Obama, Socialism, and Christianity

Lately there has been quite a stir on the Internet, and even a bit on the national news media as well, regarding accusations that President Obama is trying to advance a radical political and economic agenda fueled by what used to be called, many years ago, “the social gospel”.

Perhaps there is some truth to this, inasmuch as in his days as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama worked closely with a group of ministers from various denominations that were concerned with the problems of the inner city. Not only that, he had his office space provided for him in a building owned by the socially active Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. If so, it is hardly to be wondered at if he has been inspired by some of the most progressive Christian thought as to how human society might be transformed.

Of course, there are some Christians, particularly in the United States , who object to this.   For them, Christianity is entirely about individual soul-saving, and aside from this “Me and Jesus” relationship, nothing else really counts. They particularly object to any attempt on the part of believers who think that the “Thy kingdom come” petition in the Lord’s Prayer has any connection with the “on earth” part of that same prayer, except regarding (based on a faulty translation of Luke 17:21) the kingdom that exists “within” us.

However, the history of Christianity down through the ages reveals that this has seldom been the understanding of the majority of believers. Just the opposite. From the end of the age of persecution (when Constantine became emperor in 312) right on down through the Middle Ages and Reformation times, the Christian ideal has generally been that while civil society, although distinct in its own right as “the City of Man,” nevertheless should reflect “the City of God” – which latter phrase was the title of the most-read book (written by St. Augustine towards the end of the fourth century) in Christendom next to the Holy Bible.  It was only after Christian unity broke down into warring factions in the Sixteenth century that the idea of a secular, religiously neutral state gained popular support, largely in hope that in this way, after a century of war, peace could finally be restored to society.  

Today, as heirs of this long history, we tend to be suspicious of religious attempts to reform society along religious ideals. In the U.S.A. , in particular, many still remember the failure of “Prohibition” to curb alcoholism, while others worry what might happen if certain churches got their way when it comes to restricting access to abortion. Yet at the same time, many have forgotten the leading part that early American religious liberals had in the eventual elimination of slavery and of child labor, or again, in securing the right of working persons to form unions, and most recently, in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination.

As for accusation of Obama having a “socialist agenda,” it might be instructive to recall that C. S. Lewis, a convert to Christianity whose writings are much esteemed by American evangelical Christians in particular, once wrote, when asked what a truly Christian society might look like, admitted that it might look a lot like “socialism.”  Or perhaps it also should be remembered that when Pope Leo XIII came out, in 1891, with the first of a long line of papal encyclicals on the subject of Catholic social teachings, he was denounced as having become a “Communist” by a few outraged European industrialists – a reaction very similar to more recent wealthy South American right-wing critics of “liberation theology.”

None of this is to say that the Catholic Church or the modern Protestant “social gospel” advocates are pushing for a full-blown top-down government-run economic system. But what they are saying is that governments should have a role in making sure that theirs is a just society where basic human needs, like food and shelter, health care, a just “living wage” for work, and basic education are available to all. Not only that: they are also saying that in a world where the poor are lacking much of this and have been, in the process, getting even poorer, Christians, if they truly wish to save their souls, must assume the responsibility of correcting this situation.

R W Kropf  1/28/10      Obama, Socialism, & Christianity.doc    10-01-28.html