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.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)

Although socialism aims to wipe out material inequality, it may merely present a new opportunity for sin. 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. The difference is that instead of the productive computer genius earning the luxuries of life, it goes to a gifted political functionary or some other obedient person. Forced economic leveling performed by the state is intended to erase the sin of greed, but it turns out that someone has to make the sacrifice of living at the mountain retreat with the on-call sushi chef!

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.

Political leftists often criticized Ronald Reagan for his great willingness to help individual persons who asked for his aid while he was simultaneously opposed to erecting great structural plans of income redistribution or expansion of the welfare state. That is because he was interested in the virtue of one person helping another. Interestingly, Aristotle held the same position. He decried socialism because it would replace the beauty of voluntary giving with a state-imposed sameness of means. Reagan knew it was right for him to sign a check and send it to a person in need. He did not presume to do that on someone else's behalf by confiscating their funds.

The logic of social leveling can be extended in many directions. Plato applied it to property and to family. Members of his imaginary guardian class were to have both common wives and children and common property. Making sure that all of them had basically the same things was designed to create great empathy and cooperation. Thus, Plato imagined that when one felt pain, all would feel pain and move to heal it. When one felt pleasure, all would enjoy it, and so on.

James Madison
James Madison

There is a serious problem with this line of thinking and it has to do with human nature. Aristotle pointed out that the man with a thousand sons really has no son. The man with one son is almost surely willing to give his life for him. Similarly, a field that is owned by everyone is unlikely to be plowed. But a field owned by one man is likely to be as productive as he can make it. Starvation was a perennial problem in China until the communists began to yield the point.

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. They think Christians adopt their faith for primarily emotional reasons. The power of Paul at the Areopagus or in our day of a C.S. Lewis or perhaps even a Francis Schaeffer comes from pulling the crucifixion and resurrection into the public square and saying, "This really happened. And if it did, don't you think it is important that we figure out what it means?"

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.

Pope John Paul II Monument
Pope John Paul II Monument

In a system where the state has the power to engage in social leveling, institutions which would compete with the state for influence must be minimized. So, for example, the school system is used to transmit values to children. Those values will be values dictated by the state. In this way, the influence of other institutions in the society such as families and churches can be blunted in favor of the state's chosen message transmitter. We are fortunate in that we live in a society where the education function is not monopolized by the state. It is, however, highly subsidized and alternative choices involve what amounts to a financial penalty.

In our country, there is still a healthy debate about what ought to be taught in schools and there is freedom to withdraw. But in a social leveler state, no such choice exists. Imagine how difficult it would be to pass on ideas and information to a child in conflict with the message of the state institution that dominates his or her day. Everything in that child's life that is officially evaluated says that what the family or church believes is unimportant.

The logic of totalitarianism is that there are only two classes of actors in the society: the state and the individual. The individual is expected to serve the purposes of the state. This dynamic also partially explains the enthusiasm of social levelers for secularism. If the church is vital within the society, then it offers an independent voice which can compete with the state for the hearts and minds of the people. Poland offers an extraordinary example. The Poles resisted communism more effectively than many other nations because its Catholic church staunchly stood up for its rights and encouraged the people to see themselves as human beings who should be free. Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II encouraged young people to accompany him on wilderness hikes and canoeing trips to help them develop space for freedom away from the state. His underlying message: The state is not the supreme reality. There is more to life than that. A church, independent of the state, is freedom enhancing.

Jacque Maritain captured this role of the church nicely when he wrote:

In the course of 20 centuries, by preaching the Gospel to the nations and by standing up to the flesh and blood powers in order to defend against them the liberties of spirit, the Church has taught men freedom.

The 20th 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 is the author of The End of Secularism. He serves as associate dean of arts and sciences at Union University. Baker is the recipient of Acton Institute's 2011 Novak Award.