If you’ve heard white evangelical pundits lately, you’ll know there’s a dangerous “new” enemy threatening U.S. Christianity. They claim this anti-Christian force is spreading through college campuses and becoming popular among young people. If left unchecked, they say, this enemy will wreak havoc on traditional values, resulting in widespread immorality and transforming our entire nation into atheists. What is this growing enemy of evangelicals? Democratic socialism.
The same rhetoric has been used before, especially when associated with premarital sex, feminism, abortion, or LGBTQ rights. Spiritualized hyperbole and fear mongering is routinely implemented to rile up religious fundamentalists, calling them to fight in the next culture war. But despite evangelicals’ fears, quite a few Christians — both past and present — have regarded aspects of socialism as a necessary, and even Christ-like counterbalance to the failures of capitalism.
Though socialism isn’t new, it is true that democratic socialism has gained renewed national attention in recent years thanks to self-identified democratic socialist politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). According to the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the U.S., democratic socialists “believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few.” To achieve this vision, explains the DSA website, “many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed … so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.” The central political platforms of many democratic socialists emphasize equity within economic, health care, educational, housing, judicial, and other social systems.
Many prominent white evangelicals, including Franklin Graham and John Piper, see socialism differently. In the January 2021 issue of Decision, a magazine that is part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article entitled “The Coming Socialist Storm.” His essay maintains that socialism in the 20th century was “one of the deadliest and most destructive ideologies ever to afflict humanity” and, when implemented, results in “human misery, economic deprivation and the denial of liberty.” Mohler also says that socialism “contradicts or subverts” the economic principles found in the Bible such as “the dignity of work (Eph. 4:28),” “investment (Matthew 25:27)” and the affirmation of “private property (Exodus 22:7).” Finally, he says that since Christians are called to create a just society, they should support the economic system that has, he claims, “lifted more than a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty” — market capitalism.
Within this critique, I noticed that Mohler glorified capitalism as a form of liberty, freedom, and opportunity while failing to point out how capitalism has often stolen these very things — liberty, freedom, and opportunity — from people. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and sociologist Matthew Desmond explained in The New York Times Magazine, while capitalism is not the only system that has led to violence, “in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, [capitalism] does put a cash value on our moral commitments.” In other words, if you’re concerned about political systems that spread materialism, coercion, violence, and oppression, then surely capitalism — which has a long and established history of committing all of these things — shouldn’t be held up as the moral standard.
Much of this disagreement regarding socialism is fueled by substantial differences in what people understand socialism to mean — differences that often become more pronounced among people of varying political affiliations, age, gender, or race. Recent polling by Pew Research found that, overall, 42 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism and this favorability was stronger among Democrats, people under the age of 30, and women, as well as Black and Hispanic people. Pew’s research also found that many of those who viewed socialism favorably associated it with creating “a fairer, more generous system” and believed it “builds upon and improves capitalism.”
By contrast, Pew found that people who view socialism negatively often associate it with either failed economies or failed communist regimes that starved people, enslaved them, and killed them through an array of horrific policies and cruelties. To folks like Mohler and other evangelical critics who equate socialism with these horrific economic, democratic, and moral failures, the idea that socialism could become popular is scary.
Interestingly, Pew’s research found that some folks view both capitalism and socialism favorably. “I believe a healthy society has a good blend of capitalism and socialism,” one respondent told Pew. “We have socialized education and libraries.… A blend can ensure a thriving productive society for all.” Another respondent said: “I grew up in a democratic socialist country and saw how quality of life is enhanced through government providing essential services like stipends for children, free secondary and college education, universal health care and retirement pensions.” Rather than promoting a violent, authoritarian regime, socialism — as these folks see it — offers an important corrective to capitalism’s failures. They want a combination of the two rather than a dichotomy.
Contemporary Christians are among those who have embraced the democratic socialist platform as a necessary check against an economy and political system they view as corrupt, elitist, and oppressive. Scholar and activist Cornel West recently wrote on Facebook: “Democratic socialism comes in many forms, but it’s fundamentally the idea of being committed to the dignity of ordinary people.” The Institute for Christian Socialism, where West serves as an advisor, and its magazine, The Bias, have highlighted the growing number of Christians who are convinced that “the socialism of the Gospel is irreconcilable with capitalism” and seek “new forms of political economy.” For these Christians, capitalism is a selfish system of greed, fundamentally contradicting Christ’s commands to selflessly love your neighbors.
While the life of Jesus and the gospel message fail to explicitly endorse any specific party affiliation, contemporary Christians who embrace socialism note that scripture is full of appeals to sacrificially give, care, and provide for others, including Christians who practiced collective ownership. For example, Acts 2:44-45 states, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” For Christians who embrace socialism, their faith in a community that seeks a way of selfless love has led them to critique the failures of capitalism and look for alternative systems.
Nevertheless, many white evangelicals maintain that socialism is a fundamentally anti-Christian political system. Rather than value the elements that promote fair wages, economic justice, and welfare services, they wholly interpret socialism as a secular system where religion is vilified and atheism is promoted. They leave no room for Christianity and socialism to co-exist, even though history is full of prominent Christians who’ve embraced aspects of socialism and/or critiqued aspects of capitalism, including Desmond Tutu, Mother Jones, Dom Hélder Câmara, Wendell Berry, James Cone, and Dorothy Day, a radical Catholic who took seriously the instruction of the Catholic catechism to ensure wages “guarantee ... a dignified livelihood” so workers and their families can thrive at the “material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.”
One of the dangers of pro-capitalist Christians — or Christians who champion any particular economic system— is that their preferred beliefs can become idols. Even the most “theoretically good” political and economic systems can be corrupted if they are run and managed by horrible people. Christians should know this better than anyone, as many prominent faith communities, churches, and Christian movements throughout history have promoted and participated in all sorts of evils.
In a letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to Coretta Scott when they were dating, King addressed this tension. “I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits,” King explained. “It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human [systems it falls] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
Recognizing that there is no perfect system, Christians are asked to pursue the most just and loving approach within our society — always evaluating the approach we choose by how it treats those who are marginalized, oppressed, and experiencing injustice. Just as neither Republicans nor Democrats have the market cornered on Christianity, neither does capitalism or socialism hold the exclusive rights to our economic and political systems. As Christians, we must focus on loving our neighbors to the best of our ability, because this is what God commands us to do. Rather than exploit people for profit or power, we should make sure our neighbors can live — and thrive — within a safe, dignified, and beloved community.