Hart Contra Acton

I couldn’t say for sure, but were I a betting man I’d put my chips behind the possibility that David Bentley Hart doesn’t look kindly on the Acton Institute and its ongoing attempt to fuse social, political, and economic liberalism with Christianity. In a new article for Commonweal, Hart briefly reviews the fallout from his First Thing piece on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ before going into detail why he believes capitalism and the Gospel are at odds. Here’s an excerpt:

The final stage of my work on [translating the New Testament] coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

The Gregg pieces in question are typical Actonite rehashes of trick-down economic ideology; the glories of capitalism (and the woes of “crony capitalism”); and the compatibility of economic liberalism and Christianity. Hart — being Eastern Orthodox — is not bound to the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, though he arguably comes closer to following it than a professed Catholic like Gregg or Acton’s head-honcho, Fr. Robert Sirico. Where Hart is likely to raise some eyebrows is in his implicit suggestion that Christ’s teaching — and the witness of the Apostles — points to a form of Christian communism with wealth being condemned absolutely. Hart doesn’t have much interest in tethering himself to the development of Christian social doctrine nor, for that matter, engaging in that time-honored Orthodox practice of “appealing to the Fathers.” (He does, after all, have some brief but pointed words for St. Clement of Alexandria, who attempted to make the Gospel mesh with the conventions of his time.) Regardless, Hart’s retelling of the early Church’s admonishment of wealth is worth reflecting on, if only because it stands in such sharp contrast to the manner in which most Christians live their lives. Catholics like to speak a great deal about “avoiding the occasion of sin” but have almost nothing meaningful to say about doing so regarding riches. Instead, what we normally receive are finger-wagging reminders from men who make six figures a year about how even the poor today have it “better off” than the poor a century ago and even a man struggling to keep his family together working two jobs can also make an idol out of his earnings.

4 Comments

  1. Aethelfrith
    September 28, 2016

    Misread the title as Hard Contradiction. That said, your article is on point.

    Reply
  2. jacopo
    September 29, 2016

    Based on donor information and board affiliations, one could reasonably conclude that Acton’s mission is to campaign for a low tax, low regulatory environment for the benefit of its anonymous donors (Donors’ Trust). It looks like one of the many propaganda arms of the Koch octopus. It’s ironic that Acton also has ties to the charter school industry, which competes with the NEA to gobble up tax dollars, given its opposition to “crony capitalism.”

    Reply
  3. Ephemera VI | Opus Publicum
    October 3, 2016

    […] week I made mention of David Bentley Hart’s provocative article “Christ’s Rabble.” Although Hart opted to target an Acton Institute General in that piece, Acton has sent a […]

    Reply
  4. […] has already been written about David Bentley Hart’s somewhat iconoclastic Commeanweal article on wealth and the Gospels. One of Hart’s Eastern Orthodox co-religionists, Dylan Pahman, was not amused. In both […]

    Reply

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