It is an old truism that there is Tradition and there are traditions. Catholic apologist types typically illustrate this by showing clear examples of Big-T Tradition (the Creed or the canon of Scripture) vs. small-t traditions such as, say, birthday cakes, Thanksgiving turkeys, or Super Bowl beer. All of these are human traditions, and none is particularly sinister. And, of course, such traditions are a mere fraction of the many other traditions that order and shape our lives and our culture in a beneficial way, without being mistaken for divine revelation.
That’s a useful illustration, but it has a limitation — namely, it does not address why, if tradition is so harmless, the Scriptures do indeed warn us to “see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Is it that people in New Testament times were 2,000 years stupider than we and so were natural suckers, confusing human things with divine things? Or might it be that the warning against elevating tradition to the status of Tradition is still a live one today?
I am put in mind of this by two things I noticed on the Internet recently. The first is Rod Dreher’s discussion of the enduring myth that Big Business is “conservative” (by which naive conservative Christians often assume “basically an ally of the gospel against Culture of Death liberalism”). The second is this dramatic — indeed, graphic and “Not Safe for Work” — illustration of the utter folly of believing that myth, brought to you by the solid Big Business Capitalists at Miller Brewing. (By the way, we can’t say we weren’t warned, given that this blasphemous parody of the Last Supper was the main advertising image for what Miller proudly advertised as the “world’s largest Leather Event.”)
It is faith in Capitalism or Democracy or the Little Guy or the Everlastingness of England or Holy Mother Russia or the American Way or the Divine Right of Kings or Your Favorite Political or Philosophical System — not faith in birthday candles, mistletoe, or turkey — that is the subject of Paul’s warning about conflating human tradition with Tradition. In each age, there are things that a people hold as “sacred” which are, in fact, merely almost sacred but are not integral to the Holy Apostolic Faith. The Constitution and the American Way of Life are almost sacred things. And so the temptation becomes very strong to assume that these very good things are holy things.
Accordingly, some people develop the absurd notion that ardent capitalists necessarily care about their religious values. The bottlers of Miller Light are sending such people a message: “Get real.”
The only thing we know for certain about an ardent capitalist is that he cares about making a lot of money. Beyond that, all bets are off. And since, as Uncle Screwtape observed long ago, a man with a sexual obsession is a man with very little sales resistance, there is a very good likelihood that the ardent capitalist will not necessarily be motivated by any particular interest in gospel values. The notion that capitalism is somehow necessarily and inevitably a friend of Jesus Christ is one of the greatest American delusions of the past century.
That doesn’t make capitalism evil. It makes it a “philosophy according to human tradition” and no necessary part of the Faith. Harnessed to the service of the human person like fire in a fireplace, it can be a very good thing indeed. Capitalism is a human system that works, as democracy does, by allowing humans to practice virtue while (sort of) restraining the effects of the Fall in the economic sphere, as democracy (sort of) restrains the effects of the Fall in the political sphere. It works tolerably well, just so long as competition remains in stasis and one entity does not acquire a monopoly and destroy the competition.
But it has no special interest in morals. If a capitalist entity can get away with making a large profit by the promotion of sin (as capitalist entities have done since the dawn of time), it will. If there is a large enough outcry against a capitalist-sponsored outrage, the capitalist will, like Miller, back off. If not, the capitalist will continue the proud sponsorship. And there is no limit on how much culturally-acceptable sin the capitalist will capitalize upon except this: If the sin destroys the culture, then the capitalist goes up in flames along with the rest of the general conflagration. When capitalism begins to behave in this way, it mutates from a reasonably beneficial organism in the body of humanity into a toxic bacteria that destroys its host. In the link above, we see mutated capitalism toiling to destroy the culture and bring on the conflagration for the sake of a buck. What ended the sponsorship was not a sudden outburst of moral concern from Miller, but “market forces” (meaning the residuum of sane people in American culture who have not yet learnt from their PC catechism that Gay Culture is the source and summit of all that is noble, good, beautiful and true).
Capitalism, like democracy, can only work as long as it exists in a (relatively) virtuous people. And people derive virtue from God, not from capitalism. Like democracy, capitalism works because it is a system that presumes original sin. When we abandon God (and therefore stop presuming original sin), we only “free” avarice in the sense that a maniac “frees” the fire from the fireplace and allows it to pursue its interests in the rest of the house. Untether capitalism from a Judeo-Christian culture, and even our virtues become vices. Seek first the earth and you lose not just Heaven but earthly things as well.