Christian Deism

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Disclaimer: Christian Deism is practiced across political parties. It has not traditionally been associated with Distributism, so this essay is a bit tangential to the rest of the site: I do not want to imply that the two ideas are usually connected, because they are not. You can be a Christian Deist and not want anything to do with Distributism. Many Christian Deists believe that we need to develop a world community and discourage the in-group mentality altogether. However, I believe that the idea matches the tenets of Christian Deism very well, and that it should be encouraged across political and religious lines.

Distributism as a political ideal was developed by Catholic thinkers such as Dorothy Day and G.K. Chesterton, and it attempts to find a healthy middle ground between capitalism and socialism. Chesterton's quote, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists," is a very succinct explanation of the central Distributist idea. When there are "too few capitalists", a small group of "owners" makes all of the important business decisions that a large group of "workers" must follow: society benefits when most people are "owners" and have property that they are responsible for. This is different from traditional socialism, which disparages private property altogether and recommends that all things should be shared communally. A Distributist society is a society that emphasizes the small and local over the big and international. Big government and big business are both considered to be unnatural, unjust, and unsustainable.

In a society where local businesses thrive and where families (and neighbors) have a strong social support system, big government is not really necessary. Nowadays, most of the advocates of "smaller government" also advocate rugged individualism and corporate capitalism. What these people will not admit is that atomized individuals cannot maintain a real society. The advocates of socialism want the government to enforce strict policies that protect people in need, but they will not admit that a) a large government restricts important liberties, or that b) this idea frequently does not work out as intended.

Human beings are tribal creatures by nature. We evolved in small groups where we developed and enforced social norms, and we were able to help the members who fell on hard times. We also knew one another, which allowed us to discourage freeloading and reserve help for those who really needed it. Even our loftiest emotions evolved within small groups, and are best suited to people we know well and encounter frequently. St. Paul's ideas were well aligned with the facts of human evolution when he told Christians to take care of one another in communities. Think about the damage Americans have done when we assume that we can "fix" other cultures: in trying to promote democracy in the Middle East, we caused huge problems due to our INABILITY to truly understand the culture(s) there. "Free trade" has certainly undermined our own economic protections, and many would argue that it has undermined the economies of our trading partners as well. While human compassion demands that we treat immigrants with dignity, massive immigration does enrich corporations while eroding the rights of local workers. Community grows out of the small, the local, and the particular, and it is very hard to build a community out of the giant, the international, and the vaguely defined.

It is true that there is a type of danger in all of this. An in-group morality can exclude the out-group, which leads to arrogance and cruelty. This is exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan, as related by Jesus. A (probably) Jewish man was beaten by robbers and left for dead: his fellow Jews avoided him on the road, but a Samaritan (a member of a different religious culture) helped him. Jesus encouraged us to love and protect people, even if they are different from us. However, this was an example of a person CHOOSING to empty himself of prejudice and help a member of the out-group. The Christian message encourages (some would say demands) that we do this, but a law demanding that we cannot rest until every individual everywhere has an adequate quality of life would be an oppressive law indeed. The law is written in our hearts, and that law, when followed, is enough.

Jesus said to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." This sentiment is echoed by St. Augustine when he told us to "Love, then do as you will." Love cannot be mandated by a government, or it ceases to be love. However, this does not mean that a laissez-faire capitalist society is a good environment for a spiritual community. While in theory a "libertarian" society promotes absolute liberty, in practice it allows the very strong to collaborate and oppress the weak. Most of the major news sources we are likely to use are owned by just a few corporations. This is a prime example of "too much capitalism" being caused by "too few capitalists" (owners and producers). Examples abound. When small companies are driven out of business by corporations like Wal-Mart, competition can no longer be said to exist in any meaningful way. While a libertarian would say that anyone is free to compete with McDonald's, it is obvious that a small local restaurant cannot possibly compete with McDonald's resources without growing into a similarly large, unaccountable corporation. In capitalism, self-interested owners will naturally consolidate until only a few "capitalists" control the direction of the economy.

Government control of the economy is a very imperfect solution. Many have pointed out that big government actually encourages big business by supporting corporations legally and financially: I haven't researched this very thoroughly, but it certainly seems to be true. However, even if it were not true, think about all of the nasty things government can do when it is not kept in check. Most of us are furiously angry about SOMETHING the government is doing, but can we really do anything about it? If you are upset about the unmanned drone program, can you do anything meaningful to stop it? Almost every advocate of government control can think of some significant way the government is abusing their power. Even more importantly, virtue that is required by law ceases to be virtue. In the book and movie A Clockwork Orange, a young criminal is "reprogrammed" to be a law-abiding citizen, but he loses his humanity in the process. Is that the fate we want for ourselves? As Christian Deists (or as members of any faith), we believe that human beings have agency and dignity, and that our choices matter. Historically, the ideas of free will and human dignity really started to take off when Christians began to preach the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not come to outlaw greed, he came to CONDEMN greed. He also said "He who has ears to hear, let him hear": he did not advocate forced listening devices for people who did not have ears to hear. Everything that he accomplished, he accomplished by persuasion, and if Christians are going to follow his example then persuasion is the tool we must use.

Distributism is a bottom-up revolution (which starts with the people and works its way up), not a top-down revolution (which starts with the government and works its way down). It can be summed up in one word: subsidiarity, which means that every task should be accomplished by the smallest and most local unit that can possibly accomplish it. Parents should take care of their children whenever possible: when this is impossible, grandparents or friends should do it. Day-care centers would be a choice low on the list. Credit unions are preferable to big banks, and were advocated by early Catholic thinkers. Local government is preferable to state government, which in turn is preferable to federal government. Co-ops, small businesses and farming communities are encouraged: anything that keeps family, business, food and law close to the communities they serve. Small, local agencies are accountable to the people they serve, and can be changed when necessary. How do you feel when you call a giant company's customer service line? They couldn't care less about your needs: you are just a number to them. In addition, many environmental problems could be solved without bureaucratic controls, since local farming and production sidestep most of the damage that massive international transport causes our planet.

Laws and government have a place in a Distributist society. However, when people pick up the slack, there is less for a government to do. If a few laws about junk food and farming encourage Americans to eat healthier, we will have less need for bloated healthcare bureaucracies. If wages are raised so that workers can afford dignified lives, we could shut down some of the counterproductive welfare programs that encourage helplessness. If we stop demanding unlimited cheap gas, we won't have to depend on a giant military-industrial complex to invade oil-rich countries. And while many people want to be "free" and promiscuous well into late adulthood, a culture where most people are monogamous and stable will be a society where most people can take care of themselves without too much government help. (By the way, I support gay marriage, since I want a large number of people to be responsible and monogamous: many Distributists are devout Catholics and social conservatives, so they might disagree. That's fine.) License is different from true liberty. If people want to live unattached, carefree, greedy lives without the social obligations of personal responsibility, social service and charity, then they will be creating the need for a large and unaccountable government, whether they vote Libertarian or not.

There is not currently a Distributist political party. We agree with Libertarians that personal liberty and smaller government are essential: we agree with conservatives that this needs to be accompanied by responsibility, social norms, and self-discipline: and we agree with liberals that it is time to abandon rampant consumer capitalism in favor of a more humane and egalitarian society that respects people's natural rights. Dorothy Day said that a good society was one that made it easy to be good, and consumer capitalism is not neutral in this way: for all its advantages in producing goods, it makes it very, very hard for PEOPLE to be good. We need a society that encourages and allows goodness without forcing it upon us.

I don't know how to make a Distributist society a reality on any kind of large scale right now. However, on the small scale (where it has to start), it happens all the time. There seems to be a real social shift where people are turning away from consumerism, warfare, and corporate culture: co-ops are growing, and many people are pulling their money out of big banks and looking towards credit unions. Many consumers are starting to understand that small, local businesses are essential for a stable economy. In our own lives, simple acts of charity and help (which Christians really should be doing ANYWAY) are also community-building. We need to be honest that a society based on greed and narcissism (social networking sites allow us to escape the demands of community and glorify ourselves instead) is not a society that encourages goodness. International capitalism will not create a utopia, and neither will international socialism. Despite what TEDTalks tell us, technology and scientific brilliance alone will not make things better: only we can make things better.


Lots of great quotes in this one:

"The smokestack, assembly line, and A-Bomb nauseated Tolkien. What was the Ring itself but greed and power and audacity all rolled up into one formidable symbol?"

“The state had entered to solve [unemployment] by dole and work relief, by setting up so many bureaus that we were swamped with initials … Labor was siding with the creation of the Welfare State, the Servile State, instead of aiming for the ownership of the means of production and acceptance of the responsibility that it entailed.” -Dorothy Day