The Social Gospel and Socialism
Everyone seems to be talking explicitly about the relationship between Christianity and politics this week. Beth Quick and Chuck Currie both have pieces about it. So I figure that now is as good a time as any to discuss something that has been bothering me of late.
What is the relationship between the Social Gospel and Socialism?
Although many of the Social Gospel's critics conflate the two, for me they are quite distinct. Socialism is an economic theory advocating collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and/or collective or governmental administration of the distribution of goods.
The Social Gospel, by contrast, is the religious conviction that the heart of Jesus' message is an injunction to construct a society based on godly principles, or in other words, to strive toward the "Kingdom of God."
Among other things, the "Kingdom of God" has special concern for the poor. Jesus told us the purpose of his coming: "to bring good news to the poor" and to liberate the oppressed. Lk. 4:18. He repeatedly enjoined his followers to assist the poor and to renounce excessive personal possessions. As a result, the Social Gospel does have an "economic ideology" of sorts. It believes that economic systems should be judged on how they treat the poor. In asking whether a given economic structure is consistent with the "Kingdom of God," we ask: how do "the least of these" fare?
The Social Gospel, then, tell us the basis on which economic systems are to be judged. It tells us the appropriate ends. In this way, adherants to the Social Gospel reject both the utilitarian focus on total societal wealth and a Kantian/Lockean theory of economic desert. In other words, we do not believe that more total production and consumption are desirable for their own sake; nor do we believe that the end-goal of wealth distribution should be to reward the talented and virtuous and to punish the inept.
Notice, however, that the Social Gospel does not specify a means, only an end. Socialism is a means to an end.
There is now widespread consensus, based upon history, that the grossest forms of Socialism actually lead to popular economic dislocation and oppression. The Social Gospel, then, would oppose hardcore Socialism.
It's my own opinion that welfare capitalism -- a regulated market system with steeply-progressive taxation, ubiquitous social programs, a government-enforced living wage, and real unemployment insurance -- best serves the poor. But this is a factual conclusion about means, not a moral/religious conclusion about ends. If it turns out that the supply-siders are correct and that tax cuts on corporations create jobs for the poor, then I would immediately reverse my position.
The Social Gospel is not the equivalent of Christian socialism.