What Socialism Owes Christianity

Today, socialism and Christianity are considered antagonistic movements. Most socialists aren’t Christian and most Christians aren’t socialist. Yet analysis reveals a striking congruence. And the similarities between Christianity and socialism are not coincidences. They are influences. Christianity, after all, is the most powerful intellectual movement the Western world has seen. It furnished the Western mind with idea of equality.

Christians worship the immaterial, transcendent God. He is the source of all goodness and justice. The morally righteous seek him; the happy find him. The best political systems bow to God. Socialists value equality above all. It is their Holy of Holies, before which everything else must bow. The morally righteousness seek equality; the happy find it. All political systems must promote equality. The struggle is intense. For Christians, God (good) struggles against Satan (evil) for supremacy. The modern socialist interprets the world in the same way: A (class) struggle rages between poor (good) and rich (bad). The fate of humanity rests in the balance.

The Christian wants to bind man to God; The socialist wants to bind man to man. In a sense, both are collectivist movements because neither view man as distinct and isolated. Man owes everything to God, or to each other. Christ proclaims in the Gospel of John: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” President Obama, not coincidently, expressed the same idea when he famously declared in 2012: “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” The common theme is that individuals achieve nothing on their own.

The secular libertarian, by contrast, rejects Christianity and socialism on these grounds, believing man has no ties to anyone. He seeks freedom from any external restraints, and critiques Christianity and socialism accordingly. Christianity is condemned for the rigid lifestyle it seemingly imposes. Christians must avoid a hedonist lifestyle consumed with rampant sex, alcohol, and drugs; freedom seems restrained.

 

The Christian disagrees. Only by living a life consistent with God’s moral precepts can we find freedom. 1 Peter 2:16 declares: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32). God gave us freedom, so real freedom cannot be separate from him. He brings us freedom from fear and anxiety.

For the non-believing critic, socialism minimizes freedom because it extracts more of our earned income through higher taxes and requires certain business practices, such as the minimum wage. Economic freedom is minimized in order to promote equality. Critics, however, find socialist systems oppressive. Ronald Reagan, for example, proclaimed: “You can’t control the economy without controlling the people.”

The socialist disagrees, arguing that socialism enhances freedom by creating freedom from corporate influence. The higher the taxes and the more collectivist our society, the more freedom we have. “True freedom does not occur without economic security,” contends Bernie Sanders. Or, as Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois [capitalist] society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Freedom comes by limiting free markets and establishing socialism. For Christians and socialists, freedom cannot exist outside of the value system. Christians gave socialists the idea that freedom is more than individuals pursuing their own self-interest.

Socialists have also inherited the linear conception of history from Christianity. The Christian intellectual tradition first proposed that history moves in a linear fashion, corresponds with progress, and culminates with a utopian end point (whereas the Greeks believed history moved in circles, like the seasons). Drawing upon Old Testament conceptions of history, Christianity’s greatest philosopher, St. Augustine, divided the past into epochs, one following the other: Adam to Noah, the time of Abraham, the era of David, the Babylonian Captivity, Jesus and the age of grace, and, finally, the Second Coming, when God’s justice will reign on Earth. Modern-day socialists have adopted this philosophy, insisting history has been moving through eras called feudalism, capitalism, and finally, socialism, when justice will reign on Earth.

Why is there this relationship? And why are there so many similarities between two seemingly antagonistic intellectual movements? We are all heirs to the Western tradition. Our cultural experiences and intellectual forefathers are the same, regardless of where we fall on the contemporary political spectrum. The Western intellectual and cultural tradition is a powerful one, and it’s steeped in religion. None of us can escape our past, even at the intellectual level. Socialists may think they have escaped their religious heritage, but they are naïve, like the teenager who denies a relationship to his parents.

Socialism descends from Christianity, just as Christianity descends from Judaism (this lineage may explain why “secular” Jews from Karl Marx to Bernie Sanders are disproportionately socialists). During the Middle Ages, many intelligent Christians considered themselves distinct from Jews. They were wrong. The same can be said for any socialist today who considers himself distinct from Christianity. After all, equality is a Christian idea. It was the Christians who first proposed that all people are equal (in the eyes of God). God has no favorites. Salvation is open to everyone—equally.

Two of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche, recognized that equality is foremost a Christian concept. Christ came to earth, Tocqueville argued, “and made it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal.” Christians, in contrast to Romans, minimized any sort of social distinction. And unlike Jews who maintained Yahweh was their god, Christians asserted God’s Kingdom is equally open to everyone.

Tocqueville accepted equality, but Nietzsche loathed it, blaming Christianity for giving the Western world the malignant idea: “Another Christian concept, no less crazy, has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity: the concept of the ‘equality of souls before God.’ This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights…” Nietzsche rejected Christianity and everything related to it, including equality, socialism, and democracy.

There are, of course, critical differences between the two ethical systems, just as there are critical differences between Christianity and Judaism, most notably in the gods they worship. Christians worship Christ, socialists worship equality. Yet Christ emerged from Jewish traditions. And equality emerged from Christianity. Without one, there cannot be the other.

What socialists worship may seem foreign, but the same was true for Christians in the first and second century Roman Empire. Christian concepts of the sacrosanct seemed so bogus, they were thought to be atheists. Karen Armstrong, an authority on the history of religion, writes: “At the early stage of their history Christians and Muslims were both called ‘atheists’ by their pagan contemporaries … because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous.” From the Christian perspective, most socialists are blasphemous, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t religious. Socialists must be understood as merely having different sacred conceptions: Equality becomes a new God, a new Christ, and a new value or Holy of Holies. From it, and only from it, insist believers, comes all that is right and just. Socialists are thus religious rivals of Christians and have borrowed and secularized certain teachings of Christ for the purpose of establishing their own earthly utopia. Christians should not be fooled by socialist denials or seduced by the allure of material salvation.

David Byrne

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David Byrne earned his doctorate in intellectual history from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Ronald Reagan: An Intellectual Biography (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). He can be found @ReaganBiography on Twitter.

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