The Middle Class & Imago Dei: Why the Middle Class is a Godly Foundation for Freedom & Prosperity

Why is there a Middle Class?

I grew up thinking of the middle class as just a natural part of any society, that there was a normal spread of the poor, the middle, and the rich in any society.  I thought that the middle class was lacking in the early eras of Western Civilization because we had not yet become rich enough as a culture. 

I was puzzled by people who wrote about the “rise” of the middle class as a new thing, almost unique to the West.  Why the West?  Didn’t every culture at least potentially have a middle class?  It was probably Rodney Stark’s two books, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, and then, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery, which triggered my thoughts in the following direction, but there had been vague inklings in years prior. 

In the middle of July, 2012, I awoke with Stark and several other sources percolating in my mind, with a startling and thrilling new thought: the Middle Class is designed by God for a purpose, having to do with the Image of God, the Imago Dei

This does not mean that all middle class persons are Godly, far from it.  The unGodly middle classers will themselves torpedo their own class.  We are to be obedient to God to keep His blessings.  When we disobey, His blessings become unavailable—by our own actions. 

The middle class, I had come to recognize, is the fundamental engine which has driven Western economic success, and, indirectly, politics and government.  The middle class is the engine which has lifted up whole national economies.  The rich do not do that, or only rarely.  They were in control and had slaves to do their bidding.  There were two basic classes, (1) the rich and powerful, and (2) the poor, divided between the slaves and everyone else. 

A college history professor told the story of a Roman emperor (I do not recall which) who was having demonstrated before him a road-laying machine invented by one of his subjects.  It apparently worked impressively, and would thus be a wonderful tool for the road-building Romans.  But, he told the inventor, “Burn it!”   When asked why, the emperor replied, “What would I do with all my slaves?” 

The emperor (along with probably everyone else) did not expect “progress” or “betterment” of the lives of people, other than that obtained by force of arms or inheriting a fortune.  Might made right.  The thought of betterment just did not occur among pagan cultures.  Slaves were to be slaves, that was the way it was.  Social levels were pretty much in cement—if the upper class had anything to do with it.  They wanted stability, not freedom.  There was no concept of the grinding poverty of the poor ever changing.  The rich had no incentive to make life better for the poor.  Their incentive was stability in their culture, not change.  Change agents were heretics to be gotten rid of.  The investment of the powerful was in keeping the status quo. 

There have been, of course, “small business” men and women since the first village markets.  But much of it was by barter, with no or little banking system, and thus could never develop the wealth which began in the Middle Ages.  And, most importantly, there was little or no sense of personal value—as would have a child of God. 

All this was true because in paganism there is no such thing as the Image of God in which we are made and loved, as we meet in the Bible. 

Church & State

But after Constantine made Christianity legal, things began to move in a different direction.  The struggles between Church and State were partly about the sovereignty of God over all civil government, and the growing notion that came to fruition in the pre-Reformation centuries, that (as John Wycliffe put it) God wants a government of, by, and for the people, later echoed by Abraham Lincoln. 

1215 saw the signing of the Magna Carta, forced on King John by his barons, to limit the tyrannical power of the king.  The Archbishop of Canterbury was involved in the writing of the document.  It was the first time the authority of an English king had been forcibly limited by his own subjects.

The Magna Carta had a trickle down effect as citizens below the rank of baron also began to claim rights under the king, leading eventually to the principle that “a man’s house is his castle”, and that no person could be arbitrarily punished by the state. 

The growth in the academic world during the Middle Ages of a freemarket of ideas would eventually support the notion of universal individual freedom, still yet a long way off.  This freemarket of ideas became institutionalized in the newly forming universities of the great cities of Europe. 

Out of these universities sprung science, a combination of the Hebraic world of particular things, history, and a rational world built by a rational God wedded to the gift of abstract thinking developed by the Greek philosophers.  The blend resulted in science—a culturally supported freemarket of ideas, research, and a level playing field in which anyone might express his viewpoints, and not be shot at dawn if he lost the debate.  And then an increasing development of technology (ships, weapons, new plows, pianos, clocks, horse harnesses, etc.), mostly unheard of in pagan cultures (see the two books above by Rodney Stark).

The key behind all this was the uniquely Biblical belief that all men were created equal, that we all stand equally before God, so all equally before any government on earth, and are therefore equally free to engage ourselves in productive enterprises for the benefit of ourselves, our families, and our society.  Lower and lower classes began demanding the freedoms being gained by those “above” them.  Contrary to the typical pagan attitude, the world was deemed rational, orderly, and improvable.  Life could get better, not only politically, but physically and financially as we developed new ways of constructing and manufacturing.  

All of this was generated out of the Biblical moral and spiritual framework which valued time, space, and the sacramental life where the physical revealed (not hid or destroyed) the spiritual, the Image of God.  Most of this new energy came from the bottom up, not from the power-pyramid top down.  Individuals and families were set free by this new resource to be creative.  So long as this took place within the Judeo-Christian framework, it was understood that individuals were a part of that larger community, the Kingdom of God, which the Church was to represent.  People came to be respected and respectable because they were well off and capable—independently of their prior social status.  The new Entrepreneurial Middle Class was forming—because the law and the grace of God were significantly (if not perfectly) respected. 

Is Capitalism Selfish?

The notion that capitalism is selfish is foolishness.  Capitalism cannot be selfish, only people can be.  But good and generous people can be capitalists.  The mere fact of making money is no more selfish than growing a crop, or than raising taxes from those who do make money.  The issue is whether the actors act honestly and intelligently for themselves and for the whole community. 

Freemarket capitalism is one of the great barriers to the most selfish and destructive of all forms of government— centralization in the hands of a few or a class.  Capitalism becomes evil for the most part when it buys out politicians and co-opts the coercive force of government in its favor.  But that is no longer capitalism, it might be called corporate monopolism, as we see all through the West.  A government properly limited to being referee and run by honest citizens would be the best proof against that kind of evil.  The separation of commerce and state is just as important as the proper separation of church and state.  And for the same reasons, the danger of the abuse of power.  

Taking care of oneself and one’s family is not selfish, any more than putting on one’s own oxygen mask in an airplane before helping one’s child.  One can be of assistance to others only to the degree that he is healthy and capable of doing so.  Capitalism vastly increases that ability, and tends to disperse the wealth throughout the market rather than concentrate it.  The primary wrongful concentrator of wealth is civil government unlimited by the law of God.   The powerful among the pagans did not redistribute wealth in a healthy manner, and neither do secular “liberals”.   Judeo-Christians, if they are obedient to the law of God, will limit government as in the American Constitution, and set free the market to run its own affairs, with government only as referee. 

In the Old Testament, God is continually urging the people, as in Deuteronomy 8:18, “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.”  See also Joshua 1:1-9.   God wants to confirm His covenant with us, in which He promises to make us flourish.  That is part of the meaning of the law being made for man, not man for the law.  Following the law naturally and organically leads to success.  Just like following the directions for maintaining your automobile.   

And in the New Testament, we hear Jesus telling the disciples, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these [material blessings] will be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25-33).   Spiritual obedience leads to material success.  That is not true in the foolish sense of thinking that God is obligated to honor our requests.  Success comes from obedience, following the way of the cross, not from our “claiming it” from God.  There are no claims we can make on God.  Obedience might lead through very tough times, especially when repentance is required.  But in the end, it leads to success in all the ways which God has promised in His covenant with us—the Kingdom, all the riches of heaven.   

The socialist/communist solution to economic problems gives the economic power into the hands of those who already own (or want to own) all the weapons (the government), a perfect prescription for tyranny (as in “the perfect storm”).  All of the available evidence tells us that the concentration of power into the hands of any group or person will end, not in a just and righteous redistribution of wealth, but in the concentration of wealth into the hands of those with the power.  Power must be distributed in order to keep the wealth distributed—as in the separation of powers and federalism upon which our constitution is formed.   

Government centralizers are enemies of God, of the American Constitution, and thus of we, the people.  That is true, as the founders of America stated, because we humans are not angels, and need “help” in loving one another.  The only effective antidote to the concentration of power is the law and the grace of the living God which dictates the separation and dispersion of power and authority.  

The Rise & Fall of the Middle Class

 Napoleon derisively called the English “a nation of shopkeepers”, i.e., unfit to make war on France, in contrast to themselves as the cultured and civilized, and so, one supposes, themselves the elite with the right to make war on whomever they so desired (as Napoleon murderously did).  But it was those “shopkeepers”, those entrepreneurs, who kept producing better ships, weapons, and other goods which enabled Britain to dominate the world for a century.  And it was Napoleon, whose government was centralized around himself, who put the newly growing middle class again in certain peril. 

The British (et al) defeated Napoleon, but lost their lead in the economic race, because, as with George III, they would not support the freedoms of the rising middle class in America and so lost America.  Americans understood that their economic (as well as political and spiritual) freedoms were from God, not from George III. 

The genius of entrepreneurship thus shifted to America, the new land of the free and home of the brave, where, for perhaps the first time in history, the common man could own land securely and outright, not as renting a plot in the king’s realm, but full ownership.  He could then use his land as secure collateral for a bank loan to start a farm or business.  Fueled by such advantages, the entrepreneurial enterprise took off all across America.  Newly freed individuals were having a very successful go at producing the “good society”.  

It could have worked, not perfectly but substantially, had the people kept their covenant with God as indicated in the Declaration of Independence.  They understood themselves to be separating from George III to become more rightly dependent upon and obedient to God Himself.   “No king but Jesus!” proclaimed the Presbyterian clergy.  

But, sadly, it does not appear that the arrival of the middle class was understood by many, even in America, as a gift from God, and that God, not secularism, was bringing civilization to a new level of maturity, based on the principle of equality in the Image of God.  Too many Christians had misunderstood and rejected the Biblical cooperation between spiritual and material, and saw politics and economics as “unspiritual”.  They wanted to be “spiritual” in a manner that was not Biblical.  It came to be called “pietism”.  The Christians were thus unable to keep the powerhouse of the rising economy united with their God-given limited government for a free people.  Christians failed to see and proclaim that it was God, not a secular economic and political structure, that was blessing them materially. 

So, by the end of the 1800’s, the whole process was being successfully secularized, due largely to the failure of Christians to defend their case in public, and to the newly-recast-by-secularists “positivist” law which rejected God as  the source of all government authority.  It had taken over a millennia for the notion of the equality of all men everywhere to effectively challenge the pagan belief that the strong can and should rule the weak, that slavery is natural, and that might makes right.  It took less than a century in the West for it to be shredded. 

The French Revolution

The negative reaction had begun with a vengeance in the late 1700’s.  The ink had hardly dried on the American Constitution. 

The French rejection of God, intended nor not, meant the rejection also of individuality in any healthy sense.  The atomized secular individual is easy prey for centralized government.  It might have been largely the newly emerging French middle class, who were champing at the bit for freedom and saw both Church and State as their enemies.  They did not see that the proper wedding of Church and State would be their best friend, and so the French middle class became its own worst enemy. 

Americans saw it differently.  Only God can unite we, the people, in a substantial manner— by way of moral and spiritual consensus, to hold government on a tether so as to keep our freedoms from the ever-present danger of power-centralization.  That was why the rise of the middle class in America was so productive.  America began with the first substantial beginnings of that proper relation between Church and State, where the Church is the moral and spiritual teacher and the worship leader, but in a freemarket of ideas where it has to compete for adherents (that same freemarket which Christians began in the Middle Ages). 

In that arrangement, the government holds the gun of enforcement, but is tied by the Constitution to using the gun only as directed by the morally and spiritually informed public through their elected representatives.  That was the basic foundation of a government limited for the freedom of the people.  The Church part as worship leader and moral teacher was absolutely essential.  Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution could have been written by a non-Biblical people. 

The French Revolution was a counter-attack not just against the tyrannies of a decadently Christian Europe, it was in effect, even if not intended, a counter-attack against the growing freedom of the people.  That was evident from the very process of the French Revolution from one butchery to the next.  Despite their claims to be against the tyranny of the Church and royalty, they inspired a far more repressive tyranny, which did not take long to deploy itself in the form of Communism, the absolute centralization of all freedoms into the hands of the now secular central few. 

Communism was never about redistributing to the poor, other than for the “useful idiots” who believed such things, as Lenin himself said.  Communism is about redistribution fromboth the middle class and the poor, and from those rich who disagree, into the pockets of the centralized few.  A whole new aristocracy of secular sheer brute power—all for our good, of course. 

Communism has never been “for the people”.  Like Islam, it has flourished only under coercive centralization, by force.  No surprise that communism and Islam work so often together.  Communism has never been supported substantially by “the people” uprising to throw off the chains of capitalism.  Capitalism, under the law and grace of God and under a properly limited government, is by far the most effective and most just redistributor of wealth ever invented— which communism claims to be. 

It was Antonio Gramsci, a 1930’s Italian communist, who wrote the playbook, not for military takeover of the world as dictated by Lenin and Stalin, but by the long slow march through the cultural institutions, exactly what is happening today— with the Church and politicians stubbornly oblivious.  Or in cahoots.   (See also Yuri Besmenov, ex-KGB agent, interviewed by G. Edward Griffin.)

Equality of Results? or of Opportunity?

The French Revolution and its offspring put the unifying of the human race right back into the hands of the powerful, not into the hands of the righteous under God.  And that means the end of the middle class.  There are the rich and powerful and there are the poor and weak.  It is no accident that the central enemy of Communism is the middle class under God.  No centralized government, whether from the right, center, or left, can allow the free dynamism of a healthy middle class.  The middle class under God is a powerful block to tyranny.  Under the law and grace of God is how America was founded. 

Government-given equality is equality-of-results.  Government is unable to give equality-of-opportunity because that equality is based on the love of God for His people, the ability and right to be themselves by being made in the Image of God.  That ontological personal security, standing on the omnipotent Hand of God, hearing the commanding Word of God, is what sets individuals free to be productive in a cooperative and loving way.  The world cannot give that security (it is called “salvation”).   

Equal results requires massive coercion and control because a free people will not willingly line up in regimented rows of equal results.  Forced equal results thus drives out freewill equal opportunity.  Equal opportunity comes from the freewill moral and spiritual consensus of the people which allows each of them to participate in the community life as they believe God or their conscience to be leading them.  That freemarket of ideas again.  Their value and security as human beings (established by God) undergirds their participation, which is what gives it such power.  That is why all tyrants make war on Biblical religion. 

Without that affirmation of personhood from God, the fallen in the world must beg, borrow, or steal their sense of value from someone in the world.  Civil government is glad to pretend that it can give it, but is not capable of giving any person his value because government is not the creator of its citizens.  It is the creature of, and thus to be the servant of, the citizens under God. 

America becoming a “3rd-World” Nation

Over the 1900’s, we began to hear about “3rd world” nations, who, we thought, needed to be blessed by our shiny new secularized “liberal democracy“.  Liberal democracy (which is neither liberal nor democratic) is supposed to be the secular version of what God had given us, God no longer being thought essential to the project of the good life. 

“Blessing” Iraq that way was part of the justification for invading Iraq, and other meddlings abroad.  But so-called liberal democracy has rejected and lost what God had given America, the spiritual energy of a people free to be themselves under the law and grace of God, not under the say-so of their wanna-be human masters.  So the “3rd world” cannot be rescued by liberal democracy, which only puts them under a new and more competent overlord, now equipped with mind-control, and with surveillance and incarceration techniques beyond all previous imagination. 

We hear (perhaps accurate) predictions of America becoming a 3rd world country, due to our financial disabilities falling back into the poverty-ridden state of affairs.  The capacity for a people to generate wealth by capitalism depends on their having a dependable money and banking system, and a dependable government which referees honestly.  And those conditions require a moral commitment and consensus by the people— which only God can give. 

We in America lost both of those in any effective manner probably early in the 1900’s, at least by the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, beginning possibly as early as the war between the states.  Lawyers and politicians had by the 1850’s begun to make law without regard to the law of God—positivist law which claims to owe no allegiance to either the law of God or any other law higher than the government itself.  Positivist law effectively gutted the Constitution of its authority and legitimacy, which should have been considered an act of treason, but the watchmen in the Biblical towers were asleep somewhere in a poppy field. 

3rd world nations are those which have not yet raised up a middle class independent enough to govern their own decisions about the creation of wealth.  They still live under a government which controls from the top down, generally for its own benefit, not that of the people. 

Our present administration under Barak Obama is a long jump in that direction.  He is a government centralizer, and thus an enemy of God, of the Constitution, and of we, the people.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote of (and to) George III, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”   George III had not done nearly the damage which Obama and his handlers are doing.  They are moving America as close to communism as they can get it, openly, right in front of our eyes, and in the process, necessarily eroding the middle class, whom they want closely under government control.  Thus the middle class is reduced to poverty and the rich become corporate monopolists. 

Unity, Freewill, & Coercion 

Civil government is primarily (and rightly) about coercion.  Everything government does, it does at gunpoint.  We rarely see the gun when we agree with and obey the laws.  Some things ought to be coerced, such as keeping contracts, protection against robbery, murder, invasion, etc.  But only a few things ought to be coerced, which is why righteous government is severely limited.  Some things ought never be coerced, such as religion, education, health care, and welfare—prime targets of centralizers because they can be made into powerful tools of control—as ever communist knows.  Centralized government will try to coerce all of these, not to bless the people but to bless themselves with its control over them. 

Government produces nothing, so it can give only what it has taken away from someone else, which means, for example, welfare and generosity at gunpoint— what ought to be an obvious self-contradiction.  Government can give only through coercion.  But it is not rightly, and should not become, either a redistributor of wealth nor a producer of goods.  Its rightful role is primarily as referee in the game of life for the producers and consumers— which means that it may not play in the game. 

With the Biblical model, the unity of the people comes from their freewill decision to love and obey God and to love one another just as they love themselves.  With the secular/pagan model, there is no moral order, so unity of the people must be maintained by threat and coercion.  Top down coercion of equal results means the end of middle class entrepreneurship because the power of Godly entrepreneurship comes from the bottom up and from within, from one’s relationship to God which sets one free to be creative.  This kind of entrepreneurship is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Civil government cannot give that gift of unity or entrepreneurship.  The American Declaration of Independence is thus the theological underpinning for all American civil government.

At a Crossroads

Europe has already chosen the wrong path.  America is at the same cross roads.  The forces of government centralization, mainly through government schooling, have captured the minds of our people, and pacified/neutralized/paralyzed most of those who disagree with them.  It will remain that way until the people, under the law and grace of God, are willing to confront, openly and vigorously, the government with that law and grace.

With God, no situation is hopeless, but we are far behind the 8-ball, and it will take a spiritual renewal in the Church of God to change things.  We face a spiritual far more than an economic or political problem.  That means the reconversion of the Church before the politicians.  The Moral Majority of some years ago, and many other attempts by Christians to change things ran aground on just these issues.  They should have aimed at the reconversion of their churches before reconversion of the politicians.  A 3rd-world country is one where the people have not yet been set free by the law and grace of God to manage their own prosperity.  That is what America is becoming because the Church, by and large, does not see the public realm as any of its business.  God does not agree. 

We will not have the right people in government until we have the right people in the pulpits and at the altars of America and as heads of their families— to raise up the right people for government and commerce.  We need a renewed black-robed regiment, like the Presbyterian preachers who proclaimed, to the dismay of the British under George III, “No king but Jesus!”.   Families and churches are the smithies where Godly souls are forged. 

That is again why centralized government makes war to subdue both of them.  “Public education”, taken out of the hands of parents, from birth to grave is the project of centralizers to reduce family and church to its own will.  Government control of education will subvert or destroy the freemarket of ideas because the governors will educate the people to reelect them.  Education then becomes a closed loop, mind-control, not a process open to exploring the truth. 

But, the centralizers know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.  We must rebuild a Church that does know, so that it can set the record straight on why God has given us a middle entrepreneurial class and a limited government.  The two go together.  God wants us to obey Him so that He can confirm His covenant.   No country needs to remain (or become) a 3rd-world country, but to change things requires submission to God. 

St. Peter was ministering in Rome, which was turning violent against Christians.  He was on his way out of Rome when the risen Jesus met him and asked, “Petrus, quo vadis?”  “Peter, where are you going?”   Peter understood and turned around back to Rome where he was later crucified upside down.  The path to success is not always easy, but it is always possible.  For the obedient, God will confirm His covenant with America (Bible, Declaration, and Constitution). 

America, quo vadis? 

Dr. Earle FoxDr. Earle Fox is IAI’s Senior Fellow in Philosophy of Science and the Worldview of Ethical Monotheism.

This article was oiginally published at See also Dr. Fox’s new Book Abortion, the Bible and America.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute.

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