Types of Religious Socialism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Should you ever mix religion and politics? According to some people, yes. In this lesson, we'll look at a few major branches of religious socialism and see how each unites faith with economics and politics.

Religious Socialism

Karl Marx once said that religion was the opiate of the masses. You may not think, therefore, that most religions would have anything nice to say about one of Marx's principle ideas: socialism. In this economic system, social and economic equality are regulated by a strong state through tools like wealth redistribution and welfare. Well, you know who else tends to celebrate strongly centralized organization and welfare? Most religions do.

That connection has not been lost on some and as a result, various branches of religious socialism have emerged throughout history. Religious socialism sees religion and socialism as compatible, primarily in the pursuit of social equality, but whose religion are we talking about, specifically? There are many faiths in the world and as it turns out, many of them have nicer things to say about Marx than he said about them.

Christian Socialism

Let's start with the largest religion in the world today: Christianity. As the dominant religion of Europe, and an instrument of power for European monarchs across history, Christianity often carries an implicit connection to capitalism. But is that supported by the Bible?

Not necessarily, according to Christian socialism, the doctrine that uses Christian beliefs to argue for socialist policies and practices. Christian socialists point out the number of scriptural references to welfare, charity, selflessness, and the sacrifice of personal resources to benefit those in need (as also embodied by such figures as Saint Francis of Assisi). In fact, Christ himself claims that it is easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, a passage Christian socialists interpret as a mandate to abandon the quest for personal wealth associated with capitalism.

Christ healing the sick without payment, a motif in the Bible that Christian socialists see as a model for healthcare
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Islamic Socialism

Christianity's distant cousin, the world's second-most followed religion, takes a similar stance. Islam is a faith based on principals of equality, justice, and mutual social responsibilities. Islamic socialists claim that Muslims can best find these reflected in the policies of socialism. There's actually a deep history here. Muhammad himself helped establish a welfare system similar to that enacted by many socialist states today, and Islamic governments have maintained similar policies since the 7th century.

Islamic socialism, however, also has to be understood as a reaction against European imperialism. In the 19th century, Muslims in Russia began adopting socialism alongside other marginalized populations. In the 20th century, it was largely socialists who led campaigns against Italian and German fascists in North Africa, and later socialists who led many of the region's decolonization and anti-imperialist movements. Socialism, interpreted through Islam, became a political means for fighting imperialism and its associated doctrine of capitalism.

The first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, may have been one of the first world leaders to implement a minimum guaranteed income back in the 7th century
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Jewish Socialism

Rounding out our Abrahamic religions is Judaism, and its doctrine of economic equality, Jewish socialism. Like Christian and Islamic varieties, Jewish socialism looks to its holy book's commandments emphasizing equality, generosity, and selflessness as the basis for a political doctrine. In some sects of Judaism, socialism can also be interpreted in a messianic sense; a fulfillment of the utopian prophesy of Judaism.

Like Islamic socialism, Jewish socialism as a unified movement has its roots in the marginalization of the Jewish peoples. Across Europe, Jewish communities were isolated, ghettoized, and blamed for everything from bad weather to the plague. Socialism appeared among Jewish populations in Russia, Germany, and France as a means of reducing ethnic violence against them and increasing economic equality, and in fact, many of the first socialist leaders in the United States were Jewish immigrants from these regions.

Buddhist Socialism

Next, let's examine one of Asia's most dominant religious philosophies: Buddhism. Buddhists value social harmony, seek to end suffering by eliminating the cycles that perpetuate it, and elevate mutual responsibility over personal wealth. Buddhist socialism stresses these same ideals, within an established economic/political framework.

One of the first formal doctrines of a Buddhist socialism was advanced by Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Buddhadasa in the 1960s as a reaction against the greed of imperial capitalists and the violence of Marxist insurgents, both of whom left his homeland devastated. His philosophy, known as Dhammic socialism, stressed the Buddhist principles of pacifism and devotion to the law of nature and saw socialism as a tool by which to achieve this. Buddhist socialism is also distinct in being one of the only world religions to have one of its most venerated leaders actively identify as a socialist, something the Dalai Lama has repeatedly done.

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