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Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860
University Of Chicago Press, 2008
256 pp., $57.00
by George Marsden
Stewards of Capitalism
As is often evident in the pages of Books & Culture, many thoughtful American Christians are perplexed and sometimes troubled about the relationship between our vast affluence and our commitments to follow the teachings of Jesus. One index of that concern is that, even in the Reagan years and at the height of the Religious Right, one evangelical bestseller was Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which sold some 350,000 copies from 1977 to 1998. That figure pales compared to those for the more dramatic escapist scenarios of The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series, but also suggests that an evangelical social conscience is not an invention of the last few years. The most immediate questions sparking much of this concern have to do with the relationship of the immense wealth that most of us enjoy to the needs of the very poor, both at home and abroad. A related set of questions, probably less often discussed, have to do with the moral implications of modern capitalism, which has fostered both widespread economic growth and a world of competition in which the rich have huge advantages over the poor.
Apologists for America and for its brand of capitalism have often treated widespread American prosperity as though it is, in fact, evidence of American virtue. Critics think otherwise. Much of the world sees American wealth as evidence of American greed, and leftist critics long have seen capitalism as organized greed. Militant Muslim observers add that, whatever the potential good of our affluence, it has hopelessly corrupted us, so that we preside over and export a civilization of unparalleled materialist decadence. The implication is that the Christian religion, especially Protestantism, has failed to provide significant checks on the debilitating effects of a civilization built around material acquisition. Radical disciples of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount have said much the same.
Taking his title from one of Jesus' parables, Stewart Davenport ...