Can Faith Survive Socialism?


The obvious answer is no.   But first, what is socialism?  At the heart of socialism as a political movement from the beginning was distrust of individualism and a complementary conviction that the conceiving of culture as a collective whole organized for efficient production by the state, whose objectivity would enable it to overcome the inefficiencies and inequities of capitalism.  Elements of this political theory were adopted by the Labor Party in England and, with qualifications,  by the Democratic Party in the United States.  For both the traditional goals of politics, the administration of justice and the defense of the realm were obscured by an increasing willingness to see their role as the protectors of the poor and the middle class against the unreliability of market forces.  These working people were not so much interested in the theory or theories of Socialism.   In 1945 the British Labour Party took as their reward for supporting Churchill’s wartime government a national health service, the which to touch means political suicide.    

Socialism as a religion has no moment of transcendence; being as it is a systematic materialism.    Jesus had taught his followers not to be anxious about tomorrow, what they would eat, what they would wear;  our Father in heaven knows we need these things.   Socialism teaches the necessity of fighting to the end for a fair share of the social wealth, which means that, justly or unjustly, it wants someone else’s property.  Somewhere along the way the Christian vision of a world whose vision was fixed on the future, when Jesus would return in glory, succumbed to the essentially utopian vision of a world administered to give the poor (and the middle class) a fair share of the national wealth and in the end to blunt the consequence of the fall (disease, poverty) with universal health care and social insurance. 

  The evidence is that to the degree that this goal has been accomplished Christianity has vacated the field.    The Scandinavian countries are effectually post-Christian, while boasting programs that cushion the risk of living, not by outlawing capitalism but by taxing it to provide relief from the most-feared dangers of life:  unemployment and disease, a penurious old age, offering thereby a kind of salvation.  They are the bellwether followed by most western states, whose leaders have found ways to link free-market capitalism to domestic socialism.  

            Socialism slipped its nose under the Christin tent first by providing an alternative to Christian orthodoxy as that orthodoxy suffered blow after blow and then by co-opting the second great commandment.    Does not love of neighbor, mean desiring the best for everyone?   Does not care for the poor mean providing them as a minimum   a guaranteed income and health insurance?   And is not the government the best agent for securing these good outcomes?  And what can a religion shorn of a doctrine of creation (Darwinism) and without an eschatology (Schweitzer and Weiss) be but some version of moralistic therapeutic deism, seeking brotherhood among all, laboring to limit climate change, welcoming all, especially those whom traditional morality marginalizes, its vision firmly focused on this world.   In this new world Christianity is an outlier, with its belief in the Creator, its love of a divine-human person, its emphasis on the conversion of the heart, and its acceptance of suffering, and its contempt for “the world” in its character as “the kingdoms of this world” firmly in the domain of the Adversary (Mt 4:8–9).

 ‘Christian; Socialism was the trojan horse, attempting to combine the fundamental aims of socialism with the religious and ethical convictions of Christianity, promoting cooperation over competition as a means of helping the poor. The term was coined in Britain in 1848 after the failure of the reform movement known as Chartism. It is organized around a desire to meliorate the living and working conditions of the urban poor.  Perhaps it was John Ruskin who first excited interest in the condition of those living in dirty, vermin-infested tenements.  Typically they had moved to town to work in the factories or to enter domestic service.   They were poorly paid and ignorant.   Ruskin’s scheme was to move them back to the country, in aid of which he bought farmland, divided it into small plots, and proposed that the urban poor return to farming.  This was ineffectual but typical of the age of good intentions that was the middle decades of the nineteenth century.  F. D. Maurice attacked ignorance with the workingmen’s colleges.  There was the famous incident in which Newman entered into controversy with Sir Robert Peel over the Tamworth Reading Room.

            Before Socialism could become the religion of nations the old faith must be  Peal.  In the background during the last half of the nineteenth century was the question of the reliability of the Biblical text.  The ‘higher’ criticism challenged many widely held facts about the Old Testament, and Darwin’s account of the genesis of creatures could not be reconciled with the Biblical view.  But it was not until popular Christian belief suffered two damaging blows in the last half of the century that Christian Socialism invaded the churches of the Anglosphere.  First Darwinism then the Konsequent eschatologic movement delivered a one-two punch to popular Christianity;  no creator had created and established an ordered universe, Jesus was a failed prophet whose message that he would come again had proved false.   These opinions provided an opening for what came to be called Modernism, which proposed that  the betterment of the human condition was a goal that could replace the traditional Gospel, which had  been proved false by history:  no creator, no second coming.     

It was a perfect storm.  Just then, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century historicism, a philosophy built around Hegel’s Philosophy of History (E. T. !888), became academically reputable and in some circles dominant.   [Whatever subtleties Hegel may have intended the message was:  history is a self-justifying process that had no need of the transcendent God of Christianity.]  The great ecclesiastical establishments saw what was at stake,   Leo XIII wrote Lamentabili and Pascendi condemning  Modernism in   1907.   Presbyterian Fundamentalism, a work of 1910,   was a deliberate attempt to contradict the  Modernist theses.  

            These movements in theology and philosophy matured in the age of McKinley and Roosevelt while a parallel movement in politics that did not need the qualifier Christian was becoming important.   The word  socialism was used by Pierre Leroux, in the Parisian journal Le Globe in 1832.  Leroux was a follower of Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the founders of what would later be labeled utopian socialism. Socialism rejected the liberal doctrine of individualism that emphasized the importance of the moral agency of every person in favor of the collection of the state. The original utopian socialists condemned this doctrine of individualism for failing to address social concerns, including poverty, oppression, and vast wealth inequality during the Industrial Revolution. They viewed capitalism as harming community life by basing the economy on competition. They presented socialism as an alternative to liberal individualism based on the shared ownership of resources. Saint-Simon proposed economic planning, scientific administration and the application of scientific understanding to the organization of society. By contrast, Robert Owen proposed to organize production and ownership via cooperatives; in  Britain it was  Owen who became one of the fathers of the cooperative movement.

            Much time could be spent on another day in examining the relation between the acceptance in part of the socialist program with its relentless materialism and the general debasing of culture in the pursuit of pleasure. 

            To return to the original question:  can faith survive socialism? If we mean Christianity as dominant in the culture, the answer is that to date it hasn’t been done.  As active Church membership has slipped below fifty percent in the United States transfer payments have reached record levels.   It was Sir William Harcourt, sometime Chancellor of the Exchequer who in the 1880s coined the phrase:  “We are all Socialists now.”   It is to be remembered that Socialism means different things to political scientists and ordinary folk.   To the political scientists it is a theory in political economy with many interesting variations.   To ordinary people it means, whether called by that name or not, a system providing some confidence in the future.    Of course a Christian would reply that the future Socialism guarantees is short and secular, ultimately debasing.   But the evidence is that this, while true, doesn’t matter. 

            In fairness, urbanism means socialism as defined above, for the poor and middle classes will not, or cannot, be trusted to save for old age, and lacking a collective safety net would fall into chaos.   

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