Some believers have been blindsided by the rise of “woke” capitalism. Tempted to see a conspiracy of elites, they look to the resurgent anti-market, big-government “right.” That’s a mistake. When CEOs jump on the latest “social justice” bandwagon, they’re not responding to secret memos from globalist bigwigs but engaging in one of the oldest practices of business owners: trying to appeal to customers by echoing their values. During the Middle Ages, guilds of candlemakers or brewers would sponsor religious plays to entertain their religious customers. They appealed to dominant values very different from the opinion makers of today, but the strategy is similar. They want to swim with the tide.
For too long the vaunted voices of “moral concern” in society and the churches have treated business as a necessary evil. Even some conservative religious leaders now cringing at the rejection of traditional Christian mores have treated business and the economy as some lesser realm where humane values are absent. Many business owners insist that they too care about promoting human well-being beyond the bottom line. Without a solid integration of their morality and their enterprise, they’re not listening to churchmen or believers about how to do that. Instead, they’re heeding secular activists promoting another gospel. Other corporate leaders listen to the squeakiest wheels trying desperately to avoid bad publicity. An effective executive often needs to make courageous, contrarian, countercultural decisions, not merely give in to the loudest bully.
Beyond the lack of moral formation or corporate cowardice is a deeper issue. The anti-religious, anti-family ethic of “woke” activists undermines the basic social structures of any free society. Liberty is fragile. It rests upon citizens schooled in self-restraint. Convince people to “follow their bliss” rejecting any ethic beyond “self-actualization,” and you get broken families and communities with massive government programs serving as Band-Aids on gaping wounds. Freedom is not merely the absence of restraint. True freedom is self-command, practiced virtue in pursuit of some higher goal. Abandon that, and you’re ruled by the iron law of addiction, or the heavy hand of a government desperate to impose order at any cost.
The “woke” have abandoned freedom. First calling for mere “tolerance,” they now target Christian businesses and schools with civil and criminal actions, using state coercion to demand submission. In past centuries the churches used state power intolerantly, forgetting that forced virtue is no virtue at all. That abuse faded long ago. Citing it today is no argument for empowering a new theocracy with a different creed. In the French Revolution, violent mobs attacked peaceful convents of nuns using the Inquisition as pretext for fresh massacres. We know where such “payback” leads.
Let’s break this cycle of vengeance. A free society offers plenty of space for peaceful coexistence: the competition of free markets guarantees it. Believers must build up a moral capitalism, one grounded in tolerance and candor. We will still demand the right to speak crucial and unpopular truths, but we must always do so in light of the God-given dignity of each human being. That includes those we consider profoundly mistaken. Call it “loving your enemy.”
True love entails wanting the best for everyone, and that includes their knowing the truth. Churchmen, more than most, need the free institutions of a liberal society. It’s there that churches build culture, train sinners in virtue, and help the needy. There is no deterministic “logic of capitalism.” It simply gives people what they want. The job of teaching what to want, how to use it, and where sane limits lie falls to us as free citizens. It’s our job to speak the truth that sets people free.
FR. ROBERT A. SIRICO is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute and pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish and Academy, both in Grand Rapids, Mich.