Does Socialism Require Liberal Theology?
Many Christians might see some of the problems with capitalism, recognize the injustice of poverty, and see that the image of God should have some sort of egalitarian consequences. But there is also a deep anxiety among faithful evangelicals that by embracing something as extreme-sounding as socialism, they would have to trade in their theological orthodoxy. I simply think this is untrue, and the evidence for the necessary link between theological liberalism and socialism is weak at best. I, for one, think that orthodox evangelical theology and a socialist political orientation can illuminate good and beautiful things in one another. Certainly theological orthodoxy does not necessitate socialism, but socialist politics do not automatically require liberal theology or atheism.
The tenet of theological liberalism most often associated with socialism is a variety of high anthropology, in which human beings are inherently good and not fundamentally corrupted by sin, able to be perfected by human effort. If we were simply to reform society to be more equal, we can make a society of perfect people. More importantly, under this theologically liberal idea, Jesus serves the function of a role model for human beings, even if the whole “resurrection” thing turned out to be a hoax. It is implied that the error of Christian socialists is that they think through socialism, we can achieve the perfect society that Jesus envisioned but unfortunately didn’t get to live to see.
It’s clear that this is not an orthodox Christian anthropology, and of course it’s impossible to deny that there are theologically liberal socialists who do believe something along these lines. The question, however, is whether socialism necessitates theological liberalism. In fact I think orthodox Christianity does far better helping us understand why egalitarian economic institutions are necessary than the liberal high anthropology.
The biggest question for this anthropology is how evil, oppression, and injustice—not to mention individual human wrong—come to be, and why they are so persistent in human history. Reinhold Niebuhr is known for saying that original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The evils capitalism produces and that socialists critique are not, Christians contend, fully external to human beings. There may be social sin that can’t be reduced to the individuals who make up a society, but human beings very reliably create sinful societies. This, to orthodox Christians, is best explained by the idea that human nature has been corrupted by the powers of evil and death and the final defeat of these powers was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the decisive battle was won, and at Christ’s appearing (and not before), sin will finally be destroyed permanently.
Does this orthodox understanding of sin and humanity conflict with socialism? I don’t believe so, because I do not think socialism necessitates the belief that a socialist society would be perfect. It would be a human society still filled with sinful people. The purpose of socialism is the recognition of the kinds of evil humans are prone to perpetuating on the social level (deprivation and hierarchies that diminish God’s image-bearing creatures) and creating social structures that constrain that evil. You will never have a society without greed before the demonic power of greed is destroyed in God’s final judgment. But you certainly can have a society where greed is not rewarded with endless individual riches and massive power.
Even further, this anthropology much better accords with the socialist critique of capitalism. If human beings are inherently good, where does all the evil of capitalism come from? However, if human beings were made in God's image but are corrupted by sin and death, the socialist critique and remedy for capitalism makes much more sense. Human beings want to rule on their own terms by wielding power over others, so we must organize societies to place limits on what that desire can achieve. Further, the ultimate eye to the time at which Christ renews all things and destroys evil both assures us that opposing injustice now is a participation in Christ’s true reign while keeping us humble about what we’re able to accomplish, knowing that we won’t see it all come to fruition in our lifetime.
The other main argument for why Christians socialists cannot be orthodox relies on misrepresentation and contempt: the idea that socialism is fundamentally driven by envy and is thus poisonous to orthodox Christianity. But is it envious to call vast inequalities unjust? Is it envious to condemn the wealth of the rich? Certainly it is imaginable that just as there are some socialists with high anthropology and liberal theology, there are some socialists motivated by envy, but envy is not at all necessary for socialism. To say that it is, one has to broaden the definition of envy to include critique of the rich as oppressing the poor. If this is the case, the Bible is riddled with envious resentment—which is precisely the problem arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had with Christianity.
It’s important to remember that one’s politics are serious matters of Christian judgment, but they do not spring automatically from one’s theological commitments. The fact that you can demonstrate a certain set of theological and political commitments work well together doesn’t mean that theology will produce those politics (or the other way around). Those who claim socialism forces you to give up orthodox Christian theology are, at bottom, attempting to circumvent the difficult process of making political and economic judgments consistent with theology. There isn’t a way to automate the process of studying both scripture and the world around us and making arguments for what we ought to do as Christians. What we hope to do here at ELI is to make the argument for our judgment that orthodox evangelical Christianity is harmonious with an egalitarian political economy.