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“But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
In Upton Sinclair's classic American novel The Jungle, the main character, Jurgis Rudkis, is a Lithuanian immigrant who has suffered endlessly working in Chicago’s meatpacking yards at the turn of the 20th century. After a series of devastating tragedies, Jurgis finds himself with a job at a hotel owned by a wealthy socialist and listening in on a speech being given about the Social Gospel. The speaker argues that not only was Jesus a socialist, he was the first socialist. Hearing these words, our protagonist is moved; he’s at peace knowing that he can be part of a socialist movement and still be a good Christian, because, as he learns, being a socialist is the pinnacle of what it means to be a true Christian.
In 2019, the income inequality level in the US hit a five-decade high. Over 28 million Americans don’t have healthcare presently, and just last week scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight – in part because of the threat the climate crisis poses to the survival of humanity. July’s Democratic convention is just five months away and many prominent white Protestant evangelicals have spent the length of the Democratic primary season proselytizing Truman-era propaganda of a socialist destruction that would befall America if a left-leaning candidate were to win the presidency – even though reforms like universal healthcare have been successfully implemented in other countries.
While black Protestant evangelicals have long disavowed white evangelical Republicans’ visions of social justice, and the NeverTrump evangelicals have spoken out against the current government since 2016, white evangelicals still make up a third of the Republican voting bloc. My father, a white evangelical and born-again Christian, is concerned about the US government taking a hard turn to the left if either Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders were to win the presidency. We couldn’t be further apart on politics and I don’t think it’s easy for either of us. As a family, we try to gently agree to disagree.
But I wasn’t raised religious. I learned about Christianity at the Catholic schools I grew up going to, and from members of different Christian faith communities. My earliest impressions of what Christianity was really about came from reading about Jesus’s rejection of ancient Rome’s inequitable, oppressive and violent status quo, from his humility, his vision of brotherhood and his kindness and loving dedication to the disenfranchised.
And the warnings about socialism aren’t really directed at my generation. When Republicans call Democrats “socialists”, they are speaking to baby boomers haunted by the memories of the Cold War. For my parents, the word “socialism” meant nuclear standoffs – a government war against democracy, freedom of press, expression, privacy, and religion.
But for millennials who grew up in a time where the Cold War was just a chapter in a history book, many of us associate the politics of social democracy with the best educational outcomes in the world, like in Finland, and free, accessible healthcare for everyone in France and the UK, countries which have better survival and disease prevention rates than the US and which don’t impinge on personal freedoms.
A couple weeks ago, I spoke with author and National Catholic Reporter’s news editor Peter Feuerherd about his work on the history of evangelicals and social justice movements in the US. He told me about several periods when Protestant evangelicals, in the broadest sense of the definition, advocated for faith-based socialist political models of government. There was the pre-civil war abolitionist movement that started in the 1830’s and grew out of Protestant evangelicalism. The Social Gospel movement flourished between 1870 and 1920 with adherents who advocated for improved conditions for factory workers and immigrants, ending child labor and other critical social improvements for poor and working class Americans. And then there was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, where biblical scripture formed the centerpiece of Dr Martin Luther King’s fight for justice for black people in this country.
At the time Jesus lived, illness, poverty and misfortune were considered rebukes from God. In contrast to that belief, his ministry sought out the forsaken and persecuted by speaking directly to them and to those who wielded influence over their lives – the Romans.
In a conversation with Dr Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni, a social worker, counselor and Council Chair of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Chicago, I asked her about the less commonly referenced biblical passages that make mention of socialist principles. She reminded me of the Book of Acts (Acts of the Apostles), which contains the following passages:
“All the believers were together and had everything in selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32)
The Book of Jeremiah is also particularly relevant:
“This is what the LORD says: Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow.” (Jeremiah 22:3)
But perhaps even more compelling is Jesus’ proclamation of his ministry in a synagogue on the morning of the Sabbath, as he read the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“… the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;…
To comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1–2)
In Jeremiah and Isaiah, is Jesus not speaking to the migrant children held in flu-infested cages on the border? Is he not speaking to young black men targeted by police officers because of their race? Is he not speaking to the millions of Americans who have to choose between paying for groceries or prescription drugs, or between taking on massive debt or getting a college education? In the Book of Acts, is he not speaking to our political class? Is there really any question about whether our capitalist system is working for most Americans and the planet?
According to the evangelical Republican senator Marco Rubio, “Socialism is wholly incompatible with America. Our unique, entrepreneurial spirit thrives in defiance of the notion of state control of markets.” But I ask if that’s still true even if those markets have left Americans spending more than most OECD states, but receiving worse quality healthcare?
When the Republican evangelical senator Lindsey Graham proposed an unconstitutional bill aiming to eventually overturn federal abortion law, he mentioned that he wanted to get off a list of seven other nations that granted citizens substantial abortion rights. Does he not also want to get off the list of the nations with the highest child poverty rate among OECD countries? Does Sen. Graham’s worry for the fetus in-utero not extend to the child in the cage on the border? If not, why?
When I asked Dr Klemen-Bassiouni about the dichotomy between the Gospels and the blind support of our current economic and political model by many white evangelicals, she told me that “with religious texts you can’t pick and choose, you have to look at them in their totality… Jesus’s ministry was about feeding the hungry, supporting the weak, helping the afflicted and honoring, respecting and caring for all human beings. When you pick and choose you can always find some statement to support your stance. But that’s not the way to understand Jesus’s message.”
Granted, I understand that both Sanders and Warren hold views that many evangelicals don’t support, including on issues like abortion. And even for the average Democrat that supports abortion rights for women and LGBTQ rights among many other progressive policies, Sanders and Warren are still far from being perfect candidates. But, of the remaining contenders, the two have the best track records on fighting for same overarching vision of social justice and equality for humanity that Jesus spoke about, and was crucified for, over 2,000 years ago – shouldn’t that matter to white evangelical Republicans?
I asked Dr Klemen-Bassiouni why she thought white evangelicals demonize Sanders and Warren for their “socialist” ideals and she told me, “In the US we have a culture of a bizarre kind of individualism: if you’re in a situation that’s bad it’s because it’s you’ve made the wrong choices. For privileged people that means I’ve made the right choices and thus I’m entitled to my privilege. This kind of thinking facilitates separatism and racism.” In other words, it justifies the haves and have-nots.
When I posed the same question to Feuerherd, he had a similar take. He said, “They have forgotten to read the Acts of the Apostles. It describes a socialist system; everything held in common. People’s needs were taken care of and it was really a utopian community there.” He went on to explain that, according to the Social Gospel, “the Kingdom of God is right here, not in the afterlife…We need to build it up right here in this space, right now.”
Regardless of whether Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, neither of them are out to nationalize all American industry and freeze millionaire’s bank accounts – they’re simply looking to redirect part of a $1.3 trillion dollar military budget and cancel Trump’s tax cuts to the top 1 per cent, because we all know trickle-down economics don’t work. Like Sen. Warren has said time and time again, America should “ work for everyone”. It’s a simple message, consistent with the messages of the bible.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)