COMMENTARY: Scalia slams socialism as 'death to Christian virtue'

by Dr. Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Benjamin Myers)Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Antonin Scalia (L) talks with Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the conclusion of the annual Red Mass held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, September 30, 2012.

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly on Saturday, often spoke of the intersection of faith and law, politics and economics.

During those times, the justice was always certain to issue a disclaimer – he was "speaking as a Christian, and not a federal judge."

For those who followed Scalia closely, however, there was little surprise when he extolled the virtues of Christianity. His deep Catholic faith permeated his life, and his friends said his two favorite things were his family and the church.

On Sept. 25, 2013, Scalia spoke to an audience at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, Texas, on the subject of whether capitalism or socialism was more conducive to Christian virtue. It was an important address, but one wholly underreported, except in local media and a handful of liberal news outlets, among them Huffington Post – whose writers loved to deride the conservative Scalia.

The address on the relationship of Christian virtue to socialism and capitalism was significant because of its prescience. Could Antonin Scalia have known that the first avowed socialist presidential candidate in the history of the United States, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would emerge and capture the wind from Hillary Clinton's sails in the Democratic presidential primary? Could he have known the level of support Sanders is receiving from millennials who are far less institutionally religious than previous generations and who have all but forgotten World War II and the Cold War?

Lanier Theological Library

Scalia was no mystic with a crystal ball, but he was acutely aware of history. In the address, he discussed the various ways the terms "Rightwing" and "Leftwing" have been used inconsistently in history. At times, to be on the Left meant to favor personal liberty (or choice) over government-supported traditions and, at others, to be Left meant to use the crushing weight of government to force others to do what another group of people feel is best for the "common good."

Scalia used the terms "Right" and "Left" to refer to laissez faire capitalists and socialists, respectively, because those were the terms mirrored in the national political debates of the 21st century. He asked which of the economic systems was most conducive to promoting not just the common good, but the "Christian common good." Which is most conducive to the construction of Christian virtue and sanctification?

Scalia's answer was interesting:

"I do not believe a Christian should choose his government on the basis of which shall be more conducive to his faith any more than he ought to choose his toothpaste on that basis. To be sure, there are certain prohibitions. A Christian should not support a government that suppresses the faith, or one that sanctions the taking of innocent human life, just as a Christian should not wear immodest clothes. But the test of the good government, like the test of well-tailored clothes, is assuredly not whether it helps you save your soul."

"Government is not meant for saving souls, but for protecting life and property and assuring the conditions for physical prosperity. Its responsibility is the here, not the hereafter, and the needs of the two sometimes diverge. It may well be, for example, that a governmental system which keeps its citizens in relative poverty will produce more saints. The rich, Christ said, have a harder time getting to heaven. But that would be a bad government nonetheless. This recognition of the separate spheres of church and state is not just a teaching of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also, I think, the teaching of Jesus Christ who spoke of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's, and who is regarded as not having indicated any preference about government – except one: he did not want the people to make him king," Scalia said.

Socialism, he added, has recently received a significant amount of attention from Catholic thinkers, but he did not understand the attraction because experience suggested that socialism has only worked to kill churches, undermine Christian virtue, and kill Christian charity. 

Government is not meant for saving souls, but for protecting life and property and assuring the conditions for physical prosperity. Its responsibility is the here, not the hereafter, and the needs of the two sometimes diverge. It may well be, for example, that a governmental system which keeps its citizens in relative poverty will produce more saints. The rich, Christ said, have a harder time getting to heaven. But that would be a bad government nonetheless. This recognition of the separate spheres of church and state is not just a teaching of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It is also, I think, the teaching of Jesus Christ who spoke of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's, and who is regarded as not having indicated any preference about government – except one: he did not want the people to make him king.
- Antonin Scalia

"I know of no country where the churches have grown fuller as the government has moved leftward. The churches of Europe are empty. The most religious country in the West – belief in God, church membership, church attendance – is that bastion of capitalism least diluted by socialism, the United States," Scalia said.

That does not mean the United States has not experimented with socialism. It has. According to Scalia, Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" made all Americans socialists in a way. The idea of a safety net in society was heavily debated in the 1930s; now debates rage over how far the net should extend. 

"Few of us even understand anymore what a non-socialist mentality is like," Scalia said. Our forefathers did, however. Scalia cited an example from colonial Massachusetts where the legislature believed it was not the state's obligation to use public funds to benefit private citizens – neither rich nor poor. Now, he said, virtually anything can be turned into a public good – from food stamps to corporate bailouts.

"The allure of socialism for the Christian, I think, is that it means well. It is or appears to be altruistic. It promises assistance from the state to the poor and the public provision of all the necessities of life, from maternity care to geriatric care and from kindergarten to university," Scalia said.

"Capitalism on the other hand, promises nothing from the state except the opportunity to succeed or fail. Adam Smith points out that the baker does not provide bread out of the goodness of his heart, but to make a profit. How uninspiring. Yet, if you reflect on it, you will see that the socialist message is not necessarily Christian and the capitalist message necessarily unchristian."

Scalia said the issue is not whether there should be provision for the poor, but whether "that provision should be made through the coercive power of the state."

"Christ said, after all, that you should give your goods to the poor – not that you should force someone else to give his," Scalia said. "The question I am asking is whether the Christian faith must incline us toward that system, and the answer I think is 'no.'"

"Christ did not preach a 'chicken in every pot,' or the elimination of poverty in our time. Those are worldly, governmental goals. If they were his objectives, he certainly devoted little of his time and talent to achieving them – feeding the hungry multitudes only a couple of times, as I recall, and running away from the crowds who wanted to put him on the throne where he would have had a real an opportunity to engage in some real distribution of wealth. His message was not the need to eliminate hunger, or misery, or misfortune, but rather the need for each individual to love and help the hungry, the miserable and the unfortunate," Scalia said.

When the state takes on those responsibilities, denying individuals the opportunity to display an act of sanctification in giving, Scalia said the body of Christ at large is denied an opportunity for an exchange of love among its members – something Christians have always done in the past through orphanages, homes for the poor, and homes for the elderly. Many of those homes were staffed by nuns in women's religious orders, which he said have now virtually disappeared.

The state, he said, now provides those services through salaried social workers and taxes to feed the hungry.

"There is, of course, neither love nor merit in the taxes I pay for those services. I pay them because I have to. The governmentalization of charity affects not only the donor, but also the recipient. What was once asked as a favor is now demanded as an entitlement. When I was young, there was a saying, 'He thinks the world owes him a living.' But the teaching of welfare socialism is that the world does, indeed, owe him a living."

"Christ's love for the poor was attributable to one quality they possessed in abundance – meekness and humility. It is humbling to be an object of charity, which is why Mendicant friars and nuns used to beg. The transformation of charity into legal entitlement has produced donors without love and recipients without gratitude. It has also produced a change in the product that is distributed."

The goods or services now provided to the poor cannot be mingled with religion (namely Christian teaching) and Christian morality, he said. Because of that, the element of "moral uplift" is missing from the state's social welfare system today. Social workers are now only concerned with improving the diet and living conditions of their clients, but not with improving virtue.

The place where the absence of Christian virtues is most evident, Scalia said, is in primary and secondary education. Litigation has caused all sectarian doctrinal instruction to be removed from schools, but Scalia said that is "good and proper" under the U.S. Constitution. However, Christian virtues, or the morality which has underpinned the growth of the United States and its economic system, should still be taught, Scalia said.

"Schools distribute condoms, advice on birth control and abortion and teach that homosexual conduct must not be regarded as sinful or even abnormal. Again it is not my place or my purpose to criticize these developments, only to observe that they do not suggest that expanding the role of government as socialism does is not good for Christianity."

Scalia said socialism means well, but it only ends up exerting more control than expected and redistributes wealth in the wrong way because the bulk of funds do not go to the poor, but to the middle class, "which also happens to be the class more numerous at the polls."

It is also not altruistic. In a socialist system, Scalia said, "the majority does not say, 'Give your money to the poor,' but rather, 'Give your money to us.' Just as I believe the Left is not necessarily endowed with Christian virtue, so also I believe the Right is not necessarily bereft of it. ... There have been greedy and avaricious capitalists, but there have also been generous ones, just as there have been altruistic socialists, and brutal and despotic ones."

"The cardinal sin of capitalism is greed, but the cardinal sin of socialism is power," Scalia said.

Scalia said capitalism is more dependent on Christianity than socialism, for in order for capitalism to work and in order for it to produce a good and stable society, traditional Christian virtues are essential. Capitalism provides individuals with an opportunity for individual action, but with that comes more opportunity to do evil. That is why, he said, capitalism without the Christian virtues of honesty, self-denial and charity would be "intolerable."

"To tell you the truth, I think Jesus Christ cares very little what sort of political or economic system we live under. He certainly displayed little interest in that subject during his life among us. Ask his apostles. Accordingly, we should select the political system which produces the greatest material good for society as a whole or, if you wish, for the most needy segment of society and leave theology out of it."

This, Scalia's belief, is why he rejected social engineering and tampering with the capitalist model. He rejected so-called "Christian" arguments for the welfare state, the Nanny state and forced economic equality. He even rejected socialist arguments that God demands workers be paid a certain amount. He said, for example, that the argument about repeatedly raising the minimum wage has everything to do with whether or not it produces a good result for the most people.

"It has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God," Scalia said.

Dr. Gregory Tomlin covers the intersection of politics, culture and religion for Christian Examiner. He is also Assistant Professor of Church History and a faculty instructional mentor for Liberty University Divinity School. Tomlin earned his Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also studied at Baylor University and Boston University's summer Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He wrote his dissertation on Southern Baptists and their influence on military-foreign policy in Vietnam from 1965-1973.