David Schelhaas, Professor Emeritus of English at Dordt College, recently published an article titled “What Does Social Democrat Mean?” Schelhaas suggests that “Christians should seriously consider the merits of social democracy.” Schelhaas is quick to point out that he does not advocate socialism, with state control and management of the means of production, coupled with the redistribution of wealth. Instead, he advocates for the lighter “social democracy.”
Schelhaas goes on to outline his vision of social democracy, including the state’s role in “creating a good and just society” and “using taxes to pay for…other social changes they desire.” His chief concern is wealth inequality, and claims it is the underlying cause of “virtually all social problems that plague a society, things like infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, mental illness, etc.”
The crux of Schelhaas’ argument rests in his endorsement of the moral creed of socialism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” He rightly rejects the traditional means of socialism as wrong, but accepts the ends. This is itself a dangerous error. Accepting the morality of socialist ends opens the door to more brutal means in the future, as history has shown us time and time again.
God calls Christians to care for the poor and the needy, to administer charity and to help the less fortunate. Notably, Scripture does not say that government should be the great instrument of charity, as Schelhaas advocates, saying that the social democrat credo might be “from each (often via taxes) according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
The beauty of charity, like neighborly love, is in its voluntary nature. What virtue is there in forcing one to help the less fortunate? 2 Corinthians 9:7 reads “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” [emphasis added]
Schelhaas makes wealth inequality the central moral issue that Christians should be concerned with. Not the violence that plagues the world, not theft, not pride, but the simple fact that some have more than others. He justifies his concern by quoting 2 Corinthians 8:13-14:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.
Schelhaas refers here to John Calvin, both as he interprets this passage in 2 Corinthians and as Geneva in the sixteenth century was organized. Even though some have referred to Calvin’s Geneva as embodying a kind of “Christian socialism,” it is highly problematic to read contemporary political philosophy into civil societies of bygone eras. And as Calvin relates to the question of equality, it is worth noting what he says elsewhere in relation to this passage in the second volume of his commentary on Corinthians:
Equality may be taken in two senses, either as meaning a mutual compensation, when like is given for like, or, as meaning a proper adjustment. I understand ἰσότητα simply as meaning — an equality of proportional right, as Aristotle terms it. In this signification it is made use of, also, in Colossians 4:1, where he exhorts “masters to give to their servants what is equal.” He certainly does not mean, that they should be equal in condition and station, but by this term he expresses that humanity and clemency, and kind treatment, which masters, in their turn, owe to their servants.”[emphasis added]
Humans should be treated equally in the eye of the law. They should all be treated equally in terms of dignity, humanity, and respect. But Christians are not called to enforce a radical material and wealth equality. They are called to love, to respect, and to “give cheerfully” to those in need. This is far different from a “social democracy” trying to change and guide society through the state, as Schelhaas advocates.
Schelhaas correctly points out to the pressing moral concern over several societal issues, like infant mortality and crime. Schelhaas’ mistake is claiming wealth inequality is at the root of all of them. Wealth inequality is not the problem; poverty is. Though this may seem like mere semantics, they are not synonymous. The root cause of societal issues are enormously complex, and caused by a multitude of factors beyond simple material poverty. These other realities cannot be ignored, and social democracy taken as primarily oriented toward material redistribution is ill-equipped to address them.
Ultimately, social democracy is not the best route to human flourishing. Alleviating poverty and trying to solve social issues don’t primarily come from government action. It comes from individuals working together through markets and civil society. Instead of relying on social democracy to deliver us from worldly evil, Christians should consider the merits of markets, charity, and churches.
In Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner explore how America's system of democratic capitalism both depends upon and cultivates an intricate social web of families, churches, and communities.