One finds similar-sounding language in Christian leaders through history — Lactantius, Augustine and Martin Luther. The healing of the social order, according to these leaders, required the wealthy to change their motivations in light of Christ, to use their wealth not for private interests but for public welfare. One after another, a chorus of voices condemned usury — the lending of money at interest — except in very narrow circumstances. It makes one at least have to question what Augustine or Basil would say about student loan reform, credit card interest rates or calls to increase the minimum wage.
We may look at these statements from church history as mere idealism, the products of a naïve era in which the dynamics and benefits of capitalism were yet undiscovered. But we find similar ideas repeated in the modern age.
Reformation-era figures like the English bishop John Hooper railed against the rich of his diocese as “raveners and eaters of the poor” and pronounced that “these men, except they repent, cannot be saved.” Hooper certainly believed in the necessity of private charity, but not to the exclusion of systemic economic change. In a letter to the secretary of state under King Edward VI, Hooper asked for “redress” that the wealth of “every shire” not be “taken into a few men’s hands” and that the rich not be permitted to buy “when things be good cheap, to sell afterwards dear.” He was asking for what we would now call economic regulation.
Jonathan Edwards, famous for his terrifying sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (and, thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, for being Aaron Burr’s grandfather), issued hellfire and brimstone warnings to the winners in capitalism — those who would “buy as cheap and sell as dear as they can”— as much as to those committing sexual immorality. Those denouncing “greedflation” find a surprising ally in this puritan preacher. A recent biographer of Edwards said that he believed “calamitous price fluctuations” could be traced to “a greedy spirit” in those who would “advance their private interests on the great loss and damage of the public society.” Edwards went so far as to preach after widespread crop failure that because his community did not redistribute its wealth to meet the needs of the poor, God, as a judgment on the rich, redistributed poverty through famine.
The 19th-century Anglican bishop Brooke Foss Westcott likewise insisted that Christianity deals “not only with personal character” but “also with the State, with classes, with social conditions.” He asked his priests to monitor labor conditions in their parish districts, to seek economic justice. Christian leaders continued to advocate economic reforms into the 20th century, but the fundamentalist-modernist controversy divided Protestant churches in America. Evangelicals, fundamentalists and others with more theologically conservative religious beliefs increasingly grew silent on economic justice. There are important exceptions to this. Catholic social teaching — and leaders like Dorothy Day — championed the labor movement. Black church traditions also held together convictions that white conservatives and progressives pried apart. Even among white Western evangelicals, voices like John Stott, Ron Sider and Jim Wallis called on their movement to address economic disparity.
Likewise, the global church, which grew exponentially in the 20th century, continued to agitate for economic justice. David Gitari, the archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya from 1997 to 2002, identified as an evangelical and was conservative on social matters. But he criticized American evangelicals for their tendency “to concentrate more on spiritual matters and to ignore the sociopolitical issues that also affect the whole individual.” Still, because of divisions among white Christians, advocating for economic justice and addressing income inequality is often seen as the preserve of a small subculture of religious progressivism instead of what it is: a chief concern of traditional Christian orthodoxy that is echoed throughout time.