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Prophets of Collectivism By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 17, 2009


The Religious Left isn't sure what the Bible says about salvation or personal morality, but it is certain that the Scriptures infallibly endorse economic collectivism. Didn't Jesus ask His disciples to share their goods with each other? And weren't the ancient Hebrews commanded by their God to care for widows and orphans? Obviously the Bible, so supposedly opaque about theology, is crystal clear that the Almighty wants an engorged, centralized welfare and regulatory state that massively redistributes wealth in a nebulous pursuit of justice.

A favorite guru for the Religious Left is ordained United Church of Christ minister Walter Brueggemann, a professor emeritus of Old Testament at Presbyterian Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. A critic of "Pharaoh's Production-Consumption Society," i.e. the modern American free market economy, Brueggemann equates capitalism with materialism -- but he ignores coarser materialism of a command and control economy, in which an oppressive state distributes economic benefits according to political calculation.  

Brueggemann's latest critique of the free market was "From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey," recently in Jim Wallis' Sojourners magazine. "The Bible says nothing explicit about subprime loans and the financial implications of such risky economic practice," Brueggemann admitted. "There is a great deal, nonetheless, that the Bible has to say about such a crisis as we now face," he still claimed. He faulted American "greed" and "individualism," which "resists communitarian connectedness" and sees the "market as a place of self-advancement at the expense of all others."

To replace all this acquisitiveness, Brueggemann advocated a new "covenantal existence" with a "common economy," as embodied by the cancellation of all debts every 40 years in ancient Israel. This "community of solidarity" will share "God-given resources for the well-being of all." Brueggemann eschewed labels such as "socialism" or "capitalism." The Bible simply demands that every "instrument of well-being," including government, charity, and the private sector, "must be mobilized in order to mediate the resources of the community for the sake of the common good."

The "current crisis among us is a moment ripe for an exodus departure from a system of anxious acquisitiveness that is rooted in autonomy," Brueggemann concluded. "Biblical faith requires that we look our greedy system of economics in the face." Brueggemann did not examine the role of government-promoted mortgages to people who could not afford them in creating the current financial meltdown, even though such mandated mortgages would seem to embody the generous new covenantal community he envisions.

More broadly, Brueggemann, like most on the Religious Left, ignores the uniquely biblical origins of capitalism, which assumes that humanity is sinful, but also tremendously creative. Capitalism channels selfish impulses towards productivity for the common good. It also assumes the rule of law and protection of property against social covetousness. The biblical commands for sharing primarily appeal to conscience and volunteerism. There is little charity in Big Government coercion taking, from those who create and giving to those who do not or will not.

The Religious Left will never quote her, but Margaret Thatcher outclassed Brueggemann when she articulated Christianity's stance towards economics in her 1988 speech to the Church of Scotland. "We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth," she recalled of the Scriptures, citing St.Paul's admonition:, "If a man will not work he shall not eat." She observed: "Abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation."

Idolizing wealth is evil, but creating it is not, Thatcher declared. "The spiritual dimension comes in deciding what one does with the wealth. How could we respond to the many calls for help, or invest for the future, or support the wonderful artists and craftsmen whose work also glorifies God, unless we had first worked hard and used our talents to create the necessary wealth?"

Thatcher warned that "any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm." Government should strive to "bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but [it] can't create the one or abolish the other," she noted. Laws can only "encourage the best instincts and convictions of the people, instincts and convictions which I'm convinced are far more deeply rooted than is often supposed."

Unlike Brueggemann, Thatcher cited the "basic ties of the family which are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue." And she quoted St. Paul's warning that anyone who neglects to provide for his own family is "worse than an infidel." Government should provide some basic needs. "But intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility," she implored. "The same applies to taxation; for while you and I would work extremely hard whatever the circumstances, there are undoubtedly some who would not unless the incentive was there. And we need their efforts, too."

And unlike Brueggemann, Thatcher, the daughter of a Methodist grocer, rooted her economics speech to the Scottish Presbyterians in the specifics of historic Christianity, including the Hebrew Exodus and Christ's atonement on the Cross. "The truths of the Judaic-Christian tradition are infinitely precious, not only, as I believe, because they are true, but also because they provide the moral impulse which alone can lead to that peace, in the true meaning of the word, for which we all long."

The Religious Left, unlike Thatcher, is afraid of Judaism's and Christianity's particularist historical claims, especially the emphasis on personal redemption and morality. Instead, religious leftists distill the faith down to political and economic demands -- but those demands, like their God, are created in their own image.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.


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