Christian Millennials and the Lure of Socialism, Part One: How Biblical Concern for the Poor Can Turn to an Unbiblical Understanding of People

By Thaddeus Williams Dec. 21, 2016 9:00 a.m. Culture

Over the last year, as the Republican and Democratic voters sparred within and between their respective parties over the best candidate to lead our country from the White House, socialism became one of several hot button issues in our national dialogue (or national shouting match). It was the first time in our nation’s history that a candidate identifying as a “democratic socialist” garnered so much popular support, particularly among the college age demographic. Of course, this is not the first time that young Americans have been captivated by socialist ideals. With the 1960s and 70s came the Port Huron Statement according to which “students must consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power,” and free market capitalism became a favorite “loci” to assault. Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a scathing indictment of all things capitalist, became something like inerrant sacred scripture to many budding ideologues.[1] In the new millennium the socialist ethos has experienced new iterations as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 99%, and, most recently, the widespread support for Bernie Sanders on university campuses around the country. Although Sanders did not procure the nomination of the Democratic Party, he succeeded in revealing a deep affinity with socialism among the millennial generation that will hold an increasing share of policy-shaping power over the decades to come. 

What I found particularly eye opening was a new zest for socialist ideology not just among college students, but particularly among many evangelical college students. In long conversations with many of them, the core motivator, so far as I can tell, is a perceived resonance between socialism and biblical commands to lift up the poor and oppressed. The logic runs something like this:

  1. The Bible tells me to care for the poor.
  2. Socialism, unlike greedy Capitalism, cares for the poor.
  3. Therefore, I like Socialism. 

The first premise is deeply Christian and every evangelical should, no doubt, take very seriously the biblical commands to love the poor, how God stands in such deep solidarity with the poor that to mock them is to mock God (Prov. 17:5). The crucial link is premise 2, which rest on several problematic assumptions that many evangelicals, young and old, have never seriously reckoned with. It assumes, for example, that the global supply of goods is a zero-sum game (i.e., there’s only so much pie to go around). Capitalism, however, is capable of making the pie bigger by creating new wealth. Premise 2 also overlooks the realities of what happens when economic ideologies move from paper into the real world. For example, the “Asian tigers” e.g., free market countries like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have been prosperous despite a lack of natural resources in contrast to resource-rich Russia and Brazil, which languish in poverty under socialist systems that discourage creativity and risk-taking. Bad government policy, not capitalism, shoulders the blame for much poverty. [2]

In what follows I highlight one built-in assumption that is particularly unnerving as we consider the allure of socialism among young evangelicals. To put it succinctly, socialism smuggles in assumptions about human nature that are fundamentally incompatible with the anthropological insights of scripture. And since bad ideas about people have bad effects on people, this is no trivial concern. No matter where we stand on the spectrum of economic theory, from socialism to capitalism, if we get human nature wrong, then the very policies we endorse to help God’s image-bearers will end up hurting them.

Allow me to illustrate through well-intentioned efforts to help northern spotted owls in the forests of the northwestern US.[3] Environmental legislation significantly restricted the lumber industry with the aim of preserving the owls’ natural habitat. As lumberjacks struggled to cope with unemployment, the forests they once cut grew denser. Northern spotted owls, with an average wingspan of six feet, had an increasingly difficult time navigating the crowded trees to reach the forest floor, where wood rats, their primary food source, scurried freely. With less accessible sustenance, the spotted owls populations continued to dwindle in the very forests where they were intended to thrive.[4] How could efforts toward spotted owl thriving achieve such ironic results? The answer is: an inadequate understanding of spotted owls. Bad ‘owl-ology’ leads to a false concept of owl flourishing, which in turn leads to bad policy, and, finally, the harm of the very animals that people seek to help.

The implications for how we think about socialism (and any economic theory for that matter) are clear: True anthropology is a necessary condition of good economic policy. Where, then, does socialism go wrong on human nature? In Part 2 I briefly offer three points that explain how many young evangelicals, motivated by a good desire to help the poor, can be duped into unwittingly and implicitly advocating biblically incompatible political ideas that misunderstand and thereby hurt the very people they intend to help.

 

[1] Marcuse’s work was not without valuable critiques, particularly of shallow concepts of freedom championed by consumerism, i.e., “[In modern liberal society, liberty operates as “a powerful instrument of domination… Domination in the guise of affluence and liberty – extends to all spheres of private and public existence… Liberty ensures that ‘the people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. It offers not real liberation but ‘free choice between brands and gadgets.” Yet we must note that the kind of over-consumption Marcuse criticized says something about people’s character (or lack thereof) more than it speaks to the shortcomings of capitalism itself. Responsible use of wealth is a matter of the heart and not of an economic system.

[2] Premise 2 also assumes that capitalism is essentially greedy. Self-interest, however, is different than greed. Adam Smith’s original vision for capitalism was that people would be motivated from enlightened self-interest, i.e., self-interest tempered by concern for common good, Judeo-Christian morality, and virtue. To be sure, greed is a very real problem in our capitalist society. It is not socialist government policies, which does not address the deeper twistedness of the human heart, but the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that must take an active leading role in countering greed.

[3] Pieces of this paragraph were adapted from my article “Beyond Capes and Cowbells: How a Christian Approach to Law and Virtue Transcends Both Autonomy and Authoritarianism,” The Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 2014: 4-11.

[4] Jeffrey D. King, dir., BLUE (Broken Hints Media, 2014), 24-29:30. My purpose here is not to enter into the ecological debates regarding the effects of the logging industry or environmental legislation with regard to the northern spotted own. My point is illustrative to approach the deeper anthropological point that legislation that fails to adequately understand the nature of those it is intended to help will achieve ironic results.  

Comments

  • Noel Dijkstra Dec. 23, 2016 at 6:54 PM

    Very interesting read. I look forward to Part 2.

  • Mark Dec. 25, 2016 at 9:09 PM

    Great points. Here's an article by John Tamney that is skeptical of the actual currency of socialism in the US.

    www.forbes.com/sites/johntamny/2016/08/03/fear-not-millennials-are-not-embracing-bernie-sanders-style-socialism/#478ceb2ckdb2

    I believe people were shocked that Willlam Jennings Bryan got as many votes as he did when he ran for president in 1896.

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