By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Was Jesus a socialist? The early church may have thought so, but its experiment with socialism was short lived. Authoritarian politics prevailed worldwide until the 18th century, when libertarian democracy transformed politics and religion in the Western world. In 1917 Soviet Communism challenged libertarian democracy, but it collapsed of its own weight in 1990, ending the Cold War and leaving China, Cuba and North Korea as remnants of political communism.
Today softer forms of social democracy thrive in European democracies. Socialist policies are gaining popularity in the U.S. while libertarian excesses are fueling radical right politics. These trends underscore the need for democracies to balance individual rights (a libertarian priority) with providing for the common good (a socialist priority). As political debates rage between socialists and libertarians, the future of democracy hangs in the balance.
Individual freedom is essential to the public good, but unlimited freedom, whether political or economic, undermines the common good--just as big government, the traditional target of libertarians, and big business, the traditional target of socialists, can both threaten individual liberty. Big government stifles freedom with excessive regulations and taxes, and big business stifles freedom by creating vast disparities of wealth that threaten the middle class.
Libertarian and socialist politics are neither moral or immoral per se. Both are moral if they promote altruistic policies that balance individual rights with providing for the common good. That includes libertarian opposition to socialist policies that sacrifice economic freedom to create economic equality, and socialist efforts to regulate Wall Street mega-corporations that exploit consumers and threaten the stability of the middle class with vast disparities in wealth.
Individual rights begin with the freedoms of religion and speech. They are first among the fundamental freedoms protected in the U.S. Constitution, but they are denied by apostasy and blasphemy laws in many authoritarian Islamic regimes. Too much freedom of religion is the problem in the U.S. where evangelical Christians are claiming the right to discriminate against homosexuals as an exercise of their religious freedom.
Libertarian claims of individual rights go too far when they violate the law; but there are exceptions. Faith can require that immoral laws be disobeyed, as demonstrated by Dr. Martin Luther King. His peaceful protests against immoral “separate but equal” laws in the South resulted in the passage of civil rights laws that ended racist Jim Crow laws in the South.
Today, radical right neo-libertarians in the Republican Party and leftist socialists in the Democratic Party have polarized American politics along racial and partisan lines. That has left centrists who support balancing individual rights with providing for the common good without a party in America’s two-party duopoly. And Christianity has become more a part of the problem than the solution since most white Christians support radical right Republicans.
Centrist politics are neither socialist or libertarian, but altruistic. They understand the danger of greed and the concentration of power to America’s freedom and democracy, and that the super-rich and mega-corporations of Wall Street are as much a threat to freedom and democracy as big government. Regulation of the unrestrained greed and power of Wall Street should be a common goal of both socialist and libertarian politics.
A politics of reconciliation based on altruistic common values is needed to mediate divisive socialist and libertarian issues and prevent further partisan polarization. That will require a transformation of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party to accommodate political centrists (as they once did), or the creation of a centrist third party. Meanwhile the elimination of gerrymandered districts and use of ranked-choice voting can provide some relief.
Christianity has a major role in promoting altruism in politics. It is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. That love command is considered a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it can redeem American democracy by reconciling its divisive social and libertarian politics.
Stephanie Slade has argued a libertarian case for the common good in a Catholic magazine, emphasizing voluntary action as opposed to coercive government action is consistent with Christian principles. See https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/08/06/libertarian-case-common-good?utm_source=Newsletters&utm_campaign=a64080afd5-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_08_06_08_32&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0fe8ed70be-a64080afd5-58692321.
Professor Sheri Berman has been critical of the rise of democratic socialism with its “idealism and activism generated by intense dissatisfaction within the status quo” and questioned whether its proponents, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, believe in democracy. Berman compared the weakness of radical democratic socialism with the strength of its softer counterpart, social democracy, with “its realism and and optimism that can come from believing it is possible to create a better world incrementally.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/democratic-socialists-are-conquering-the-left-but-do-they-believe-in-democracy/2018/08/10/5bf58392-9b90-11e8-b60b-1c897f17e185_story.html?utm_term=.7571b00210ba&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
George Will has portrayed the rise of socialism in the Democratic Party as more compatible with fascism than with democracy, saying that Trump could teach Ocasio-Cortez a thing or two about socialism. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-could-teach-ocasio-cortez-a-thing-or-two-about-socialism/2018/07/27/f4672a2e-9102-11e8-bcd5-9d911c784c38_story.html?utm_term=.78198a1d732b&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1
CEO pay jumped to an average of $19 M in 2017, an 18% percent increase compared to a 2% increase for the average worker from $53,400 to 54,600. It represents the threat of Wall Street mega-corporations to the stability of the American middle class--as much a threat to freedom as socialist mega-governments. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/08/16/embargo-hold-am-tomorrow-morning-ceo-pay-jumps-million-annually-fears-mount-over-wealthy-pocketing-gains/?utm_term=.6f668268eb54
European socialist policies have done a better job of protecting consumer interests and individual freedom in the marketplace than America’s more libertarian policies and corporate concentration. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/08/17/us-democracy/?utm_term=.e2cebc6f5193&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1
James Burklo has distinguished between the religious freedom guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and the religious freedom claimed by white Christians that would enable them to discriminate against others. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/celebrate-and-defend-real-religious-freedom/
On how the concept of “right” changes the meaning of “religious liberty,” and how “in the hands of the Trump administration, the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians--specifically white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base,” see https://www.pressherald.com/2018/08/03/right-changes-meaning-of-religious-liberty/.
David Brooks has advocated multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting in our two-party duopoly. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/voting-reform-partisanship-congress.html. Brooks has also advocated third party candidates who would redistribute power downward to local communities. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/30/opinion/third-party-2020-election-localism.html.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have advocated ranked choice voting. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/give-ranked-voting-a-shot-our-democracy-would-benefit/2018/06/14/73c59356-6835-11e8-9e38-24e693b38637_story.html?utm_term=.6e95a3819e3c&wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1; and for the New York Times, see https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/ranked-choice-voting-maine-san-francisco.html?emc=edit_th_180610&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=588540110610.
Michael Gerson, a long-time Republican, has urged moderate Republicans to vote strategically for Democrats in House races this year to prevent Trump’s takeover of the GOP. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-only-way-to-save-the-gop-is-to-defeat-it/2018/08/09/dc70b75a-9c10-11e8-b60b-1c897f17e185_story.html?utm_term=.cd310c4cbcaa&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/22/15): Religion and Human Rights
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security
(5/31/15): Liberation from Economic Oppression: A Human Right or Obligation of Faith? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/05/liberation-from-economic-oppression.html
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(1/9/16): The Four Freedoms, Faith and Human Rights
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/1/16): The Federal Reserve, Wall Street and Congress on Monetary Policy
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(2/11/17): The Mega-Merger of Wall Street, Politics and Religion
(2/18/17): Gerrymandering, Race and Polarized Partisan Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/06/who-are-we-musings-on-how-our-faith.html.
(7//7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(7/28/18): Musings on the Polarization of Christian Morality and Politics
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politicshttp://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/08/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_11.html.