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When people think of Christianity, especially in America, they often think of the Religious Right, a grouping which is essentially conservative, and often believes that God and capitalism go together with God rewarding the virtuous with money. Such people often equate communism with godlessness and an attack on all religious values.
However, while many communists were atheists and Marx famously described religion as the opiate of the masses (like that's a bad thing?) there is a long tradition of Christians who were motivated by their faith to operate liberal or leftist economic beliefs that ranged from mildly left-of-centre to full-on communist moonbattery.
First though, it should be noted that there's a lot of dispute on what exactly left-wing means. Even the Vatican routinely opposes the death penalty and many wars, which would have it categorised as left-wing or liberal in the USA. And churchmen like Martin Luther King played an important role in the Civil Rights movement, which scarcely needs rehearsing. Hence this article will focus on economic issues like wealth redistribution, nationalisation, ownership of the means of production, and opposition to capitalist competition, rather than the debate over whether to be a racist, which really should be an obvious part of Jesus's message to all.
The Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 19:21_ has Jesus telling a rich man "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." The rich man is very sad about this (Matthew 19:22) and doesn't want to get rid of all his nice things and distribute his wealth, which is one of the more accurate passages in the Bible. And in general, the Jesus of the Gospels is the epitome of the furiously uncompromising social justice warrior of his day.
Many Christians have tried to improve conditions for the working poor, and in the time of the Industrial Revolution in England, there was a strong focus on imagining and even building model communities of workers. These ranged from the genuinely anarchistic where people would hypothetically work together without any earthly systems of authority or control, to a more paternalistic model where Christian businessmen give their workers a few benefits. Similar impulses led to the establishment of the cooperative movement in the 19th century. In the late 19th century, socialist ideas became an important part of the world of ideas both in academia and popular society, and with the increasing popularity of Marxism, there were various attempts to fuse Marx and religion.
- Diggers: A tradition of anarchistic Christian utopianism dated back to the English Civil War, with a belief that people should abandon hierarchical society and till the soil. The 17th century saw a movement by landowners to close in land previously available for common grazing, and instead use it for private farming; radical Christian movements arose as an opposition to this, especially when Oliver Cromwell and the moderate anti-Royalist forces in the English Civil War proved devoted to money and the maintenance of middle-class wealth. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was the chief ideologue; under his influence the Diggers took over land in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire, which they farmed and then distributed the harvest freely.
- Quakers: Perhaps the most important sect in Christian communism in the 18th and 19th centuries were the Quakers, who rejected all Biblical authority and church hierarchy in favour of personal religious experience. Winstanley had connections with early Quakers, but the movement was persecuted in the 17th century and didn't flourish until later. William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania in the New World, on land granted by the King of Britain, based on principles like open debate, constitutional government with a separation of powers, fair taxation, and a liberal penal policy that focused on reforming people instead of executing them for minor crimes. The colony wasn't entirely a success, and Penn became increasingly tyrannical as it dissolved into fractious conflict, while also clamping down on anything resembling fun. In the UK, Quaker industrialists such as the Rowntrees, Cadbury, and Fry established model towns, often based around chocolate manufacturing. (However around the same time, atheist industrialists like Robert Owen were doing the same thing.) Quakers have a long history of pacifism, through the 20th century's major conflicts, and even today Quakers remain active in movements such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
- Claude Fauchet: a French bishop and revolutionary, he was one of the leaders on the attack on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. He was guillotined in 1793.
- Charles Kingsley: one of the principal figures in English Christian socialism in the 19th century. He was particularly active in education for working men and in the cooperative movement. He was also a talented novelist and correspondent of Charles Darwin, chaplain to Queen Victoria and a tutor to the future Edward VII. On the other hand, he united with reactionaries such as Thomas Carlyle to defend the brutal way Edward John Eyre had suppressed a revolt by black Jamaicans, in opposition to Darwin, Thomas Huxley and John Stuart Mill, so evidently Kingsley's Christian principles did not extend to the workers of the Caribbean.
- Frederick Denison Maurice: a contemporary and associate of Kingsley, of similar beliefs. He opposed capitalist competition and favoured cooperatives; he also founded the Working Men's College in St Pancras, London, which still exists.
- John Ruskin: while most of the 19th century radical socialist circle around William Morris were atheists, Ruskin was committed to evangelical Anglicanism. He was influenced by the evangelical preacher Henry Melvill, and full of concern about the fallen state of humankind and the necessity of evangelism to save us all; this evangelical tradition fought against the slave trade but also sought to prevent working people having their innocent recreations like gin. Ruskin was a bit of a dick.
- Ernst Bloch: his The Principle of Hope (1954-59) was influential in reinterpreting Marxism in a Christian light — despite the fact that Bloch was himself an atheist.
- Liberation theology: a movement founded in South America which called for the church to work with the poor to bring about social change; it was opposed by many within the Vatican hierarchy, like Pope John Paul II (a fierce anti-communist based on his experiences in Poland) but the ideas of Pope Francis I are closer.
- Diane Drufenbrock: a nun who was also vice-presidential candidate for the Socialist Party USA in 1980; originally from Indiana, she was a nun and math teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and an activist on housing and equality issues.
Pope Pius XI in an encyclical in 1931 claimed "Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist." One of his main objections was that socialism called for a change in the method of production with the goal of increasing production, and that was essentially a materialistic goal which left no place for God; he also complained that changing the system of production would require excessive violence. This ignores the fact that for most socialists and Marxists the goal isn't simply economic growth, but the human actualisation that can be achieved in an economy where everybody gets what they need and has lots of leisure time and the work is all done by machines. And Pius really goes off the far end by condemning liberalism as well, as a step on the path to Bolshevism.
Christians typically don't use the argument that socialism is a nice idea but doesn't work in practice, possibly because God isn't entirely effective in many spheres. Communism is also like God in that it's something that people often talk about, but many people will tell you it's never actually existed.
Most of the Christian criticisms of Christian socialism are simply arguments against socialism, generally fearing that it will involve violence and a rejection of any value except the economic. Other criticisms are far less rational, e.g. that taxation is stealing and socialists want to break up families despite the fact that Jesus explicitly endorsed both taxation (Matthew 22:15-22) and family breakdown (Luke 12:49-53).
On the other hand if Christianity isn't true, then Christian socialism is somewhat flawed.
- The Christian tradition of politics, Stephen Tomkins, The Guardian, 9 Apr 2010
- See the Wikipedia article on Gerrard Winstanley.
- Quakers, History.com
- See the Wikipedia article on History of the Quakers.
- Ending the arms trade, Quakers in Britain
- See the Wikipedia article on Claude Fauchet (revolutionist).
- See the Wikipedia article on Edward John Eyre.
- See the Wikipedia article on Frederick Denison Maurice.
- Chapter Four, Section I: Ruskin's Evangelical Belief, George P Landow, Victorian Web
- See the Wikipedia article on The Principle of Hope.
- Liberation theology. BBC Religion
- Sister Diane Drufenbrock, one-time Socialist Party vice presidential candidate, has died, Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, 6 Nov 2016
- Encyclical, Pius XI, Vatican website
- 5 Reasons Socialism Is Not Christian, Christian Post, 2016