Polling data shows that the more Americans know about evangelicalism, the more their appreciation for evangelicals declines:
those who correctly answer more religious knowledge questions overall tend to express warmer feelings towards most religious groups of which they are not a part. For example, Jews receive an average thermometer rating of 70 degrees from non-Jews who correctly answer at least 25 of the 32 religious knowledge questions. By comparison, Jews are rated at 54 degrees among those who get eight or fewer questions right.
Compared with those who answer the fewest religious knowledge questions correctly, feelings toward Buddhists, Hindus, mainline Protestants, atheists and Muslims also are warmer among people who get more religious knowledge questions right.
One notable exception to this pattern is evangelical Christians.19 Respondents who answer at least 25 religious knowledge questions rate evangelicals more coolly (43 degrees, on average) than those who correctly get eight or fewer questions right (53 degrees). The survey also shows little connection between overall levels of religious knowledge and views of Mormons and Catholics, once demographic factors are taken into account.
This might be a reason for folks at Sojourners to back away from their identification of Christianity with socialism. Once upon a time, the magazine’s writers insist, Protestants supported socialism:
One historian estimated that between 5 and 25 percent of all mainline Protestant clergy were socialist party members or voted for the party in the first three decades of the 20th century. Congregationalist minister Franklin Monroe Sprague wrote Socialism from Genesis to Revelation in 1892. John Spargo, a Methodist minister, became a socialist educator. Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, ran for president of the United States as a socialist candidate from 1928 to 1948. Charles Vail, a Universalist minister, was an important socialist writer. African Americans, both outside and inside of the socialist party, also demanded fairer economic systems that affected other facets of life, pushing white Christians and socialists towards a “new abolitionism.”
Socialism attracted Christians because of the growing influence of the social gospel in the U.S. and its social interpretation of sin and salvation. Inequality was a social sin and Christians were responsible for addressing it. Yet the answer was not in the promise of a singular saved soul but the remaking of society to be more just. This justice had to be achieved through reforming institutions in order to create an environment of equality for everyone. Socialism, or what some called “industrial democracy,” would provide the equitable distribution of economic and electoral power.
Christian socialists were true believers in both the gospel of Jesus and socialism. They often combined the two. The interpretation of Jesus as a radical who opposed capitalism was widespread. Less so was the idea that socialism could be the foundation for a more universal humanistic religion. Norman Thomas expressed both ideas when he wrote in 1921 that “essentially the faith of radicalism is religious” and in 1936 that “socialism is the hope for all mankind.”
So where did all the Christian socialists go? They went the way of most socialists in the U.S.
But thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr., Protestant support for socialism grew:
The Bible envisions a just and equitable social order. As King explained, “God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.” Democratic socialism seeks to build a more humane society, not by force or compulsion, but by way of the age-old democratic practice of “one person, one vote.” For this reason, democratic socialist policies can only move forward if the American people understand their value and vote for them.
Moreover, King, the Bible, and democratic socialism share the same essential concerns, such as:
Health care for all
Jesus modeled universal health care by healing everyone who asked, regardless of their gender, nationality or ability to pay. “Great multitudes followed him,” mostly poor peasants, “and he healed them all” (Matthew 12:15).
A fair wage
Prophets consistently excoriated those exploiting their employees. For example, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing and does not give them their wages” (Jeremiah 22:13,17).
A minimum income for everyone
The book of Leviticus is clear: “There should be no poor among you … if any of your neighbors become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them … so they can continue to live among you.” (Leviticus 25: 35-36).
Fair treatment of workers
The Book of Deuteronomy declares, “you shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the immigrants who are in your land …” (Deuteronomy 24:14).
Of course, the claim that Christianity supports socialism is debatable. Seldom do Christians on the Left (or in the progressive middle), interact with the apostle Paul’s restrictions on support for widows (1 Tim. 5). Irrespective of the actual links between Christianity and socialism, now is a time that evangelicals on the Left may want to hide their light under a bushel. Their support could hurt the socialist cause.