If the United States has a state religion, it’s capitalism.
That hasn’t always been so, but few adults under the age of 60 would know that Ayn Rand was once reviled by believers, that the working poor were once seen as honorable folk, and that churchgoing Christians did not always believe it their duty to defend the ways of Big Business. Indeed, there was once a time when even the U.S. Supreme Court looked askance at the depredations of large corporations.
Our recent history, however, has seen little of that. The end of the Soviet empire not only highlighted capitalism’s superiority over communism, but it also encouraged the notion that capitalism is perfect. It didn’t help that Ronald Reagan, who played a role in forcing the collapse of the Soviet system, popularized the idea that poor people were impoverished because of their innate flaws.
Taken together, those strains of thinking allowed business executives and their political allies, especially those in the Republican Party, to enshrine capitalist enterprise as a new religion — to be untouched by state regulation, to be left to work its will, to be allowed to run (and perhaps ruin) the planet.
The decades-long idolization of an amoral system helps explain the outrage on the right to the recent apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, whose 200-odd page “Joy of the Gospel” includes a stinging critique of capitalism. Rush Limbaugh, right on cue, rushed to denounce it as “pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.” A more thoughtful rejoinder came from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, who wrote: “When it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.”
But the Pope’s analysis — and he did not mince words — still rings true. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” he wrote.