Churches and the Social Order

By Edmund Opitz.

The church plays an important role in human life.

It was once the unwritten rule in polite society that two topics have no place in civilized conversation; religion and politics. It was ill-bred to discuss religion; it was gauche to talk politics. But times have changed. We live in a different and more open age. Now we discuss religion for political reasons, and we talk politics for religious reasons! The Bishops issue a Letter; the highest dignitaries of the various denominations pronounce on matters of government and business. The people behind these proclamations represent only a tiny minority of the total church membership, but they presume to speak for everyone. What they say is, in effect, the Socialist Party platform in ecclesiastical drag.

These ecclesiastical documents focus on an economic malaise, poverty; the poverty of the masses, especially the masses of the Third World. Churchmen profess to know the cause of this poverty. Third World poverty is caused by the wealth of the capitalistic nations; they are poor because we, in becoming wealthy, have pauperized them. Likewise, within our own nation the wealth of those who are better off is gained at the expense of those who are made worse off in the process. These are the typical allegations: the rich get richer by making the poor poorer.

Ecclesiastical myopia views the market economy—or capitalism—as an evil system which, by its very nature impoverishes the many as the means by which the few are enriched. The suggested cure for these differentials in wealth is to use government’s power to tax to exact tribute from the rich, and then distribute the proceeds to the poor—minus the cost to the nation of these wealth transfers. Robin Hood robs the rich to pay the poor, but Robin takes his cut!

It is as if these churchmen had swallowed the current secular agenda to which they have merely added oil and unction; as if social reform were the end, religion the mere means; as if religion has little more to offer modern men and women beyond what they can get from contemporary liberalism or socialism. The church has a more important role to play in human life, as I shall suggest in the course of this article.

One of my favorite modern theologians is the late William Ralph Inge. Inge was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the scholar’s pulpit of the Church of England. Dean Inge wrote some notable books in theology, philosophy, and social theory, but he was also a newspaper columnist during the 1920s where his hard-nosed comments on the passing scene earned him the nickname, “the gloomy Dean.”

Christian Socialism was strong within the church of England, with some churchmen going so far as to declare that for a Christian not to be a socialist was to be guilty of heresy. A popular slogan was “Christianity is the religion of which Socialism is the practice.” Dean Inge would have none of this, so he waged a perpetual war of words against the socialists, especially against socialists of the Christian variety. “I do not like to see the clergy,” he wrote, “who were monarchists under a strong monarchy, and oligarchs under the oligarchy, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to become court chaplains to King Demos. The black coated advocates of spoliation are not a nice lot!”

It was not that Dean Inge was a defender of the status quo; far from it. Inge was a severe critic of many features of the modern western world. He argued that socialism is little more than a logical extension of many of the worst features of the modern temper, derived from the French Revolution, with its inveterate faith that man is a good animal by nature, but corrupted by his institutions; “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” as Rousseau put it. This being the case, said the socialists, all we have to do is change our institutions in order to produce an improved society out of unimproved men and women.

Dean Inge foresaw a tendency within this mind-set toward “a reversion to a political and external religion, the very thing against which the Gospel waged relentless war.” It is not that Christianity regards social progress as unimportant, Inge goes on to say; it is a question of how genuine improvement may occur. “The true answer,” he wrote, “though it is not a very popular one, is that the advance of civilization is in truth a sort of by-product of Christianity, not its chief aim; but we can appeal to history to support us that [the advance of civilization] is most stable and genuine when it is the by-product of a lofty and unworldly idealism.”

The Pull of Public Opinion

Churchmen in every age are tempted to adopt the protective coloration of their time; like all intellectuals, churchmen are verbalists and wordsmiths; they are powerfully swayed by the printed page, by catch words, slick phrases, slogans, and bumper stickers. In consequence, they are pulled first this way then that by whatever currents of public opinion happen at the moment to exert the greatest power over their emotions and imagination. Today, it is the powerful gravitational pull of “environmentalism.”

I’m using the word environmentalism as a label for the belief that the human species is nothing but what external conditions have made us, that we are the victims of circumstances, that our lives are determined by forces we can barely understand, let alone control. Random chemical and physical interactions produced mankind in the first place. Then this raw material—mankind as it comes from nature—is shaped into various forms by the particular society in which we find ourselves. The social class to which we belong determines, finally, what we are and how we view the world and ourselves. Environmentalism exerts a powerful attraction today over intellectuals of all creeds. It is the ideology of Marxists and non-Marxists alike that men and women are the mere end products of nature and society—responsible men and women no longer—and that social engineering can construct a perfect society out of defective human units. Environmentalism has the cart before the horse; it is dehumanizing.

If there is disorder in our society it follows that there is disorder within our very selves, in our faulty thinking and erroneous beliefs, in our misplaced loyalties and misguided affections. Disharmony in our personal lives will result in conflict and frictions in society. This is why serious religion has traditionally focused on the inward and the spiritual, on the mind and conscience of individual persons, to make them responsible individuals. The premise is that only right beliefs rightly held can produce right action. The good society emerges only if there is a significant number of people of intellect and character; and the elevation of character is the perennial concern of genuine religion, in league with education and art.

But the modern world views the matter differently. The modern world assumes that the human species is the mere end product of external forces; a product, first of all, of physics and chemistry—our natural environment; and a product, secondly, of the particular society in which an individual happens to live. The basic assumption is that man’s character is made for him, by others; no individual is really responsible for himself. It is only necessary, then, for “the others” to acquire political power and use it to create social structures designed to produce a new humanity. Transform external arrangements and—according to this ideology—it matters little if men and women remain unregenerate; they will behave correctly because their institutions have programmed them to act according to the blueprint. This is the modern heresy.

Christianity, rightly understood, stands for a society with such basic features as personal responsibility, equal justice under the law, and maximum freedom for every person—the kind of society envisioned by the 18th- century Whigs like Burke, Madison, and Jefferson. Such a social and political order as the Whigs had in mind lays down the conditions in a nation which permit the operation of one kind of an economic order only, the free market economy—later nicknamed capitalism—the thing described by Adam Smith.

The economic order which Adam Smith challenged was called Mercantilism. Mercantilism was the communism or socialism or planned economy of the 17th and 18th centuries. The nation was covered with a network of minute regulations controlling every stage of manufacture and exchange, and the controls were brutally enforced, as they must be in every planned economy; in a 73-year period in France, 1686 to 1759, approximately 16,000 people were put to death for some infraction of the government regulations over the economy.

Adam Smith set out to free the economy with what he referred to as his “liberal plan of liberty, equality, and justice.” (p. 628)It is more than a coincidence that The Wealth of Nations and the Declaration of Independence appeared within a few months of each other, in the year 1776. The Declaration endorses the Whig political vision whose main features were voiced by Jefferson in his First Inaugural: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none . . . freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus,” and so on. This was the political and legal framework laid down by the Whig theorists, within which Adam Smith’s free market economy, or capitalism, had the freedom necessary if it was to function-his “liberal plan of liberty, equality and justice.”

Millions of people during the 20th century have turned away from the traditional religious faiths of the West—Christianity and Judaism-to embrace some form of secular religion, such as communism or socialism. The prevailing world view in our time is not Theism—the belief that mind and spirit are rock-bottom realities in the universe; it is Materialism—the belief that basic reality is composed of nothing else but particles of matter.

Materialism is explicit wherever Marxism is the official creed, but it is implicit almost everywhere else. Begin with the Marxist premise of Dialectical Materialism—or any other variety of Materialism—and some form of totalitarianism logically follows. Such a society reduces human persons to minions of the state, to be used and used up in the utopian endeavor to bring about the classless society of the communist pipe dream. Christian doctrine, by contrast, makes the individual person central. His role in life is to serve the highest value he can conceive—God; the modest role of the political order is to provide maximum freedom for all persons in order that we, as created beings, may achieve our proper destiny.

The Theocratic Temptation

In the free society, church and state are independent of one another, as set forth in the First Amendment. But there is, historically, a perennial temptation for church and state to join forces and form a theocracy—an alliance which tends to divinize politics and depreciate genuine religion. We are moving in that direction.

The church has been allied with the state ever since the fourth century, and this church-state combination has often been less than Christian in its treatment of Christians, and others. Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian, is only one of the many scholars who have chastised the official church for its misdeeds. But listen to Gibbon when he refers to original Gospel Christianity; he speaks of “. . . those benevolent principles of Christianity, which inculcate the natural freedom of mankind.” (Vol. I, p. 661)

The idea of Christian freedom came into sharp focus in the preaching of 18th-century clergymen in New England. F. P. Cole, an historian of the period, writes: “There is probably no group of men in history, living in a particular area at a given time, who can speak as forcibly on the subject of liberty as the Congregational ministers of New England between 1750 and 1785.”

It was the custom of the New England clergy to preach twice a year on some theme having to do with the secular order, the Artillery Day Sermon and the Election Day Sermon. These scholarly sermons were published by the Massachusetts General Court, as the legislature was then called, and they have provided the raw material for many a doctoral dissertation. Let me offer a typical statement by one of the ablest of these preachers, Jonathan Mayhew of Boston, in 1752. “Having been initiated in youth in the doctrines of civil liberty, as they were taught by such men as Plato, Demosthenes, Cicero, and other renowned persons among the ancients; and such as Sydney and Milton, Locke and Hoadley among the moderns, i liked them; they seemed rational. And having learnt from the Holy Scriptures that wise, brave, and virtuous men were always friends of liberty,—that God gave the Israelites a king in His anger, because they had not the sense and virtue enough to be a free commonwealth,—and that ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’—this made me conclude that freedom was a great blessing.”

Religion and the Founders

Most of the men we refer to as our Founding Fathers were not active churchmen, for one reason or another, but they were men of strong religious convictions. Norman Cousins has compiled a 450-page anthology of the religious beliefs and ideas of eight of these men in their own words. (In God We Trust, 1958) Those quoted are Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, the two Adamses, Hamilton, and Jay. There’s also a section devoted to Tom Paine. A familiar statement of Jefferson pretty well summarizes the outlook of this remarkable group of men. “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”

Tom Paine authored some influential political pamphlets, and he also wrote a great deal on the subject of religion, much of it critical—which is all right, because there is much about the ecclesiastical life of any period which deserves criticism. But when it was a matter of Christian liberty, Paine was on target. Cousins, for some reason, does not quote a surprising statement by Paine: “Wherefore, political as well as spiritual liberty, is the gift of God, through Christ.” (From his essay “Thoughts on Defensive War”)

What was the situation in the 19th century? Let me offer a few remarks by one of the keenest foreign observers ever to visit this nation, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville landed in New York in May, 1831. Nine months and seven thousand miles later he returned to France and wrote his great book, Democracy in America, with special attention being given to religion and the churches. “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds,” he wrote, “that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other . . . Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions . . . They hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

“Despotism may govern without faith,” he continues, “but liberty cannot . . . [for] how is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”

Tocqueville observed that the clergy stayed away from politics. The clergy, he observed, “keep aloof from parties and public affairs . . . In the United States religion exercises but little direct influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but [religion] directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating everyday life it regulates the state.”

A Spotty Record

The history of the church during the past two thousand years is a spotty record, with many ups and some downs. There have been glorious epochs, and there have been periods which make for melancholy reading. Occasionally, the church has sanctioned tyrannous political rule; from time to time it has lent its support to persecutions, inquisitions, and crusades. As an arm of the state, or as a tool of the state, it has betrayed its sacred task while it pursued secular goals like wealth and power.

In the 20th century segments of ecclesiastical officialdom and councils of churches demand legislation to transfer wealth from one group of citizens to another. They work for a collectivist economic order planned, controlled, and regulated by government. The intended aim is to overcome poverty and feed the hungry; the means is the planned economy, otherwise labeled socialism, collectivism, the new deal, or whatever. Whatever the label, the planned economy puts the nation in a strait jacket; the planned economy, however noble the intentions of the planners, is the road to serfdom, as F. A. Hayek demonstrated in a landmark book written some forty years ago.

A planned economy forcibly directs the lives of individual men and women, and to do so the state must deprive people of their earnings which they would otherwise use to direct their own lives. Nation after nation during the 20th century has gone in for political planning of the economy and the results have been disastrous; where the planning has been strictly enforced, as in communist nations, the result has been a nation ill housed, iii fed, and ill clothed, it is a sad paradox indeed that the secular program, promoted by church hierarchies to alleviate poverty, has caused poverty in every society which has tried it. The only way to alleviate poverty in a nation is to increase productivity; and increased productivity is generated only by an economy of free men and women. Freedom is an essential part of the church’s business. Freedom is a blessing in itself, and it’s a double blessing, for prosperity follows freedom.

The socialists, until recently, have claimed the high moral ground. Their boast is that only socialists—or liberals—really care about people. What nonsense! Every person of good will wants to see other people better off; better housed, better fed, better clothed, healthier, better educated, with finer medical care, and all the rest. The dispute between socialists and believers in the free economy is not so much over the goals as over the means by which these goals may be met. The socialist’s means—his command economy—will not achieve the goals he says he wants to reach; socialism makes the nation worse off; poorer in material wealth, and poorer in every other respect as well.

There is another route for churchmen to take, a way that leads to more freedom for people in society, rather than less freedom. Freedom is at the heart of the gospel message, and the true genius of our religion was proudly proclaimed by our forebears, some of whose words I have quoted.

Man’s will is uniquely free; that’s the way God made us. We are free beings precisely in order that each person shall be responsible for his own life and therefore accountable for his actions. It is by acts of will, acts of choice, exercised daily over the course of a lifetime that each of us becomes the person we have the potential to be. Each person is by nature self-controlling; each person is in charge of his own life.

The free society, then, is our natural habitat; freedom in the relations of persons to each other accords with human nature. The tactic of freedom in the business and industrial sectors is the free market economy; the free choice economic system corresponds to the freely choosing creature that each of us is.

Animals, unlike us humans, have a finely tuned set of instincts which infallibly guides each creature according to its species. We humans do not have such elaborate instinctual equipment; instead of instincts we are given a moral code, which we are free to obey or not. Anyone can figure out for himself that no kind of society is possible unless most people most of the time do not murder, steal, assault, or lie. Thus we have commandments that say Thou shalt not murder, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, and so on. These and other commands compose the basic moral code which is the foundation of our law.

Because we are flawed creatures as well as free, we occasionally break the law, and so we need an umpire to interpret and, if necessary, enforce the rules. We refer to this umpire function as the political order—government, the police power, the law. And we have the courts, where honest differences of opinion may be examined and resolved.

The Productivity of Capitalism

The free market economy, or private property order, or capitalism—if you like—is, by common agreement, the most productive economic order. In fact, it’s the only productive economic order. Socialism in a given country lives by exploiting the previous productive economy of that country, and when that gives out, socialist nations live on largess from capitalist nations.

The incredible productivity of capitalism is generally admitted, even by its critics; it’s the way the wealth gets distributed that they complain about. What’s wrong about capitalism, the critics charge, is that some people in our society have enormous incomes while other people have to get by on a mere pittance. Disparities in income show up most vividly in the sports and entertainment industries. Take basketball players, for instance. Basketball is a fun game which thousands play for pleasure and recreation. But many professional players make more money in a year than any six of us will make in a lifetime of hard work. Baseball is almost as grotesque, and then the players threaten to strike for more pay! A rock singer gives what is laughably called a concert and more money changes hands in one evening than the Seattle Symphony sees in a year. Supply your own examples. The question is: How can any person with even a modicum of intelligence and refinement condone such grotesqueries? How do we respond to such a critic?

Part of the answer is that in a free society—a social order characterized by equal freedom under the law—the market place becomes a showcase for popular folly, ignorance, superstition, bad taste, and stupidity. The market, in other words, is individual free choice in action, and no one is pleased with everyone else’s choices. But our displeasure is a price we must learn to pay if we are to enjoy the blessings of liberty. We must stand firmly behind the processes of freedom, even though we can barely stand some of the products of freedom. So let’s stop wringing our hands; let’s try to be tolerant, and let’s get on with our lifelong task of setting a better example of what freedom means.

Remember that no one is forced to pay over good money to watch a sporting event; no one has to listen to some hyperkinetic young man howl and gyrate in public places to the accompaniment of amplified sound. You and I might not pay money for such a performance, and if everyone were just like us, those who now make millions playing games would have to go back to sport for its own sake, just like the rest of us. And if a miraculous change in musical taste should occur, there’d be crowds attending Bach recitals every Sunday afternoon on your local church organ.

Turn from the sports and entertainment field to the business and industry sector. Here, too, there are wide variations in wages, income and wealth. How does this come about?

Here’s a person with a knack for manufacturing a better mousetrap, which turns out to be just what millions of consumers have been waiting for. They are willing to pay handsomely for this better mousetrap, and so the manufacturer becomes wealthy. His employees also benefit. Our entrepreneur’s wealth is voluntarily conferred upon him by consumers who aren’t forced to buy the product, but who find that these new mousetraps make their lives safer, better, and more enjoyable. Every step in this procedure—manufacturing, marketing, exchanging—is free and fair, and when this is the case the resulting distribution of rewards is also fair. It is only when someone profits and becomes rich because government gives him a subsidy or provides him with some advantage over his rivals and his customers that there is mal-distribution and unfairness in the final result.

Setting a Good Example

Let me emphasize the fact that the free market economy rewards each participant according to the value willing consumers attach to his offering of goods and services. Why does a rock singer make millions while your fine church organist makes hundreds? The answer is obvious; crowds of people would rather pay a lot of money to hear rock than to listen to Bach for free. We may find this intellectual and esthetic wasteland repugnant to our refined sensibilities. But what an opportunity this situation presents to every teacher. I refer not only to full time professors, preachers, and writers. Most anyone can be a teacher. Nearly everyone, in other words, has the capacity to convey a new idea to some other person, to instill a nobler sentiment, a superior value, a higher moral tone. More persuasive than any of these, we can set a good example.

It is a solid truth, I believe, that you cannot build a free society out of just any old kind of people. A free society is built around a nucleus of people of superior intellect and integrity who are, at the same time, cognizant of economic and political reality. You need people who love God and their neighbor; people of understanding and compassion; people with enduring family ties. Our schools and our churches should be producing people of this caliber, for it is the function of education and religion—in the broad sense of both terms—to make us better and wiser men and women. When we have a significant number of wise and good people living lives of a quality high enough to deserve a free society we’ll have a free society. All the rest of us, riding on their coattails, will reap the rich blessings of liberty.

Originally published in The Freeman, August 1986.

Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.

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