After winning the most the votes in the first three Democratic primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders will more than likely become the party’s next presidential nominee. Unlike the other candidates, Mr. Sanders has never revised his worldview, and this has helped his appeal. He was, and remains, an unapologetic (if “democratic”) socialist.
As this reality is finally dawning on those who doubted Mr. Sanders’s chance of securing the nomination, one can already observe the many think-pieces and arguments directed against his socialism. After the United States spent the better part of the 20th century contended with a socialist empire and its many proxies, and after witnessing socialism’s devastating legacy, could we ever really turn to socialism ourselves?
While some commentators like Paul Krugman see Sanders’s socialism as innocuous (not “real” socialism), most understand the implications of a socialist president and have responded accordingly. These critics will usually make one of three arguments. First, socialism has always failed wherever it’s been tried. Second, socialism is incompatible with the American economy and government. And, third, as a millionaire who owns three homes, the Senator is simply a hypocrite for espousing far-left ideology.
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All three of these arguments hit their mark. Nevertheless, they don’t address the core of socialism’s appeal. Although many fans of Mr. Sanders’s socialism do look forward to free stuff, they also draw a kind of spiritual satisfaction in taking the billionaires down a peg. They see it as a cure to the decadence that produces inequality, overconsumption, and general despair.
In short, They yearn for a sense of purpose in life.
Of course, this purpose used to be provided by Christianity. But as our society grows increasingly secular, they turn to godless ideologies. And socialism has always been a favorite stand-in for traditional religion in the post-Christian West. It borrows freely from familiar tenets of Christian morality (care for the poor, the need for social justice, etc.) but removes all arcane dogmas and superstitious rites. Instead of a Savior to lead us, we have the Party. Instead of a Church to do His work, we have the technocratic State. Instead of striving for Heaven in the next life, we may build a utopia in this one.
This fact explains why so many devoted socialists also happen to be the most privileged, Mr. Sanders not least among them. Though far removed from the struggles of exploited labor, they yearn for the sense of moral purpose that would come from sharing in those struggles. And we may all share in the transcendence that will attend its victory: perfect equality under, not God, but the State.
Best of all, unlike the Christian, who actually has to make sacrifices of himself for the Good of others, the socialist can take pride in his generosity for simply adopting this ideology. His atonement comes, not through mortification, but by simply assenting to higher taxes and government seizures of property. And his pseudo-religion will make him richer, not poorer, by returning to him the wealth that was “stolen” from him by the elite. Or so he thinks.
We must, then, fight socialism, not as a political philosophy, but as a kind of secular religion.
We may begin by pointing out that the socialist foolishly ignores the leviathan in the room: the overweening State. Socialist morality would have the State stand in for personal charity. It’s a way of giving without actually giving. Money is taken, and the moral high ground is assumed even before that happens. This results in two problems: the State becomes greedy and impoverishes its people, and people resent one another as mutual burdens. Instead of the closeness and generosity that socialism promises, it more frequently distances neighbors and makes them more selfish.
This is one reason why Our Lord calls for charity, not higher taxes. He tells His disciples to give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s—not to give Caesar all we have and trust him to dole out God’s portion. More importantly, Jesus does not forcefully take money from His disciples: they give of their own free will. The early Christian communes worked on this voluntary basis as well.
Besides fronting a plausible semblance of morality, socialism also guarantees a kind of community for its adherents, similar to the Christian ekklēsía. Like Christianity, socialism happily links all classes, races, and “genders” in a common struggle—only, whereas Satan is our enemy, theirs is the super-rich. Nevertheless, the universal socialist community proves to be a mirage. Socialists are united, not by a common life, but by a common struggle. Many of them simply go to rallies or post in online forums and leave it at that. Ironically, their false notion of community only reinforces their sense of purposelessness, of isolation.
Finally, the biggest draw of socialism is its promise of transcendence: the creation of a heaven on Earth. Socialists believe they can transform society—and all of mankind—without changing themselves in any serious way. Rather, in order to bring about their utopia, they must force others to change. Little wonder that, once in power, socialists nearly always resort to silencing opposition and concealing the truth in propaganda. To them, Heaven is a mindset; those who break the illusion must be held accountable. By the time reality asserts itself, society will have created a hell on earth from which there is no escape.
What socialists forget is that active ingredients in actual transcendence: prayer, introspection, and conversion to God. We can’t change society without transforming ourselves first. And we can’t free another man from sin: we can only point him to One who can.
When socialism’s spiritual appeals are fully known, it becomes clearer how people should respond—and which people should respond. Ultimately, it will be up to us Christians to defeat socialism. Economists and political pundits may help, but they can’t cure what is fundamentally a spiritual disease.
How do we win this war? It’s simple: out the socialists at their own game. As Pope Francis once said, “the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.” So is justice. So is community. So is freedom. Give more, serve more, connect more, and pray more.
Socialism has filled a vacuum created by so many decades of Christian decline. As it turns out, Lent provides an excellent opportunity for Christians to rise once more and save the culture from debilitating ideology that ruins both rich and poor countries alike. Through real Christian virtue, they can expose the lie of socialism and provide a true home for those restless souls more in need of God than a godlike state.
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