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N.B. This article was published in Christian Week in response to another article which I thought was misguided. Contrary to the impression it may create, I am not a socialist. In fact, I have spent most of my academic life as a strong critic of both academic Marxism and socialism. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible for Christians to be socialists.


Published in Christian Week, 17 December 1996, p. 10

John Redekop's mischievous characterization of the British Labour Party and the socialist tradition, Christian Week, 19 November 1996, p. 3, cannot go unchallenged. Instead of documenting his argument from official or semi-official documents Redekop sets up a man of straw when he says: "By socialism I mean the democratic form associated with the Labour Party in the United Kingdom ... Democratic socialism is optimistic about human nature. People are seen as inherently good..."

Once this false characterization of the British Labour Party is established Redekop invokes questionable interpretations of Christian doctrine to show that "while there are some important areas of commonality, Christianity and socialism explain evil differently, postulate different responses to evil, and, in general, have different priorities and ideals.

This argument is false. Some socialists believe that human beings are inherently good. But, so too do classical Liberals, certain Conservatives and Fascists. More importantly the British Labour Party has never embrassed Rousseau's romanticism which characterizes humans as essentially good, nor has it ever said that the aim of education is to produce "the new socialist man" as Redekop suggests.

Various historical traditions combined to create the British Labour Party. Tony Benn discusses these in his book Arguments for Socialism (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979) where he stresses the Christian heritage which gave birth to the British Labour movement (pp. 23-32). Benn is right. The most important source for the creation of the Labour Party was the nineteenth century Trades Union Movement which was inspired by Evangelical Christianity, especially Methodism.

Nowhere in Benn's book, and he is on the left of the party, does he claim that humans are essentially, or more correctly ontologically, good. Rather he presents the socialist case for educational, social and economic reforms, including the public ownership of the means of production and distribution, in terms of an argument for equality of opportunity.

The same emphasis on equality of opportunity is found in John Parker's semi-official Labour Marches On (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1947). Rather than speculating about the essence of human nature Parker argued "Socialism means the ownership or control of the main resources of the community on behalf of the community. This carries with it some form of democratic Government, of equality of opportunity and of certain essential equal rights and duties for all citizens, irrespective of sex, race or creed. In other words Socialists believe that political equality alone is not enough but needs supplementing by a large measure of economic equality if a happy community is to be created." (pp. 14-15).

To attack the British Labour Party as Redekop does is insulting to many sincere Christians, like the present Labour leader Tony Blair who is an active evangelical Anglican. It also distorts history by ignoring the great contribution Christians, from Keir Hardy to David Owen and Harold Wilson, have made to socialism. Contrary to professor Redekop's claims there is a long tradition of Christian Socialism rooted in a Biblical worldview enriched by practical politics.

Redekop's condemns socialism theologically when he argues: "Christians do not believe that human nature is basically good and virtually perfectible by economic engineering..." This argument, which is based on the doctrine of original sin, needs careful qualification.

The social implications of the doctrine of original sin as expressed in the theologies of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Magisterial Reformation are complex. On the one hand the reality of original sin is recognized by all major Christian traditions. On the other the reality of human goodness, or what Lutherans call "civil righteousness," and Calvinists discuss in terms of "common grace," is never denied. Rather the major historic traditions use various arguments to show why humans retain vestiges of true humanity.

After surveying the doctrine of original sin in various traditions the great nineteenth century Calvinist theologian, Charles Hodge, sums up its implications: "This universal depravity of men is no slight evil. The whole human race, by their apostasy from God, are totally depraved. By total depravity, is not meant that all men are equally wicked; nor that any man is as thoroughly corrupt as it is possible for a man to be; nor that men are destitute of all moral virtues. The Scriptures recognize the fact, which experience abundently confirms, that men, to a greater or less degree, are honest in dealings, kind in their feelings and beneficent in their conduct..." (Systematic Theology, Edinburgh, James Clarke, 1960, p. 233).

Similarly, Aquinas, Luther, Melanchton, Calvin and a host of other authorities could be cited to show that belief in original sin and human depravity is consistent with a strong commitment to education and the use of government legislation to improve the lot of mankind. The social and educational programs of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Puritans, Pietists and nineteenth century Evangelical reformers all made use of political tools which Redekop appears to identify with socialism. Even an identification with the working class, something which appears particularly socialist, can be found in pre-Socialist Christian writers like John Bunyan whose classic Pilgrim's Progress inspired many Christians to support socialism (Cf. Chrisopher Hill, A Tinker and a Poor Man, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

Finally, it needs to be recognized that there is a strong Christian Socialist tradition which deserves respect not trivialization (Walber Block and Irving Hexham, eds., Religion, Economics and Social Thought, Vancouver, The Fraser Institute, 1986, pp. 181-220). Christians, as Calvin observes (Institutes Bk. IV, Cp. XX), are not committed to one particular type of society or political system. To suggest that they are shows a dangerous lack of respect and ignorance of other people's deeply held views.