Christian Socialism Is as Relevant as Ever

For the Left, the historic contribution of Christian socialism was its ability to relate the values of modern socialism to the time-honored themes of traditional religious teaching. The Left would do well to recover those lessons today.

Detail of El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 1577–1587.

Last month, in an interview to promote his new memoir, Barack Obama criticized the rising number of Latino voters who supported Donald Trump. “People were surprised about a lot of Hispanic folks who voted for Trump,” Obama said in an interview with the Breakfast Club. “But there are a lot of Evangelical Hispanics who, you know, the fact that Trump says racist things about Mexicans, or puts detainees, undocumented workers in cages, they think that’s less important than the fact that he supports their views on gay marriage or abortion.”

Though Obama took a lot of predictable heat from conservatives, he wasn’t entirely wrong. Spanish-speaking voters, particularly in Florida and Texas, swung hard toward Trump, in many cases driven by Trump’s wholesale embrace of the Evangelical agenda. Many working-class Latinos, like their black and white counterparts, are observant and define themselves by their Christian faith.

As Republicans win a growing share of poorer voters, and as the Democrats bleed support in rural areas where churchgoing is more widespread, serious thinking is needed about the place of religious believers and belief on the Left. Especially for those hoping to see the emergence of another Bernie Sanders, someone capable of constructing a winning coalition across racial and religious lines, it is vital that these voters aren’t shrugged off or condescended to.

Leftists can and should reclaim the long tradition of relating modern socialist values to time-honored religious themes — one of the key legacies of Christian socialism. While from our vantage point in the twenty-first-century United States, we see predatory capitalists exploiting religious fervor to further their own agenda of social conservatism and tax cuts for the rich, in the nineteenth century, a different way was advanced by thinkers who traced their views directly to the Gospel. These included Philippe Buchez in France, originally a figure in the Saint-Simonist movement (followers of the quasi-socialist writer Henri de Saint-Simon), and John Malcolm Ludlow, who launched a Christian socialist movement in England, claiming for socialism “its true character as the great Christian revolution.”

The ideas of early American socialism evolved out of Christian thought. Those on the left wing of the nineteenth-century Social Gospel movement were socialists who condemned the misery that accompanied rampant industrialization as a violation of Christian ethics, with profit placed ahead of the commonweal. George Herron, a Congregationalist minister and socialist, attacked capitalist competition as the “mark of Cain,” while Edward Bellamy, the author of the international best seller Looking Backward — which imagined a socialist utopia in America by the year 2000 — was the son of a minister.

Over time, the prominence of Christian socialism waned, both inside and outside the Left. After 1917, the prestige of Bolshevism solidified the position within the Left of a militantly atheistic form of Marxism. Meanwhile, with the advent of the Cold War, right-wing ministers and preachers railed against “godless” Communism and sought to fuse Christianity with capitalist principles. If churchgoers believed in helping the less fortunate in their own community, the idea of allowing the government to do the same was lambasted as ungodly.

In some countries outside the United States, the tradition did not die completely. Tony Benn, the leading light of the British Labour left from the 1970s onward, was born into a family of devout Christians. Benn’s mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn, was a well-known theologian who would teach her young son that the story of the Bible was based on the struggle between “the Kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness.”

Though Benn, later in life, referred to himself as a “Christian agnostic,” he asserted that he believed in “Jesus the prophet, not Christ the King,” the historical Jesus — “the carpenter of Nazareth” — who preached social justice and equality. “It is impossible to escape the conclusion that over that bridge revolutionary ideas deriving from the Bible and the carpenter of Nazareth have spread to influence hundreds of millions of people for whom the need for neighborly love within a common humanity is immediately apparent in a way that the mysticism, liturgies, and arid screeds may appear to be less relevant,” Benn said in 1980.

The fusion of socialism with Christianity was pushed especially far in Latin America, starting in the 1960s, as liberation theology took root. Advocates joined Christian theology to a specific belief in the uplift of the poor and the oppressed. Instead of prioritizing the fight against communism, they took aim at the new idolatries: wealth, the market, national security, the state, and military force. Liberation theology viewed history through the lens of the defeated and excluded, and saw the impoverished as the bearers of universal redemption.

Religion, in other words, doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of conservatives in America, and it shouldn’t be. But if this ground is further ceded to the Right, a whole new generation of voters might well become promising recruits for the kind of multiracial Republican coalition that some conservative voices have been calling for. That would be an incalculable — and avoidable — setback for the Left.