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Statism and Theological Liberalism

Why is it that the same people who hold to some form of theological liberalism so often adhere to statist ideas? What is the path that takes a person from denying orthodox Christianity to glorifying the state?

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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Recently, in preparation for a conference presentation, I spent some time surveying the social doctrines of several Protestant denominations. I was reminded, as I went through social creeds and policy statements, of the strong and consistent relationship between theological liberalism and the political philosophies that give enormous power to the state. Why is it that the same people who hold to some form of theological liberalism so often adhere to statist ideas? What is the path that takes a person from denying orthodox Christianity to glorifying the state?

The connection is certainly too common to be accidental. Theologically liberal organizations such as the World Council of Churches are invariably hostile to capitalism and amenable to most of the key tenets of socialism. Statism of one variety or another is pervasive in the mainline Protestant denominations one need only read the social creeds of the Episcopalian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, and others to see the trend. Even within denominations, both conservative and liberal, the more theologically liberal congregations tend to lean left politically.

Statism and Anthropocentrism
Theological liberalism leads to statism because liberalism is anthropocentric — it makes religion into something human-centered. The logical, if not explicit, conclusion of liberal theology is that God is a creation of man, a fiction that man creates for his own comfort. The idea of a god may be a crutch to help get him through life, to make sense out of chaos, so that the god is really the servant of men. Man, therefore, becomes the origin of law, and only a humanistic social order can be consistent with this theology. Doing good to other humans, or humanitarianism, is righteous in itself, and not because it is what God has commanded. As R. J. Rushdoony noted in Politics of Guilt and Pity:

[Theological liberalism] accepts either the autonomous reason of man or the autonomous state as its basic political center and principle, and it calls a state "Christian" insofar as it ministers to human needs and "human rights," not in terms of any theocentric standard. In terms of theological liberalism, to be "Christian" is to be humanitarian, and, in terms of this, the Merriam-Webster Second International Dictionary has defined "humanitarianism" as "The doctrine that man's obligations are limited to, and dependent alone on, men and human relations." This is the framework in terms of which theological liberalism has championed statist action as "Christian" morality.1

"Good" itself is redefined as that which man's reason tells him will bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number. Because there are varying definitions of "benefit," some political process must be invoked to discern the "greatest benefit." This may be democracy or totalitarianism (or both!), but it will certainly not be limited by divine law. As Rushdoony wrote:

[T]he democratization of society goes hand in hand with the divinization of the state. Power and right are withdrawn from God and given to the people. When the people become the locale of right and power, that right and power express themselves in the form of the state, the high point of power and the god of the system.2

Even "conservative" or "fundamentalist" congregations that hold to a man-centered doctrine of salvation, or man-centered forms of worship, sometimes are infected with statism. It is a different form of statism, often manifested in a flag-waving nationalism that supports foreign military intervention, tariff protection of certain American industries, and an uncritical, reverential awe of state power. I cannot count the number of students I had (when I was teaching at a conservative, Arminian-dominated Christian university) who told me that they aspired to be FBI or DEA agents. Patriotism is confused with allegiance to the civil government, and these Christians see capturing control of the machinery of political power as the foremost route to national righteousness. This theological path to state-worship is an old one. Arminianism's man-centered view of salvation has for centuries been associated with statism, like the Anabaptist Hussite communes of the early 1500s in Eastern Europe.

"The Socialist Church"
To those observing the visible church from the outside, it may appear that Christianity has become simply another lobby for an expansive state, particularly since the theologically liberal churches are wealthy and high-profile. Before the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1980s, market-friendly policies had very few organized defenders within the church, and generalizations about a socialist church were under standable.3 The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who spent his life opposing statism, saw that people calling themselves "Christian" had become overwhelmingly statist in the twentieth century. In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, he noted:

Everywhere eminent theologians tried to discredit the free enterprise system and thus, by implication, to support either socialism or radical interventionism. Some of the outstanding leaders of present-day Protestantism — Barth and Brunner in Switzerland, Niebuhr and Tillich in the United States, and the late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple — openly condemn capitalism and even charge the alleged failures of capitalism with the responsibility for all the excesses of Russian Bolshevism.4

Barth was the archetypal theological liberal, the originator of neo-orthodoxy. Although Barth opposed Nazism in Germany, he was remarkably tolerant of communism. In his Epistle to the Romans, Barth spoke of an "hour which fulfills history, when the now dying glow of Marxist dogma will illuminate a new global truth, when the socialist church will be resurrected in a socialist world."5 In 1915 Barth had written that a "true Christian must be a socialist." Barth's statism was a direct consequence of his theology, which separated God utterly from the world and from history. As Rushdoony noted, "Barth's God is like an empty dead-letter office set up to receive letters to Santa Claus." Because Barth viewed God as a super-transcendent "essence of the possible," he certainly could not be immanent, or present with his creation. "Having reduced God and the transcendent to 'the possible,' Barth left the state free to be the very present reality and being."6

Reinhold Niebuhr was another neo-orthodox theologian who was at one time in his life enamored with communism, being taken with "the dramatic successes of the Russian Revolution."7 Niebuhr was instrumental in founding the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in 1931, though he later moderated his views away from straight socialism.

Niebuhr, Barth, Brunner, and like-minded others show that Mises had hit on an important relationship between theology and political ideas. When Mises was writing The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the recognized leaders of Protestantism were decidedly statist. Their adherence to socialism was evidenced not only in their writings, but also in their actions and the actions of their followers.

The universalist component of theological liberalism led to calls for state-run wealth redistribution schemes. Some even argued that private charities should shut down their operations so that the state would be "forced" to get involved. Marvin Olasky, in his excellent book The Tragedy of American Compassion, summarized the connection:

the Greeleyite idea that all should by natural right have a piece of the pie, whether or not they contributed to its making, was gaining vast intellectual and theological support. Just as it was considered unfair within the new, liberal theology that anyone should go to Hell — even if there were something called sin, God was considered responsible for it — so it was unfair that anyone should physically suffer in this life. The universalistic theology that all must be saved, regardless of their belief and action, was matched by a universalistic sociology that all must receive provision.8

Reinforcing this was the idea that man was essentially good, and was corrupted only by his environment. Olasky described the early twentieth-century novelist Hall Caine's optimistic social gospel:

[T]he world is constantly growing better and happierthere can hardly be any doubt about this [when one sees] the changes which the century has brought about in the people's health, education, and comfort. People are better housed, and for that reason, among others, their morality has improved.9

In contrast, as Rushdoony wrote, "Scripture is clear that it is not poverty which is the central problem of mankind and the key evil, but sin, which is 'any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any [sic] law of God' (Shorter Catechism, no. 14)."10

Statism and Eschatology
At least when the liberal churches of the early twentieth century jumped on the socialist bandwagon, they were acknowledging some rough connection between the mandates of the Bible and public policy. And, unlike many Christians of today, they thought they would succeed! It was an optimistic, though badly warped, eschatology that motivated many of their social endeavors. Their postmillennialism was humanistic, not theocentric — it depended on man to usher in the kingdom by alleviating the physical suffering of other men. The spiritual content of their work consisted mainly in comforting and cheering the objects of their charity — but since sin was being de-emphasized, urging repentance and faith in Christ was logically incompatible with the mission.

This is clear from the statements of some of the early liberal social workers. In 1920, Owen Lovejoy, president of the National Conference of Social Work, described social workers and their associates as "social engineers" who were able to produce "a divine order on earth as it is in heaven."11 Calling the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ "spiritual cannibalism," he rejected the "belief in the sacrifice of another in order that the wrath of God may be cooled, and he may find it possible, without violating eternal justice, to forgive those who have broken his law." Lovejoy preferred the idea that there is "divinity in every man" and emphasized "human improvableness."12

For Lovejoy and other social workers, socialism was obviously the best way to achieve paradise on earth. Propaganda reports coming in from the Soviet Union (reports which continued even to the mid-1930s with Beatrice and Sidney Webb's fawning Soviet Communism) reinforced the optimism in state planning and control. This was to prove an embarrassment for liberal churches when the Soviet regime and its client states collapsed about 1990. Yet it was not embarrassing enough. With amazing tenacity, liberal churches have clung to socialist ideas, and even expanded them into new areas — environmental protection being a favorite. The basic idea of state planning is held to be intact; it was the execution of the idea under the Soviets (or Chinese, or Cambodians, or) that was at fault. Too much power was taken from the people, who, being basically good, would of course not vote themselves into tyranny. Perhaps democratic nations, then, could grant power to the civil government without the unfortunate consequences observed under communism. Hope springs eternal.

Yet slavery can originate in democracy just as easily as it can issue from an oligarchy or a dictatorship. In a sense, humanitarian liberalism is a kind of slavery the unceasing labor to establish one's righteousness by works instead of trusting in the righteousness of Christ. As the great J. Gresham Machen wrote:

The grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery the slavery of the law, the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God. It may seem strange at first sight that "liberalism," of which the very name means freedom, should in reality be wretched slavery. But the phenomenon is not really so strange. Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster.13

Thus theologically liberal churches remain statist in their social statements. The battle against statism is theological at its core. It will not be won until the larger contest for Biblical orthodoxy is decided.


1. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, [1970] 1995), 316.

2. ibid., 320.

3. Regrettably, the prevailing eschatology of the Christian Right movement also produced some undesirable characteristics, such as a vehement Zionism.

4. Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1956), 45.

5. Cited in David W. Hall, Savior or Servant? Putting Government in Its Place (Oak Ridge: Covenant Foundation, 1996) 317.

6. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986), 93.

7. Reinhold Niebuhr, "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (New York: Scribner's, 1960), in David W. Hall, Savior or Servant? Putting Government in Its Place (Oak Ridge: Covenant Foundation, 1996), 327.

8. Marvin N. Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington: Regnery, 1992), 137.

9. ibid., 138.

10. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 1033.

11. Marvin N. Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington: Regnery, 1992), 144.

12. ibid., 145.

13. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: McMillan, 1923), 144.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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