Is Socialism Christian? Is Capitalism Christian?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The Covid-19 crisis has produced a nearly unprecedented degree of U.S. government intervention in the economy, and more may lie ahead. This occurs at a time of surprising and rising Democratic Party fondness for more thoroughgoing socialism. Although the prime mover of this phenomenon, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is very unlikely to win the presidential nomination, his status as the runner-up in both 2016 and 2020 is significant.
While polls show growing fondness for socialism among Democrats, Americans as a whole disagree, due to opposition from self-identified political Independents and, more especially, Republicans. Some remarkable numbers show this is no business-as-usual era, as surely as did the election of President Trump.
After the 2018 election, BuzzFeed found that 47 percent of young Democrats (ages 22 to 37) identified as socialists, or democratic socialists, or accepted either label. Early this year. Gallup said 76 percent of Democrats are willing to vote for a socialist as president. Public Opinion Strategies reported that 77 percent of Democrats thought the nation would be “better off” by moving in a more socialistic direction.
Yet another thunderbolt came this month from a CBS / YouGov tracking poll. It showed that 56 percent of Democratic primary voters in Texas had a favorable view of socialism but only 37 percent were favorable toward capitalism. In California, voters aligned the same way, 57 percent vs. 45 percent.
All factions recognize that “markets” are the universal fact of life in modern internationalized commerce. The issue is how “free” or centralized they should be, whether businesses are owned by the government or workers or private investors or some blend, whether unguided market forces or public officials control decision-making, and the extent to which government imposes regulations and what they should be.
Looked at morally and religiously, the stature of socialism obviously suffers from the track record of its most powerful version, Marxist Communism, which is brutally totalitarian whenever it takes power. The authorities imposed state socialism through police-state surveillance, deceit, theft, violence, torture, forced labor camps, and the mass-scale slaughter of innocents. They fused centralized economies with suppression of democracy and violation of human rights, especially those of religious believers — and still do in A.D. 2020. Apart from strict Communism, we see the economic ruin under socialism in nations like formerly prosperous Venezuela.
American politicians who are socialists as opposed to traditional Democrats include Sanders and his celebrity acolyte Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Understandably, they seek to distinguish all of that carnage from their “democratic socialism.” This version advocates building centralized economies through the will of the people expressed in open elections, over against forms that overthrow governments through violent revolution and oppressive regimes.
Christian thinkers, of course, continually debate what’s the best feasible economic system from an ethical standpoint. A good starting point is Pope Leo XIII’s far-sighted encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) from 1891. www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html It decried the wide gap between the rich and the poor and unaccountable free markets, preached protection for the working class, and endorsed labor unions as they seek just wages and working conditions. However, like Pope John Paul II’s anniversary encyclical 100 years later, (www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html) Leo abhorred Marxist collectivism and violence, and laid out a vigorous Christian case for each person’s right to the “stable and permanent possession” of private property as “the law of nature.”
This month, the U.S. Catholic magazine Commonweal issued a vigorous case for socialism over against capitalism by the outspoken Eastern Orthodox thinker David Bentley Hart. www.commonwealmagazine.org/three-cheers-socialism In his view, America’s economics, politics, and churches are pretty much corrupt failures but Americans are too deluded to realize it. He champions Britain’s 19th Century Christian socialists.
Hart thinks Americans are over-taxed by burdensome government, get little for their money, are subjected to a “cruel, inefficient, and monstrously expensive health system,” and serve as “slaves” at the mercy of government whose violence and power exploits them to help the rich. The remedy is “a democratic seizure of power from both state and corporate entities” with “democratic control over public policy taxation, production and trade.”
To him, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who’s honestly faithful to Jesus’ teachings can dispute that socialism “is the only possible way of embodying Christian love in concrete political practices.” But speaking of concrete, it’s hard to figure what the actual practices might be in Hart’s hoped-for democratic socialism with its all-powerful state.
Which provoked conservative Methodist Mark Tooley of www.juicyecumenism.com to remark on socialism’s “odd renaissance of late among some who’ve never lived under it.” He thinks “socialism has always been a faith mainly for intellectuals” rather than the workers it purports to represent. If Hart favors the democratic version in, say, Scandinavian nations, Tooley said they’ve always been “essentially capitalist” and have been shifting from heavy-handed central planning in order to boost their economies.
Another Christian skeptic toward the socialist wave is Lutheran educator Gene Veith. His patheos.com blog critiqued the forthcoming book “Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism” by Micah Uetricht and Meagan Day of U.S. socialists’ Jacobin magazine.
The socialist writers cite Eric Blanc’s vision that “serious anti-capitalist change will necessarily require extra-parliamentary mass action like a general strike and a revolution to defeat the inevitable sabotage and resistance of the ruling class.” But they “do not advocate violent means” in the class struggle that will destroy capitalism.
Veith says this may seem “a radical revolutionary pipe-dream” rather than what a Sanders (or future AOC) administration would actually bring. But such writings “demonstrate the ideological atmosphere that Sanders has been breathing in for decades.” He warns, “Voters need to attend not just to what the candidate promises but also to the larger constellation of what the candidate means by those promises and how they fit together into a larger worldview.”