by Rev. Ben Johnson • April 26, 2019
Is it better, or worse, for the government to compel the redistribution of wealth? Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies addressed the issue.
Socialism has made a resurgence in this generation, not least because of its deceptive moral appeal. Secular Millennials join liberal priests, pastors, and rabbis in saying that profits corrupt, unequal outcomes are immoral – and perhaps even Jesus would have been a socialist. Yet numerous people, secular and faithful, have weighed collectivism in the balance and found it wanting.
One of the people who found socialism ethically inferior to capitalism came from an unlikely source: the Unitarian Church.
His verdict? Socialism “is the necessary outcome, not of religion but of irreligion,” he said. Redistribution of wealth slows moral development and creates evils worse than capitalism.
The minister in question, A. Powell Davies, was once one of the most influential church leaders in the United States. He crusaded for civil rights as pastor of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. He counted Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black among his friends, and Justice William O. Douglas edited a book of his sermons. The Religious Left leader was honored by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action posthumously.
Socialism is not an ethical advance; socialism is an ethical compromise
Reverend Arthur Powell Davies (1902-1957) was a British-born Methodist who converted to Unitarianism – if “convert” is the proper noun for such a change. Davies embodied William F. Buckley Jr.’s caricature of the Unitarian who believed in “at most” one God. “This ancient God of miracles and interventions … is really dead,” wrote Davies, who styled himself a “theological radical,” in his 1946 book The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal. “There is no God in the sky,” he wrote in another context. “There is no army of angels, no hosts of seraphim and no celestial hierarchy. All this is man’s imaginings.” Any belief in the supernatural, he believed, “represses growth. It keeps the mind always childish.”
However, his lack of faith (from a traditional perspective) underscores the point. Although there is a high correlation between secularism and socialism, Davies revealed at least a few of socialism’s failures.
Davies, who provided weekly analyses of national issues from his pulpit, turned his glance upon socialism in an address titled “Is Socialism More Ethical Than Capitalism?” which was delivered on October 16, 1949.
Despite the title of his address, Davies actually explored only the morality of compulsory wealth redistribution as was practiced by Labour government-era Britain. But even a radical non-theist found that the welfare state did not pass muster as a moral economic system.
“Socialism is not an ethical advance; socialism is an ethical compromise,” he said.
First, Davies rejected Marxism because of its belief that human nature could not be improved. Socialism compels people to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, something Davies supported. But compulsion “is not ethically nobler” than choosing to give one’s own goods to the poor. “[E]thically they are better for what they do voluntarily than for what they are compelled to do, even though they themselves consent to the compulsion,” he said.
The very decision to turn to the state implies that people cannot be trusted to exercise their freedom responsibly. Socialism comes about “not because of idealism, but because of despair.”
Davies also denied socialism is more ethical than capitalism for a second reason, which echoed the most famous dictum of Lord Acton:
From the viewpoint of religion, there is no more evil in the profits of a capitalist than in the vanity of a socialist politician. The one seeks money, the other, notoriety. … [H]uman nature under either system would exploit the weaknesses of that particular system, and I fear the weaknesses of compulsory systems more than those of voluntary ones.
In 1949, the Unitarian lamented that Americans “would even give away a part of their freedom because they could not trust themselves and each other to act fairly on a voluntary basis.”
But collectivism’s greatest harm is its view of human character, Davies said.
Ultimately, socialism retards humanity’s moral progress:
[C]apitalism leaves more room for liberty and encourages ethical maturity and voluntary righteousness. Compulsory systems, paternalistic and authoritarian, foster attitudes which are ethically not grown up.
Since socialism is an ethical retreat from free moral action, it cannot embody the goal of any religion:
When therefore, churchmen draw closer to socialism and say it is the necessary outcome of religious idealism, they are mistaken. It is the necessary outcome not of religion but of irreligion; that is to say, it is the necessary outcome of the evils of the human heart which prevent us from doing voluntarily what we are therefore obliged to do from compulsion.
Traditional Christianity taught for millennia that believers should diligently cultivate wealth so that we can freely distribute it to those in need. Almsgiving, a pillar of all three Abrahamic religions, benefits the giver by freeing him from greed and allowing him to express love for the recipient.
The notion that it is morally superior for Christians to ask the government to forcibly redistribute others’ possessions is so fatuous that it was once exposed by a non-believer in the pulpit.
Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.t