Christianity, socialism and Obama

Original post: October 20, 2008; repost: March 5, 2010. With the recent leak of an RNC strategy document advocating throwing around terms like ‘socialism,’ this seemed like an apt repost.

Barack Obama is a socialist. Right? He wants to “spread the wealth around,” taking money from the rich to give to the poor, and even those who don’t want to work for it. (Wait … does that make Robin Hood a socialist?) Well, let’s have a quick look at socialism.

Socialism is a fairly nebulous term, having been used to describe positions as different as anarchism, communism, and social democracy. At its most neutral, it is, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

a social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members.

But most commonly, people (especially in America) equate it with communism. Because of this, you would be hard-pressed to find any politicians in America describing themselves as social democrats (as you have in Europe). But the idea behind socialism at its most basic is about shared responsibility, shared contribution and shared profit. In reality, it is hard to achieve, but the goal is pretty admirable, isn’t it?

For Christians, this idea of sharing, of interconnectedness, of mutuality shouldn’t be foreign to us. To mention a couple of points, Luke writes in Acts, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (4:32, 34-35). And Jesus tells us, “just as you did [or did not] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40, 45).

Now I’m not saying this automatically translates into a government-sponsored commonality at all, but the whole individualistic idea of everyone looking out for themselves is something I’m a lot less comfortable with. (Perhaps having lived in ‘socialist’ and ‘heathen’ Europe for eight years has rubbed off on me.) Nor am I ragging on those who, through their hard work, are doing very well for themselves. I applaud them, and I commend them when they are generous in giving. But charity is different from justice, because charity doesn’t address the injustices in the system.

As for Obama and socialism, here’s what former Secretary of State Colin Powell had to say:

Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who pay them—in roads and airports and hospitals and schools. And taxes are necessary for the common good, and there’s nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is or who should be paying more, who should be paying less. For us to say that makes you a socialist, I think, is an unfortunate characterization that isn’t accurate.

If you want to play the socialist card regardless, then you’re probably gonna have to acknowledge that the $700b bailout which, in part, will give a bunch of money to failing banks, is socialist, and that McCain’s idea of having the government buy up bad mortgages is pretty socialist too.

I’ve never liked labels or boxes, especially when they’re usually so nebulous—what, for example, does it mean to be a Christian when we’re represented by people as different as Jerry Falwell, Tony Campolo, Gene Robinson, and Jeremiah Wright? But in any and every case, I think we need to be careful how we use them.

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