Capitalism’s Theologian

Michael Novak made his name by providing theological cover for capitalism. The passing of his generation signals a new opening for religious socialism.

Michael Novak meets George Bush in this undated photo. Johnstown Tribune-Democrat

Earlier this month, the journalist, novelist, theologian, and activist Michael Novak died.

Novak leaned left in his earlier years, starting off writing speeches for the John F. Kennedy campaign and penning essays that were influential in the nascent student movement. But by the late 1970s, he had made the rightward trek along with others who would come to be known as neoconservatives, like Irving Kristol and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

Novak distinguished himself with his defenses of what he called “democratic capitalism,” working to shore up religious support for capitalism even after the Cold War came to a close. The man who once described himself as a “radical Leftist” found the well-funded environs of right-wing think tanks a comfortable place.

In the weeks since his death, eulogies to Novak’s life and career have appeared at friendly institutions like National Review and the Weekly Standard, and the websites of the American Enterprise Institute, the Acton Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education.

These remembrances are right about one thing: the significance of Novak is difficult to overstate. He was tireless in his writing, apparently a generous scholar and friend to many, a shrewd activist, and a person of his time. His death, in the early days of the Trump presidency — with all of its political deracination and possibilities for various realignments — is an occasion to ponder what his life meant and what the passing of Novak’s generation might mean for the future of religion and anticapitalism.

Michael Novak belonged to a cohort of neoconservatives who had traversed the partisan lines from the student movement of the 1960s to the Reagan ascendancy of the 1980s. Clustering in new or reinvigorated magazines and think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, First Things and Commentary, these intellectuals and activists would alternatively take up the cause of liberal international interventionism, anti-abortion, deregulation and tax cuts, and the “intermediating institutions.”

Neoconservatives made sense of their rightward turn in different ways. Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert to the Roman Catholic priesthood, believed that the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left made a profound mistake in embracing abortion rights. Like Jesse Jackson and others in those transitional years, Neuhaus thought opposing abortion was the most consistent civil rights position. He offered a soul-searching account of his political conversion and a defense — I didn’t leave, they left me — of his new station.

Novak, for his part, was less introspective about his intellectual and political journey. According to his own recollections, he had been naïve about economics, especially for a supposedly credentialed leftist. By the 1970s, he had grown alarmed that many of his left-leaning friends spoke so critically of capitalism and so sympathetically of leftist governments in Latin America and elsewhere. He began to question, he said, his colleagues’ anticapitalism and to learn more about, for example, the decline in global poverty in the twentieth century.

At the same time, he grew increasingly committed to anticommunism and worried about the dangers of “statism.”

Novak presented himself as a reluctant supporter of capitalism. He was, in this portrait, an intellectually honest searcher who had finally come to believe that there were no other practical alternatives to the free market, even if he criticized capitalism’s excesses. “What is new is my willingness to be as critical of the left as I ever was of the right, and to examine the history and theory of democratic capitalism with fresh eyes,” he explained in the late 1970s.

Distancing himself from followers of Ayn Rand and libertarians generally, Novak argued that his theory of “democratic capitalism” distinguished itself from less humane defenses of the free market. He considered capitalism a political, economic, and cultural system that needed democratic and religious institutions to make it liberating and virtuous. He insisted that religion — specifically Christianity and Judaism — could temper the system’s inherent vices.

But he also argued that capitalism itself was a democratizing force in the world. “Between capitalism and democracy there is an underlying system of mutual reinforcement, an internal harmony,” he wrote. And in his view, the existence of social-democratic countries did nothing to diminish this point: “There are examples of welfare states (they are more properly called socialist), that are democratic — Great Britain, Sweden, Israel, among others. But in all of these, underlying traditions owe much to a liberal capitalist past,” he wrote.

Novak described his shift from the left to the right in plainly heroic terms, and he thought of himself as a realist, perhaps even in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Cold War stance. The irony, however, is that his initial apologias for a purportedly embattled democratic capitalism appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as austerity, declining labor unions, and deregulation were showing capitalism to be increasingly aggressive and confident.

His self-conception as a paragon of intellectual integrity notwithstanding, Novak played a crucial role in providing ideological and theological cover for neoliberalism’s ascendancy. He took up the cause quite publicly, calling on intellectuals, business leaders, and think tanks to vigorously defend “democratic capitalism” in the 1980s.

Novak’s prescriptions shrewdly focused on the fight for cultural hegemony. He suggested, for example, that each major corporation fund an “in-house study group for scholars-in-residence for defensive and purpose work,” and hire a small staff of “issue-watchers and firefighters.” He urged business leaders to build a network of “sympathetic intellectual workers” near their corporate headquarters and pay close attention to the “ideas and symbols” implicit in advertising campaigns.

Corporations had to be defended for a reason. “The corporation is an invention of democratic capitalism, or, to put it another way, the corporation is an invention of law that made democratic capitalism possible,” Novak wrote.

Central to Novak’s claims about capitalism was that it is not inherently or necessarily individualistic — the corporation proved as much. “Neither participatory democracy nor capitalism could exist without the corporation.”

Similar to some former New Leftists, the corporation was for Novak an institution that acted as a communitarian solvent of social, economic, and even political rivalries. “The existence and practice of the corporation, furthermore,” he wrote, “give the lie to all theories of democracy and capitalism that focus exclusively on the individual to the neglect of human sociality.”

Despite Novak’s self-portrait as an intellectual seeker and defender of virtuous capitalism, he spent very little time attempting to pressure corporate executives or fund managers to hold to democratic or virtuous mores. Instead he gave corporate-funded lectures and scolded, for example, liberation theology or any Christian critics who would draw attention to growing income inequality in the late twentieth century.

And while theologians are typically expected to use terms with precision and discipline, Novak had a self-parodying penchant for using sacred language willy-nilly. He once applied the words of Isaiah the prophet to the modern business corporation: “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with brief; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” He argued that the multinational firm had seven “sacramental” signs of grace. He thought capitalism was a trinitarian system.

Perhaps one of Novak’s greatest legacies was to help inoculate an entire generation of Protestants and, particularly, Roman Catholics against the more economically radical elements of their own traditions.

As easy as it might be to equate religiosity with right-wing politics, there’s a rich history of religious critiques of capitalism, including in the US. From the Populists and agrarian socialists to labor unions and southern Civil Rights leaders, even religiously orthodox Christians have found ample room to offer prophetic critiques of modern capitalism.

Left-leaning American Roman Catholics have arguably had greater resources in the twentieth century. Whether it was writers like Eugene McCarraher and Fr. Herbert McCabe, institutions like the Catholic Worker movement, or figures like Daniel Berrigan, Catholic critics of capitalism had a range of voices to turn to.

The situation has been different for Protestantism, where, for a variety of reasons, religious conservatism has been wedded to right-wing politics and vice versa, going back at least to the major denominational splintering of the early twentieth century. The evangelical left, for one, has largely been limited to academics and gadflies and the occasional dissenting denomination. Compared to the vast networks, funding, and unified message of the Christian right, this group of writers and institutions is fairly small.

But this is the product of historical conditions, prone to change over time. Some of the more searching Marxian historians of the late twentieth century, such as E. P. Thompson and (before his turn to the right) Christopher Lasch, have demonstrated traditional communities’ resistance to the power of capital, whatever their formal religious obligations. From both Roman Catholic and Protestant communities of American Christianity, there remains a vibrant potential for anticapitalist opposition.

The roots of the more recent enmity between radical political economic views and religious Americans is easy to track historically. It was Cold War anticommunism that, by drawing on the capital of American Christianity, from the mainline denominations to evangelicalism and fundamentalism, helped erect a firewall between Christians and the Left. Corporate leaders have played a fundamental role in shaping churches’ politics.

This right-wing religiosity crystallized in the late 1940s and 1950s as Christianity was called upon to shore up support for Republican business leaders and enlisted in a spiritual battle with the atheism of the Soviet Union. Cold War era anticommunism laid the foundations for the conservative movement in the suburbs of the South and the Southwest.

When the Cold War drew to a close, neoconservatives like Novak helped fashion an anticommunism for a post–Soviet Union era, pairing support for deregulation with opposition to abortion rights. (In more evangelical circles, this constellation of concerns went under the banner “worldview education.”)

But now, as Novak’s generation of neoconservatives comes to an end, there seems to be an opening for a new coalitional politics, empowered by a new constellation of ideas, and an opportunity for American Christians to recover the radicalism of their heritage.

Novak himself seemed to acknowledge that this was always a live option. Socialism is the “residue of Judeo-Christian faith,” only without religion. It is a belief, he said in one of his later essays, in community.