Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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.


At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't worry, the supply siders will not win any ethical arguments, which are especially relevant to believers.

In your blog, you classifed the capitalism we practice in America as "weleface capitalism." Are you de facto stating that capitalism is unethical (as a Christian, I do find unfettered capitalism unethical as a concept, but in reality it is not practiced)? Isn't "welefare capitalism" a form of socialism? While the government does not control the means of production, a welefare state certainly does reallocate resources.

I think our country walks a fine line between capitalism and socialism, with swings to the right or left every decade or so.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it should be noted that Communism (as advocated by the likes of Lenin and Mao), which I think is what you mean by "harcore socialism", only represents the authoritarian side socialism.

Equally extreme on the other side of the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum is anarchism, which is no less socialist.

Democratic Socialism--perhaps a more moderate position--is not at all at odds with the kind of economic system that you are advocating. The gains of welfare states in Northern Europe were all implemented by democratic socialist parties, for example.

I hope that in the future Americans will not assume that socialism neccasarily implies communism.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Chinese form of government is Communism. Economilcaly that does not mean they cannot practice 'Capitalism.'French have a Socilaist Government,and are 'Capitalist.'.Capitalism can operate under any form of government,capitalism isn't a form of government,it is an economic system that does not need Democracy to exist,they are independent of one another.Chile under Pinochet had capitilism for instance.Aso,Social gospel was originaly calle 'Socialsist, Gospel,then was shortenedto 'Social'Gospel.


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