Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Christianity and Socialism

Throughout my life it has been clear to me that many Christians assume that capitalism has its roots in Christianity, and that a proper defense of capitalism must begin with an affirmation of the Christian worldview. Some even seem to think that where you find Christianity, you’re likely to find capitalism, as if the latter were a natural corollary of the former. With some two and a half billion Christians in the world (source), how’s that going?

I suppose that much of what gives impetus to this view is the famed Protestant work ethic that Max Weber wrote about in his highly influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which begins by observing that in nations “of mixed religious composition” there is a strong tendency that “business leaders and owners of capital… are overwhelmingly Protestant” (p. 35). In contravention to this, Michael Novak argues that capitalism was actually created by the Cistercians, a Catholic religious order which branched off from the Benedictines (because the Benedictines weren’t Benedictine enough), given their masterful use of profits and venture capital.

Of course, capitalism is not reducible merely to a strong work ethic or to wise management of profits; both of these traits, as noble as they may be, are possible outside a capitalist system. At its core capitalism involves the abolishment of the use of force in interpersonal relationships: all human interaction is entirely voluntary. Thus, formally, capitalism as a social system in inextricably based on the concept of individual rights, including the right to life and to property. In capitalism, you are free to have a bad work ethic, and you’re free to forego profits. You won’t prosper, but no one’s going to come along and force you to have a strong work ethic or to enjoy a profit year over year. Prosperity requires dedication, discipline, effort, planning, honest cooperation, fulfillment of obligations, etc.

This is really a question of what political system is most suited to Christian teachings as they are informed by biblical instruction. Or, even more to the point: what is the nature of the political system which results from Christian practice when it is adopted by a society? Would that political system be individualistic, such as capitalism, or would it be more collectivistic, i.e., a form of socialism?

C. S. Lewis, in his immensely popular book Mere Christianity, holds that “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme,” and yet at the same time “it is meant for all men at all times” (Book III, chapter 3). He justifies the absence of a worked-out political theory by the following reasoning:
When [Christianity] tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal. (Ibid.)
All of this strikes me as nothing short of a cop-out. What political thesis which advocates the charitable feeding of “the hungry” expounds that principle along with “lessons in cookery”? Why would the latter be necessary to proclaim the former? Simple division of labor would have philosophers present and defend their political theses, and culinarians can publish their recipes. Christianity, we are constantly reminded, is a worldview, a network of philosophical ideas. One of the main branches of a philosophy worthy of the term is the branch known as politics – i.e., the application of moral principles to the realm of interpersonal relationships. Any set of morals is going to have its share of implications for interpersonal relations. But a worldview which broadcasts its moral tenets as emphatically as Christianity does, is shirking its responsibility as a worldview if it does not also flesh out their social application.

Lewis puts great emphasis on the Golden Rule, which he encapsulates as “do as you would be done by,” as “a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right.” I admit I’ve become weary of confident generalizations such as this, proclaiming what “everyone” supposedly knows, especially when so many samples suggest the opposite. Children, it has been observed, demonstrate acute awareness of basic principles of justice - when they have been wronged; but many are oblivious when their actions infringe on others’ well-being. The point here is that people do not automatically know what is right and wrong – we need to learn this. Taking the Golden Rule seriously can easily lead one to expect reciprocation of good deeds in personal relationships, even though this is often unwarranted. Moreover, one of the central factors found in a great many acts of injustice is the pursuit of the unearned, and the maxim “do as you would be done by” is certainly not incompatible with the desire for the unearned put into action. It’s very common for one party in a relationship to sacrifice for the other on the expectation that someday the favor will be returned, perhaps in even greater measure, and when it is not so returned, the resulting resentment can be tremendous. Here I’d agree that none other than Barnaby Jones offers more worthy guidance when he states “you belong where you earn your way” (Season 1, Ep. 6).

The Christian bible, in particular certain passages in the New Testament, is well known for its proclamations against “the rich” and pursuit of “worldly” values, its praise for “the poor” and “the meek,” etc., which are understandable in a slave society. Most individuals in such a society had little or no hope of lifting themselves out of their humble state, so a religion which rationalizes resentment towards the well-to-do and elevates poverty to the status of a virtue would likely attract many adherents. At the same time, it would reinforce an us-versus-them mentality already seeded in a mystical view of human culture which distinguishes between converts and outsiders. The roots of collectivism in all this are hard to miss, a premise set in motion by the assumption of collective guilt, and the notion of “class struggle” is but a stone’s throw away.

Many will object, perhaps as a reflex, that Marx was vehemently anti-religious and thus argue that socialism – at least the Marxist strain – is antithetical to the rudiments of Christianity. But this is a superficial difference. Marx was an overt determinist, viewing history in terms of economic classes vying for dominance and prognosticating that certain outcomes were inevitable, regardless of individual agency. The worker’s paradise is sure to come about “just because” (but a little violent revolution might be needed to speed things up). In fact, his whole worldview implicitly denies the moral agency of the individual as a category of causation (the class you belong to tells the whole moral story) and casts the individual as a mere cell within a larger social organism. Hicks points out that Marx’s own predictions, far removed from any application of scientific methodology, were by the late 1800s already proving to be so diametrically off target that his political views, even according to some who were sympathetic to them, needed serious rethinking (cf. Explaining Postmodernism, p. 137). Unfortunately the faithful dug in their heels, and the rest is history.

But it does not follow from Marx’s rejection of theism that socialism on the broader interpretation is therefore incompatible with Christianity, or at least certain strains thereof (or its merest form). Put in practice, Marxism can be seen as simply substituting the all-powerful state for Christianity’s all-powerful god, as can be observed in the harrowing experiments of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. To be sure, the affinity between socialism and Christianity transcends the theistic question, for even deterministic premises aside, both socialism and Christianity avow the ethics of self-sacrifice. This is critical given its implications for interpersonal relationships. Where Christianity condemns selfishness as the root of all sin, socialism consummates this in the political sphere by holding as inherent the obligation of the individual to sacrifice on behalf of the group. And where Christianity has the believer bowing to an omnipotent overseer of the universe, socialism has its authoritarian state ensuring that no one prospers any more than anyone else (save of course those manning the controls of the state). Both hold obedience to authority as a cardinal virtue of the individual, reducing the individual to perpetual subservience, the one to supernatural personalities, the other to civic machinery. While the Christian universe is under the thumb of an all-controlling deity, “socialism,” declared Mao, “must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it” (quoted in Frank Dik├Âtter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957).

So it should not surprise us when Lewis writes:
All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one's work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no "swank" or "side," no putting on airs. To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist. On the other hand, it is always insisting on obedience—obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates, from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands. (Op. cit.)
What Lewis describes here is of course a dictatorship, the rule of men (“magistrates”), not of laws. And to the extent that there are any laws in such a society, they serve to limit the individual (he won’t be allowed to manufacture “silly luxuries”), not the bureaucracy which outlines the limits on the individual. Under such a system, the individual is not free to pursue his own choice of purpose, for his purpose is not to flourish and enjoy his life, but to obey and serve the state. An overarching authority is needed to ensure that everyone is working and determines what that work should produce.

In an article published earlier this year titled Christianity and Socialism: What Should A Christian Believe? apologist Douglas Groothuis argues, presumably from a Christian perspective, that “all forms of socialism are dogged by ineradicable flaws.” The first of these, according to Groothuis, is that “socialism does not allow the free exchange of goods and services in an open market,” which is true: socialism indeed does not allow for such freedom. But the sin here is not that such disallowance violates the right of individuals to contract with one another voluntarily, but rather that it “leads to shortages and massive inefficiencies, since centralized control tries in vain to take the place of the distributed intelligence of a free market.” In other words, Groothuis’ objection on this point is a form of consequentialism: if x takes place, then y will be the result, and y is bad because, well, you know, shortages and inefficiencies are just inconvenient. Then again, striking workers also results in shortages, and giving up Sundays to sit in church pews is not a formula for efficiency.

The second failing of socialism, according to Groothuis, is that it
does not allow individuals to advance (or decline) according to their personal industry or resourcefulness. Rather, the state (to one degree or another) controls the economy and takes over such services as education, health care and agriculture. It imposes severe taxes on the wealthy, such that they cannot venture to create new goods, services, and jobs. Instead, their money is redistributed by the state, which, in itself, generates no wealth at all. It can only confiscate through taxes; it does not create through productive enterprise. That requires the incentives and opportunities of a free market.
And all of this is true. But what should not be overlooked here is the fact that Groothuis does not relate this objection to socialism to anything in Scripture. At no point does Groothuis cite any passage of the Christian bible to show that the ills which he attributes to socialism violate biblical teachings. Is this an oversight, or perhaps he assumes the incongruence of this aspect of socialism with the Christian bible is common knowledge? More “we just know”? Groothuis’ objection is more along the lines of: socialism is wrong because it violates the individual’s right to pursue his own values and purpose. But this assumes an ethics of self-interest, not Christianity’s enshrinement of self-sacrifice.

If obedience to magistrates is man’s primary political purpose (cf. Romans 13:1-3), then why would preventing individuals to “advance” be objectionable? If obedience is a cardinal virtue, as Christianity in fact teaches, what’s wrong with the state “control[ling] the economy and tak[ing] over such services as education, health care and agriculture”? If magistrates are to determine what kind of products individuals are to be allowed to produce, why wouldn’t imposing severe taxes to control behavior be a valid, indeed proper, means of ensuring such determination?

Naturally there’s much more to examine on the matter than the trifles I’ve culled together here. But while I would agree with Lewis’ broader point that Christianity fails to draw out its moral implications into an explicit political theory, I would also agree that the application of Christianity’s moral principles of obedience and self-sacrifice implicate “a Christian society [which] we would now call Leftist,” with its centralized control, its limitation on individual freedoms, and its overall treatment of the individual as an end beyond himself. Given Christianity’s determinism, collectivism, emphasis on self-sacrifice, and supreme authoritarianism, I don’t see how Christianity in its most unmitigated state could fail to imply a socialist political theory. It should not be any surprise, then, that the Nazi Party Platform of 1920 states in its 24th point that “The Party, as such, stands for positive Christianity, but does not commit itself to any particular denomination.” For that matter, neither does Mere Christianity.

In His human life, He was all about sacrifice—His whole life was a sacrifice. And His is the life that has been exalted as the perfect pattern for our own.
Or as Joseph Goebbels puts it in his novel Michael:
Socialism is: that I submit to you, 
The personification of all sacrifice.
Socialism is in the deepest sense of service, 
Above the individual and dedication to the whole.
Frankly, it’s all rather chilling, don’t you think?

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

It seems hard to deny that the imagined Kingdom of God is a socialist dictatorship. Even so, I think (some) Christians' anti-socialist and anti-authoritarian sentiments are genuine - only specific to actually-existing, earthly governments. Who knows what their replacement would actually look like?

Perhaps history would inform us. The Church had Europe by the balls. That was pre-reformation. I am currently reading some stuff on 'distributism', the Catholics' theoretical third position alternative to capitalism and socialism. Going straight to the source: papal encyclicals. Not particularly easy reading!

Ydemoc said...

"Frankly, it’s all rather chilling, don’t you think?"

Indeed it is!

Another insightful entry. And I got a kick out of your Barnaby Jones shout-out.

Thanks again, Dawson!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks for your comments, as always! I enjoy hearing from you both.


“I got a kick out of your Barnaby Jones shout-out.”

I actually threw that in there with you in mind, Ydemoc! I figured you’d appreciate that one. I didn’t care for QM Productions that much when I was a kid, but I enjoy them now. Especially the incidental music. I must finally be entering fogeyhood!


I think you’re quite right: heaven could be nothing short of the most exhaustively authoritarian socialist dictatorship anyone could imagine. Those who imagine it and think it’s "paradise" are saying more about their own moral composition than anything else.

It’s hard to say, but it seems that most Christians I’ve ever encountered do not think very deeply about the politics of the heavenly kingdom. They most likely assume that politics simply wouldn't exist in heaven. But “kingdom” is what even the bible calls it, and a kingdom naturally implies a king, i.e., a benevolent tyrant. The suspension of critical faculties, the unquestioning, child-like trust, the self-blinding attitude that all this would require, are all frankly quite chilling. It’s an utter fantasy ignoring what we can learn about crowds from firsthand experience. “It’ll be different in heaven,” they chatter.

Let’s not forget, Stalin, when he was still Ioseb Jughashvili, had entered the seminary in Gori, Georgia, to train as a priest. I’m guessing some of the models he studied came in handy later in life. Maybe he thought he was instantiating heaven on earth.

By the way, Jason, thanks for the mega blog listing you’ve created. That’s a very handy resource!


Robert Kidd said...

I got into some real knock-em-down fights with Tea Party people back when that was a thing about how they shared the same basic moral premises with the socialists and that the socialists would win because they were the more philosophically consistent side.

Jason mc said...

Glad the listing page is proving useful!

Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

"I actually threw that in there with you in mind, Ydemoc! I figured you’d appreciate that one."

I most definitely did. Thanks for doing that!

"I didn’t care for QM Productions that much when I was a kid, but I enjoy them now. Especially the incidental music. I must finally be entering fogeyhood!"

That music sure brings back memories. I always liked the opening theme. I hadn't heard it in a long time, but your comment sent me to YouTube to check it out.

I also got a big kick out of the guy who voiced the opening credits and show title. Hank Simms was his name (I had to look it up). He had this trademark dramatic delivery. As the opening theme played, he'd be like, "Barnaby Jones….. Staring Buddy Ebsen……. Also staring Lee Meriwether…... With guest stars Bradford Dillman……. Robert Hogan…….. Special guest star: William Conrad… Tonight's episode…. INCINERATING PRESUPPOSITIONALISM."

Ha1 Sorry, I couldn't resist. The actual name of the episode staring those actors is "REQUIEM FOR A SON." I'm sure I saw it back in the day, but maybe I'll watch it again!


Ydemoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bahnsen Burner said...

Yes, that’s right – Hank Simms it was! He had that compelling delivery which screamed “This is serious!” at the opening of QM programs. I always thought calling out the names of the guest stars was a nice touch. For me as a kid, it reminded me that these were just actors – and given the adult themes involved, that was probably important.

What I really enjoyed was the music accompanying the drama. Often I’d be in one room while my dad watched Cannon or some other crime drama in another room. So I’d hear the program, but I wouldn’t be watching it. I’d be doing homework or building a toothpick sculpture, drawing, making a mess I’m sure! But in the background I’d hear this music that otherwise no one would ever listen to – basically the musical version of special effects. No real melody, often very fragmented rhythms, creepy harmonics in the high strings punctuated by a quick glissando on the piano or a sudden blast in the brass, then an angular series of notes on a bassoon’s lower register followed by a resolving cadence in the cellos… backing tracks that would accompany scenes such as those showing the killer setting a trap or the investigator finding an important clue in the suspect’s office. When you’re watching the program, you don’t notice this kind of music as an object of attention – you’re too engrossed in the drama to notice it. But if you ignore the program and just listen to the music, you start to notice how delicately crafted it really is and how much it adds to the experience. It really tells the story in an aural manner. As a kid, I always wondered, “How the hell do they write that stuff?” I was always fascinated by it.

Sometimes, when things go awry at work – such as when there’s too much condensation built up on the inner lining of the reactor core, the accountant forgets to carry the 1 when tallying payroll, or the Slurpee machine goes down (the worst!) – I like to blurt out, “Where’s Barnaby Jones when you need him?” The younger ones look at me utterly puzzled – “Barna… what?” The older ones grimace and cringe. Hits the target every time!


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for sharing childhood memories of your family's television viewing habits and how the music you heard impacted you. So many shows back in the day were memorable and had theme songs and background music that were also. Or was it just because things we experienced as kids — in this case, music and television shows — tend to make an impression and stick with us longer than they do when we're older? I'm sure in 20 years kids today will fondly recall the shows they're currently watching.

You wrote: "When you’re watching the program, you don’t notice this kind of music as an object of attention – you’re too engrossed in the drama to notice it. But if you ignore the program and just listen to the music, you start to notice how delicately crafted it really is and how much it adds to the experience."

That is so true — that you really don't notice the music. But if that music wasn't there I think one would definitely notice. I've been to early screenings of a few movies where some scenes in them didn't have music yet and the scenes felt flat. When the music was added, the scenes seemed to perk right up.

You wrote: "Sometimes, when things go awry at work – such as when there’s too much condensation built up on the inner lining of the reactor core, the accountant forgets to carry the 1 when tallying payroll, or the Slurpee machine goes down (the worst!) – I like to blurt out, “Where’s Barnaby Jones when you need him?” The younger ones look at me utterly puzzled – “Barna… what?” The older ones grimace and cringe. Hits the target every time!"

That's hilarious! It sounds like a scene out of sitcom or something. And right now, I'm imagining what kind of music might be playing in the background!

Thanks again, Dawson.