Was Jesus a Socialist?

This essay is adapted from Lawrence W. Reed’s new book, Was Jesus a Socialist? As ISI’s Book of the Month, Was Jesus a Socialist? is available at a 40 percent discount until June 30.

Socialism has made a startling comeback in recent years.

Few who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet communist empire ever expected socialism to reemerge as a serious part of America’s national debate, let alone a force at the ballot box. In the early 1990s, many respected commentators hailed the end of the Cold War as the triumph of democratic capitalism. Francis Fukuyama even declared it the “end of history.” He wrote of “a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.”

But time has passed, and the rising generation has no memory of the Cold War or of the repeated failures of socialism. To many young Americans, socialism isn’t a dirty word; it’s an ideal.

In May 2016, a Gallup poll revealed that 55 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds had a positive image of socialism. In that year’s presidential primaries, a self-described “democratic socialist,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, earned more votes from voters under the age of thirty than the eventual Democratic and Republican nominees combined.

The resurgence of socialism has only intensified. In 2018, the Democratic Socialists of America, which emerged back in 1982, saw members win election to Congress for the first time. One of the two Democratic Socialist members elected that year was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In early 2019, a Harris poll showed that half of Americans aged eighteen to thirty-nine said they would “prefer living in a socialist country.” A 2019 report by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation revealed that more than 70 percent of millennials said they were likely to vote for a socialist for president.

And as socialism has come back into vogue, more and more of its champions are trotting out a favorite talking point: Jesus was a socialist.

On Christmas Day 2016, the Huffington Post published Occidental College professor Peter Dreier’s article “Jesus Was a Socialist.” And in a 2018 story on the Democratic Socialists of America, NPR quoted one of the group’s chapter leaders, Kelley Rose, saying, “If anyone was ever a socialist, it was Jesus.” Just a couple of weeks ago, London’s Express newspaper quoted high-ranking British Labour Party politician John McDonnell—who has described his vision for Britain as “socialism with an iPad”— saying that Jesus’s “life on Earth was a demonstration, for me, of real socialism.”

This rhetoric has had an impact. According to a 2016 poll by the Barna Group, Americans think socialism aligns better with Jesus’s teachings than capitalism does. And when respondents were asked which of that year’s presidential candidates aligned closest to Jesus’s teachings, Bernie Sanders came out on top.

There’s only one problem with the “Jesus was a socialist” argument: It’s utter bunk.

The Real Lesson of the Good Samaritan

The fact is, nothing in the New Testament even hints that Jesus would support what today’s socialists call for: magnifying the powers of earthly government to redistribute wealth, or impose a welfare state, or centrally plan the economy, or control the means of production. Most socialists, and increasing numbers of “progressives,” support some combination of those dubious propositions. The idea that Jesus endorsed any of them is pure fantasy.

A TV interviewer once asked me, “What about the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Doesn’t that make a case for government welfare programs and redistribution?”

Actually, no, it doesn’t.

Let’s take a look at that parable, which appears in Gospel of Luke. As Jesus tells the story, a man “was attacked by robbers” and left “half dead” in the road. Two respected figures, a priest and a Levite, passed by the helpless man, doing nothing, But a Samaritan came by, “took pity” on the man, “bandaged his wounds,” and then “put the man on his own donkey” and “brought him to an inn and took care of him.” The next day, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper out of his own pocket to continue to look after the injured man.

How could this parable be anything but an endorsement of private initiative and a generous, helpful spirit? The Good Samaritan did not say to the man in need, “Write a letter to the emperor” or “See your social worker” and walk on. He didn’t foist an obligation onto anyone else to fix the situation, or suggest that it was the duty of a distant politician to use other people’s money to help the man in need. This story makes the case for helping a needy person voluntarily out of love and compassion.

None of Jesus’s other parables endorse socialist schemes, either. On the contrary, Jesus’s Parable of the Talents exalts wealth creation. His Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is an endorsement of property rights, voluntary contract, free-market wages, and supply and demand.

If Jesus was a socialist, or at least ambivalent on the matter, surely another of his parables would offer an opposing setting, perspective, or lesson.

Is such a parable to be found? No. None.

It Helps to Know the Facts

And that’s just the beginning. My book Was Jesus Was a Socialist? shows you what Jesus said—and didn’t say—about money, wealth, and the role of (earthly) government. It covers everything from the Sermon on the Mount to the Golden Rule, from “Render unto Caesar” to “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The book provides the facts you need to refute the next person who tries to enlist Jesus in progressive causes. And that may come in handy: on Twitter, progressives now use the phrase “Jesus was a socialist” as the ultimate comeback, as if there could be no rejoinder.

The broader point is that Jesus offered no blueprint for earthly government and the laws of politicians. His concerns focused elsewhere—namely, on the sort of self-government that men and women would exercise if they followed God’s law.

Those who push for massive expansions of government while claiming that Jesus would be on their side are imposing their own narrative on him.

About the Author

Lawrence W. Reed is the author of Was Jesus a Socialist?, from which this essay is adapted. Reed is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His Prager University video “Was Jesus a Socialist?” has attracted more than 4 million views.

Painting by Giovanni Lanfraco via Wikimedia Commons.

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