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Socialism Capitalism and Religion

After meeting with President Biden last week to work on his proposed stimulus bill, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in Congress, sent out a fundraising tweet to his base saying, “I just met with Corrupt Joe Biden and he's STILL planning to push his radical Socialist agenda onto the American people, I need EVERY single patriot to step up... Fight back."

It is, of course, difficult to imagine how you can have any hope of bipartisan negotiation if the people you are trying to have serious negotiations with are going to leave a meeting and immediately start calling names like a 3rd grade playground bully. 

Not many people own a Joe Biden tee-shirt. Biden is not the kind of politician who inspires people to put big flags in the back of their pickup trucks and drive around town making fools of themselves, but he is also anything but corrupt.

He is America’s grandfather now and while we might not want him to hold the remote to the TV for the whole evening, most of us realize that he is doing a better job than we thought he would and that, in almost every event, his heart is in the right place, even if it isn’t beating all that vigorously anymore. Calling him “corrupt” has nothing to do with Joe Biden and everything to do with just how partisan our country has become.

We are so divided that if a Republican sits down to talk to a Democrat, they have to make faces and pretend to gag as they walk away from the conversation.

We are so divided that if a Republican sits down to talk to a Democrat, they have to make faces and pretend to gag as they walk away from the conversation.

But more, calling Joe Biden a “radical socialist” is so unhinged from reality that McCarthy should have choked on the words, but “socialist” has become a buzz word in our public conversations now, a word used to describe almost anything that is intended to do almost anyone, some good. But I don’t want to take McCarthy to task for his absurd hostility today because he is only parroting what he has heard on Capitol Hill for his entire political life. 

What I would like to do is to very clearly, and very honestly, talk about what socialism is and what socialism isn’t and, hopefully, talk about the relationship between socialism and communities of faith.

This will be an unnecessary and repetitive review for many of you, but I invite you to take the link for the YouTube or iTunes version of this message and send it to everyone you know who uses the word “socialism” to dismiss any government program that is intended to expand healthcare or to alleviate poverty. 

I beseech any of you here or anyone who reads or listens to tell me if you can find anything that I say here to be anything less than 100% true. I want to eschew any partisan bickering and get down to talking seriously about what is true and what is deceptive name calling. If I vary from the path of what is absolutely true, even a little bit, I want you to call me on it because I really want conservative and progressive people in America, in Great Britain, in Germany, and Brazil to unite around honest political dialogue.

There are many technical ways of defining socialism. In the most radical form of Socialism, as advocated by Leninists, is where the state owns all property and all means of production, and the state doles out resources to create economic equality in the entire population. Conversely, a radical form of capitalism, largely based on Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” would allow for an entirely unregulated economy, ostensibly guided only by the “invisible hand of the market,” which leaves the powerful and the rich to use and abuse both resources and people without any boundaries.

Socialism Capitalism and Religion

Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

Virtually every country in the world has rejected both extremes and has tried to find some way to navigate bits of both worlds to allow for profitable business while reserving certain assets to be held in common. You cannot, for example, buy a river. And as much as many resorts and private communities try to bend the rule, you cannot own the actual beach where land meets the oceans. We consider certain parts of the world to be a public property, accessible to all. 

And while I can privately own my home and yard, or a farm, I cannot, for example, just pour toxins on the ground or into the air that might negatively affect the land, water, or air of others. We live in a hybrid world of private property and public property.

Everyone who fears socialism, almost without exception, still drives on publicly owned streets that are protected by publicly funded police forces, their homes are defended against fire by a publicly funded fire department, and they shower in socialist water, heated by socialist electricity, and often eat meals that include ingredients at least subsidized by public resources and they are protected from poisons by public agencies that keep our foods free of poisons. 

These things have not always been public. There was a time, when harnessing electricity was relatively new, when electric lines were only run to the homes of those who could afford to pay private electric companies to string wire to their houses, but, largely due to the political influence of some famous social justice ministers of the day, the labor saving and safety benefits of having electricity came to be seen as a public good, and the business of generating and distributing electricity became a publicly managed resource, just like water, or, for that matter roads and city streets. 

Socialism Capitalism and Religion

We have not always had city and county fire departments, there was a time, at least in parts of Europe, when fire fighters were employed by fire insurance companies. These fire insurance medallions, like this one, were displayed on your home. You had to buy fire insurance for your home if you wanted fire fighters to show up if your house caught on fire. 

This came to be seen as a service that needed to be extended to the rich and the poor alike. 

Education was not always publicly funded, but we realized that the whole of society is better off if everyone has basic literacy and math skills. Even the most greedy capitalist has to recognize that they need to be able to hire workers who can read and write, and they need to be able to move products and customers around on streets and roads, and they need to be in a civilization protected by a national military, a local police and fire department, and basic judicial and governmental regulations. The “invisible hand” of the market doesn’t put out fires, build roads or bridges. There is no market place without public, socialist, infrastructure. 

You may have started a business and built it into an economic empire, but it was the public services of education, utilities, the infrastructure of roads and bridges, that made your success possible. If we talk, not so much about socialism and capitalism as about what makes sense to do privately and what makes sense to do publicly, a public water and sewer system makes it possible for us to have cities, but private wells and septic systems make it possible for people to live on farms or in the country.

It is not that one is right, and one is wrong, it is that one works in one context and not in another. You would not want your neighbors, living on a small lot in town, to all have septic tanks and, God forbid, wells, but you would not want to limit where a person could live to where we can economically run a sewer line. If we stop bickering, we can see the logic of both compassion and economic practicality.

We developed public schools both to give everyone a chance to gain the skills to earn a living but also to give the future workforce the education necessary to be a productive employee. You have the option of paying for a private school if you can or want, but we realized long ago that everyone should have access to education.

In the 21st century, we are realizing that a K through 12 education will not make us competitive in the high tech future of the world and so the proposal that we pay for additional education, community college, technical school, and some advanced professional training, is hardly a jump from free market capitalism to radical socialism. It is simply an awareness that for our country to be competitive in a global economy, and to avoid impoverishing large portions of our society, and thus making them dependent on public aid or charity, we are probably going to have to do what other successful nations are doing, which is to provide more education.

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Often, when “socialism” is used as a curse word intended to dismiss a policy or a politician, critics are wanting to call up images of long lines in the Soviet Union, or poverty in Cuba, or violence in Venezuela. But the better example is most of Western Europe, not that they have become a Marxist-Leninist form of socialism but that they have simply struck the balance between private and public funding in a way that favors the majority of people rather than only the few. 

Socialism Capitalism and Religion

When you look at this report, just as one example, of how Democratic Socialism works in Norway compared to how our rather unregulated Capitalism is working in the USA, you can see that Norway has one third of our poverty, they have longer life spans, lower crime, lower infant mortality, much higher rates of home ownership, more vacation time, paid parental leave, and, at the bottom line, people who live there are much happier, on average than are people in the USA. Yes, they have marginally higher taxes, but they make much larger salaries and have a better retirement.

So, would you want one third of a small pizza or one fourth of a large pizza. 

I hope I didn’t lose you on the large and small pizza illustration. I am aware that in the 1980’s, when McDonalds was expanding and putting most rival fast food restaurants out of business, that A&W tried to compete with the McDonalds Quarter Pounder by offering a Third Pound burger at the same price but people didn’t buy it because they thought that a quarter of a pound was bigger than a third of a pound. Which only serves to support my claim that Americans need more education.

More currently, recent surveys find that about a quarter of Americans currently say that they will never take the Covid-19 vaccine. Almost all of these vaccine hesitant citizens are Republicans. That, I’m afraid is just a fact. Which, if I may be allowed one bit of interpretation of that fact, I find this to be more evidence that Americans need more education. 

It is not unreasonable to argue that some things can be done better privately and often at a lower price. Evidently, private space programs are outperforming NASA at the present moment. And, while private schools are often judged to be better than public ones, we have not found them to be less expensive. We have not, however, found that private companies can compete in a head to head, quality and cost, comparison with the United States Postal Service, or with the Universal Healthcare offered in most western democracies. 

We Americans tend to love our privately owned cars, but they would be worthless without publicly provided highways and streets. 

What I am hoping to persuade everyone to see is that we could not be America if we did not have a blend of private and public ownership of some things. We politicize things like vaccines, education, and healthcare to our peril. The question is not one or the other, the only real question is where is the best place to draw the line.

But the title of this message is “Religion and Socialism.” I have tried to pull the term, “socialism” from the garbage heap of partisan political ignorance and to describe the practical and mutual community benefits of a healthy combination of competitive profit seeking and public property and programs. But let me try to put all of that economic policy practicality under the religious umbrella of religion.

I would remind you that all of the major world religions began with a primary focus on the plight of the poor and the moral demand to share resources with those who are in need. If you take their myths of origins seriously, Judaism began with Moses leading a slave revolt delivering an enslaved people from bondage and leading them to a land of their own.

Zoroastrianism began among the slaves of Persia, seeking equality and justice. Buddhism began when the Buddha left the wealth and class of royalty to live among the poor in balance and harmony with all. Jesus preached good news of liberation and justice to the poor, reached out to the sick, the hungry, the poor, and the foreigner. And Muhammad sought to unite the tribes of Arab people to end conflict, greed, and discrimination. 

Each of those religions were mutated into tools of the powerful to give governments control of the poor, but that is the opposite of how they began and what they are supposed to be. 

In the 4th century, Pope Gregory the Great reminded Christians that in the gospel story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, “we do not read that he snatched the goods of others but that he used his own unfruitfully; and avenging hell received him at death, not because he did anything unlawful but because he gave himself up utterly and inordinately to the enjoyment of what was lawful.” He said that the rich passively hold themselves to be innocent even when they monopolize for themselves the common gifts of God because the earth belongs to everyone alike.

We invent currency, tax systems, and governments to distribute goods and services for the common good. America has allowed the wealthy to write the laws, control the banks, create the tax systems so that an inordinate amount of the earth’s goods, what clearly belongs to everyone, is now hoarded by a smaller and smaller fraction of the people of the world.

In the USA, the top 1% now owns 42%, almost half, of all of the wealth in the world. Three million Americans are obscenely wealthy which makes more than half of Americans, some 165 million people, live in poverty. It is not legal, but it is obscene. It is legal but it is morally wrong.

The gulf between the rich and the poor has not always been so great. Over the last 40 years that gulf has grown so large that it threatens to bring down the whole world’s economy. But, after 40 years, you start to assume that this is the way that capitalism has to work. It isn’t but many unreflective people think that it has to be preserved.

Our governor in Missouri, has recently refused to accept federal money to continue the $300 a week unemployment payments many of our neighbors have received during the pandemic. He believes that these payments are keeping people from working for starvation wages and so he is stopping them, rather than allowing the invisible hand of the market to force wages up to the point of being a living wage. Morally, if you pay anyone less than a living wage, you are not creating jobs, you are just exploiting poverty. Please, convince me that I am wrong.

Now our compassion-less governor is also refusing to fund the Medicaid expansion that we all voted for. Only in Missouri can the legislature ignore a public vote because they don’t agree with it! Tens of thousands of Missouri’s poor die due to lack of access to healthcare, but their lives are not a matter of concern for a governor who only wants to widen the economic gap between the rich and the poor. Which, if we had an ancient Persian here, they could tell you that the Zoroastrians invented hell specifically for people like Governor Mike Parsons.

You all know that I, unlike Pope Gregory, do not believe that hell exists. . . but that does not mean that a whole lot of people don’t deserve to go there. 

The Zoroastrians invented the concept of hell specifically to console the Persian slaves that the rich would be punished for how they abused the poor. 

Dr. Roger Ray

Their theology may have been misleading, but their ethical insight was spot on. Because, you know, that those who defend an economic system that keeps half of Americans in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world really ought to go to hell. That may be just my opinion, but in your hearts, you know that I am right.

Dr. Roger Ray
The Emerging Church