Acton Commentary

Social Leveling: Socialism and Secularism

Social leveling is something that we typically associate with the destruction of material differences between human beings. It is the socialist dream of a classless society in which distinctions, usually the result of economic variation, are made irrelevant. The state, empowered by the political action of the masses (or at least a group claiming to speak for the masses), works to gain control of the wealth and property of a society and then to redistribute it in such a way as to make people equal. It should be obvious that this type of action vastly increases the power of the state because it becomes the effective owner of all property.  

Although socialism aims to wipe out material inequality, it may merely present a new opportunity for sin.  James Madison noted that taking control of the property in a state will not make people equal for more than a very short time. They have different talents, abilities, and levels of energy. A new elite will assert itself, just as it has in every nation with a communist revolution.

While there have been Christian socialists, socialism has primarily been the province of secularists. I suspect that is because while it easy to understand how Christians could endorse a voluntary sharing of all property, it is harder to see them endorse the kind of involuntary sharing which a more blunt person might refer to as coercive confiscation legitimized by government power. Augustine thought in this way when he pictured some governments as bands of robbers with official uniforms of state.  

There is another reason why Christians are unlikely to embrace social leveling. The logic of social leveling applies to more than property. Indeed, socialism and secularism are closely related to one another. While socialism seeks to erase the economic distinctions between human beings by taking individual choices about property out of people's hands, secularism seeks to erase the religious differences between people by making religion irrelevant to the life of the community. This action of secularism, so similar to socialism, is why I refer to it as a type of social leveling.  

Social leveling has a degree of appeal. The idea is that people will be made equal because equality is a goal worth striving for.  The great problem in applying social leveling to property and/or economic achievement is that it takes no cognizance of merit or virtue and thus diminishes the value of both.  Social leveling applied to religion may be worse because it pays no attention to the possibility of religious truth. All religious propositions are treated as utterly unprovable revelation fit primarily for the credulous.  This presents a special problem for Christians who believe that their faith is really true and that there is evidence to support it in real space and time.  One should not be surprised that secularists view Christianity as a psychological crutch.

Social leveling in the form of secularism does faithfully treat all religions the same. They become equally private and equally segregated from the life of the community.  Secularists, of course, hope that religion will eventually fade away as human beings embrace their equality with each other. Empiricism tends to run in a different direction.  If there is equality among human beings, it is equality before God who has placed his image upon all of us.

I have argued that social leveling achieves a wrong result in the sense that it ignores things like merit and virtue in the form of socialism, and truth in the form of secularism. That alone is good reason to oppose it, but there is a bigger problem than that. The social leveling that is achieved by socialism and secularism can only be engineered by one entity in a society. That entity is the state. Thus, the state will become the effective owner of all property and the state will determine what manifestations of religion (if any) are acceptable to itself. 

If we empower the state to this degree, then the state effectively dictates reality and tends to move in the direction of totalitarianism. It is notable that the Marxist dream of human brotherhood rooted in universal equality stalled out repeatedly at the dictatorship stage without any probable movement forward to the "withering away of the state" as Marx predicted. This tendency toward dictatorship among nations opting for radical brotherhood seems to confirm the American founders' view of the human being and to disconfirm Marx's view. In other words, the suspicion of power fostered by a Christian awareness of human sinfulness is a more realistic approach. That suspicion led the American founders to build a system which makes dictatorship or the functional equivalent extraordinarily difficult to achieve.  

The twentieth century was the century par excellence for social leveling. At no other time in history was there so much energy behind experiments in government on a massive scale. It was the most dangerous century the world has known because it married the greatest political ambition with the greatest technological achievement. Though the close of the 20th century saw the threat of totalitarianism blunted, we must understand the part enthusiasm for social leveling played in its rise. And we must continue to oppose it as it returns with ever softer and friendlier faces.

Hunter Baker, the winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award, is the author of The End of Secularism. He serves as associate dean of arts and sciences at Union University.

This article is a shorter version of a piece that originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty.