All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1960

Socialism: Spiritual or Secular?

A clergyman, who has served since 1945 as a missionary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Eritrea, East Africa, takes excep­tion to certain views of some highly-placed spokesmen for organized religion.

One of the strange ironies of this generation is the fact that the Christian Church has lent its moral support to the advance of socialism. This is not to say that the majority of Christians are so­cialists, but by and large Chris­tians have supported either social­ism or interventionist policies that lead progressively toward social­ism.

One fact that must impress a reader of the works of modern theologians and church leaders is the almost universal lack of in­terest in or knowledge of some of the basic principles of economics. In fact, one gets the impression that they view economics as a purely secular science whose find­ings are thus suspect from the start. They are not interested in the secular but in the spiritual. A writer from England in discussing the Welfare State leaves the prob­lem of the financial practicability of the Welfare State to the econ­omists) His interest lies solely in the Christian attitude toward this new conception of the work of the State. He concludes that the Wel­fare State is in accord with Chris­tian principles. It seems never to have entered his mind that if the Welfare State cannot provide the welfare which it claims is its duty to secure for the citizens, the Christian should oppose it as a visionary scheme. It does not oc­cur to him that the economic prac­ticability of the scheme should be of primary concern.

One cannot but be stunned by the complete lack of evidence of knowledge of or concern for basic economic facts in the writings of most of the outstanding theolo­gians of today. The attitude of these writers and of Christians gen­erally seems to be that since economics deals with material things, it cannot be the concern of a spiri­tual organization, the Church. So men of international repute con­tinue to write and exert a wide in­fluence on Christendom in the field of man’s social relations, ignoring the science that deals specifically with important aspects of that relationship.

Likewise, the very mention of the word capitalist or capitalism, and especially of laissez-faire capi­talism, immediately stirs up an ad­verse emotional response if not one of outright hostility in the minds of most Christians. Emil Brunner, who is classed as one of the bitter­est opponents of communism by many, equates capitalism with an unrestrained, unlimited individ­ualism that is destructive of jus­tice for the common man. Paul Tillich speaks of class war as the secret condition of all capitalist society and says that “free econ­omy tends necessarily toward in­finite commercial imperialism.”2 Reinhold Niebuhr, especially in his earlier years, looked upon cap­italism as incompatible with the necessities of a technical civiliza­tion and a system that brought about overproduction, unemploy­ment crises, and a breakdown in the system of distribution. Karl Barth has always been one of the most ardent warriors against what he terms “bourgeois capitalism.”

To many the term capitalist con­jures up the concepts: exploiter, rugged individualist, tycoon, busi­ness magnate, monopoly—all of which bear a distinctly evil conno­tation in their minds. Individual­ism is viewed as the very opposite of social concern and brotherhood and inimical to the Christian con­cept of love. Profits are set in con­trast to service, the term big business is equivalent to exploita­tion and injustice. Capitalism is concerned only with earning more money while the Christian’s con­cern lies in the higher spiritual realm.

Thus, while Christians may re­ject complete socialism as a system hostile to Christian ethics, almost as emphatically they reject capi­talism as crass materialism. The apologetic attitude of many entre­preneurs toward profits lends mor­al support to this viewpoint.

Wrong Problem, Wrong Answer

Capitalism, which is the fruit of sound economics, is deemed by many Christians as one of the main contributing causes to the materialistic spirit of our age. With the increase in the standard of living and the search for more material comforts has come a breakdown in morals in the home, the Church, and in the State. The greed, dishonesty, covetousness, juvenile delinquency, growing di­vorce rate, increased drunkenness, and crime are all attributed open­ly, or in the minds of many, to the materialism inherent in capi­talism. With the increase in ma­terial comforts effected by capital­ism has come a concomitant de­crease in adherence to moral stand­ards, and so a causal relationship is assumed.

To be consistent, Christians who come to this conclusion should ad­vocate a lowering of the standard of living and poverty as the cure for this ill. Very few, however, are ready to draw this consistent con­clusion. Rather, they seek the solu­tion along Marxian lines. They are hostile to the atheism of Marx and to what they consider to be his materialism. Yet they believe gov­ernment intervention toward equal­izing the wealth will help elimi­nate selfishness, greed, and ma­terialism. In their estimation the Christian religion requires self­less love and being our brother’s keeper. This they feel is best ful­filled by the Welfare State.

So it is that multitudes of sin­cere Christians who are deeply concerned about the spiritual life of the Church follow their out­spoken leaders in openly advocat­ing or at least not opposing a progressive socialization of our society. Most of them no doubt do this from the sincere conviction that they are thus promoting the spiritual over against the secular. Few, certainly no Christian, would quarrel with their desire to im­prove the general welfare of all, or with their concern for improve­ment in the general morality, in respect for the authority of par­ents and for the law. Materialism, when it is defined as placing the love for material goods in place of love for God, is certainly con­trary to Christian virtue.

We may well approve the sin­cerity of such persons and the noble ends they seek. However, no matter how earnest they may be, if the system they advocate is incapable of realizing their own noble ends, we must oppose their principles on those grounds. It can also readily be demonstrated that the carrying out of these principles involves direct defiance of the revealed moral law of God.

Wealth as a Means

In the first place, such views involve a false antithesis between the secular and the spiritual. For the Christian the material goods of this life should be viewed as gifts of God that are to be used to his glory. In the Bible sin is never inherent in matter but rather lies in the thoughts and deeds of men with its fountain in the evil heart. God has placed us in the world he created, given us the intellects and strength to utilize the resources of the world for our good and for his glory. The Bible tells us, “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31) Certainly this involves using material goods in obedience to the specific commands of God. It also involves using them in the service of the kingdom of God and for our Saviour, Jesus Christ. It also involves permeating our use of the things God created with an attitude of devotion and worship to God. When secularism or ma­terialism is defined as the act of making an idol of things, honor­ing, loving, and serving them in­stead of God rather than using them for God’s glory, the Chris­tian may well seek to prevent its creeping into the Church. But in Christianity there is no evil in­herent in things nor is the pos­session of material goods sinful. The sin of materialism lies rather in making of goods an idol that is worshiped and served in the place of God.

The Role of Economics

The thinking of these people is characterized by lack of eco­nomic understanding. This omis­sion is a grave one, and one that of necessity involves them in seri­ous inconsistencies and opposition to the very principles of Chris­tianity to which they hold. It is a gross misunderstanding of the study of economics that classes it as a secular science dealing with the material realm which is of no concern to the Christian. Eco­nomics does not deal with the ultimate ends of man, his highest religious or moral ideals. It deals rather with the means man chooses to attain his ends and seeks to show whether these means are fit to attain the ends aimed at or not.3

Certainly most Christians agree that a decrease in infant mortality, increase in the span of our life, a progressive upgrade in our stand­ard of living, elimination of poverty and misery are ends con­sistent with Christian ideals and toward the ultimate glory of God and our good as God’s creatures. The question economics deals with is whether free enterprise and a government limited to the suppres­sion of evil or whether state in­terference in the economy, government control and ownership in the means of production is the means best suited to the accom­plishment of these ends.

The science of economics has demonstrated clearly that social­ism is a system unable to realize the ends it claims as its own. The more consistently it is applied, the more the mass of men are impover­ished. Complete world-wide social­ism must lead to chaos because without the market economy eco­nomic calculation would be impos­sible.4 It has been demonstrated that socialism must lead progres­sively to loss of freedoms and to slavery.5 The Christian who is ignorant of economics should op­pose socialism and government in­tervention in the economy, except to restrain evil, because such in­tervention of necessity involves de­fiance of the moral law. It is the use of coercion for a purpose other than to restrain evil which is con­trary to the law of God. It in­volves a redistribution of the wealth, which is theft. It is based on the sinful tendency of men to covet that which is not theirs in opposition to the command, “Thou shalt not covet.” Thus on moral grounds alone, socialism and inter­ventionism should be rejected. In this rational world created by God, wrong means must always result in failure to achieve the ends de­sired. So, even those who reject the finality of the moral law (to their own hurt) should reject so­cialism and interventionism because they have been demonstrated inadequate to achieve the ends at which they aim.

In Defense of Laissez-Faire

Christians often oppose capital­ism because of a complete mis­understanding of what capitalism is. Laissez-faire capitalism simply teaches that men ought to be free except to do evil. The work of the government is that of the police, to restrain evil. Capitalism has been characterized as a system of irresponsible freedom, a harsh sys­tem unconcerned for the welfare of mankind. On the contrary, it is the system that alone can benefit the mass of mankind best. It is improper restraints on freedom along with inadequate restraint of evil that lead to poverty and suf­fering for all.

Capitalism allows free play to ideas which of necessity are the product of individual minds and by means of which progress and the well-being of all is best pro­moted. Capitalism advocates the restraint of evil which is the greatest deterrent to the happi­ness and well-being of each. It is the system in accord with Chris­tian ideals and ideas. It promotes the greatest equality of wealth that is consistent with Christian morals and progress. It recognizes the truth of Ricardo’s law of as­sociation which shows that peaceful noncoercive cooperation results in the greatest benefit to the weak and to the strong—with the weak benefiting even more than the strong. The efficient use of our various abilities in the division of labor in capitalistic production is the factor that utilizes cooperation to the fullest in mass production for the masses and results in cheaper prices for the so-called common man.

Capitalism is the system that alone allows freedom of thought, of criticism, and of religion. Under no other system can the Christian Church be free to propagate its ideas. Only under capitalism can the Christian freely teach the Christian message of the sover­eignty and love of God, of salva­tion by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and of the necessity of love for God and of obedience to his law as the means to the great­est happiness in this life and the next. It is a fateful irony that has led the Church to support a system inimical to its own interests.

Christians idolize Karl Marx and socialism because of a complete misapprehension. The materialism of Marx is not materialism in the sense used by Christians. It is rather the completely untenable view that it is the material pro­ductive forces that determine so­ciety’s structure and man’s religious and other views. Marx­ianism, deprived of its atheism, is viewed as compatible with Chris­tian ideals. This shows complete unawareness of the fact that the system has been demonstrated as utterly unfit to attain its ends and the welfare of the proletariat, that it is wholly at variance with Christian morals, and is a system that demands as one of its precepts almost complete loss of freedom and a strong dictatorship. Only ignorance of Christianity and of Marx could lead a Christian to laud his system as ideal.

Worship of the State

Christians may well bemoan the increased lawlessness, disrespect for the State, parents, and for law, in our generation. H. M. Carson says, “One strange result of the growing concern by the state for the welfare of its members has been a growing lack of respect for the state.”6 Christians have turned to the State to secure their well-being. They want the power­ful State to subsidize the less pros­perous workers, to pay their medical bills, to support them in old age, to protect weak industries, to educate their children, in fact to provide for their welfare from the cradle to the grave. The law has been perverted from its pur­pose of restraining evil to the work of redistributing the income to satisfy special groups of voters. It soon becomes evident that the State cannot pay Paul without rob­bing Peter, and the Peters and Pauls both lose respect for the law that, instead of restraining evil, perpetrates it.

This lack of respect for the State, which cannot replace the security of individual initiative and savings, is the natural fruit of the principles of the Welfare State. Law that perverts the jus­tice which is its province to main­tain will not long retain the respect of its victims or of its beneficiaries. This disrespect for law will carry over into the home, and children, whose parents have lost respect for the laws of the State, will likewise lose respect for the divinely constituted authority of the parents. The very system that defies God’s law in order to equalize the wealth must breed a spirit of lawlessness and material­ism. With the law favoring one group at the expense of another, each will seek to be on the re­ceiving end of the government’s beneficence. This, and not capital­ism, is what breeds the spirit of materialism and lawlessness.

Less Intervention—Not More

The solution to the problems of our society does not lie in in­creased government intervention but rather in a return to the prin­ciples of laissez-faire capitalism and of Christianity. It lies in ad­herence to the moral law by in­dividuals and by the State. It lies in government, not of special privilege, but by law. It involves government by law that secures equal justice for all and special privilege for none. Law that does not grant special privileges to labor or to business. Law that treats the rich the same as the poor, the black the same as the white, the Christian the same as the non-Christian. Law that metes out justice firmly and equally.

When men are free to promote and practice their ideas unre­strained except when they inter­fere with the same rights of others, and when government is restricted to the work of restrain­ing evil, then and only then may we expect the trend toward social­ism, war, and poverty to reverse itself. When the Christian Church and Christians learn that God’s law requires freedom except to do evil to others, and when they see that Christian ideals and the wel­fare of all are best served by the principles of laissez-faire capital­ism rightly understood, greater re­spect for the message of the Church regarding salvation and the future life will be generated.


1 ‘Carson, H. M., The Christian and the State. London: Tyndale Press.

2 Tillich, Paul. The Religious Situation. New York: Meridian Press, Inc., n.d. p. 72.

3 See Ludwig von Mises’ Human Ac­tion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.

4 Ibid., chapter 26.

5 See Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serf­dom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.

6 Carson, H. M. op. cit., p. 32.

  • A graduate of Wheaton College in 1941 and Westminster Theological Seminary in 1944, Mr. Mahaffy served as a missionary to Eritrea for twenty-three years. In 1968, he was appointed Evangelist for the Presbytery of the Midwest and served faithfully in that role, helping to establish Hope OPC, Libertyville, Illinois, Christ OPC, Janesville, Wisconsin, and Trinity OPC, Chicago.