Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Christianity, Socialism, and President Obama

During the 2008 presidential campaign and now during the first month of President Obama's residence in the White House, the Christian Right has been warning that the president and his appointees (and, of course, a Congress dominated by the Democratic Party) are going to condemn America to God's judgement by converting the country to a "socialist" state. The implication here is that this country is supposed to be a "Christian" nation, and Christianity and socialism are incompatible enemies. But is that really true? Are Christianity and socialism so incompatible? In fact, aren't there a lot of sayings in the Bible which seem to support the socialist ideal? Let's look at this.

From the Wikipedia article on socialism:
Socialism refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating public or state ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and a society characterized by equal opportunities for all individuals, with a fair or egalitarian method of compensation.

The first part of that description, state ownership of production and markets, isn't approached by the Bible. It couldn't be; the way society was organized in the first century was radically different from how society is organized now, and concepts such as capitalism and socialism would have been incomprehensible then. In fact, the social and cultural structure and philosophy of the time was so different that you couldn't apply either capitalist or socialist principles to it. So naturally the Bible doesn't speak to that particular subject. However...

There is an interesting description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem as it coalesced after the death and resurrection of Jesus, portrayed in Acts 4:32 - 37:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.
How interesting! The first Christian community held everything in common and distributed it among the community according to need. It makes me wonder if this episode may have sparked Karl Marx's own statement: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" Certainly there's no incompatibility between Christianity and socialism on this level.

Be that as it may, though, I have yet to see where President Obama or any of his advisers have advocated the state takeover of business and the markets, much less redistributing the proceeds equally among the populace, so the point is moot.

The second part of that description of socialism from Wikipedia: "...a society characterized by equal opportunities for all individuals, with a fair or egalitarian method of compensation," is often confused with the concept of the welfare state. A welfare state is defined (again from Wikipedia) as: "A model in which the state assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. This responsibility in theory ought to be comprehensive, because all aspects of welfare are considered and universally applied to citizens as a 'right'. Welfare state can also mean the creation of a 'safety net' of minimum standards of varying forms of welfare." By definition a welfare state can be either socialist or capitalist; in fact many European countries - Great Britain being an example - provide a welfare state supported by a capitalist economic system. Also keep in mind that the concept of the welfare state goes all the way back to the Abbasid Caliphate of the 8th century CE, which means that it predates both capitalist and socialist theory by a millennium. The welfare state can exist under any sort of governing system or economy.

What many in the Christian Right criticize as socialism is actually a welfare state, and as shown above that's not necessarily socialist. In any case, they criticize the increase of state-sponsored social welfare programs as incompatible with Christianity. And while the Bible doesn't talk about the state caring for its citizens (as such entities didn't yet exist at the time), it does advocate a caring attitude toward those less fortunate. And here, as far as the Bible goes, we strike a rich mine of written evidence.

The most obvious passage in the Bible of this caring attitude is written in Matthew 25:31 - 46:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they also will answer, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you? Then he will answer them, saying, Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
And this seems to be at the core of what Jesus taught - if you want to follow me, you need to love everyone as I love you: you need to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. A Christian is to develop compassion. And in the welfare state we see compassion raised from the personal to the societal. Cain asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" And Jesus' answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" And "Yes!" is also the welfare state's answer to that question.

And this leads us to where socialism and Christianity agree wholeheartedly - in a concern for the poor and downtrodden, and criticism of the wealthy and powerful for allowing poverty and oppression to exist; in fact, for being the cause of the poverty and oppression. Jesus lays this attitude out quite succinctly.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5: 3 - 10

Jesus said to him, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus said to his disciples, Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
- Matthew 19:21 - 24

And in his teaching he said, Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.
- Mark 12:38 - 40

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
- Mark 12:41 - 44

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
- Luke 6:20 - 31
From these quotes from the Gospels it's quite obvious that Christianity, at least the Christianity taught by Jesus himself, has quite a lot in common with socialism in its concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich. So much so that in many European countries there are Christian Socialist political parties. Those Christians who claim that socialism is evil and the enemy of Christianity really need to go back and read their own scriptures.

To sum up: The accusation that President Obama is leading America to anti-Christian socialism looks to be a false one. Nothing about the President's proposed programs is the least bit "socialist" - there is no proposed takeover of business, private property, and the markets by the government in his programs. What the President does propose is in line with the concept of the welfare state, which is something entirely different from socialism and can, and in fact mostly does, exist in a capitalist, market economy, and which has already existed in this country since the mid 1800s. And as to the statement that socialism is the evil opposite of Christianity, the quotes above from Christian scripture tell the complete opposite story; Christianity and the socialist ideal have much in common.

The argument is a straw man, created out of thin air and based on nothing. Some leaders of the Christian Right have abandoned this line, most notably Pat Robertson. In a recent interview with Dan Gilgoff on CNN Robertson said: "It's not over, but I still want to give him the benefit of every doubt, and I definitely hope he succeeds. It wouldn't be good for Americans for him not to. We don't want a president who fails at domestic and foreign policy." And in answer to Gilgoff's question: "So you don't subscribe to Rush Limbaugh's 'I hope he fails' school of thought?" Robertson replied: "That was a terrible thing to say. I mean, he's the president of all the country. If he succeeds, the country succeeds. And if he doesn't, it hurts us all. Anybody who would pull against our president is not exactly thinking rationally."

So it's time to change the argument, folks. Pat Robertson said so!


  1. Well said, bravo! Hear Hear!

    What I find amazing is that those who profess to be the most Christian are those who hold the most anti Christian beliefs.

  2. Yes.You could well say that Jesus was the first Socialist?Saying that,Christianity has been so successful worldwide because it blends in with the Mores of the society it finds itself in.........
    The States had a Proud Socialist tradition before WW2.but post -McCarthy,it's kind been air-brushed out of History.
    Ombama is a million miles from being a Socialist but his style works well with current Great Depression-chic.We Got The Dustbowl Blues Again!

  3. okay, it is freaky how well you have gotten to know me and we're only been friends-who-haven't met for a month! you are 100% correct I love this post!!

    I have long believed that true christianity is also pure socialism....the problem with our world is that most christians don't practice 'true christianity' (or at least my understanding of the jesus's basic teachings) nor has there EVER been any system that has practiced real socialistic ideals - although some of the scandinavian countries have come close to a hybrid that does take care of many - and has lots of wonderful 'safety nets' in place so no one suffers to the degree that people suffer in other places

    somewhere among the detritus that makes up my house I have a very old pin that states 'jesus is a socialist' - I'll try and hunt it up and maybe I'll start wearing it again!


  4. It's so frustrating to hear socialism being bandied about as though it were the devil's own invention. This was a very thoughtful invocation of the call to action that Christianity really is. I hope you publish this in your local/regional paper, Roy. It deserves to be more widely read—not that your blog isn't!!

  5. By the way, I've been meaning to send you this birding link. He is in the UK and has some amazing bird photos:

  6. This is a great post.

    My parents always thought (what Mouse said) that a TRUE Christian would be a pure socialist. They weren't Christians themselves but both enjoyed studying the religions of the world and pondering. Spirituality and religions are always interesting subjects when people discuss them with open minds.

  7. Great piece, Roy. Of course, the problem the Christian has with Obama is just their fragile concept of socialism -- it's Darwinism, abortionism, and gayism. It's incredible to me how angry and frightened they are. I guess they really do believe their own nonsense.

  8. Hear! Hear! or perhaps: Here. Hear!

    My own upbringing was Christian fundamentalist - and yet the ideals my parents taught me were far removed from the "Christian" rhetoric of twisted hate and separatism preached today by self-appointed "prophets.". Charity, love, equality and lack of judging lest one be judged - these are principles of justice, socialism - and Jesus.

    Power to the people... ;^)

  9. I so agree with you. It amazes me that people confuse callousness and selfishness with the teachings of Christ.