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The Church of Socialism

As Margaret Thatcher now retires from the public arena due to ill health, I still remember well the scene as she assumed the pulpit as Prime Minister to deliver her address on “Christianity and Wealth” to the 1988 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

What was also memorable for other reasons was the sight of various ministers of Scotland’s largest presbyterian denomination queuing up to register their formal protests before she began her famous “Sermon on the Mound” (the Mound being the site of the General Assembly building).

One may wonder what their protests were about. Was it because Margaret Thatcher had publicly denounced the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or cast doubt upon the physical resurrection of Christ? Not very likely since a lot of them had themselves jettisoned such “outdated” notions long ago. No, it was because they were socialists and she was a conservative. It was because they saw themselves as the champions of the poor and her as the champion of the rich. Prophets versus profits and all those types of tired clichés.  By way of example, one of their own, the Principal of the leading Scottish faculty of theology, the New College, said this of the Thatcherite didactic (cited from this link):

“There is a crisis and a challenge to theology when the gospel is reduced to slogans or weapons which the prosperous and powerful use to defend their privilege against the weak and poor.”

Examining the speech (see here for extracts) makes me wonder whether the principal and I were reading the same address. In it she emphasised personal responsibility and the importance of wealth creation as opposed to the wealth redistribution that they love the State for. Margaret Thatcher quoted the well-known maxim from St. Paul that “If a man will not work he should not eat.” which would surely raise the hackles of those who fail to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

There must have been a delicious sense of irony (or revenge?) when mere months later, the Conservative government imposed the head or Poll Tax on Scotland, but not the rest of the British Isles for a further year. If that had happened before the Sermon on the Mound, I could see them queuing up to throttle her instead.

Even the smaller and more doctrinally conservative churches are not free of this prevailing socialist mindset as we see in the presbyterian denomination called the Free Church of Scotland. Some readers may recall that their leading theologian, Professor Donald MacLeod, was at the centre of a sexual harassment case involving several women a few years back and which eventually led to yet another breakaway, presbyterian group called the Free Church Continuing being formed in protest.

One example will suffice to show this when I recall one of their ministers offering up this peon of praise to Almighty God: “We thank thee, O Lord, for the government’s Working Families Tax Credit scheme!”. Well, when that particular brother reaches the Golden Shore, he may find that the devil was in the details. Neither should we think he is a peculiarity to that denomination as we read the various columns by their leading lights which would no doubt draw a hearty but atheistic “Amen!” from the socialist plutocracy in Scotland.

One wonders what their most famous forefather, Thomas Chalmers, would make of them today. Chalmers was one of the leading churchmen of Britain in the early 19th century as he embarked on his famous experiment of the “godly commonwealth” in poor inner-city parishes to establish private schools and financial support based on the recipient’s moral character and self-help ethos using private funds. He opposed democracy as a sure route to anarchy, condemned trade unions and believed in the voluntary redistribution of wealth via philanthropic activity. Indeed, the authors Drummond and Bulloch said of Chalmers:

He gave something like a divine sanction to the consequences of uninhibited free enterprise.

And, as Clifford Thies remarks in his article on Chalmers:

Chalmers’ efforts to reform the poor laws went hand in hand with his opposition to the Corn Laws, which restricted international trade in order to “protect” domestic agriculture; to grants of legal monopoly to industry; to prohibitions against free unions; and, to the heavy burden of taxation upon the labouring classes. In all these cases, he saw government interferences with the workings of a free society – including both its competitive and cooperative spheres – as disrupting the natural, or even the divine order of things.

It seems that the Free Church of Scotland’s main founder and greatest luminary was a christian libertarian and truly a man of vital energy and ideas. A self-made man driven by the grace of God who could motivate those around him into the belief that the solution to poverty lay not in the State but in their own direct sacrifice and effort. What more could we expect from a man and his fellows who split from the Church of Scotland in 1843 and built their own churches and college with no help from anyone but themselves and often in the teeth of opposition from those in authority. We very much doubt that Chalmers would countenance modern State lottery funds for church development grants!

In complete contrast today, the aforementioned Free Church Continuing is going cap in hand to the State in order to sue the original Free Church for all its assets rather than getting their hands working in the manner of their 1843 forefathers. Chalmers’ spiritual progeny now give thanks to God for State handouts rather than the tools God has placed in their own hands. What a pity.

Despite the drive for individual reformation that these churchmen inspired, something went terribly wrong as the liberal gospel of the higher critics took hold and with it came the socialisation and humanisation of the gospel message. Ecclesiastical leaders are now only distinguishable from Statist social workers by their dog collars and they preach a message of salvation via economic and political equality. As the Anglican Church was once called the Tories at prayer, then so we could today describe the Church of Scotland and its off-spins as the Socialists at prayer.

So, what does this tell us about a small country like Scotland? One immediate inference would be that we do not have full possession and control over what we think or profess. Scotland is a predominantly socialist country and it is no surprise that it should produce socialist-minded churches. The well-known psychology of herd mentality and peer pressure establishes that beyond doubt.

If you are surrounded by people who espouse a certain philosophy then there is a higher than average probability that you will end up espousing the same views. This is especially assured if one was brought up as a child in such communities. The fact that one may object to this on the grounds that one has studied and confirmed the subject for themselves does not bear much water when everyone is claiming the same thing for opposing views in opposing communities to the extent that they may even use the same “empirical” data to draw out different inferences. One good example of this is the Bible itself and the degree of apparent ambiguity that lies within it to spawn a variety of political and economic interpretations that so often lends itself more to personal bias and the surrounding culture than sound exegesis.

And, yes, without personal bias, I believe the Bible teaches a minimalist, non-socialist State!

Furthermore, this state of affairs is no doubt magnified by the near parochial size of the country and the ease which this offers to the more rapid transfer of information and opinions of the best or worst kind.

So be it, but one further situation which adds to the status quo is the unjustified mentality of the “oppressed ones” that Scotland has felt living under Westminster rule for nearly 300 years. If you feel that you are somebody else's inferior because of the “system” then you are a budding candidate for the socialist cause, which so often has arrogated to itself the title of Help of the Helpless. A socialist church has no problem in adopting this scenario and forging the idea of the Messianic State as God’s main engine room of change on Earth for the oppressed and downtrodden.

That is why communism prospered in countries where poverty and a feeling of despair reigned and Liberation Theology got a hold in the Central American equivalent of our Scottish story. Of course, these things did not disappear once they took over and that is why a chastened people would never allow them back in again. As history recounts, Scotland was a failure as an independent country and did not have access to the markets of the British Empire until the union was formed with England in 1707. Thereafter, free market enterprise had an entrance and the spirit of endeavour cast men from a truer mould of independence as we see in all aspects of society from Thomas Chalmers in the church to Adam Smith in the university and to Carlyle in industry.

The fruit of modern socialism in Scotland today not only infects the church but all echelons of Scottish civilisation. An atmosphere of envy and apathy chokes the air as all roads lead to the State in Westminster and Holyrood. The unholy socialist trinity of church, state and democracy ensures it, and, as God declared to Jeremiah, the people love to have it so.

March 27, 2002