Desiring God asks: is socialism in conflict with Christianity?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

My friend Kevin sent me this amazing article about socialism, which appeared at Desiring God (!!!), of all places. It was authored by Phillip Holmes, who – I see from his picture -has dark skin like me, which is awesome!

In the past, I have given Desiring God and John Piper a lot of heat for not connecting Christianity to the real world. This was especially annoying to me during elections, or when legislation of interest to conservatives was being debated. But I’ve noted that Piper is now much better than he was before.

Anyway, here’s the intro to the article:

Socialism is trending in the minds of many Americans. Some love it, some hate it, and others are indifferent to it. Some Christians argue that it’s evil, while others argue that it’s morally good or neutral. Those that argue for its wickedness often fail to condemn the crony capitalism and corporate welfare that is widespread in the United States; therefore, their arguments often fall on deaf ears with socialist sympathizers. The arguments for its moral good or neutrality typically appeals to emotion, rather than evidence, which is considered insufficient for those that oppose it.

Then they quote John Piper for the definition of socialism – and it’s a great definition, it really captures what is interesting for us as Christians about socialism:

A social and economic system that through legal or governmental or military coercion — in other words, you go to jail if you don’t do this — establishes social ownership at the expense of private or personal ownership and/or you could say where coercion is used to establish social control — if not ownership, at least control of the means of production in society. And thus, through control, you effectively eliminate many of the implications and motivations of private ownership.

In other words, Socialism borrows the compassionate aims of Christianity in meeting people’s needs while rejecting the Christian expectation that this compassion not be coerced or forced. Socialism, therefore, gets its attractiveness at certain points in history where people are drawn to the entitlements that Socialism brings, and where people are ignorant or forgetful of the coercion and the force required to implement it — and whether or not that coercion might, in fact, backfire and result in greater poverty or drab uniformity or, worse, the abuse of the coercion as we saw in the murderous states like USSR and Cambodia.

F. A. Hayek says that the rule of law and private property are the foundations for all other rights, even religious liberty. So, Piper’s focus on property rights is right on the money. This is what we should care about when it comes to socialism, because it impacts our other liberties. The more free the free market is, the most Christians can follow their consciences. But the more the government takes hold of private industry, the harder it is for Christians to earn a living without toeing the secular government’s line. Take a look at what is happening to doctors and nurses in socialist countries like Canada. They are forced to perform abortions, they are forced to assist with assisted suicide. Why? Because government is running the health care system, and there is no other company you can run to that will respect your views. There is no escape when a secular government takes over large parts of the private sector.

This part is my favorite part, the author quotes my favorite economist, Thomas Sowell:

Despite the good they seem to do in some cases, I can’t in good conscience embrace them as a necessary means to escaping poverty. In my experience, I’ve witnessed it hinder more families than it has helped. We give social programs too much credit and the importance of family and faith too little. As a matter of fact, some economists assert that it was during the welfare state the condition of a particular group of its recipients began to decelerate. As the black economist Thomas Sowell pointed out:

The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.

Sowell continues to attack the myth that social programs improved the conditions of blacks in America:

The economic rise of blacks began decades earlier, before any of the legislation and policies that are credited with producing that rise. The continuation of the rise of blacks out of poverty did not — repeat, did not — accelerate during the 1960s.

The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs.

Evidence seems to suggest that the families that have eliminated the poverty cycle while on social programs would have very likely done the same without the programs. While there have been numerous instances of grave injustices towards minority groups in our country that have hindered progress (slavery, Jim Crow), social programs don’t seem to be the cause of any significant improvements. Therefore, I want to humbly provide three practical reasons, based on my Christian worldview, why more social programs could actually substitute the family, empower the government, and hinder the church.

This is correct. Attempts to help the poor by redistributing wealth from those who produce to those who cannot or will not actually make things worse – by drawing more people “on the margin” into dependency.

One last snip:

Social programs are a slippery slope that could lead to unjust governments, more broken homes, and dead churches. Therefore, I simply can’t embrace them. A free society under a just government gives us plenty of options. We love our neighbors by starting non-profits, building hospitals, and opening schools that address the needs of the people without using the force of the government. What I’m proposing is not easy, but it is a biblical alternative that will require sacrifice, vision, newfound conviction, and a radical shift in how we view church, family, and government.

See, he sees private, voluntary charity as an option to government-run redistribution. An option that encourages economic growth, while safeguarding liberty and conscience for Christians.

I really love this article. The problem with me is that I don’t think enough about how to make my views palatable to well-meaning people on the other side. The author of this article does know how to defuse potential objections gently and graciously.

3 thoughts on “Desiring God asks: is socialism in conflict with Christianity?”

  1. Wow, really powerful stuff here. I will have to now head over to Desiring God to read the article. It’s always a challenge you know to convince well meaning people who have been taught their entire lives that government programs equals compassion, that it really is not and does much more harm than good.

  2. This article is interesting, but I cannot agree with some of it’s premises and it’s unrealistic solution: to think that the Church, especially some of these (non-denominational) churches where pastors are living in 10,000 sq ft homes, owning private jets, or Catholic priests molesting children and covering it up, can more adequately and efficiently replace the government is lugubrious. We are too far gone to think that churches, non-profit organizations, and individuals or organizations are so non self-centeredness that they can come together to ‘build hospitals, open schools, and address the needs of the less fortunate.’ What make-believe world does the author live in?

    Another point is that the author failed to research African-American history and the ‘welfare system.’ He hasn’t mentioned any of the studies from sociologists like William Julius Wilson, Cornell West, Elijah Anderson, etc. who mention how the welfare system has helped numerous African Americans get off of poverty and have a higher socio-economical status (especially Dr. Wilson’s book entitled ‘The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy’). The author just states ‘it seems like….’ As the author should know, there is a benefit side to having people on welfare (sarcasm from me): Companies, like Walmart (where I use to work at 15 years ago), have encouraged workers to apply for public assistance while working for only $5-$7 per hour. Low wages, with the assistance of welfare, keep the Walton Family Members as billionaires; the welfare system also employs hundred of thousands of people, including college graduates (Since Corporate America has sent the ‘better jobs’ overseas thanks in part to our government taxing corporations to the tune of 35%. It ‘seems’ to me that the Feds want us to be dependent on welfare, and not work for Corporate America, unless we go overseas?).

    Also, since there is not a federal balance budget amendment, we have to only rely on the feds to tell us where our tax dollars are being spent (i.e. they are telling us, either via print, media, or word of mouth, that our tax dollars are being spent to cover social security, defense, etc. However, since the feds are allow to print & spend money at will, without balancing its’ budget, and running up deficits-money owed to ourselves-do we really know where our money is going?). Why not encourage voters to make the feds pass a federal balance budget amendment? As one so-called republican candidate, running for state office, informed me (when I was in graduate school): ‘that will never happen.’

    Where was the Church in the late 1800s, 1900s, (especially during the industrial revolution, when companies really took advantage of our workers), or even now (especially during the economic downturn of the 2008 recession)? Did you know that there are churches or ministries who receive more than $50-$100 million a year in tithes & offerings, but instead of grouping together to help Americans, these churches, as Corporate America has done, spend their money overseas to help people in Haiti, India, Latin America, etc.?

    Our system is a mess, but unfortunately it’s the best ‘mess’ on the planet……and there is nothing we can do about it, except pray, and hope that we are either ‘gone to glory’ or have enough faith to stand for Jesus when the 7-year tribulation starts.

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