Roger Olson, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Baylor University, recently published an essay with the title, “Why I Am a Socialist: Because I Am a Christian.” He added, “I do think that laissez faire capitalism, especially its Social Darwinist variety, is contrary to the spirit, the ethos, of Jesus Christ, which is compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, the ‘little ones.’…What would Jesus advocate for if he were here, in person, physically, today?”
In other words, today Jesus would be a socialist, according to Olson. But the professor errs in his logic, hermeneutics, history, and economics.
The obvious error in Olson’s reasoning is his logical leap, called the non sequitur fallacy. Olson believes that compassion requires the state to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Otherwise, there is no compassion. What about charity? Olson never mentions it. Is there really nothing between socialism and ruthless oppression of the poor? Olson believes so. The Bible says we should care for the poor, but insisting that only the state can provide for them is an Evel Knievel logical leap across the Grand Canyon.
A PhD in theology ought to be familiar with the principles of hermeneutics, which are logic applied to interpretation of the Bible. One of the primary rules to guide this interpretation is to consider the audience. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” and encouraged His followers to give to them, was He addressing politicians? No, politicians avoided Jesus and He wasn’t a political policy wonk, anyway. He spoke to crowds of the most common people in the nation, many of whom would become part of His Church. So, He encouraged individual charity to the poor. Charity in the Bible is never enforced by the state. It is required by God, not the government.
Another important principle of hermeneutics is to consider the historical context. Olson needs to read Jerry Bowyer’s book, The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics, which shows that Jesus’ attacks on the rich took place when he preached in Judea where most rich people had stolen their wealth from others. The Bible often condemns the wicked wealthy, but portrays wealth gained honestly as a gift from God.
Olson is also ignorant of the 150 years in which economists proved Marx wrong. But for Olson, ignorance of economics is no problem; Marx said it, and that settles it: “The socialism I embrace is not tied to any political party… It is not Marxism, although it believes Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism has merit….it’s best visible representations are in the Scandinavian countries.”
Olson is unaware that Finland (9), Denmark (10), and Sweden (11), rank above the U.S. (25) in terms of economic freedom according to the Heritage Foundation’s index. But that doesn’t mean those Scandinavian countries are capitalist. They are not. It means the U.S. is more socialist than the socialist countries Olson admires. Nor does he care that the poor in the U.S. are wealthier than the poor in Scandinavian countries because our standard of living is higher. But he recognizes that the U.S. has implemented many socialist programs: “Much of socialism is actually manifested in many things American society take for granted such as social security and Medicare and Medicaid and public ownership of many of the means of transportation, etc.”
Olson ignores the warnings of 19th century Christians who feared giving too much to the poor instead of too little, as Marvin Olasky demonstrates in The Tragedy of American Compassion. Indiscriminate giving, which government welfare programs do, encourages drug and alcohol abuse, laziness, and single mother-headed households that produce most of our criminals. Indiscriminate giving to the poor vastly increases their numbers as more choose not to work and encourages the vices that keep people poor. We have proven that any American who finishes high school, stays off drugs and alcohol, doesn’t commit crimes, shows up to work on time, and is faithful to his wife or her husband, can live a middle-class American lifestyle, the highest standard of living in human history.
Allowing Marx to define capitalism for him, Olson offers a dishonest depiction of it: “What would Jesus advocate for if he were here, in person, physically, today? I believe he would speak out prophetically, as did the Hebrew prophets, against those who advocate government that allows the weak, the disadvantaged, the sick, the disabled, the poor to fall through the cracks simply to keep in place ‘economic freedom’ for the rich and powerful.” But having a drunk atheist define capitalism is as reasonable as letting atheists define Christianity; they won’t come close to the truth.
The 19th century was the golden age for laissez-faire capitalism in the U.S. and U.K. because theologians considered it to be Christian economics. It lifted citizens in both nations to extraordinary levels of prosperity compared to previous centuries. And because of our greater wealth, Christians took care of the poor better than anyone in history, without subsidizing alcoholics or men who refused to work.
Yet Olson considers capitalism a great evil. Does he analyze the economic theology of great proponents of capitalism, such as Francis Wayland, a Baptist Pastor, president of Brown University when it was a Christian school, and author of one of the most popular economic textbooks of the 19th century? No, Olson doesn’t bother.
Few theologians have devoted the time necessary to learning economics. Like Francis Wayland, Paul Heyne was one who did, and he is worth reading, especially Are Economists Basically Dishonest? Christians should shun PhD-gilded theologians who, bored with theology, stray into the lanes of other disciplines like economics. They know no more than any random man off the street in other fields. And doing so, they dishonestly try to project the authority of their PhD in one field onto their ill-informed opinions in another.
What would Jesus advocate for if he were here, in person, physically, today? He would promote laissez-faire capitalism, because He wrote the Book from which the principles of capitalism came.
Roger D. McKinney lives in Broken Arrow, OK with his wife, Jeanie. He has three children and six grandchildren. He earned an M.A. in economics from the University of Oklahoma and B.A.s from the University of Tulsa and Baptist Bible College. He has written two books, Financial Bull Riding and God is a Capitalist: Markets from Moses to Marx, and articles for the Affluent Christian Investor, the Foundation for Economic Education, The Mises Institute, the American Institute for Economic Research and Townhall Finance. Previous articles can be found at facebook.com/thechristiancapitalist. He is a conservative Baptist and promoter of the Austrian school of economics.