America’s Spiritual Capital

by Nicholas Capaldi and Theodore Roosevelt Malloch
St Augustine’s Press (South Bend, Indiana), 2012.
Paper, 176 pages, $17.

Over the past thirty years, increasing numbers of social scientists and economists have invested more time in researching what might be called non-economic factors that shape economic life and give different economies their own distinctive characteristics. This approach was initially pioneered by Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), further developed by figures such as R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and given new impetus by such scholars as Michael Novak in his The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) and The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1993).

In America’s Spiritual Capital, however, Nicholas Capaldi and Theodore Roosevelt Malloch develop a short but powerful case to illustrate just how much the distinctiveness of American economic life depends upon “a symbiotic relationship between America’s spiritual capital and our political institutions and freedoms” This particular argument is made within the context of a broader discussion of the uniqueness of the American experiment and the role played by specific religious, cultural, political, and moral values in giving content to that experiment.

Beginning with the concept of “spiritual capital,” Capaldi and Malloch use Robert Putnam’s concept of social capital as the basis for the idea of spiritual capital as “our most fundamental beliefs concerning who we are and the meaning of our lives, with special regard to how those beliefs relate to our professional careers and the economy.” In this sense, spiritual capital is more than simply a subset of social capital. It is “the overarching structure that defines human and social capital” and “the grand narrative that defines a group.” Spiritual capital is thus not about a defined theology or a set of religious doctrines and practices. In fact, it need not, Capaldi and Malloch contend, be directly associated with religion. The most substantive forms of social capital are, however, rooted in religion, most notably those religions that “attach people to the transcendent source of happiness.” For Capaldi and Malloch, the richest form of spiritual capital is to be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, precisely because it provides the most reasonable account of the transcendent as well as the nature and ends of human relationships.

Judeo-Christian spiritual capital is the subject of the second chapter. Here Capaldi and Malloch illustrate how the specific claims of Christianity as it emerged out of the Jewish tradition shaped the web of human relationships and institutions over time in such a way that it encouraged the development of specific manifestations of concepts of freedom, limited government, tolerance human creativity, and civil association. In their view, this was not a seamless process. It involved Christianity working through tensions between concepts of liberty and equality, authority and autonomy, not to mention the temporal and the ecclesiastical. The result of this centuries-long process achieved, they argue, a type of fruition in the young American Republic.

In that regard, Capaldi and Malloch are—refreshingly—unabashed American exceptionalists. One of this book’s strengths is the way that it brings to light a critical element of that exceptionalism through the medium of spiritual capital. Part of the American experiment is its commitment to modernity—but a modernity several times removed from that pioneered by the likes of the French revolutionaries, Karl Marx, and modern social democratic movements in Europe. Capaldi and Malloch underscore how America’s spiritual inheritance permeated the political and economic habits and institutions associated with the emergence of its democratic and capitalist order, and in ways that avoided the challenges of theocracy as well as moral relativism.

This, however, is not to say that Capaldi and Malloch think that America’s present spiritual capital is in great shape. They plainly believe—and produce considerable evidence to suggest—that it has experienced considerable erosion in past decades. The narrative of American exceptionalism, they suggest, has been challenged by an alternative narrative of how we ought to be. The roots of this go beyond late nineteenth-century progressivism and are in fact to be found in the works of Rousseau and assorted fellow travelers (most notably John Rawls)—or what they call Rousseau-through-Rawls—and their particular conception of modernity, and even more especially by a certain view of equality. This, the authors argue, has thrown into question what they call the liberty narrative that forms an essential part of America’s spiritual capital and its experiment in ordered liberty.

The problems associated with the relentless advance of Rousseau-through-Rawls in American political culture have been exacerbated, Capaldi and Malloch argue, by the spread of secularism. The challenge of secular humanism to Western civilization needs no elaboration, but the idea of spiritual capital allows these authors to provide another way of considering how secularism undermines any given society’s human and social resources. But perhaps of even greater import is the manner in which they illustrate the Enlightenment project (keeping in mind that there were many Enlightenments and many good ideas that flowed from various Enlightenment minds) is parasitic on the West’s specific religious heritage.

The irony, they suggest, is that, by hollowing out America’s spiritual capital, the various forms of secular humanism actually produce and spread what they purport to be against: i.e., intolerance and ignorance, and an ongoing effort to impose a particular grand narrative (secularism) upon the political order. Likewise, the quest for truth through science alone produces scientism, materialism, and reductionism instead of authentic knowledge of things seen and unseen. More generally, the emptying-out effect of secularism upon Western culture illustrates, Capaldi and Malloch contend, the indispensability of religion, particularly Judeo-Christian beliefs about God, man, and the universe, when it comes to knowing truth. From this standpoint, spiritual capital—and its steady renewal throughout America’s political and economic order—is crucial if the West in general and America in particular is to have a future.

What, then, is the future of America’s spiritual capital? Generally Capaldi and Malloch are optimistic. In their Afterthoughts, they re-state what they understand to be the key elements of America’s spiritual resources, and in the process of doing so illustrate just how deep the Judeo-Christian tradition runs in key habits and institutions of American life. Most importantly, however, they insist that America’s strength does not lie so much in its claim to be a superpower. Rather, it is in the more intangible, harder-to-measure assets that, as they illustrate, made America a great nation long before the Second World War. Americans ignore the vitality and depth of such resources at their own peril and that of the Western tradition more generally.  

Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, Michigan.