The Church and Civil Society: Thoughts on Reading The Socialist Temptation by Iain Murray

The Socialist Temptation by Iain Murray is not a scholarly or academic text, but that does not mean that it isn’t an intellectually rigorous book. Like other Regnery books, this one does a good job of raising the intellectual bar in a way that appeals not only to readers who are already receptive to its message but also for those who disagree–or think they disagree. Because my own scholarly and practical focus is that of Christianity’s relationship to political and economic thought, this is the angle I want to take in this review. That being said, the religious angle is not the core, or necessarily a major point, in Murray’s argument. Rather, the book forms what one might call–to adopt an apologetic term–a comprehensive case against socialism. Because many of these arguments are covered extensively by other writers, from both a Christian and non-Christian perspective, in this review I want to focus on one specific point that Murray covers which, in my opinion, is perhaps the most important in terms of the socio-political role of religion.

In Part Four, comprised of chapters 27-34, Murray touches on several ways in which socialism stands opposed to civil society. In fact, he makes a strong case that socialists actually “hate civil society.” He points out that, on a theoretical level, socialists claim that this hatred is due to the fact that civil society reinforces the values of the “bourgeoisie and their capitalist enablers.” Of course, this is exactly the type of thing that one would expect a socialist to say–to justify socialism’s opposition to anything, all one has to do is label it bourgeois and/or capitalist. But examining this rhetorical methodology with a critical eye, one can see the shallow nature of mainstream socialist thinking. By sticking to this line of argumentation, socialists are able to dodge answering any real, tough, or penetrating questions.

In Murray’s brief but insightful analysis, he gets to the heart of the issue. The real reason why socialism stands opposed to civil society is that–for the average citizen–civil society stands as the most persuasive reason to reject socialism. When citizens are actively invested in institutions that connect them to others in their communities, cities, states, regions, and nation, then little meaning is derived from politics or political solutions. That doesn’t mean that politics aren’t important, but they cease to be important in the sense of supplying meaning to people’s lives. Instead, politics are important to civil society only insofar as they protect civil society and, largely, leave it alone.

In a way, this provides some insight into why socialism has such a poor record when it comes to personal freedom. It is not just that socialism is hostile to concepts like private property. It is hostile because private property can be put to uses that make socialism unnecessary. Civil society–not capitalism–is socialism’s real competition, and you don’t need to have a degree in economics to know that socialists are not fans of competition.

But what does any of this have to do with Christianity’s role in society and politics?

First, for much of American history–actually, up until quite recently–most of what we would call civil society was motivated by or in one way or another related to religious organizations and institutions. Murray mentions things like mutual aid societies and charities that serve the underprivileged and poor. But additions to these categories could be things like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, immigrant service organizations, nursing and retirement homes, adult education programs, community sports leagues, schools, universities, hospitals–the list could go on.

Of course, we’ve grown used to many of these civil society institutions either disappearing altogether, having reduced impact, presence, and participation, or being taken over by government. In many instances, this is mutually reinforcing. As these civil institutions are detached from their traditional bases, they have a reduced impact. As those who still hold to traditional bases leave the institutions because they feel alienated, these civil institutions ultimately change in terms of fundamental character and eventually die out. Those that don’t die out–because they provide a necessary function–are often taken over, either directly or indirectly, by government.

One reason why so many average Americans–even ones who try to take an interest in public affairs–lose interest in or never seem to understand the typical arguments against socialism is because those arguments are usually couched in technical economic terms that hold little meaning for the average citizen. Even something as ubiquitous as private property has little meaning for most people, philosophically speaking. The traditional arguments too often take on an overly-individualistic tone, which allows socialists to come into the argument making claims that sound really good on the surface. To the ear, these claims sound like they are raising the common good over and above mere private concerns. Christians are highly susceptible to these types of claims.

The best example is how Acts 2:44-45 is often twisted to make what seems like a biblical argument for socialism. Those two verses say this about the early church: “Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold all their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need” (HCSB). Someone trying to convince a Christian that socialism is good or desirable will cite these verses and say, “Doesn’t that sound like socialism or communism? Common property given to all who might have a need?”

Yes. Yes it does sound like socialism or communism, except for one crucial element: violent, state-sponsored coercion. What the church was doing in Acts 2:44-45 was not socialism or communism because it was based on voluntary cooperation motivated by faith. In other words, what the church was doing in Acts 2:44-45 was engaging in the activities of civil society. This ought to be a lesson for the contemporary church.

I emphasize civil society in this post, not because it is the only counterargument to socialism, but because it is the best countermeasure available to the church. Given the events that took place at the U.S. Capitol this week, and the presence of Christian symbols at those events, the church needs to take a hard stance when it comes to political violence. Jesus himself rejected the option of political violence. The church is called to follow his example. Civil society is the best means for affecting the culture in a peaceful, far-reaching way. This holds true for both the political right and the political left.

What that means is that the violence over the summer all across America was wrong. The violence in the Capitol this first week of 2021 was wrong. The church’s reaction needs to be peaceful and it needs to be distinguishable from the way the world expects people to act. The best way to do this is to pick up the mantle of civil society once again and build communities through ministries that encourage and rely upon mutual, voluntary cooperation. Feed people, educate people, provide spaces for people to cooperate on common goals and interests.

There isn’t any doubt that the American public suffers from its greatest ideological division since the Civil War. At least one reason for this is the breakdown–honestly, the near destruction–of civil society. Probably the best way to overcome divisiveness is to put people together in a place where they are agreed on a common purpose. This is almost the very definition of the church, and of any other religious community.

On Ellis Island in the museum of immigration, there is a display of pamphlets and posters for immigrant aid organizations. For Jewish immigrants, these organizations were largely run out of synagogues. For Irish and Italian immigrants, it was the Catholic Church. These efforts fed people, taught them English, helped them find jobs and housing, and then welcomed these new arrivals into their congregations. And at least for the time being, there is nothing stopping churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations from doing this same thing now. The best way to overcome socialism in America is to compete against it while we still have the ability to do so. The historical record demonstrates what happens when socialist governments actually hold power: they eliminate the competition.

Obviously, there are many other aspects to this argument that need to be explored, but one blog post in reaction to one book is not the place to examine them all. In the end, this is an issue that the church needs to be concerned about because the record of socialism when it comes to religion and religious freedom is, to say the least, poor. Socialism must be resisted by the church. This of course means making theological arguments, pointing out the inconsistencies between the socialist agenda and the Christian gospel. But resistance means more than that–it means actively competing against socialism in a way that the average citizen will understand. That means rebuilding and reinforcing civil society. The church must take a leadership role in this endeavor, not only because it means resisting a political system that will restrict religious freedom but also because doing so means fulfilling the commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies.

5 thoughts on “The Church and Civil Society: Thoughts on Reading The Socialist Temptation by Iain Murray

  1. Good post. I have a few questions for you though…

    You explain that violent revolution is necessary for true socialism, but it seems that every time government gets involved in any way, cries of “Socialism!!!” rise up from my more conservative friends. I have often felt that they were over reacting and not really understanding what true socialism is. So in your opinion, how should we distinguish true socialism, which I agree is a danger, from normal government activity? I have a good friend in the health care industry that is adamant that government should not be involved in pretty much anything. Everything should be privatized. I used to feel that way, but learning about the Guilded Age and how the corporations ran American in a way that is just as bad was what people fear from ‘Big Government/Socialism’ began to change my views. I now feel that in a fallen world distribution of power is necessary in society, and while I don’t want the government having too much power neither do I want business to have to much power. I fully agree with you that civil society needs to be rebuilt and that church should be leading the way. For example I never fully bought the notion of Obamacare being socialism… you can debate whether or not it is good for government to be involved in healthcare in that way, but I don’t think that Obamacare is going to lead to violent overthrow of the US government. What are your thoughts?

  2. Hi Kevin. Thank you for your thoughts. I don’t think that violent revolution is necessary for socialism. I do think that socialism is necessarily coercive. While I would grant that coercion by government is in some way always backed up with the threat of violence, I don’t think that’s always bad nor do I think that all forms of government coercion are socialism. I think this is where the rhetorical uses of “that’s socialism!” come into play. Unfortunately, in a liberal democracy, that is just part of the back-and-forth of public debate.

    Analytically, I think that part of this is people’s tendency to think of the worst case scenario and then identify anything that resembles it, even a little, with the worst case. It was socialism when Obama was in the White House. It was autocratic nationalism with Trump. This is how we wind up comparing every national politician with Hitler or Stalin or Mao or . . . whoever. It’s kind of at the point where these comparisons have become meaningless.

    Another part of the problem–something I’ll probably end up writing about here at some point in the future–is the lamentable decline in civics education. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who say these types of things have a less-than rudimentary knowledge of how the business of government is conducted in the United States. That’s obviously not always the case, but I fear that it is often the case.

    Derivative of that problem is an inability to analyze and articulate on these issues. People who say that Obamacare is socialism and use it as a bald assertion make some fundamental errors in reasoning. First, if someone is going to make the claim that something has the qualities of socialism, they ought to be able to explain what socialism is, what it is about the policy in question that’s socialistic, and, finally, explain why socialism in this particular case is bad. Too often we just give a priori declarations and assume others will just agree. The social security system in the U.S. is blatantly socialist, does that mean we should get rid of it just because it’s socialist?

    As for the debate over what should and should not be done by government, this is an ongoing debate that will never end. There’s room for experimentation, but I think there are clear examples of things that should be done by government and others that should be governed by markets. In some instances, I think a best-case scenario is allowing government to compete. In many ways and in many areas, this is already the case. It’s a bit cliche, but in both cases going to one extreme or the other is unwise. Everything shouldn’t be run socially (hence the socialist resistance to civil, mediating institutions) nor should everything be privatized. One overwhelming benefit of a robust civil society is a vibrant market in conceptualizations of the public good, which is what should ultimately drive all decisions within government. This is why both extremes are bad. In a socialist system, the driver is that which is most consistent with ideology (which ends up being whatever is good for those in power). In a wholly privatized system, the driver is what’s good for the bottom line in terms of profit and efficiency. What’s efficient and cheap isn’t always (often isn’t?) the best.

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