"Socialism” is a word with a very negative connotation for most Americans. And yet perhaps socialism, especially democratic socialism, deserves to be much more highly evaluated by the public at large and by Christians in particular.
Last month I read with great interest two books about past socialist leaders in the U.S. One was Irving Stone’s Adversary in the House (1947), a biographical novel based on the life of Eugene V. Debs and his wife Kate. Debs (1855-1926) was a pioneer union leader and five times the Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States.
While reading that captivating book, I remarked to June, “I hope Debs was as good a man as Stone thought he was.” Needless to say, I was highly impressed by him—and by his thoughts and actions.
The other impressive book was The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (2000), a superlative biographical work by historian Maurice Isserman. Harrington (1928-1989) was the last great socialist leader in the U.S.
Harrington was also the author of The Other America (1962), a very significant book that helped influence President Johnson to initiate the “war on poverty” in 1964.
Debs was not particularly religious, although he was friends with and a benefactor of a minister in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. And although he became an agnostic, Harrington grew up as a devout Catholic and as a young man worked for two years with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
Isserman writes how at a party in celebration of Harrington’s 60th birthday, Ted Kennedy declared,
In our lifetime, it is Mike Harrington who has come the closest to fulfilling the vision of America that my brother Robert Kennedy had, when he said, “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say ‘Why Not?’” . . . Some call it socialism; I call it the Sermon on the Mount (p. 359).
The other most prominent 20th century socialist leader in the U.S was Norman Thomas, a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Thomas (1894-1968) was also a Presbyterian minister for twenty years.
So while socialism in America was not a Christian movement as such, it was closely tied to people shaped by a Christian worldview. Looking more broadly, though, some of the most prominent 20th century Christian theologians and/or activists were advocates of socialism.
Among those who quickly come to mind are Karl Barth in Switzerland (and Germany), Paul Tillich in Germany (and the U.S. after 1933), Kagawa Toyohiko in Japan, and Reinhold Niebuhr in the U.S. In addition, in the 1970s and ’80s there was a “Christians for Socialism” movement in Latin America.
Kagawa, who as a young man began to live in solidarity with the poor in the slums of Kobe, stated his position quite clearly: “I am a socialist because I am a Christian.”
There are many different types of socialism, and it perhaps goes without saying that most Christians who have espoused socialism have been staunch opponents of the violent or coercive type of socialism.
Barth and Tillich were strong opponents of Hitler’s National Socialism. And most American socialists have been strongly opposed to oppressive socialism such as that seen in Stalinism or Maoism.
Most Christian socialists are best designated as democratic socialists, and the socialist activities of Debs, Thomas, and Harrington have morphed into what is now known as the Democratic Socialists of America.
Perhaps it is again time, especially for Christians, to take socialism more seriously and evaluate it more highly.