’t a Christian but drew the book’s title from scripture (c.f., Isa. 60:5; 61:6; 66:11-13). Capitalism with a conscience.
Then the 19th century happened. Karl Marx noted that capitalism’s rewards were spread unequally. It was messy. In 1867, he published Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx reframed capitalism—a system he hated fiercely—as promoting individual gain. Its aim is the pursuit of profits, not purpose. Social responsibility? Religion? Not part of the equation.
Nor is conscience. In the 1800s, personal conscience, “which stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic” and was the principal engine of commerce, “was dismissed.”
Welcome to 2019. Marc Beniof is right. We need a new capitalism, where businesses value purpose alongside profit. This is our opportunity. But in an age when the fastest-growing percentage of the population is spiritual but not religious, I don’t think it’s wise to promote religious capitalism. Why not promote virtuous capitalism? Or right minded capitalism?
Follow me here. Virtuous means right minded, doing the right thing. But there’s a double meaning. Capitalism with a conscience requires right-brain leaders, outsiders helping capitalists be self-aware. Conscience is self-awareness, but it’s also “deceitful above all things” (Jer.17). William Wilberforce warned that we can easily form too high an estimate of our strengths while minimizing our weaknesses. He wrote that the antidote is “the friendly reproofs of a real friend.”
Now listen to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. “The right hemisphere is more self-aware than the left. The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings.” The antidote is the right hemisphere, what McGilchrist calls “prophetic.”
This is an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve. My sense is that, as the neuroscience is more widely understood, highly effective businesses will operate according to it. They will seek to be “ambidextrous organizations,” with right-brain leaders providing the outside view, working with insiders, left-brain leaders. Together, they will see the purpose of business—the purpose of enterprise in general—is to steward resources to meet a need in society. They will want their company to be purpose-full. They will take into account social responsibility, weighing the interaction of the whole company with the wider world.
Even the religious skeptic Charles Murray sees this as an opportunity for the faith community. “The more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.”
This is an opportunity for the faith community to get ahead of the curve. Let’s take it.
 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, (Free Press, 1996), 46.
 Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperOne, 2006)
 Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 58.
 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), xiii.
 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Revised edition, 2001), 11
 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 300.