A Socialist Speaks to the Faithful

Elesha Coffman

With Bernie Sanders's recent address at Liberty University making  much  news, I wondered how evangelicals responded to Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas back in the day. The short answer is ... I don't know. Christianity Today seems never to have commented on him, and, of course, Thomas's political career mostly played out before what we think of today as "evangelicalism" established itself. Over in the mainline world, none of the pro- (from Reinhold Niebuhr) or generally less-pro (from the editors) coverage of Thomas in The Christian Century appears to be digitized. The best I could manage, lacking time to inter-library loan a biography of Thomas, was an Amazon review in which someone who gave one of those biographies four stars complained, "Thomas also thought the Christian church had some sort of mission to create a new world order, and had failed to do so. Thomas is wrong in this idea. ... The purpose of Christianity is atonement of sins, redemption, and faith in Christ." That's about what I'd expect.

Instead, for your Saturday afternoon reading, you'll have to content yourself with these excerpts from an article Thomas wrote for the Christian Century in March 1966, titled "President Johnson's Great Society." Addressing the mainline faithful nearly 50 years ago, Thomas applauded Johnson's progress on civil rights, condemned the war in Vietnam, and shared additional thoughts on subjects including the economic impact of computers, the appropriate number of millionaires in America, the "miasma" of the political right, and our postreligious age.

Cybernetics and the Welfare State

The coming of cybernetics gives new importance to the question of the nature and use of the welfare state. Two or three years ago I was concerned about the advent of a prosperous society accompanied by a great increase in unemployment because wonderful computers and automated machinery would make great numbers of workers superfluous. The fact that unemployment has slowly decreased, not increased, since that prediction was made has taken the edge off my immediate concern. It could be decreased even more by adoption of a tremendous construction program in the course of the war against slums.

Nevertheless, problems raised by cybernetics are by no means solved. Unemployment, present or prospective, causes great concern in many industries. The process of shifting employment--for instance, from factory production to service employment--will not be automatic. Can cybernetics produce enough wealth to make possible pensions for all or many of us without our performing the necessary labor? Will more of us find creative employment in the arts or in such useful services as teaching? Will not the owners and programmers of computers and automated machinery become masters of the society for which the machines--which cannot strike--will be the producing agents? So far the drawing boards of the incipient Great Society have not had room for problems like these.

The approach of the Great Society by consensus is becoming somewhat shaky. Unless peace and the withdrawal of American troops from lands afar can be achieved promptly, any dream of meeting the commitments already made to the war on poverty is due for a rude awakening. Tax rises--the least of the problems that the continuation of the war will bring--will soon become necessary. The political, social and moral atmosphere of an escalating war in Asia will poison any greatness of society here at home. Public interest and concern will be wrapped up in the war; the administration's zeal will be directed to winning a war that cannot be truly won and to developing support for it here at home. ...

Deeper Shortcomings Remain

So far I have been arguing that while the kind of capitalism which President Johnson critically accepts as the economic basis for his dream can probably avoid great depressions and support for a welfare state, it cannot be the basis for a truly Great Society while its ethical faults are so glaring. It is only because we have become accustomed to glaring extremes between incredible luxury and poverty, even poverty above the line of destitution, that we tolerate them. Granted that we are on the threshold of an economy of abundance, we must acknowledge that a system is badly awry when 90 persons can have incomes of over $1 million a year. There is no true justice in a system which permits the ownership of so much of the earth and its resources to lie in private hands; there is no true justice in the degree of permissible inheritance that gives the inheritor not only things but claims on other men's labor--possessions to which he himself has made no contribution. ...

It is not necessary here to discuss Mr. Johnson's or any other vital concept of a Great Society as if we were confronting Senator Barry Goldwater in 1960 or the president of the John Birch Society today. What the Birch Society and many other extreme rightist organizations present is less a political and economic thesis than that frustration and fear too often mixed with irrational prejudice and hate which contribute to the social miasma that afflicts our times. That miasma cannot be explained or dealt with without attention to economic issues, but neither can it be explained in purely economic and political terms. It has psychological aspects....

There is something more which it is particularly pertinent to note in The Christian Century. Though organized Christianity is still strong, much more alert to what we once called the social gospel than when I left the ministry, and though the liberal evolution of the great Roman Catholic Church is a heartening phenomenon, nevertheless writers who refer to this as a postreligious age are not far wrong. Ours is an age, ours is a faith on which movements of thought connected with the names of Darwin, Einstein, Freud and Marx have beaten hard. Modern knowledge and the older faiths do not easily live together. The Christian standards which once governed behavior in matters of sex and other relationships of society have lost acceptance.

For Utopias Domesticated

Above all, we have lost the place in our atlas for an attainable utopia. Theologians have challenged the notion that a Kingdom of God can be attained on earth, and they have acknowledged ever grave doubts of the existence of a heaven above. Now they have got around to a godless theology. I left the ministry because I could not say what I thought a Christian ought to say about a God who was at once Power and Love. But I never for an instant thought that there could be a Christianity which might dismiss "God talk" as "irrelevant." Not if I tried to cling somehow to the historic Jesus to whom "God talk" was of supreme relevance. I am not rejecting "demythologizing" when I say that, carried to this point, it leaves a Christianity that is weaker than humanism because it is less honest. ...

But this lack of a utopia or any sure far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves is no reason for despair or for a let-us-eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy. Some tomorrow each of us individuals will die. But life will go on, and life can be made better for the whole human family. We are not damned by our gods or our genes. We can find meaning for ourselves and an end to frustration and alienation by joining in a struggle which must be worldwide, a struggle for a fraternity of mankind dedicated to peace, plenty and freedom. That would be a truly Great Society. And in man's confused record and present conduct there are elements to give us hope that such a utopia can be attained.