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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Friday, May 19, 2017

A Fair Conservative Christian Look At Socialism

If you look at any modern, religiously conservative Christian critique of Socialism, what you will get is a politically skewed interpretation. In addition, most religiously conservative reviews of Socialism I've read treat Socialism as a monolith and prefer to use "Leftist" political failures from the past as warnings to any inclination to try Socialism in the future. One only needs to read the appeals against following Bernie Sanders' socialist claims to see evidence for this.

But a fair, though not perfect, assessment of Socialism from a Fundamentalist point of view is available if you are willing to go old school. Charles R. Erdman (click here for a bio) wrote an essay called The Church And Socialism for the multi volume set called The Fundamentals (click here for info). The Fundamentals contains a collection of essays written from 1910 to 1915. We should note that Erdman's essay was written prior to the Russian Revolution of October, 1917 (click here for Erdman's essay).

Yes, Erdman's essay contained some erroneous notions  of Socialism. And considering that because Socialism has gone through some changes since the 1910s, Erdman's essay needs updating, Still Erdman provides an excellent example of how to write a fair assessment of an ideology with which one disagrees.

How does Erdman show integrity in his evaluation of Socialism? Quite simply, Erdman both makes distinctions between the various kinds of Leftist thought known to him at the time and he clearly presented the legitimate concerns that Socialism addresses. If only modern conservative Christian leaders would write such honorable critiques of different faiths and ideologies that compete with their own faith, conservative Christianity would be held in higher esteem than it is now. For it seems that one of the most common complaints about today's religiously conservative Christians is that we lack objectivity and a sense of fairness when evaluating different perspectives.

When reading Erdman's essay, we easily observe how he distinguished Socialism from Anarchism, Communism, and Popular Socialism. It might be that he had Bolshevism in mind when discussing Popular Socialism's hostility to religion. For it was Lenin, a Bolshevist, who strongly denounced religion by calling it the 'opium of the people.' Lenin said that because the religion of his day, the Orthodox branch of the Christian Church to be specific, told workers to suffer through being exploited while it told business owners that individual acts of charity could make up for exploiting one's employees (click here for source). Because we Christians embrace a spiritual ideology (a.k.a., theology), we might assume that Lenin said those things from an ideological perspective. I believe that Lenin's analysis of religion (a.k.a.,  a form of conservative Christianity) came from observation. Such presents the Church with serious indictments.

Erdman's notes Socialism's concern with righting wrongs when he writes:
because the strength of Socialism consists largely in its protest against existing social wrongs

Socialism is, however, something else than a scientific economic theory, or a popular materialistic philosophy, it is a serious protest against the social wrongs and cruelties of the age, against the defects of the present economic system, against special privilege and entrenched injustice, against prevalent poverty, and hunger, and despair. It is not always an intelligent protest. 

Early in his essay, Erdman describes socialism as consisting of big government, collective ownership, and an abolition of private capital rather than private property. Erdman notes that Socialism's keeping of private property distinguishes it from Communism. But here, we need to distinguish between Socialism and Socialism in the Marxist tradition. For in the Marxist tradition, who was leading the government is more important than the size of government. Thus, without the 'proletariat dictatorship,' we have no socialism. This is a point that Erdman missed. In addition, for Marx, the abolition of say religion or private capital exists when these entities do not control the laws passed by government. So though both religion and private capital can exist, if common men can pass laws that govern them, then they have been abolished in a real sense. This also points to Marx's concern with who is in control of government.

Now Erdman is correct in how he both criticizes Popular Socialism for its hatred of those with wealth and in mentioning that many Socialists do not follow the lead of Popular Socialism in that regard. Erdman's criticism of Popular Socialism on this point could be, though I am not sure it was, grounded in the parable of the two men praying where the one who proclaims himself to be righteous looks down at the publican who was counted as being the worst sinner in society during Jesus's time. 

However, Erdman overstates his case when he criticizes Popular Socialism and Socialism when it relies on the elevation of society as a way of improving people. Erdman clearly states that the Christian approach here is that the only way to improve society is by regenerating its individuals first. But there is no theological justification for saying that. It would be one thing to say that regeneration is required to bring people into the Kingdom of God. It is quite another to say what Erdman said. For we are, in part, a product of our surroundings. This is why conscientious parents work hard to provide the kind surroundings that will help their children to become decent people. What Erdman says about the necessity of regenerating indviduals to improve society is nothing more than claiming that Christianity has a monopoly on improving people.

Erdman is correct in criticizing Christian Socialism as being neither Christian nor Socialism. And here we need to heed his warning because a temptation for Christians who are Socialists is to let their ideology at least partially define their Christianity. However, The Church, while not backing any particular political party or ideology, should speak prophetically to the injustices that result from the policies of any political party or ideology. For it is one thing for the Church to observe and speak out against injustices carried out by governments and in the name of ideologies, it is quite another to say this is the political ideology that the Scriptures tell us to pursue.

Overall, Erdman sees Socialism and Christianity as operating on two different spheres. He is strongly opposed to Popular Socialism but he is not necessarily against the idea of Christians being Socialists provided that they don't mix them together too much. Erdman was not a Socialist. And again, he opposes the idea of a Christian Socialism even though he notes that both Christians and Socialist can share some concerns.

Erdman says many other things on Christianity and Socialism which are well worth reading. But what we should note most of all is what was pointed to at the beginning. That is Erdman is fairn when dealing with the subject of Socialism. His fairness does not imply that he was always correct in his statements about it. But his fairness does provide an excellent example for the rest of us Christians to follow when we are evaluating the ideologies of different believers as well as unbelievers.


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