A meditation on inequality

What does the new Gilded Age mean for the church?

By Bill Leonard

A “magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality.” That’s what Nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman calls Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the runaway bestseller and culture commentary first published in France, now electrifying economic, academic and media enclaves throughout the United States. Succumbing to the uproar, I’m wading through the 600-plus page volume, a daunting task for someone as economics-illiterate as I. Thankfully, Krugman and other commentators offer insights into where Piketty, professor at the Paris School of Economics, might be taking us.

Piketty’s thesis suggests: “When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”

Utilizing various new technologies, Piketty produces statistics on income and wealth from early 20th century Britain and the U.S., along with 18th century France, to conclude that we are “living in a second Gilded Age,” a new Belle Époque. He notes: “Since the 1970s, income inequality has increased significantly in rich countries, especially in the United States, where concentration of income in the first decade of the twenty-first century regained — indeed, slightly exceeded — the level attained in the second decade of the previous century.”

Reviewing Piketty’s work for the New York Review of Books, Krugman writes: “Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again — and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.” The folks with the money can now buy all the democracy they need; the rest of us work downstairs at Downton Abby.

Piketty challenges earlier economic theories that income inequality would “automatically” decrease “as a larger … fraction of the population partakes of the fruits of economic growth.” Rather, he believes, “the economic and political shocks created between 1914 and 1945” were largely related to two world wars, reducing “large fortunes” and moderating certain economic disparities. Now we’re back to the earlier model evident in 2010, when 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent of the American population. Krugman agrees with Piketty that much of this is inherited wealth, but adds that it is also attributable to mammoth salaries for corporate executives. Thus, income inequality is an American economic given, here and now.

What might all this new Gilded Age mean for American churches? Surely Piketty’s book compels us to revisit the Social Gospel, that formative Christian response to the earlier Belle Époque. It also requires confronting that signal Social Gospel vision, the kingdom of God. (More on that at my breakout session at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in June.)

Baptists Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Matthews were among those early revolutionaries who witnessed the social and economic disparities of their era, responding with a renewed concern for God’s New Day, what Rauschenbusch called “humanity organized according to the will of God.” This New Day meant “the redemption of society from political autocracies and economic oligarchies; the substitution of redemptive for vindictive penology; the abolition of constraint through hunger as part of the industrial system; and the abolition of war as the supreme expression of hate ….” Shailer Matthews labeled it, “the call of Christ’s spirit in all Christians to bring these ideals of Jesus into social life.”

Rauschenbusch observed chillingly that in much Christian history, “the doctrine of the Kingdom of God shriveled to an undeveloped and pathetic remnant in Christian thought.” Yet in words that stretch into the 21st century he insisted: “If Jesus stood today amid our modern life, with that outlook on the condition of all humanity which observation and travel and the press would spread before him, and with the same heart of divine humanity beating in him, he would create a new apostolate to meet the new needs in a new harvest-time of history.”

When other ministers equivocated on issues of spiritual and economic inequality, Rauschenbusch was merciless, declaring: “I hold that the church and money power are not friends, but enemies, opposed to each other in the same sense in which God and the world are opposed to each other. … The church is both a partial realization of the new society, in which God’s will is done, and also the appointed instrument for the further realization of that new society ….”

Piketty admits disparities of income and wealth are “deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable,” concluding that “how this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adapt to measure and transform them.” Rauschenbusch Christianized that social order with hope then and now: “The kingdom of God is always, but coming.”

Get on board, new apostles, get on board.

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