Why Pope Francis’ message is welcomed by many conservatives

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The other day, Pope Francis delivered what has been described as a stinging critique of unfettered capitalism and “unbridled consumerism.” As I mentioned on Morning Joe Wednesday, free markets and capitalism are responsible for more wealth and prosperity — for more people — than any other economic system ever devised by man. We should continue to point that out, but this doesn’t mean Pope Francis’ concerns aren’t valid.

Just as conservatives must make the moral case for free markets, we must also concede that we live in a fallen world full of greed and sin. It is not inconsistent to believe that free markets provide prosperity for the most people — and that we face a daily struggle to resist greed and avarice. The prudent conservative has always acknowledged this inherent tension.

“Conservatives — whether churchgoers or not — are not utopians,” writes AEI’s Jim Pethokoukis. “They understand market economies will never turn the world temporal into Paradise (while at the same time realizing that command-and-control economies have frequently produced a kind of hell on earth). Conservatives value the ‘safety net’ to help those whom the pope calls the ‘excluded.’ But conservatives also want to reform the safety net so more resources are devoted to raising the living standards of the truly needy rather than subsidizing the rich, moving the jobless toward work and self sufficiency, and increasing social mobility and equality of opportunity.”

Pethokoukis goes on to quote Christian and libertarian economist Deirdre McCloskey, who argues that capitalism needs to be “inspired, moralized, completed.”

Those who want to portray conservatives as ravenous fail to appreciate the yin and the yang that goes back to the beginning of fiscal conservatism. As I’ve noted before: “Most educated Americans know Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, expounding on the virtues of self-interest in free markets. But how many Americans know Smith’s first (and only other) book was called The Theory of Moral Sentiments — and that it was about the virtues of personal benevolence? Indeed, Smith developed a theory of an “impartial spectator” (a sort of conscience) as a standard for moral judgment.”

As Daniel Bell’s classic title, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, implies, there is a fundamental tension within conservatism. On one hand, we stress community and family values — and the uplifting nature of entrepreneurism. Yet, as Bell notes, “[O]n the marketing side, the sale of goods, packaged in the glossy images of glamour and sex, promotes a hedonistic way of life whose premise is the voluptuous gratification of the lineaments of desire. The consequence of this contradiction…is that a corporation finds its people straight by day and swingers by night.”

Conservatives clearly must defend free markets against the fatal conceit that big government knows best — that collectivism and redistribution are somehow more moral alternatives. History proves they are not.

But in the process of defending capitalism, we must also avoid even the appearance of a “greed is good” mentality — both in our hearts and in our rhetoric.

This begins at home. Just as we have a corporate responsibility, as individuals we must strive to be generous and compassionate. And while I don’t want to blame the victim, but the truth is that some of the liberal overreach has been invited by conservative people of faith who haven’t always acted according to their values.

Consider this powerful statement from Francis Schaeffer:

“The Bible does clearly teach the right of property, but both the Old Testament and the New Testament put a tremendous stress on the compassionate use of that property. If at each place where the employer was a Bible-believing Christian the world could see that less profit was being taken so that the workers would have appreciably more than the ‘going rate’ of pay, the gospel would have been better proclaimed throughout the whole world than if the profits were the same as the world took and then large endowments were given to Christian schools, missions, and other projects.”

So how can we address this problem? The holidays are a good time to think about consumerism and commercialism. If you have young children, this is a teachable opportunity to talk about the spiritual reason for the season, as well as to focus on giving to the needy. On Bloggingheads, my liberal sparring partner Bill Scher and I recently discussed how we are exposing our kids to the Holidays. Check it out below:

Matt K. Lewis