Monday, May 21, 2012

Roger Olson on Christians and "Social Darwinism"

Last week, theologian Roger Olsen asked a question that has been much on my mind these past three decades — indeed, ever since I moved away from my beloved Philadelphia to the conservative hotbeds of Dallas, Texas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Can a Christian be a Social Darwinist?  The question is moot, of course, for millions upon millions of American Christians are, whether they know it or not, or whether they like it or not, socio-economic Darwinists.  The more precise question concerns whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to hold to such ideas.

The bulk of Olson's post concerned the delicious irony that the very people most hostile to the biological views of Charles Darwin — conservative Christian Evangelicals, fundamentalists, whatever one prefers to call them —  are most likely to support (what I consider) the most radical and irresponsible forms of laissez-faire capitalism, even to the point of lionizing the views of the stridently anti-theistic author, Ayn Rand, the darling of such economic "thinkers" as Paul Ryan (indeed, I was shocked to the point of silence when I heard another adjunct professor at the Bible College where I taught propound her views enthusiastically).  The gist of Olson's article is found in the following short paragraphs:
What I really wonder is how so many even educated Christians fail to see the contradiction inherent in belief in the Christian God, the God of Jesus Christ, together with belief in Social Darwinism. Surely “In God We Trust” (in this newspaper) does not mean “In the God of Deism” we trust. Or at least that is not what most readers who applauded the motto’s inclusion thought it meant.

I am willing to bet that I am only one of a tiny number of readers who will notice this contradiction. I am willing to bet that IF the newspaper published an editorial including an affirmation of biological Darwinism there would be a huge outcry and many subscribers would drop their subscriptions. I doubt there will be even a ripple of dissent in this case.

Why do I say “contradiction?” I assume that should be obvious to any reflective Christian (or person!). The God of Jesus Christ does not endorse survival of the fittest; he endorses care for the poor, the widows and the orphans.

The reactions to Olson's post were hardly surprising, demonstrating once again how otherwise rational people check their senses at the door when confronted with criticism of worldview-defining identity markers (as a result, Olson was driven to post a follow-up to make sure everyone heard what he was actually saying in his previous piece).

With Olson, I believe that socio-economic Darwinism is incompatible, not only with the teaching of Jesus, but with the tenor of the Mosaic Law and the proclamation of the Hebrew prophets, not least Isaiah and Amos.  I also know that most of my Christian friends will disagree with me, no matter how clear I believe the matter to be. 

The reason, I believe, has to do with boundary markers, those fundamental beliefs and practices that serve as defining features of group identity.  After all, American "conservative Evangelicals" are, first and foremost, conservative (sometimes I wonder if "conservative" runs second to "American").  And the tacit assumption of most such "Evangelicals" is that "conservatism" must define, not only their theology and view of biblical authority, but their political, economic, and social views as well.  All such matters, it is assumed, are cut from the same cloth.

I reject that assumption.  To me, assimilation of the mind of Christ should inexorably lead to the rejection of a survival of the fittest posture.  At the very least it should call into question the propriety, let alone ultimacy, of a system built on the foundation of greed, pride, and lust for power (I hesitate to add individualism to the list for fear of further misunderstanding).

I know what many are thinking right now, for I have been asked this question before, by a very intelligent former colleague: "Are you a socialist?"  Well, no, not by any standard historical definition of the term.  I do believe (like Olson), however, in what the United States has been for some time now, that is, a mixed economy characterized by a managed, regulated capitalism.  Even Adam Smith famously spoke of an "invisible hand" needed to guide capitalism away from the excesses and disparities that are increasingly becoming commonplace in the post-industrial West.  In lieu of a divine hand guiding the process — those who still hope for this are really living in fantasy land — government has to step in to a degree (what Olson calls "Adam Smith's invisible hand made visible").  How, and the degree to which it does so is a matter of legitimate debate for political philosophers (I would add that there can be no definitive "Christian" view on the matter).  I would suggest, however, that the stated preference of most of my Christian friends, viz., an increased role for private charity, is both historically unrealistic and, as former British PM Clement Attlee believed, at least potentially demeaning to the people who need such help.

The real problem, as I see it, is caused by the confluence of two treacherous streams of thought: slippery-slope logic and simplistic, black/white thinking.  Thus one is either a conservative who values hard work, private property, and individual "rights" (i.e., one is an "American"), or one is an unmitigated socialist, perhaps even a Communist (i.e., one is a "European").  Any attempt to give government a regulatory role is deemed a fatal step on the slope to ruin; hence the calls for ideological purity and the lauding of extreme positions as manifestations of commendable "faithfulness" (an aside: here is another of the eerie similarities between the far right politicians and the religious fundamentalists with whom I was raised).  Most conservatives in my acquaintance are not so extreme.  But — make no mistake — some most definitely are.  And such ideas carry an unmistakable gravitational force on people who self-identify as "conservatives."  Arguing against such ingrained patterns of thinking is, in my experience, almost hopelessly futile in the majority of instances.  Nevertheless, as I have often said, somebody's got to do it.  And, as always, the goal should always be the same, to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).


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