• What Would Jesus Steal?

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    If voters can be made to feel guilty about their economic success, they can be manipulated. This is why the politics of guilt manipulation is at the heart of the welfare state.

    In a systematic political program to make people feel guilty, the Social Gospel movement within Protestantism has played an important role for over a century. Economist-historian Murray Rothbard in a 1986 essay, “The Progressive Era and the Family,” described this development.

    In many cases, leading progressive intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century were former pietists who went to college and then transferred to the political arena, their zeal for making over mankind, as a “salvation by science.” And then the Social Gospel movement managed to combine political collectivism and pietist Christianity in the same package. All of these were strongly interwoven elements in the progressive movement.

    The Social Gospel movement, which began in the United States in the 1880’s, shared an ethical principle with the Progressive movement, which began at the same time and in the same social circles. This ethical principle can be summarized as follows: Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.

    The heart of the welfare state is theft. Rothbard described it accurately in a 1993 essay, “Origins of the Welfare State in America.”

    When the government, in short, takes money at gunpoint from A and gives it to B, who is demanding what? . . . Who are the demanders, and who are the suppliers? One can say that the subsidized, the “donees,” are “demanding” this redistribution; surely, however, it would be straining credulity to claim that A, the fleeced, is also “demanding” this activity. A, in fact, is the reluctant supplier, the coerced donor; B is gaining at A’s expense.

    But the really interesting role here is played by G, the government. For apart from the unlikely case where G is an unpaid altruist, performing this action as an uncompensated Robin Hood, G gets a rake-off, a handling charge, a finder’s fee, so to speak, for this little transaction. G, the government, in other words, performs his act of “redistribution” by fleecing A for the benefit of B and of himself.

    Defenders of the welfare state may wax eloquent about justice and fairness and the moral high ground. But no matter how lofty the rhetoric may be, as you are listening, ask yourself these three questions:

    1. Where is the gun?
    2. Who is holding the gun?
    3. At whom is the gun pointing?

    Today, there is a small, dedicated movement within the evangelical Protestant camp that regards Federal tax increases and Federal welfare increases as crucial to extend the kingdom of God in history. This is a recent development.


    Until about 1970, the Social Gospel was confined to the mainline Protestant denominations, which were run by theological liberals. These men were the theological representatives of the Progressive Movement. Their goal in life was two-fold: (1) to undermine orthodox Christianity; (2) to persuade their listeners that the kingdom of God is the welfare state.

    From the 1890’s until America entered World War I, the primary financier of the Social Gospel was John D. Rockefeller, Sr. He put up at least five percent of the seed money to launch the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. He was a staunch supporter of Social Gospel projects. This was due to the influence of his chief business adviser, Rev. Frederick T. Gates, a theological liberal and dedicated Progressive. He worked with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to manage the charitable giving.

    After 1917, the primary financier of the Social Gospel was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The best study of his influence is The Rich Man and the Kingdom: John D. Rockefeller and the Protestant Establishment, the published version of Albert Shenkel’s Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation. I have read both versions. He covered the subject well.

    Rockefeller’s main spiritual adviser was Harry Emerson Fosdick, the most influential American Protestant radio preacher for over two decades, from the mid-1920’s until Billy Graham went on the air in 1950. Rockefeller put him on the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1917. Three years later, he hired Fosdick’s brother Raymond to run the Foundation, which he did for the next four decades. Rockefeller built the famous Riverside Church for Rev. Fosdick after Fosdick, a Baptist, resigned from his pastorate in a large New York Presbyterian Church. Fosdick had been brought up on heresy charges after Rockefeller sent Fosdick’s 1921 sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, to tens of thousands of pastors. His defense lawyer, John Foster Dulles, got him off on a technicality in a 1924 church trial, but Fosdick resigned anyway.


    The Social Gospel movement was recognized by all parties as being grounded in theological and political liberalism. But this began to change sometime around 1970, when the Social Gospel was systematically imported into a small but vocal sector of Protestant evangelicalism. It was re-baptized with the language of evangelicalism. The goal was to get inside the non-mainline Protestant churches. Mainline churches have been losing members by the millions after 1960, the year of Rockefeller’s death.

    In 1977, the testament of the movement appeared, Ronald J. Sider’s book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. One of the chapters is “Is God a Marxist?” Sider was a bit evasive, but generally concluded that God is more like a fellow traveler. The book was co-published by the Protestant evangelical InterVarsity Press and the Roman Catholic Paulist Press — an extremely rare joint venture, then as now. The book sold over 300,000 copies. It became a brief fad. The fad faded rapidly with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The neo-evangelical pastors who had thought Jimmy Carter was the incarnation of Christian politics in 1976 switched allegiance when their parishioners switched allegiance.

    I had started the Institute for Christian Economics in 1976, but began publishing my newsletter, Christian Economics, in 1977. So, Sider and I appeared as rivals at the same time. Ironically, both of us had earned a Ph.D. in history.

    In 1981, I hired David Chilton to write a critique of Sider’s book. Chilton produced Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators in three months. Boxes of it arrived the day before I debated Sider at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. That had been my goal. Good timing! (If you know how printers work, this was nearly miraculous timing.)

    Chilton’s book was devastating. I have written my share of polemical books, but I have never seen anything to match it. He showed, point by point, that Sider was a bad theologian and a worse economist. Sider responded with an updated volume, in which the cover promised “With answers to my critics.” One critic was missing: Chilton. “Chilton? Who’s Chilton?” Chilton went down Sider’s memory hole and has remained there ever since.

    I had him write an updated response. Then I had him write another. Sider wrote two more updates, ending with 1997’s 20th anniversary edition, in which he backed off from his socialist rhetoric and recommended about eight of Chilton’s suggested free market economic reforms to reduce poverty. But he still failed to mention Chilton. Chilton died within weeks of the appearance of Sider’s lukewarm backpedaling. I wrote an essay about his concealed renunciation: “The Economic Re-Education of Ronald J. Sider.”

    Sider’s place was taken in the 1980’s and early 1990’s by a sociologist, Tony Campolo, who is a fine speaker with a sense of humor. His influence in evangelical circles suffered a major setback in 1998. He had been one of Bill Clinton’s spiritual counselors. That seemingly exalted position of influence did not survive the Lewinsky scandal.

    I never got around to writing my critique of Campolo. Too bad. I had the title: Campolo: Compassion or Compulsion? I also had a great idea for a cover. He is quite bald. So, the cover I had in mind featured two drawings of Campolo: one with a Van Dyke beard, right fist held high, and the other with him in a loin cloth in front of a spinning machine. It was a shame that the Lewinsky scandal broke when it did. I would have loved that cover.


    The other tireless laborer in the evangelical Left’s ideological field has been Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourners and the author of God’s Politics. He lacks Sider’s ability to deal with academic issues. He also lacks Campolo’s sense of humor. But he makes up for it in outrageousness.

    Let me give you a taste of Mr. Wallis’ theology.

    On cutting food stamps:

    Overcoming poverty must be a bipartisan commitment and a nonpartisan cause. The religious community will ask Democrats to stand firm against this budget violence against poor people, to make the moral choice of favoring the poor over the rich — which is also a biblical choice. Democrats must get religion on the budget.

    On Social Security as an application of “honor thy father and thy mother":

    Social Security is an expression of national values — and for Christians, our biblical priorities. It is about protecting the American dream, but also honoring God’s community by providing opportunity and dignity. Fostering dignity for families, children, and elders in need is the true measure of our compassion, the true measure of our commitment to — and covenant with — the common good. Those who want to radically change a system that has worked so well are saying, in principle, that “me” is better than “we,” that private solutions are better than shared responsibility. They want to weaken and shrink the places where we solve problems in common. They would rather each of us seek our own private solution to the issues of security, which always works to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

    Of course, there is no verse in the Bible proposing that the civil government provide either food for the poor or old age pensions. But this does not matter to Mr. Wallis. Why not? Because, he says, the Bible does not offer a system of economics.

    The Bible doesn’t propose any blueprint for an economic system, but rather insists that all human economic arrangements be subject to the demands of God’s justice, that great gaps be avoided or rectified, and the poor are not left behind. [“Seattle: Changing the Rules,” Sojourners Magazine (March-April 2000).]

    On economic inequality.

    According to the biblical prophets, the greatest moral offense of poverty is the inequality that often lies behind it. When poverty abounds and the wealthy refuse to share their prosperity, God gets mad. . . .

    If the congressional leadership has its way, American inequality is about to take a giant step forward with their efforts to destroy or gut the estate tax — an effective measure to combat inequality that has been working for 100 years.

    I have set up a department on my Website: Questions for Jim Wallis. I cite chapter and verse for a list of these and similar political assertions. Mr. Wallis has yet to respond.

    Somehow, this does not surprise me.

    Christian economist William Anderson has exposed Wallis for what he is: an apologist for raw Federal power, a man who “decided that an expanded, violent state was just fine, provided it was aimed at people who actually produced something.” He put it this way in 2004

    I have never read an issue of Sojourners without finding at least one (and usually many more than one) demand to increase the power and scope of the state. Yes, for all of your claims that you take a jaundiced view of state power, there is no one in the world of organized Christianity who has championed Leviathan more than you. I have come to believe that you oppose U.S. conflicts not so much because they are immoral, but rather because they take resources away from the government’s being able to wage war on productive people at home.


    I plan to edit a book by Christian economists on this baptized Social Gospel/Liberation Theology movement, which is aimed at nave and well-meaning evangelicals who barely know their Bibles and do not know economics. I hope there are some economists out there who would have as much fun as I would in producing such a book. For details, send an email to noguilt@kbot.com.

    Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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