Christianity: Democracy and Capitalism

Figure 1.--

Historical assessments are often largely based on one's cultural perspective. Thus we in the West commonly give inadequate attention toward other societies. Stepping back, one is struck by the fact that through much of workd histor, China was the most successful and advanced society on earth. Marco Polo had good reason to be amazed when he reached China. European traders trying to do business in China had a major problem. They had little to offer that the Chinese wanted. Many of the technological developments that led to the indudtrial Revoltion was basec on technologies developed in China which until the 8th century was more advanced than the West. Why then was the major steps to modernity (political demoicracy and economic capitalism) both occur in the West? We have had readers say that it was mere chance. We suspect that it is very unlikely that chance was the driving force. Rather we believe that it was the West's Judeo-Christian traditiion embued with the help of St. Paul with a healty does of Helenism--the ckasuical traditions. Here we are not saying that the political philosophy of John Locke or the economic philosophy of Adam Smith can be found in the Old and New Testament. And passages that appear to reject both democracy and capitalism can be found in the Bible. The overwealming trajectory of Jewish and Christian thought, hoever, is the value the individual and personal choice no matter what his or her social status. And it is this spirit over time that has led to both democracy and capitalism which are in essence political and economic liberty. Here we are still wrestling with this issue and welcome reader insights and comments.

The Classical Tradition

Democracy was not a creation of Chridtianity. The roots of democracy are in the ancient Greek culture. Clearly the Athenian democracy was different from modern democracies, but it was in Athens and other Greek city states that people thought that they could self-govern without a king anointed by the gods. Also in the Roman Republic the decisions were taken by an elected Senate which acted in the name of the Roman People--Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR). Classical democracy did not have religious roots. Both Rome and Greece were polytheistic. Rather democracy seems to have been rooted in Greek philosophy, fundamentally the basic principle that 'man is the measure of all things'. Plato attributes this statement to Protagoras (c490 420 BC) and while controversial at the time, it does summarize the classical tradition. Clearly not in Greece or in Rome, however, did all people have the same rights. These were slave socitities, perhaps a third of the Roman populative was slave who were seen as "things".

The West

Both democracy and capitalism appeared in the West at about the same time. In the case of democracy, it was a reappeaance. HBC and the internet has afforded us the fascinating opportunity to talk with people with widely varied ideas all over the world. I find in these discussions that most people, including most Americns today, believe that the development of both democracy and capitalism in the West was an historical accident. Tied up in this belief is the increasing pervasive political correctness dominating the modern fira. Many Americans are committed to the principle of cultural relativity and want to avoid any suggestion that the West and its ideas are superior in any way to other cultures. We often see this when President Obama travels abroad and speaks to foreign aufiences. Our believe is that the development of democracy and capitalism in the West was definitely no accident. The difficulties of developing democratic rule around the world even today here speak volumes. And powerful historical developments like this do not generally occur by accident. This then leads us to the question of why both demoracy and capitalism occurred in the West and at about the same time. We believe that here Christianity (with its twin Jewish and Greek humanistic traditions) is at the center of both developments and the timing was largely due the Reformation. We do not presentv this as an historical fact, but rather as an idea that needs to be considered and we invitec reader comment.

The Individual

I do not mean to suggest that Moses or Jesus preached either democracy or capitalism or that the Bible has a theological basis for either. My thesis (which I as still considering) is that the trajectory of Jewish and Christian tradition (influenced by Hellenism) was for the dignity and value of the individual in a way that Islam and other religions do not. I think the whole process began with the Jews who more than any other ancient people valued the individual and dealt with individual choice. This was crucial, the basic building block of the West. And this is the basis for both democracy and capitalism which are in essence political and economic liberty. St. Paul helped fuse the Jewish and classical tradition into what we now call the Christian tradition. A reader writes,"I think that the contribution of christianity was especially important for the idea of human dignity, although the Gospel was often forgotten trough the centuries. Absolutely, but in any religious system, observance has commonly varied over time. This is why law is so important.

Chritianity and Slavery

Democracy in Greece and Rome was imperfect in many ways. Surely the greatest problem was slavery. After the fall of Rome, slavery gradually declined and eventually disappered in Europe. Here the principal agent was the Church.

The Rule of Law

I also think the Catholic Church was important by integrating the largely Jewish Jesus movement with Hellenism to create the Catholic Church. We no of no other early religion that was sxo concerned with law than the Jews. Andc one of the cgreat Roman contributions to thecWest was law. Church cannon law founded on Roman law was also the first modern legal system after the fall of Rome, the foundation for subsequent secular legal codes. The Catholic Church of course was not democratic and there were prohibitions on usury that were not capitalistic. Even so, it was the Church that proved to be the vehicle for conveying Rome's great gift--the rule of law. Europe's first real post-Roman legal system was the church's cannon law. And of course the rule of law is an indispensible component of a democratic system. This some times is lost in the focus on majority rule. That of course is important, but so is thec protection of the rights of minorities and personalm property. And thi can only be doine through the rule of kaw.

The Renaisance (13th-15th centuries)

The Reanaisance played a role in both the development of demoracy and capitalism. This began in the Italian city states in 12th-14th centuries had some democratic organization. This varied from city to city. And of course the Papacy had considerable influence. The Italian city states also played a key role in the development of capitalism. The European banking system had its roots in the Crusades and in the Italian city states where the European economy first began gto emerge from the static Feudal system. The network created by the Knights Templar, a Catholic religious order, during the crusades was the first formal system of transferring money other than shipping bullion. It is commonly seen as the beginning of the European banking system. Italian city states cintinued this process. The Renaisance also played an important role in reintroducing classical literature with secular ideas, including ideas of democracy and republican administration to medieval Europe.

The Reformation

While we believe that modern democracy is firmly rooted in Christianity, that does not mean that all strains of Christianity or all churches either believed in democracy or promoted the development of democracy. The Reformation despite Luther's intentions resulted in a fundamental split in Western Christianity. And beyond the not always unrelated theological disputes, differences emerged in political organization. The Reformation was the watershed in the emergence of Western democracy just as Europe was making the transition from medieval to modern and confronted the issue of political soverignity. [Nichols] Important Christian churches differed on critical issues that affected the develoopment of democracy. One strain was anti-democratic and supported divine rights monarchy and opposed the idea that monarchial subjects had the right to question and especially oppose the decesions of the soverign. The Catholic Churfch was in this camp, obvioysly as the papacy developed the comparable dictrine of infalibility. But it was not jusr the Catholics. Both Anglicans and Lutherns fell within this camp. The second principal stream of Western Christianity was that soverign and subject had mutual obligations. While hardly democrats when thus thinking emeged, this strain believed in limiting the monarchy, largely because many monarchies were attempting to impose their religious believes. Protestants believed in Bible study and a direct relationship with God without the priestly internmediaries. Thus this strain of Protestantism oposed the interference of the state or church hierarchy in the personal relatrionship with God. This strain was centered on John Calvin and the Calvinist churches, often called Reformed or Presbyterian. And once the individual had the right to resist the monarch in one area (religion), it was only a small step to resistance in other areas, politics and economics. No one would call Calvin a democrat, but that was indeed where Calvinism led. It was Calvinism's left wing that gave rise to 'Puritan Protestantism' which contributed more to the development of true democratic development than any other Christian line. [Nichols] And this strain of Christianity proved important in Britain (England and Scotland) and Anmerica. Roman Catholicism after the Napoleonic era stood against the democratic tide born in England and America and gradualy rising on the Continent. "Against the Liberal doctrines of the divine right of majorities and the unrestricted freedom of opinion, the Church has always maintained the principles of authority and hierarchy." [Dawson]


Pluralism is of course a central tenant if democracy is to work. Here cthe Reformation also played a critical role, but not as part of any reasoned effgort. Emphasizing Bible study inevitability led to different interpreoations and ax proliferation of religious thought. The founding of a dizzing number of denominations made an important contribution to democracy. Although some tried, eventually it became obvious that no one denomination was strong enough to dominate in the way the Catholic Church was before the Reformation.


Women in most socities, including ancient Rome and Greece had few rights. They did have the rights to own property. The influence of Christianity in the development of full legal rights for women is a topic we have not yet investigated. Perhaps readers will know more about this. We do know it is in the West that the idea of full legal rights for women first appeared. The final act of this effort was sufferage. In America this began with the states and was finally adopted asan amendment to the Federaral Constitution (1919). The ctime line varied in Europe. The French were the last major European country to allow women to vote. Christian churches played a key role in the anti-slkavery campaign. We are less sure about women's rights.


Only after this long historical process did Protestantism begin to take the important final steps. I do not believe it was an accident that capitalism came out of the Christian West--more specifically the Protestant north. It was the Dutch that invented capitalism. And the English which appropriated it--both Protestant powers. Protestant theology varied. I think Calvin in particular played an important role in directing Protestantism in a capitalist direction. It strikes me as highly unlikely that it is just accidental that the great industrial powers were Protestant powers Britain, America, and Germany). Of course we have to add Catholic France to that list, but France was also the fourth most important industrial power.

Reader Comments

You say that Christianity and Judaism led to both democracy and capitalism. About democracy it is true, although the process was very slow. About capitalism, it was an historic coincidence without a real foundation in the faith. You can see these two text from Old and New Testament: Leviticus 25:23 The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants. Acts 2:44-45 All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Anyway in a Christian view (and I think also in a Jewish view) both democracy and capitalism are means not the goal. For this reason they are always perfectible. It is the same perspective of Sir Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (From a House of Commons speech on November 11, 1947).


Dawson, Christopher.

Nichols, James Hastings. Democracy and the Churches (Westminster Press).

Weber, Max. The Protstnt Ethic.


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Created: 8:07 AM 7/12/2011
Last updated: 4:23 PM 1/30/2012