In this third and final installment of Todd Burkes’s series on the thorny political, racial, and cultural issues surrounding the health-care debate, the author dives headlong into his most controversial question yet:
Why is “socialism” such a dirty word in America? Is it really that evil?
We both watched the same scene on CNN while sitting in the crowded food court of the Nairobi airport. But while I understood perfectly the context and quickly dismissed what I was seeing, the woman sharing my table was taken aback.
“What is wrong with her?” she said of the woman on the TV screen who was shown breaking into tears at a U.S. health-care reform town hall meeting. She spoke passionately about what was happening to “her America.” All of her fears about what was happening to her America were wrapped up in her declaration of her Christian faith.
“Is she unstable or something?”
My tablemate couldn’t fathom the depth of emotion that the American woman on the television was expressing over a word that to her was simply not very controversial.
“All of this, over socialism?” she said. “What am I missing?”
Both of us being foreigners visiting in Africa, perhaps we instinctively knew this was one of those cultural differences that make international relations so difficult but that also can broaden our minds to new understanding. This subject and coffee would carry us through a portion of our long layover.
I would soon learn that she was Louise, a Swedish ethnologist who had been in Kenya working on a for-profit clean-water project. We would both soon learn that the word “socialism” means very different things to Western Europeans and Americans.
Socialism is one of the keywords most heard swirling within the fear and anger that have been uncapped by those seeking to prevent President Obama and Democratic Party leaders from reforming America’s health-care system. After the near trillion-dollar bailout of the nation’s banking system, followed by the government essentially becoming a multibillion-dollar stakeholder in General Motors, opponents of health care successfully began playing the socialism card.
And, right on cue, many people began to feel that their America, the America that waved the banner of capitalism and democracy in the world, was becoming something else: socialist.
But so what? That’s what many of my friends from Paris and other European nations are asking. Why does the word socialist evoke such an emotional response from Americans? And why do American evangelicals see opposition to socialism as a required part of their faith?
It wasn’t until I moved to France 14 years ago that I really understood that socialism was not a dirty word throughout the Western world.
Shortly after my arrival in Paris I was confronted with the reality that my views had been shaped by a particular American experience that simply was not shared by French people, no matter their political leaning, their faith perspective, or any other factor.
In France’s parliamentary government, for example, there are basically a few nationalist parties on the far right and then Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party at the mainstream right. There’s the MoDem party in the center, and then on the left are the Socialist Party and several relatively minor parties, including the Communist Party and the Green Party.
So the Socialist Party is mainstream in France, as it is in most Western European countries. The Communist Party remains important, as many remain loyal to the party that stood firm against Nazi occupation during World War II.
Christians here would line up across the political spectrum, but they tend to see the Bible through their cultural lenses, focusing a great deal on the social aspects of Christian teaching.
Understanding the Terms
In the America that shaped my understanding of the world, socialism was linked to communism, and communism was simply wrong. Communism, as we understood it, was not just unproductive and unworkable, it was also evil. Ronald Reagan even called the Soviet Union an evil empire.
Why evil? Both Soviet-bloc and Chinese Communism both were known for their repression of religion and for stifling freedom across the board. People in the Soviet bloc were literally prisoners in their own countries, unable to freely travel abroad.
This was communism as it was portrayed to us. And for many, if not most of us, this was also socialism. Many believed that socialism was a less-extreme form of communism, but that the end result was the same: people who were not free … lazy people who looked for a handout instead of working … an economic system that would not work.
So, France, for example, was socialist while the Soviet bloc was communist. But both were doomed to economic and social failure.
Now, way back in some 101-level college class, I learned that socialism was simply an economic organization designed to distribute more evenly a society’s wealth, while Communism — at least the Marxist version we all know and love — was a government form designed to force a state-run socialist system on a partially unwilling population.
So socialism should be compared to capitalism as an economic system, while Communism should be compared to Democracy as a governmental system.
This is vital to understanding that socialism is not in opposition to Democracy or freedom, as many Americans seem to believe. Anyone who lives in Western Europe, where most of the nations are relatively socialist, can attest to this. One could argue that France’s democracy is much more vibrant than America’s, with an extremely literate and well-informed population frequently taking to the streets and calling for general strikes to make its voice heard by its government.
Yet the people of this vibrant democracy have chosen to use socialism in their economic system to a much larger extent than have Americans.
I stress to a much larger extent because Americans use socialism too. We have socialized police and fire protection, socialized education, socialized retirement insurance and health care for our most vulnerable citizens.
We even have “private socialism,” which is basically how one might define any insurance plan. Everyone pays in so that those who find themselves in need (because of a hurricane, a car accident, or sickness) will not be economically ruined by the unfortunate event.
Of course, we don’t use the S-word to describe any of this.
Which Protestant Ethic?
“But that is exactly how we view socialism,” said Louise back in Nairobi.
“Perhaps it’s more normal for us to think like this,” she said. “Perhaps it is part of our Protestant ethic.
“We’re all on welfare, in a way. We all freely receive all kinds of things. So perhaps it is easier for us to imagine giving back so that others can freely receive.”
It fascinated me that to her, socialism was part of her culture’s Protestant ethic.
I had only ever heard of the Protestant ethic with the word “work” inserted in the middle.
In America, our social programs — at least the ones we notice — tend to be in the form of handouts to the poor and the vulnerable. So everyone pays, but only the needy receive. Naturally, there is a certain disdain for this from Americans, who tend to value rugged individualism and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
Many Christians even quote often from the Gospel According to Benjamin Franklin, thinking that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.
In majority-culture evangelical churches, passages against idleness and handouts like “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” tended to be preached and taught much more often than their relatively obscure stature might suggest.
Louise made me wonder if American evangelicals, whose gospel message stresses that God’s salvation does not come by works but through God’s grace, realize that the Protestant work ethic, and the attitudes it produces, perhaps run contrary to their doctrine.
The Bible is filled with Scriptures about the poor and exhortations for followers of God to seek justice and protection for them, and to identify with their helplessness as our true state before God.
In the book of Acts we have those two passages about life in the early church (might we call them the founding fathers of the church?), two passages rarely championed as ideals for Christians in evangelical sermons I have heard.
Acts 2:44-45 reads, “All that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
And then in Acts 4:32-37: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Could it be that the humility the Scriptures suggest should be evident in any person who understands that he or she has done nothing to merit God’s grace is being undermined by an even more fundamental belief in our individual merit?
Frankly, I found Louise’s thinking much closer to the biblical attitudes I find in Scripture than those of many of the people I have heard crying out about socialism. If you pay close attention to the protests and the protesters, you will notice a recurrent theme: Don’t take from me to give to those who won’t work and don’t deserve it.
Don’t give it to those illegal aliens and those good-for-nothing people who won’t work for it. And then, don’t support health care because it will be used to support sinners (i.e., people who don’t deserve it on a moral basis).
Many Americans tend to see socialism as, robbing from the rich in order to give to the poor. Western Europeans like Louise tend to see socialism as solidarity, everyone pays into the system, but everyone gets something in return.
The City Wall
Centuries ago, most European cities had walls built around them in order to protect the population from marauders and invading armies. Imagine everyone in the city having to provide work and materials for the construction of the wall. Was this an early form of socialism?
Why not a private system in which each one built his or her private wall? Obviously, this would be an impractical and ineffective way of keeping out the enemy. Pulling everyone’s resources together for a common, well-built wall made more sense than some piecemeal wall with huge gaps.
In the same way today, I pay high taxes here in France, but each month I receive a check from the government to help with the expenses for my three children, my kids will be able to go to university for free as long as they perform well enough to continue, and my health care is largely covered, even if I lose my job, change jobs, go back to school, etc.
This just makes sense to most people here. The wall works for everyone, so why not pay your part?
Louise admitted that in Sweden, as is the case in France, this concept has come under more stress now that many of those who live inside the walls of Europe are not Europeans. People have a much harder time with solidarity when it has to be done with Turks, or Africans, or Arabs — people with different skin colors, cultures, languages, and values.
But that’s another subject. Or is it?
Perhaps when the Christian woman cried and talked about losing her America, what she really was feeling had little to do with socialism and had a lot more to do with the same struggles that Louise’s socialist countrymen are struggling with in Sweden. Majority-culture Americans are perhaps feeling what if feels like to have to share space — and power and resources — with people who don’t believe like them, don’t think like them, and perhaps don’t look like them. The United States now even has a black president! Indeed, this is not the America they are used to.
I’m not talking about racism. I’m talking about a very human desire to build our wall with people like us. Barn raisings and community fundraisers, or special church offerings for hurting people … none of those things are called socialism or condemned as ungodly. But those things are usually done for people inside our wall. People like us — or people far enough away from us (like in an African or Haitian village) that we don’t have to deal with them in our everyday lives.
But in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners — who knew they were to love their neighbors as themselves — to consider just who was their neighbor. The answer: It’s not always the neighbor who is like you.
It’s too easy and unproductive to label this inwardly turned streak of our human condition as “racism.”
But it is also too easy to slap the “socialism” and “un-American” labels on everything that we don’t like without examining what is really going on in our hearts. Once we stop worrying about bogeymen like Communism and dictatorships, we can start thinking on another level.
Followers of Christ, in particular, would do well to look less to the founding fathers as their model and instead look to the heavenly Father, who has expressed His love for them, giving to them freely, just as He loves all those people they would rather not have inside their city walls.
This may not mean that everyone will support health care. But it should lead Christians to humility and grace rather than what we are seeing all too often during this present debate.