Theology for the One Percent

The Problem with the Evangelical Faith and Work Movement

By Adam Joyce

(Re-posted with permssion from the author and from the Australian Broadcast Corporation.)

After I graduated from seminary and began looking for ways to connect my faith with daily life, I ended up working for almost six years in the evangelical faith and work movement. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the faith and work movement set out to help Christians make the connection I lacked. Its central conviction was that the work of the workplace is just as important as the work of worship. This was not about denigrating worship — rather, it represented an expansion of discipleship to include the other six days of the week, thereby undoing the “dualistic Sunday-Monday gap.”

This expanded sense of vocation, building on the insights of the Reformation, is undergirded by a two-step argument. First, everyone has a vocation, not just priests or missionaries. God calls us, we respond, and the question of “what am I being called to do?” is then discerned through a complex mix of prayer, communal insight, passions and skills. This process of discernment, however, is most often appropriate to life’s different stages — such that one’s calling looks different when one is a college student, a retiree, a CEO, a parent, a neighbor and so on.

The second step is that God’s call extends into every area of life. A narrow sense of God’s mission fails to see how faith connects to work and life. This means living one’s faith in the workplace goes beyond “cubicle evangelism” and ethical activity; an expanded understanding of God’s mission in the world helps create a seamless connection between faith and everything else. The mission provides the meaning: Christians love the world through a job well done. The CEO and the janitor both do God’s work when they bring their faith to all of work and life.

During my time at three different faith and work organizations, the space was awash with money. The web of institutions and programs supported by a few family foundations and large donors was massive. Natural and necessary conversations about discipleship — “what does my faith mean for my daily life?” — that might take place within local churches or between co-workers over lunch, thus came to be underwritten by funds from organizations like the Kern Family Foundation and the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, or, in the early 2000s, the Lilly Endowment, the Mustard Seed Foundation and individuals like David Kiersnowski, CEO of the DEMDACO corporation.

The vast array of loosely-connected initiatives across the movement include: membership networks for pastors like Made To Flourish; numerous school-based centers like Wheaton College’s Center for Faith and Innovation; faith and work columns in magazines and on websites; city-specific centers for working professionals in Denver, Chicago and Nashville; the American Enterprise Institute’s Values and Capitalism program; numerous Sunday School curricula like ReFrame and For the Life of the World; church-based centers like Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Center for Faith and Work; dozens of conferences; academic journals; entrepreneurship incubators like Praxis Labs; industry-specific small groups; Dave Ramsey financial literacy classes for seminarians; Shark Tank-esque programs for undergraduates; and more church resources and books than one can name.

As the faith and work movement expanded over the subsequent thirty years, some of its better known books included: Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller, Work Matters by Tom Nelson, When the Kings Come Marching In by Richard Mouw, Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman and Culture Making by Andy Crouch. Even with different objectives and incommensurate strategies across these many organizations, this pan-evangelical movement hoped to transform how the church thinks about vocation and discipleship.

Spiritualizing the oppressions of capitalism

But even with an immense infrastructure, it soon became clear that there was no readymade audience. The programs I helped run in local churches and in the academy were full of managerial professionals and pastors, and there was a constant refrain across the movement: “Why don’t ‘blue-collar’ Christians care about our vocation resources? Why is a career-specific small group for artists easy, but one for restaurant servers almost impossible?”

On reflection, however, it was unsurprising that the movement didn’t garner the interest of working class Christians, because the conversation it facilitates is largely disconnected from the financial realities of most Americans and the material conditions of capitalism. When the faith and work movement did grapple with larger economic questions, poverty was mostly blamed on bad cultural practices or misguided government actions. Pious vagaries, both theological and economic (like “redemptive entrepreneurship”), were offered up as the answer to the everyday violence of economic suffering.

When 58 percent of Americans don’t have enough money to cover a $1,000 emergency, or when one third of all donations on GoFundMe are for medical bills, or when there is a thirty-year gap in life expectancy between neighborhoods within the same city, it’s hard to stomach a conversation about vocation that centers primarily on the theological meaning of work rather than seeking a more equitable and just economic system. And while there are periodic glimmers of the movement grappling with such inequity, it ultimately trades the idea of a living wage for a psychological salve. Simply put, it spiritualizes the oppression of capitalism.

I don’t think this reflects an intentional malice on the part of the faith and work movement, but rather a kind of blindness — a failure to see how the political economy of capitalism has begotten this form of faith’s support for specific arrangements of money and power. In socialist circles, there is a glib saying, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” — meaning, we have no truly virtuous options for relating to others and nature through consumption because of how the productive forces of capitalism are structured. The same could be said for Christian vocation: there is no ethical vocation under capitalism. When capitalism is a given, it is impossible to answer the question “what am I being called to?” faithfully, because every answer feeds into the alienation, atomization and inequality of our communities.

The capitalist framework means that the priorities of the divine boss seem perfectly to align with the desires of earthly bosses. The mission of the Kingdom of God neatly fits with predatory corporate missions. This theology of vocation was seamless, but instead of connecting faith to all of life, it connects faith with the mandates of business owners and capital, thereby theologically sanctioning the horrors of class conflict. Treating the work of the CEO and the janitor the same — maximizing shareholder value and cleaning offices can both be part of God’s mission in the world — reifies an unjust class system. The evangelical faith and work movement attracts the support of the 1 percent because it is a theology for the 1 percent.

Solidarity matters

Contrary to what the faith and work movement holds, justice in the workplace and economy doesn’t simply emerge from Christians being Christians at work. Justice on the job isn’t a direct result of the moral calculus of Christian CEOs — instead, a living wage, freedom from harassment, time for life outside of work, less degrading and isolated work, all flow from workers’ struggles. The faith and work movement not only discounts the lack of agency and inherent hardship baked into capitalism, it cannot account for working class solidarity that helps build a better world. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written, “Justice is not a natural part of the lifecycle of the United States, nor is it a product of evolution; it is always the outcome of struggle.”

On stage at a faith and work conference I was coordinating, a panel discussed a Christian vision of economics and globalization, describing it as a qualified force of both moral and material liberation. Near the edge of the ballroom, I talked with a hotel caterer wearing his union pin (“UNITE HERE! Local 11”). I asked if he liked his union. He said they were one of the first hotels near the airport to unionize about a decade ago, but now almost all of them had unions. Since then they had won better wages, healthcare now covered their families, and they even obtained safer working conditions. The union meetings were long, and people complained about them, but it worked out because “We’ve got solidarity.”

I realized that the movement in which I was working in had no imagination for the community these workers had built together. Here was a vision of another world and another way of life; a more verdant and democratic economy was being fought for by organized workers. In their solidarity, vocation wasn’t a purpose to be discovered but a purposeful activity to be pursued together. Distinct from “allyship and altruism,” solidarity is both a tool of liberation and one of its goals. As filmmaker and author Astra Taylor says:

Unlike identity, solidarity is not something you have it is something you do — a set of actions taken towards a common goal. Inasmuch as it is something experienced, it is not a given but must be generated; it must be made, not found. Solidarity both produces community and is rooted in it, and is thus simultaneously a means and an end.

The relationships of power that create the inequality and instability that scar American life can only be overturned through a mass movement based in and built by solidarity. This doesn’t mean generic, directionless support, but a cultivation of the bonds that empower us all to fight for a world in which we have the freedom to be faithful.

Christianity and socialism

During a union gathering when he was serving as a young pastor in Safenwil, German theologian Karl Barth directly addressed the socialists in the crowd:

And now to my socialist friends who are present: I have said that Jesus wanted what you want, that he wanted to help those who are least, that he wanted to establish the kingdom of God upon this earth, that he wanted to abolish self-seeking property, that he wanted to make persons into comrades. Your concerns are in line with the concerns of Jesus. Real socialism is real Christianity in our time.

Under the constraints of capitalism, we are not free for the loving communion with others to which Christ calls us, curtailing our agency to the point where little is left and avenues for faithful ways of living are unavailable. Like God’s liberatory refrain to Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 8:1, 20; 9:1), our callings can truly begin when we are finally free to serve God and each other. Capitalism removes that freedom, and now, it is our calling to work together for freedom from the class system. In our solidarity is the promise of something truly and disruptively new — what Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino calls a “primordial holiness.”

Ironically, the faith and work movement radicalized me and led me to the community where I found what faith looks like in practice — driving me to join and organize with the Democratic Socialists of America. Faithfulness to Christ ended up beginning with a betrayal, becoming a traitor to the institutions that formed me, to the movements in which I worked and, ultimately, to my class. Beyond betrayal it provided a gift, for here was a vocation.

Within capitalism, vocation finds a material form in communities struggling for liberation; faithfulness to Christ looks like socialistic practice. The question of “what is my vocation?” can only be answered within a hope and strategy for transforming our political economy from bottom to top — establishing democracy in our economy and deepening it within our politics. Ending the dictatorship of capital and enabling the social ownership of our economy, not just slightly curtailing its current cruelty, is what allows for the possibility of true communal flourishing and fidelity to God’s call.

Socialism is not the Kingdom of God on earth. Yet working for socialism is our participatory, faithful pursuit of God’s Kingdom. This pursuit directs us to our Christian vocation, something much simpler, and yet much more difficult, than the faith and work movement would have it. Our vocation is solidarity in the struggle for this Kingdom — where our horizons are no longer circumscribed for us, where we may truly be with ourselves and our communities — because that’s where Christ is.

Adam Joyce is the assistant director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. He is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and director of communications for a Chicago aldermanic campaign. He has written for a range of periodicals, including Sojourners, Christian Century, The Other Journal, Religious Socialism, Geez, Capital Commentary, Englewood Review of Books and SEEN Journal.

(Image: Photograph by Tomás Del Coro via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.)