The Rebirth of Christian Socialism
With the political success of self-proclaimed socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the exponential growth of the Democratic Socialists, we might wonder what’s with the sudden upsurge in anti-capitalism. It turns out, there is more to it than whiny millennials asking for handouts.
Take a walk through the “finance” section of your local Christian bookstore or search Amazon for “Christian finance” books. You’ll find plenty about how to manage your wealth, how to invest smarter and maximize profits, how to think like a rich person. I’m not just talking about the “Prosperity Gospel” of Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar. I’m talking about that Old Time Religion—the kind that teaches, “God helps those who help themselves.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Throughout Christian history you could hardly read an author without hearing about the evils of pursuing wealth and about our responsibility—both as individuals and as a society—for the poor.
St. John Chrysostom preached about the poor so often, he once remarked in a sermon, “Perhaps some thoughtless or scoffing person will object to what I've said, and will altogether deride us, saying, ‘How long will you not cease continually introducing poor men and beggars in your sermons, and prophesying our misfortunes, and denouncing poverty to come, and desiring to make us beggars?’ I don't wish to make you beggars, but to open up for you the riches of heaven!”
“We need to change the system,” wrote the radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, “We need to overthrow . . . this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
The sort of laissez faire capitalism that has become central to the American gospel has only been manifested once in American history. It came to a climax during the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, government regulation on labor was essentially nonexistent. Implementing Henry Ford’s innovative use of the assembly line, factory owners could hire more unskilled laborers cheaper than ever before (outside of slavery). Industry expanded, jobs were created, and the economy exploded. Labor conditions, however, became increasingly volatile, creating massive social unrest. Disenfranchised and distressed workers organized, led strikes, and even instigated riots. Membership in socialist and communist movements skyrocketed among the working class.
When socialism first came on the scene, Christians did not have a hard time embracing its vision for the world. In fact, not so long ago socialism was considered a viable and even preferable option among American workers, especially among Christians who have always had deep skepticism for wealth and those who sought it. Indeed, Christians were once among those on the front lines of the fight against capitalists. And they were not treated as social deviants. From Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement to Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel Movement, Christians on the theological “left” and “right” were unified in their denunciation of capitalism and the social inequalities it creates. Even the original Pledge of Allegiance was crafted by a Christian Socialist and Baptist minister by the name of Francis Bellamy.
With this increasing class consciousness that unified workers across economic, religious, and racial lines, wealthy businessmen began to fear the possibility of revolution. Capitalists began hiring “scabs”—poor workers, often Irishmen or Black migrants from the south, more desperate than the strikers—who would work the factories during strikes to keep production going and to demoralize other potential strikers. Worse still, the business owners hired gangsters to maim and murder labor organizers. Among the most notoriously violent were Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Rockefeller. This was the beginning of the first “Red Scare.” The federal government eventually got involved, supporting the capitalists by passing the Orwellian “Anti-Sedition Act,” allowing the government to prosecute anti-capitalists for nothing more than opposing capitalism. In short, the days of laissez faire capitalism, the purest capitalism, were quite literally “crony” capitalism.
President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his journal in March of 1888, “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.” The increasing wealth of industrial titans and the exploitation of workers eventually burst the economic bubble and led to the Great Depression. To recover—or, more accurately, to prevent a full-scale worker revolution and overthrow of capitalism—the federal government was forced to increase regulation over corporations. As anti-capitalist movements were violently squelched and as regulation made labor conditions relatively more tolerable, a regulated form of capitalism gained the upper hand as the preferred economic system. Demoralized workers settled for less-than-ideal conditions in hopes that more progress might be made.
After the two World Wars, American expansion resulted in some of the largest and wealthiest companies ever seen. The second Red Scare of the 50s and 60s put the final nail in the coffin of populist socialism, and, as if through some Pavlovian experiment, the mere term “socialism” made Americans thirsty for blood. Capitalism took center stage as the only economic option.
Only since that Second Red Scare has American Christianity become so infused with capitalist ideals. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that the American government in the mid-twentieth century feared the growing number of socialists within its own borders. Since Soviet socialism boasted of its resolute atheism, the American government began giving explicit preference to Christianity. In essence they said, “Socialism is for atheists, but capitalism is for Christians. You’re a good Christian aren’t you?” That’s when things like “In God We Trust” appeared on our currency and “One nation under God” found its way into our national pledge. It was a successful propaganda campaign to turn Christians against socialism on religious grounds. It was a brilliant move. You do not have to convince a nation of Christians to love capitalism; you need only convince them that God loves capitalism. The rest will follow.
Since then, living as a Christian in America has carried a strange set of assumptions and responsibilities. The categories of “Christian,” “American,” and “capitalist” are now inseparably linked. Good Christians pledge allegiance to the American flag. They stand and place their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. Good Christians support the free market. They pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and earn their living by the sweat of their brow. They expect others to do the same. No handouts for the lazy. The flag and the market are sacrosanct. An attack on one of these is an attack on the Faith. The gospel is so thoroughly intertwined with classical liberalism that it’s hard to tell the difference between the working man and the God-Man. It’s as if Jesus, that God-fearing American man, pulled himself up to the cross by his own bootstraps.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back. Not only are Christians beginning to challenge our culture’s unquestioning nationalism, we are becoming conscious of capitalism’s inherent problems. As Bernie Sanders repeated ad nauseum throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, the top one-tenth of one percent of America’s wealthiest people own as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent combined. The system is designed in such a way that the rich get richer and, with few exceptions, the rest of us work long hours for low pay. This is the zero-sum game of capitalism.
Perhaps Karl Marx was onto something when he wrote that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The struggle which has long fomented under the surface, is breaking through once again, as it always does under the pressure of oppressive power. Young Christians, inspired by movements for social justice around the country, are now emboldened and unafraid to challenge the status quo. We see that the capitalist system is the structure holding up the injustices we Christians oppose. Having seen its effects on the poor, on minorities, and on creation, we are unconvinced that this system is the best we can do. Whatever good has come in its wake, it’s not enough. In the spirit of our Christian socialist heroes, Christian workers of the world are rising up to show how the gospel offers us an alternative way of being in the world and in the economy.
For too long we have simply allowed injustices such as these to continue because we refuse to think of alternatives or, more accurately, because we were not allowed to think of alternatives. But we are beginning to question capitalism and its fierce individualism. We see its injustices not as inevitabilities, but as symptoms of an underlying problem created by a system that rewards selfishness and exploitation.
Socialism, of course, will not save us. It will not solve all our problems. But as Christians begin to see that Christ’s message of self-sacrifice does not align with capitalism’s message of self-service, we may find some hope for a better world . . . or at least one that doesn’t let people die for being too poor to live.
is the author of The Separation of Church and Estate: Capitalism and the Christian Conscience and co-host of Podcastica Patristica, a podcast about early Christian history and theology.