Jesus Was A Socialist

12/25/2016 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2017

As people around the world celebrate Christmas, it is worth remembering that Jesus was a socialist. Of course, he was born long before the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, but his radical ideas have influenced many critics of capitalism, including many prominent socialists and even Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has consistently criticized the human and spiritual damage caused by global capitalism, widening inequality, and corporate sweatshops. Last week, he blamed the "god of money" for the extremist violence that is taking place around the world. A ruthless global economy, he argued, leads marginalized people to violence.

In 2013, he released a remarkable 84-page document in which he attacked unfettered capitalism as "a new tyranny," criticized the "idolatry of money," and urged politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare."

"Today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills," Pope Francis wrote. "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

During the last year, as Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign gained momentum, the word "socialism" generated lots of media attention because Sanders described himself as a "democratic socialist." In November, Americans elected a staunch capitalist, Donald Trump, as president, but a majority of Americans - and even many of those who voted for Trump - disagree with his policy ideas.

Few Americans call themselves socialists, but many of them share socialists' critiques of American-style capitalism, including the widening gap between the rich and the rest, the greed of the super-rich, the undue influence of Wall Street and big business in politics, and the persistence of widespread poverty and hunger in our affluent society.

The idea of Christian socialism has a long and proud tradition. As capitalism emerged in the mid-1800s, many of its fiercest critics based their ideas on Jesus' teachings.

"No one can serve two masters," Jesus says in Matthew 6:24. "Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." I

In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'"

Jesus not only urged people to be kind to others in their everyday lives. He was also talking about those in government who ruled over others, including the priests who ruled Judea for Rome and the rulers of the Roman empire.

Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) -- often called the "workers' pope" -- echoed similar ideas. His 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum ("On the Condition of Labor") focused attention on the dehumanizing conditions in which many workers labored. He affirmed workers' rights to just wages, rest, and fair treatment, to form unions, and to strike if necessary. He called on governments to promote a more equal distribution of resources and said, in particular, that the poor "have a claim to special consideration." He did not espouse socialism, but his attacks on capitalism for its endorsement of greed, its concentration of wealth, and its mistreatment of workers had a major influence on the emerging socialist movement in Europe and America.

Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), an American Baptist minister, was a leading Christian socialist. Like Pope Leo, he championed the rights of working people and a more equal distribution of wealth and income, which he believed reflected Jesus' teachings. In 1891, Bellamy was fired from his Boston pulpit for preaching against the evils of capitalism and describing Jesus as a socialist. But he's best known as the author of the "Pledge of Allegiance," which he wrote in 1892 as an antidote to Gilded Age greed, misguided materialism, and hyper-individualism, reflected in those radical words "with liberty and justice for all." (Ironically, Bellamy did not include the words "under God" in the original Pledge. They were added by Congress in 1953 at the height of the Cold War).

Many of America's leading socialists -- including labor leader Eugene Debs, settlement house founder Jane Addams, Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, and Helen Keller -- rooted their views in their Christian faith, which became known as "social gospel." Indeed, many of the leaders of America's socialist movement, including Norman Thomas (1884-1968) -- who ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket and was often called "America's conscience" -- were Protestant clergy.

Throughout American history, some of the nation's most influential activists and thinkers, such as philosopher John Dewey, sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, scientist Albert Einstein, poet Katherine Lee Bates (who wrote "America the Beautiful"), muckraking writer Upton Sinclair, labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther, civil rights crusader Martin Luther King, feminists Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Gloria Steinem, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker movement) embraced democratic socialism.

In the early 1900s, socialists led the movements for women's suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws and the progressive income tax. In 1911, Victor Berger, a socialist congressman from Milwaukee, sponsored the first bill to create "old age pensions." The bill didn't get very far, but two decades later, in the midst of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to enact Social Security. Even then, some critics denounced it as un-American. But today, most Americans, even conservatives, believe that Social Security is a good idea. What had once seemed radical has become common sense.

Much of FDR's other New Deal legislation -- the minimum wage, workers' right to form unions and public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed -- was first espoused by American socialists. Socialists have long pushed for a universal health insurance plan, which helped create the momentum for stepping-stone measures such as Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s.

Socialists were in the forefront of the civil rights movement from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

King believed that America needed a "radical redistribution of economic and political power." In October 1964, he called for a "gigantic Marshall Plan" for the poor -- black and white. Later that year, after he he traveled to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he told friends that the U.S. could learn much from Scandinavian "democratic socialism." In fact, he told his staff, "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism."

During the Cold War, many Americans confused democratic socialism with communism. In fact, democratic socialists opposed the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China and their satellites. That's because democratic socialism is about democracy -- giving ordinary people a greater voice in both politics and the workplace.

Sanders' version of democratic socialism is akin to what most people around the world call "social democracy," which seeks to make capitalism more humane.

This is why Sanders often said that the U.S. should learn from Sweden, Norway and Denmark -- countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider safety net

Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Denmark as the #1 country for business. The United States ranked #18.

European social democracies put greater emphasis on government enterprise, but even most Americans favor government-run police departments, fire departments, national parks, municipally-owned utilities, local subway systems and public state universities.

Today's democratic socialists believe in private enterprise but think it should be subject to rules that guarantee businesses act responsibly. Banks shouldn't engage in reckless predatory lending. Energy corporations shouldn't endanger and planet and public health by emitting too much pollution. Companies should be required to guarantee that consumer products (like cars and toys) are safe and that companies pay decent wages and provide safe workplaces.

Democratic socialism also means reducing the political influence of the super rich and big corporations, increasing taxes of the wealthy to help pay for expanded public services like child care, public transit, and higher education, reducing barriers to voting, and strengthening regulations of business to require them to be more socially responsible in terms of their employees, consumers and the environment. That means a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and paid vacations, and safer workplaces.

A poll earlier this year found that among Americans under 50, a majority are critical of capitalism. Although the word "socialism" has often been demonized, public opinion polls show that a vast majority of Americans agree with these ideas. For example, 74% think corporations have too much influence; 73% favor tougher regulation of Wall Street; 60% believe that "our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy;" 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics; 58% support breaking up big banks; 79% think the wealthy don't pay their fair share of taxes; 85% favor paid family leave; 80% of Democrats and half the public support single-payer Medicare for all; 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, while 63% favor a $15 minimum wage; well over 70% support workers' rights to unionize; and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.

There's a great deal of pent-up demand for a candidate who articulates Americans' frustrations with the status quo. Trump exploited those frustrations with a campaign based on racism, intolerance, and xenophobia. But a candidate who can channel those frustrations in a way that inspires hope rather than fear can build on the long tradition of Christian socialism and social democracy.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).