Archbishop: British PM is a Market-Worshiping Nazi

on January 5, 2009

The following article originally appeared on the FrontPage Magazine website, and is reproduced with permission.


Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the current chief of England’s state church, and the titular head of 80 million global Anglicans, has done more than his share to shame his flock. Earlier this year he earned deserved controversy for suggesting possible British legal recognition of Islamic law. Now British tabloids are headlining his recent intellectual musings about the global financial crisis. The Archbishop equated reliance on the market with idolatry, compared British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s socialist government to the Third Reich, and credited Karl Marx for his prescience about capitalism.  

“Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power, and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else,” Williams wrote for the Spectator magazine last fall. The archbishop insisted he was not advocating “rigid Soviet-style centralized direction” of Britain’s economy, thank goodness. But he warned that a religious “fundamentalism” centered on the free market will lead to catastrophe.

Williams continued: “We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.”

The archbishop, speaking of capitalism, warned that ascribing “independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols,’ in the biblical phrase.” He fretted that the current fiscal meltdown has revealed the “basic unreality” of the global financial markets, in which “almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders.”

Williams was more provocative in his more recent column for The Telegraph, where he deployed his Nazi analogy. He recalled the example of anti-Nazi theologian Karl Barth, who urged in the 1930’s that “to be able to live with principles…we must also be able to live without them.” Barth was rightly distressed about Hitlerian principles, which assumed that “quite a lot of people that you might have thought mattered as human beings actually didn’t.” According to Williams, these principles demanded “unconditional loyalty to a system” that was focused on the “safety and prosperity” of “people like me.”

Somehow, Williams likened the Third Reich’s grossly inhuman assumptions to the current “principled defense of some of our economic assumptions” about wealth creation. A more humane approach, the archbishop insisted, focuses not on principles but on “particular human costs,” including the “pensioner whose savings have disappeared, the Woolworths employee, the hopeful young executive, [and] the helpless producer of goods in some Third-World environment where prices are determined thousands of miles away.”

Connecting his Nazi analogy to the holiday season, Williams concluded: “At least once a year we all – Christians or non-Christians – need to hear again that permission to be free from principles so that we can ask the question about specific human lives and destinies, about the unacceptable cost of programs and systems when they are only about me and people like me.”

Williams’ Barth/Nazi column seemed to warn against rigid adherence to the free market. But he is also worried about the British Labor regime’s fiscal stimulus of tax cuts and increased government spending. “I worry about that because it seems a little bit like the addict returning to the drug,” he warned on a radio program. “When the Bible uses the word ‘repentance,’ it doesn’t just mean beating your breast, it means getting a new perspective, and that is perhaps what we are shrinking away from.” Williams said he’s worried about “anything that pushes us straight back into the kind of spiral we were in before.” And he warned that the British people should not “spend to save the economy,” but instead spend for “human reasons” such as providing for their own needs.

Admitting that he was “suicidally silly” to offer economic counsel, Williams still wondered about the “moral questions” in Britain’s economic discourse.

Faced with allegations he is a crypto-Nazi and insufficiently attentive to Marx, Prime Minister Brown responded that following the archbishop’s advice could be like the indifferent priest in the Gospel story of The Good Samaritan who walked “by on the other side” rather than help a fallen traveler. “I think the Archbishop would also agree with me that every time someone becomes unemployed or loses their home or a small business fails it is our duty to act and we should not walk by on the other side when people are facing problems. That’s the reason why our fiscal policy is designed to give real help to families and businesses and to give them that help now.”

For all the complaint and indefensible overstatement the archbishop engaged in, he offered no concrete message to fill out his hyperbole. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, preached a more coherent message about the economic downturn on Christmas Eve. “Christianity neither condemns nor canonizes the market economy – it may be an essential element in the conduct of human affairs,” the Catholic prelate sermonized. “But we have to remember that it is a system governed by people, not some blind force like gravity.” He added: “Those who operate the market have an obligation to act in ways that promote the common good, not just in ways that promote the interests of certain groups.”

Speaking not only more clearly than Williams, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also seems to have avoided mentioning Nazis or Karl Marx.

Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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