Kamala Harris on June 1, 2019, addressing the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Photo by Peter Maiden

A Christian on Socialism

By Ronald Martin

(Editor’s note: The following piece is the author’s reaction to comments made by KMJ radio host Jim Franklin about Nora O’Donnell’s interview of Kamala Harris on 60 Minutes. The interview took place on Oct. 25, and the author wrote this text just before Election Day.)

As I listened to Jim Franklin’s reply to the 60 Minutes interview with Kamala Harris by Nora O’Donnell seeking repeatedly to pin the “socialist” label on Harris, I wished I had heard a different reply from Harris. Yes, our VP candidate was evasive, suggesting her background would predict what sort of socialist she would or would not be.

I’ll add here that I am an evangelical Christian, a member of Fresno’s First Baptist Church. I believe that our obedience to God’s Word calls us to support progressive political policies as living out God’s command to love our neighbors.

Harris could have asked O’Donnell to explain her meaning of “socialism.” It is a word with many meanings throughout history, and as I learned in college, any significant writing needs to clearly define major terms used in the paper and not assume that readers already know the sense in which the work will be used, or that they must pick it up in the course of reading.

“Socialism” has been used to describe an idealized phase of Karl Marx’s series of societies in his Manifesto. It could describe the repressive Russian society under Leninist-Stalinist domination. It could describe the compassionate social ideals and accomplishments of Germany’s Christian Socialist Party.

It could simply mean some assumptions of some functions of a society by its government, including our socialized public road system, our federal post office, our public libraries, the Veterans’ Administration hospitals, Medicare, Medicaid and Medi-Cal, the Centers for Disease Control and so many other institutions that our civilized nation has pioneered and developed.

These are examples of our Christian heritage and culture, our answers to Jesus’ Model Prayer, that “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” as we live out our love on a national level by providing for our neighbors’ transportation, communication, information, healthcare and more.

Even on that evening’s 60 Minutes, an interviewed voter expressed her fear of socialism under Biden. Again, this term went undefined. Why do many conservatives and Christians simply assume that socialism is unGodly evil from which we should run? Is this out of scripture? Certainly not from the end of Acts, Chapter 4, when “the believers held all things in common.”

I have an idea what conservatives are referring to with the term “socialism”: higher taxes. That’s assumed to be what would be needed to pay for social programs. And that’s correct. Would that be bad? Would that constitute a form of stealing, or something? Certainly not.

The stealing, such as it is, has already been done by the 0.1%, by legal and illegal means, steadily concentrating more and more wealth to themselves as they lower wages; legislating away worker rights and unions with their staff of lawyers and lobbyists backed by campaign contributions and firing workers after implementing automation and other technologies; and pushing for myriads of tax breaks, then advocating the cutting of social programs, or “austerity,” as these programs tend to be paid for with borrowed money.

Perhaps the term “theft” isn’t what we should be talking about in either direction, the taxation or the tax cuts.

When progressives such as the Democratic Presidential candidates who were not nominated are described as socialist, or describe themselves with this term, what they mean is that ordinary Americans, the 99.9%, should have a share in enjoying the fruits of their labor. And policies that move in that direction have been labeled “socialist,” and this is supposedly a bad thing. Why?

If socialism is so compassionate, so loving and so beneficial to the vast majority of ordinary Americans, why do many of them speak and vote against it? The question of Joe the Plumber to Obama when he was running is perhaps a clue. He objected to raising tax on incomes above $250,000/year believing that someday he would make more than that and he didn’t want it to be taxed heavily.

This is magical, wishful thinking and sinful as well, hoping that he can rise to a position where society serves him, not him serving society through service he would offer with sharing of the proceeds of common work. Certainly, those who serve more, through organizations they work through and build, by wisely using their endowments, should be paid more for what they do. But what should the limits be? Does their wealth accumulation have to be unlimited? Do we really want to promote this sort of thinking? Why?

I saw a survey of people’s beliefs about the incomes of American quintiles: what the salary range is in each quintile, what they should be, then presenting what they really are. Folks believed that the highest quintile made many times more than the lowest one. They believed that this difference should be reduced. But the real distribution is more extreme than they believed. And it is getting more extreme with time, and economic factors are in place to keep this going at an accelerated pace.

Keep in mind that democracy does not survive in societies with great income maldistribution. The citizens see that for them, participation in democracy simply isn’t worth it. It accomplishes nothing of importance. Americans are beginning to go in this direction, finding that work to “better themselves” doesn’t pay off well, and it isn’t paying off well for their children, families, other relatives and friends. If it isn’t working for them, how would it work for me? they ask.

A similar situation existed in Germany in the 1930s, with the World War I treaties leaving Germans with little reward for their labor. They sought change. Hitler seemed to offer it, with a source of the problem: the Jews! More recently, Americans turned toward a proto-fascist leader, Donald Trump, who we are about to reject—praise God!

Why do Trump voters speak of fear of socialism, even voting against candidates who will not even call themselves socialists, but their opponents do? It may be the thinking of Joe the Plumber, or an irrational conviction that prosperity comes from giving more and more money to the wealthy, for creating jobs. This irrationality is despite that fact that the wealthy already have more money than they need to create jobs; money isn’t the limiting factor. Markets are, and trained labor is.

Why invest in hiring people to produce goods when the corporations already have warehouses (or production capacity) full of goods that aren’t selling? Giving the rich more money doesn’t help here.

Another hope in tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks is that new founts of money-making will bring back good times, “Happy Times Are Here Again,” of wild new development of some market or technology when businesses are making so much money that they’ll hire anyone standing around and with before-unheard-of wages and salaries.

A problem with these situations is that they then don’t last forever and, are only repeatable with a new technology or market. Once the happy days calm down, the shakeout comes, and things return to doldrums—probably with few social institutions to help us all—leaving people to crave another boom.

Another Republican candidate promises one. Yet the remnants of the last boom are around us, with its results of toxic waste, meaningless labor, foreclosed houses, enslavements to screen time and so forth, depending on the nature of the boom.

I really hope that President Biden takes the label of “socialist” that conservatives have stuck on him and runs with it. In his first two years, he should push hard for tax justice, repealing the Trump tax “reform” and going far in the opposite direction, taxing the great masses of wealth that our 0.1% have amassed to fund the many neglected programs we need for our people and nation, without debt, perhaps paying off some of Trump’s most massive deficit of any presidential years: $3 trillion more added to our $18 trillion of debt. National debt, remember, is largely a way for paying out our tax money as interest to the 0.1%, both in the United States and China.

A Biden administration, in its first precious two years, could solve our homeless problem by returning to federal public housing programs and creating jobs by building low-cost dwellings, staffed with adequate management and support services. Private developers make the most money building luxury housing, not the low-cost housing we need.

 Instead, in the last 40 years, we have pushed more and more of our neighbors out to sleep in the open with little place to store any belongings, simply because towns haven’t built enough houses for them. Do we call this civilized?

A Biden administration could correct the problem that Trump points out to distract us from the forest fire devastation resulting from global warming: Forests that are not thinned or burned for many years are destroyed in conflagrations of the accumulated fuel.

The U.S. Forest Service was cut to the bone under Clinton’s “right-sizing” of bureaucracies, cutting staff who could have done the thinning work. The nation has citizens ready to take good Forest Service employment and do the job.

And, most important, a Biden administration could lead the world in preserving God’s creation for future generations by stopping burning fossil fuels, leaving the oil, gas and coal in the ground as he creates jobs building networks of electric vehicle charging stations, and moving forward on the full electrification of our transportation systems.

Biden’s administration could create more employment by moving agriculture to sustainable methods of farming, which itself sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

If you want to call these sorts of desperately needed programs “socialism,” go ahead, but do not imply that socialism is somehow a bad thing. And I really hope you don’t preach that Christians are somehow called to vote against “socialism”—unless you give that term a clear definition we can agree would be bad for us, that would be the opposite of “the light of the world. A city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).

*****

Ronald Martin is the president of Fresnans against Fracking and a member of the Energy Committee of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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