Capitalism and the gays, cont’d: the theology of unnatural transactions

Jeet Heer, via Alex Tabarrok:

Aristotle’s linkage of non-procreative sex with usury profoundly influenced Christian thinkers. Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica codified the fusion of Aristotle with Christianity, argued that sodomy and usury were both “sins against nature, in which the very order of nature is violated, an injury done to God himself, who sets nature in order.” Echoing Aquinas, Dante placed sodomites and usurers in the same circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy. In his 1935 tract “Social Credit,” Ezra Pound, whose obsession with crackpot economics took him down many historical byways, argued that “usury and sodomy, the Church condemned as a pair, to one hell, the same for one reason, namely that they are both against natural increase.”

There is a flipside to this tradition of seeing sodomy as the enemy of the natural economy of the household: The counter-tradition of liberal economics founded by Adam Smith challenged the household model by seeing economics as rooted in the free trade of goods between households and nations. Precisely because Smith was more receptive to previously condemned or taboo economic activities like trade and manufacturing, he was also more open to sexual liberalism.

The long-held orthodox Christian view was that the charging of any interest at all on lent money is improper, a view that if taken seriously tends to retard the emergence of whole sectors of the modern economy such as banking and insurance. This view persists in conservative Muslim theology, with the result that elaborate “Islamic banking” institutions have arisen in the Middle East to achieve many of the same effects without overstepping the letter of religious law. Most of the Christian world has engaged in a more straightforward modernization of its theology, with the old usury prohibitions lingering on, if at all, as a condemnation of the charging of unreasonably high rates of interest. Prohibitions on nonprocreative sex, one may hope, are proceeding on a similar trajectory of decay.

25 Comments for “Capitalism and the gays, cont’d: the theology of unnatural transactions”

  1. posted by Houndentenor on

    In other words, Christendom conveniently dropped the explicit ban on charging interest on loans (it’s easy enough to search the Bible online. There are about a dozen passages all of which condemn the practice) once it became inconvenient to follow what the Bible says, but continued with the ban on sexual practices (some more than others). Just more hypocrisy. The literalists are the worst but the Catholic Church is about as bad.

  2. posted by Houndentenor on

    I was wrong. I count 17 (although search engines can be quirky so there could be more).

    Exodus 22:25
    If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.

    Leviticus 25:36
    Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.

    Leviticus 25:37
    Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.

    Deuteronomy 23:19
    Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:

    Deuteronomy 23:20
    Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.

    Nehemiah 5:7
    Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them.

    Nehemiah 5:10
    I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury.

    Psalm 15:5
    He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.

    Proverbs 28:8
    He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, he shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.

    Isaiah 24:2
    And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him.

    Jeremiah 15:10
    Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent on usury, nor men have lent to me on usury; yet every one of them doth curse me.

    Ezekiel 18:8
    He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man,

    Ezekiel 18:13
    Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.

    Ezekiel 18:17
    That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live.

    Ezekiel 22:12
    In thee have they taken gifts to shed blood; thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbours by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.

    Matthew 25:27
    Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

    Luke 19:23
    Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?

  3. posted by Mike in Houston on

    It all bold down to:

    Religious freedom for me not thee.

    Everyone is fine with the vices within their own traditions – but loathe to let others ‘enjoy’ the same license. Hence, Pat Robertson giving a pass to men on adultery, but still claiming that hurricanes are caused by gay debauchery.

    This is the shifting sand that the modern GOP has laid it’s foundation upon – and were it not for the face-saving convenience of Christian forgiveness (for themselves, not others), there would be the possibility of epistemic closure.

  4. posted by Jorge on

    Most of the Christian world has engaged in a more straightforward modernization of its theology, with the old usury prohibitions lingering on, if at all, as a condemnation of the charging of unreasonably high rates of interest. Prohibitions on nonprocreative sex, one may hope, are proceeding on a similar trajectory of decay.

    I can’t believe this blog post convinced me the two are relevant to each other.

  5. posted by Lori Heine on

    I don’t mean to nitpick, but capitalism and free enterprise are not necessarily the same thing. No matter how often they are confused, by both the Right and the Left.

    Free enterprise offers an opportunity to everybody, regardless of how much or how little they may start with. All have a chance to better their circumstances if they work hard and contribute to society by making life better for others.

    Capitalism, on the other hand, stacks the deck against the poor in favor of the rich. It tilts the table so those who already have get more, while those who start out with little end up with less.

    No great mystery why a lot of those on the Right are so fond of capitalism. Real free enterprise…eh…not so much.

    It would really be of great benefit to the struggling masses if the Left would learn the difference between the two.

    • posted by Tim on

      I think that you might have a basic misunderstanding of capitalism. I’d like to suggest Ayn Rand’s “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” for a good defense of the “only system geared to the life of a rational being and the only moral politico-economic system in history.”

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      I think many on the left do understand the difference which is why so many (at least in my circles) prefer the small business over the conglomerate. They are, sadly, getting harder and harder to find, especially in big cities where greedy landlords have priced out the small business owner, in many cases leading to the storefront being vacant for a year or more before the chain store or restaurant moves in.

      • posted by Lori Heine on

        I also support small business over the conglomerate whenever I get the chance. And you’re right…the opportunities are fading away.

        Tim, I’m well aware what Ayn Rand wrote. If she were alive today, and saw what was going on in this world, she might realize that capitalism is actually imperiling free enterprise.

        Lobbying government for special breaks, and running smaller competitors out of business, is perfectly consistent with “capitalism” as it exists today. It has nothing to do with free enterprise.

        • posted by Houndentenor on

          I’d go further. Shaking down the same government that allowed mergers to the point of “too big to fail” for a bailout and then paying yourself millions in bonuses in the same year. No CEO in the 50s or 60s would have dared do such a thing. We have too many monopolies. Monopolies are the antithesis of a free market. Competition is good for consumers and creates incentives to provide better products, better service and for innovation. The only people who benefit from monopolies or near monopolies are the monopolies themselves. And we let them do it since all those mergers had to be approved. And now those same banks that we had to bail out are bigger and failier than ever. Of course since it’s basically legal for those banksters to bribe members of Congress there’s not much chance that anything will be done about it. I’ll admit that I’m only for free markets up to a point because I realize how easily systems can become corrupt. There has to be some regulation. but more competition would, at least in many if not most cases, provide the mechanism for correction. Companies that cheated their customers for too long would find those customers going to their competitors. Unfortunately we are now at a point where all the options suck. Does anyone think they get good value and service from their cable/satellite provider? Their cell phone/data plan? why is that? We deserve better. Our system is corrupt and everyone who could fix it is in on the corruption in one way or another.

          • posted by Tim on

            I agree with you both. I guess that I still make a distinction between true capitalism and what goes by the misnomer – “crony” capitalism. Government created/enforced/encouraged monopolies, like the too big to fail banks, etc., are not what capitalism is about. They are statist enterprises. Some businesses deal with government only in self defense; others use government power as a sword to destroy their competitors. Its a sad state of affairs and destructive of political and economic liberty.

          • posted by Houndentenor on

            I consider myself a moderate and this discussion reminds me why. I do not want to live in either Animal Farm or the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Both are dystopian nightmares. Too much power in too few hands, whether they are CEOs or government officials, will inevitably lead to corruption. Meanwhile a society motivated entirely by greed and the profit motive will lead to exploitation of the poor and will lead to a perverted value system in which the only things of value are those that earn a profit. Some government is necessary. The need for a check on power is important. At the same time people are right to fear too much government power as well. All things in balance. Balance is hard to achieve, of course, and even harder to maintain. We humans have too easy a time rationalizing behavior that is not only bad for other humans but for society as a whole. We should resist too much power being in too few hands and that is unfortunately the situation we find ourselves in both in the public and private sectors today.

    • posted by Jorge on

      If you’re going to use a word like “nitpick,” stay away from the partisan talking points. That’s not nitpicking (which heavily implies something objective is about to be said). That’s dissenting on ideological grounds, which are subjective.

  6. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    It is not my business to criticize the “historical byways” of Christian theology, and I won’t.

    But as interesting as the intricacies of Scholasticism may be, I wonder if our struggle for equal treatment under the law requires a change in Christian theology regarding homosexuality and natural law.

    It seems to me that convincing Christians that marriage equality should be treated as a matter of civil law, not affecting theological views about the nature of religious marriage (or the nature of nature, for that matter), would suffice.

    After all, Christians recognize civil law remarriage after divorce as legitimate for the purposes of civil law (if any Christians are howling about “state-sanctioned adultery”, it is not evident in the public discourse), so why not work to convince them that same-sex marriage should be treated in the same way?

    It seems to me that Minnesota Republican State Representative David FitzSimmons, who authored a successful amendment to redefine statutory marriage in Minnesota as “civil marriage” to make the distinction clear, was on the right track.

    Arguing with Christians about the theology of religious marriage, on the other hand, seems to me to be ceding an important distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, a distinction that we should be pointing out and insisting upon.

    We do not need Christians to “evolve” their theology in order to achieve equality at civil law.

  7. posted by Jorge on

    The long-held orthodox Christian view was that the charging of any interest at all on lent money is improper, a view that if taken seriously tends to retard the emergence of whole sectors of the modern economy such as banking and insurance.

    That language…

    You have to use “orthodox Christian” because if you say Orthodox Catholic people would think you’re talking about the Orthodox Catholics. But you are talking about the Roman Catholic Church. Didn’t the Protestant Reformation eliminate the usury prohibition? (Looks it up.) Okay, so it’s a lot more complicated. Usury was definitely one of the issues of contention, but there were differences among Protestants, and the Church’s counter-reformation needs to be considered. But I think it’s reasonably safe to say that most Christians belong to a religion in which usury never became part of the orthodoxy.

    • posted by Jorge on

      Oh, there should be a point or conclusion to that somewhere. On reflection, I think Christianity is likely to split again.

      Yes, we already have the Episcopal Church and a few others that support gay marriage. It’s Anglican, so it had some reverberations in other parts of the world where the Anglicans have a strong presence. But it doesn’t threaten the Catholic Church or most Protestant churches enough to force a counter-reformation. In the usury days, there were only two Churches (Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics). Now there are hundreds.

    • posted by Walter Olson on

      Luther was just as condemnatory of usury, if not more so, than the Popes had been (“A usurer, then, is a thief worthy of the gallows.”: Michelet life of Luther, ). I think the more accurate formulation would be that most Christians belong to a religion that once upheld strong prohibitions against usury but has evolved with modernity.

      • posted by Houndentenor on

        I have never once heard anyone condemn banks for charging too high interest rates for a pulpit of any kind. Considering the wide range of denominations from Catholic to Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Methodist, Greek Orthodox and Reform and Conservative Jewish Congregations (I’m a professional musician. I get around.) Not even once have I heard this topic come up. They just ignore it because it’s inconvenient. It just shows how all judeo-christian sects pick and choose from their Bibles which issues they want to make a big deal of and which they want to conveniently ignore. Every last one of them.

  8. posted by Throbert McGee on

    Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica codified the fusion of Aristotle with Christianity, argued that sodomy and usury were both “sins against nature, in which the very order of nature is violated, an injury done to God himself, who sets nature in order.”

    Did Aquinas ever actually make an argument against “sodomy” as such?

    I know that in Summa contra Gentiles, Aquinas briefly mentioned Sodom in an attempt to buttress his (not exactly solid) arguments against heterosexual men who spilled their seed o’er mountain, hill, and plain, as Onan did.

    But it wasn’t really an argument against or about sodomy; Aquinas just took it as understood that sodomy was awful, in order to dissuade men from engaging in coitus interruptus with their wives, lest they be as bad as the Sodomites.

  9. posted by TomJeffersonIII on

    1. Did Adam Smith actually express support — in public or private — for ‘sexual liberalism’? I can identify the libertarian thrust of post about personal and economic ‘liberty’, but I am not sure that Smith said much about gay rights or sexual freedom.

    2. Some valid cultural and historical reasons did exist for being against the practice of usury. I am not a fan of the anarchy or survival of the fittest views that come from Ayn Rand or the Libertarian party. Although, the opposition to usury was quickly ignored — when the church became a business — or used as a means of promoting social injustice/prejudice — i.e. pushing the Jewish minority into usury practices.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      Up until the 1980s most states had limits on how much interest could be charged on borrowed money. We repealed these laws and the result is outrageous interest rates charged on poor people. Charging 25% interest could land you in jail in the 1970s. Now millions of Americans pay far more than that on credit card debt and it’s perfectly legal, at a time when the prime rate is at record lows. There’s no need for the mob when major corporations openly use tactics once only practiced by criminals. this has been going on for over 30 years and given the corrupting influence of those corporations on our political system (it’s basically legal to bribe public officials now) I don’t see that changing. We used to be able to count on the conscience of people in power at least part of the time and those days are over. Too many politicians and CEOs spent their formative years jerking off reading Ayn Rand. maybe this isn’t what Rand envisioned but it’s the effect of her writings on modern American culture.

      • posted by Tim on

        It’s laughable to blame Rand for what is happening today. I’d tend to place the blame where it belongs, with the right-wing fascist party (Reps) and the left-wing fascist (Dems) party and their allies. And American-style fascism it is…

  10. posted by Don on

    I used to think all this fingerpointing was hypocrisy. But now I find it much simpler and lazier than that. People simply like to poke at others’ flaws rather than work on their own. The eternal adolescent. Carping about the flaws of others as an excuse to do nothing because the world is “lost” and “others” are corrupt.

    Gays (the other parts of our ridiculous acronym) are the whipping boys du jour. Women were emotional and unable to make political decisions. All races (pre-assimilation) are mentally inferior genetically. I love how the Irish were compared to apes 200 years ago. And eventually they did it to the liberated of African descent among us.

    The real Christian parable, which has worked out in every generation even before Christ is whether or not I will stand up, be counted on to do the right, but inconvenient, thing.

    I found Stephen’s research on the nexus between sodomy and usury fascinating. But still, the book in question is expansive enough for those who wish to jibe others to seize upon a host of passages and savage their neighbor.

    Alas, that will never end as it is a core human trait. Precisely the one Christ was trying to get everyone to see. But his idea was doomed to be often misunderstood and used by the small-minded mobs to make them feel safe in their own shortcomings.

    Regardless of which aisle they’re in.

    But bravo! Stephen. An excellent essay!

  11. posted by Walter Olson on

    Stephen? But thanks in any case.

  12. posted by Colin Smith on

    The traditional Christian view that charging any interest at all on lent money is improper, is not supported by the Bible. The ban on charging interest only applied to charging fellow Israelites. Deuteronomy 23:20 says “You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you ….” (NIV).

    Also, in a story Jesus told, a man who lent his servants money rebuked one of the servants saying “You ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest” (Matthew 25:27) Jesus didn’t condemn the charging of interest as the story seems to approve, or at least condone, charging interest.

    • posted by Houndentenor on

      You have taken two of the 17 verses on this topic that fit your belief and ignored the other. That would be necessary since they do not form a consistent message. I’m familiar with this method of theological quote mining as I was raised Southern Baptist. It’s one thing to explain away other passages, but pretending that they don’t exist undermines your credibility, at least for me.

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