Michael Novak

Capitalism, the Legacy of Michael Novak, and the Opportunity for a More United Front

on June 3, 2019

This past Wednesday The Heritage Foundation hosted an event featuring Samuel Gregg, the director of Research at the Acton Institute. At this event, Gregg highlighted the importance of providing not only an economic justification for capitalism but also a moral justification in order to reverse the trend of current times in which more and more Americans report a favorable view of socialism.

Gregg discussed this topic in the framework of Alexis De Tocqueville and Michael Novak’s commentary on the moral justifications of capitalism. Gregg mainly focused on outlining Novak’s views on the connection of Christianity, democracy, and free markets as a moral justification for the system of capitalism. In Novak’s premier work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, he discussed how the human condition needed to be included in any theory regarding the political economy in order for the theory to be valid. This is why both Gregg and Novak think socialism is not only an economically flawed but a morally flawed theory as well. According to Novak, capitalism doesn’t require a top-down planning system that replaces free will/individual choice with a “God-like,” political religion like socialism does. Gregg went on to discuss how Novak believed that the preservation of democracy and freedom depended on individual freedom and morality that makes up a country’s culture. In the past America’s culture has been rooted in Jewish and Christian thought. To Novak, a Catholic himself, Christianity provided the perfect culture to balance freedom and morality where the free markets would be embedded in a Christian culture that molded people’s attitudes towards non-hedonistic ends.

This event discussing the legacy and the political, cultural, and economic thought of leading Christian-conservative thinkers like Gregg and Novak is timely in that it highlights the current split with the Christian-conservative movement. One faction of the movement is oriented towards Novakian thought- the connection between Christianity, democracy, and free markets. These views are held by conservative pundits like David French who believes that democracy and a classically liberal framework are the best systems to protect religious liberty and civil society. The other faction is a populist Christian-conservative movement led by people like Sohrab Ahmari, a Catholic conservative pundit, who believes that people like David French are too weak and ‘civil’ when it comes to the culture war. Ahmari and other populists believe in order, continuity, and social cohesion are the ways to maintain a Judeo-Christian culture. Classical liberals like Novak and French believe in autonomy, civil liberties, and free will as the way to preserve the Judeo-Christian culture, once again harkening back to the connection of democracy, Christianity, and free markets. It all comes down to the divide between classical liberals and populist. The classical liberal Christian-conservatives believe in and want to preserve classical liberalism as the framework of the American economy and government. The populist Christian-conservative movement is a reaction against the political elites who reject the type of democracy that America was founded on, one run by the people not, by the elites.

So, while there are philosophical and political differences in the approaches of the two factions of the Christian-conservative movement it is important to note that while the means are different within the two factions, they both want the same ends. Both sides want to see an American system of government and civil society that cherishes and maintains our Christian culture. Both sides would probably agree that that very Christian culture is being decimated and torn apart by the religious left. And while it is important to identify the differences between the two factions it is even more important to rectify the two factions so that they can collectively take on the real obstacle to maintaining American’s Judeo-Christian traditions, the religious and progressive left. Both sides of the Conservative-Christian movement have good points that need to be taken into account when debating this particular topic. While the classical liberals want to maintain our Christian heritage through free markets, autonomy, and democracy and the populists want to maintain our Christian heritage through anti-globalization efforts rooted in social cohesion and social order; both sides aren’t so irreconcilably different that they cannot work together to save America.

  1. Comment by Paul Adams on August 10, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    Great picture of Michael, but a word of qualification about the article if I may. Michael himself predicted and was delighted by Trump’s victory in 2016. He saw first hand how solid the people he knew and grew up with in the Johnstown area of Pennsylvania were in support of Trump. Novak was never a Never-Trumper like David French. Compared with him Michael himself was a “populist.”

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