Having just launched our spring academic modules on ethics, culture, and society, I’m reminded of how college students are typically more interested in social entrepreneurship than older generations. Although encouraging on several levels, every year I find myself patting them on the back for their desire to pair their innovative sensibilities with their hearts for service while I simultaneously defend the free market. Why? First, because 18-20 year olds grew up in the post-Enron, post real-estate bust market. Add to that the fact that a few wildly popular books written in the last few years by influential evangelicals make the case for believers to abandon the American dream so that they can be set free to live out their faith with authenticity and enthusiasm. These books, targeted at college students and twenty-somethings, may provide a needed challenge to believers who are overly enamored of creature comforts, but they don’t do a great job of distinguishing capitalism as an economic system from the moral agents—and sometime corrupt ones—that operate inside of that system. The unsurprising result of these recent and publicly observable business failures combined with the sentiments represented in these books result in an attitude among millennials that says “down with capitalism.” Every time I hear that claim or anything akin to it, one of the first things I do is refer the student to The Acton Institute website.

I’ve engaged millennials’ concerns over free markets the past few years, and I think their fundamental worries actually have little to do with wealth itself. Instead, university students in the post-Enron age hear capitalist vernacular as a sort of impoverished discourse about individual rights. In her book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, Professor Mary Ann Glendon argues “Our stark, simple rights dialect puts a damper on the processes of public justification, communication, and deliberation upon which the continuing vitality of a democratic regime depends. It contributes to the erosion of the habits, practices, and attitudes of respect for others that are the ultimate and surest guarantors of human rights. It impedes creative long-range thinking about our most pressing social problems. Our rights-laden public discourse easily accommodates the economic, the immediate, and the personal dimensions of a problem, while it regularly neglects the moral, the long-term, and the social implications.”

To be sure, current statistics in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other sources show that a high percentage of college students place a significant value on using their education to achieve a high standard of living. But many more than in the past want to know that their lives have counted for a cause bigger than themselves, and one that takes into account the moral and social implications of our ongoing dialogue. I know next-generation leaders out there who understand the inextricable connection between free markets and social entrepreneurship. I realize that none of what I’ve said here gets at the deeper biblical underpinnings of free markets as the most likely economic environment to encourage human beings as bearers of the imago dei to implement the creation mandate (Gen 1:28) through culture-making business ventures.

In closing, I was recently encouraged by a colleague from a sister institution who said this:

I think many of the students…want to get rid of every possession and go do something “radical.” And my only concern is…that something radical doesn’t always mean abandoning the capitalist world we live in. Some of the most influential (for the gospel, I mean) people I know are sharing Christ with the arts world – with filmmakers and artists and musicians, and there a need to earn a voice among whichever audience God leads you toward…which requires an understanding of their context, knowledge of the field, and at least in this case, enough money to be among them.

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