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Culture and Capital

By August 3, 2012 2 Comments

Maybe it’s too easy to pile on the Mitt Romney global gaff-fest, but one of his remarks is too close to the core of Reformed political concern to pass by. I mean his declaration—at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Israel—about the cultural determinants of economic success. Comparing Israeli per capita GDP with that of their Palestinian neighbors, Romney averred: “It’s all about the culture.” Never mind, as any number of commentators rejoined, that Palestinians show their own entrepreneurial zeal even under the constricted conditions of the West Bank. That Palestinian émigrés have spread considerable developmental magic around the Gulf States and further abroad. That Israeli occupation, expropriations, blockades, and other assorted apartheid tricks might just have something to do with Palestinian wealth rates falling behind those of Israelis on site. Never mind all that: Romney’s friends applauded, there and at home.

And so another half-truth gets swallowed or spat back owing to the absence of the other half. It’s wrong to dismiss the “cultural” determinants of prosperity (individual or collective) as a leftie like Barbara Ehrenreich did on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America. (That 1962 text helped introduce the concept of the “culture of poverty” into American discourse, though Harrington saw the syndrome as much more the product than the cause of class conditions.) But it’s egregious to blame poverty first of all on the poor, and to recommend accordingly a stiff dose of privation and self-discipline as the road out. Boot-straps, don’t you know. Jesus mocked the prescription in his own rejoinder to the smug sorts he met on Israeli soil: “Say unto them, be fed. Be healed.”

There was no Christian thinker more concerned with the formative powers of culture than Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Calvinist theologian and politician from a century ago. It was the theme of many a stump speech of his, of many a newspaper article in his 50 years of journalism, of many a parliamentary declamation. It was behind the priority he gave to education policy across his entire career. It was central to his better insights on colonial affairs. It was front and center in one of his most famous orations, “Sphere Sovereignty” from 1880, with which his prized Free University of Amsterdam was inaugurated. The one line from Kuyper that people are most likely to know—that “every square inch” of human existence lies under the sovereign claims of Christ—comes near the end of this speech.

But there’s another line dead center in the talk that should be remembered just as much, not least if we claim to be Christians in the political enterprise. Never forget, Kuyper told his audience, never forget about the power of money. “It cannot be said often enough: money creates power.” Kuyper was advocating here, as he did in all of his social and political theory, an equitable division and balance of powers as the likeliest road to proximate justice. One wonders if he had read his Madison. But the reminder applies across the board, also in the determinants of economic success. Yes, culture. But also capital. Culture, in this light, is accumulated human and social capital, but material capital, financial capital, Kuyper insisted, is all to the point in the picture. A hard truth for mega-millionaires to admit, especially when they’re running for president. But a home truth Calvinists never want to forget.  

Follow the money. Follow it in campaign finance. Follow it in platform proposals and policy prescriptions. John Winthrop followed it—highlighted it—in his “city on a hill” speech, “A Model of Christian Charity.” A society that would claim to be Christian, he said, can be measured by the readiness of its wealthier citizens to sacrifice their own luxuries for other people’s necessities. The eyes of all the world are watching us indeed, said Winthrop, to see whether we live up to that measure. God’s watching too, he added, and is not easily amused.


  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Nicely done, James! I was struck by just this at the very event at which Gov. Romney's unfortunate remarks were made. A great many of the wealthy donors shelling out $50,000 a plate for breakfast had been FLOWN to Israel from the U.S. to accompany him. This prompted Thomas Friedman to say the other day that the whole trip could have been cheaper had they just done it in Las Vegas at the casino of Rommey's top US Jewish donor, Mr. Adelson. That would have been more honest as to what was afoot, too.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks, Jim. I'm so very tired of those who attribute the accumulation of wealth to the many splendid virtues of the accumulators, and conversely, poverty to the many failings of the poor. Perhaps you saw this article by Jared Diamond in the NYT, objecting to Romney's shallow use of Diamond's work to defend the "culture" thesis:

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