Book Review: The Christian as Citizen by John C. Bennettook
APRIL 01, 1956 by EDMUND OPITZ
New York: Association Press. 93 pages. $1.25.
John C. Bennett is Dean of New York’s Union Theological Seminary and one of the leaders of the movement to apply Gospel precepts to the ordering of society by means of a politically planned economy. This notion, popularly known as the Social Gospel, finds expression through the social action agencies of all major denominations, as well as in the National and World Councils of Churches. Many active participants in the Social Gospel movement were Socialists, as was Dr. Bennett. Most of them are now middle-of-the-roaders, as is Dr. Bennett. He has given up the idea, he writes elsewhere, that either collectivism or individualism has a set of principles which may be consistently applied to society. There are “middle axioms” instead. The “middle axiom” combines all the fun of having principles with none of the risk.
There is nothing new in this little book, but it serves as a summary of the thinking of those who are powerfully entrenched in certain ecclesiastical circles, showing up their misconception and blind-spots. It will be convenient to list the main points and comment on each in turn.
(1) “Christian responsibility for society,” writes Dr. Bennett, “includes a responsibility for radical criticism of the existing order.” This sounds plausible, in view of the inveterate tendency of churchmen to be monarchists under a monarchy, democrats in a democracy, and so on. But the existing order, as Dr. Bennett sees it, is a sort of robber baron, ruthless exploitation of the weak by the strong. Despite the fact that we have a Welfare State, that every “advanced” country in the world has either a mixed economy or outright socialism, he warns his reader against “making a god of . . . economic free-enterprise.” The “existing order” is collectivism; but expect no “radical criticism” of it from Dr. Bennett!
(2) Dr. Bennett is one of those who urge the strengthening of government to the point where it can balance out the power which he reads into economic life. “Power as such,” he writes, “is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and it is necessary that there be power in both economic and political life.” The best brief comment on this prevalent misunderstanding has been made by Hayek. “It is merely a play upon words,” he writes, “to speak of the ‘power collectively exercised by private boards of directors’ so long as they do not combine to concerted action which would, of course, mean the end of competition and the creation of a planned economy. To split or decentralize power is necessarily to reduce the absolute amount of power, and the competitive system is the only system designed to minimize by decentralization the power exercised by man over man.”
(3) Speaking of modern communism, Dr. Bennett says it had its origin in the wholly justified revolt of mind and conscience against the inhumanities of the nineteenth century capitalism. Historians have recently reassessed this period and shown that it was not the gory thing it was represented to be by Fabian pamphleteers. It had its evils, to be sure, as what period does not? But as certain as anything in historical and philosophical matters can be, there is nothing wrong with such conditions that communism can cure.
Communism also “represents a form of divine judgment upon the white race, and upon the nations and classes which have until recently run the world largely for their own benefit. It is a judgment on the churches.” But if this be the case, then, in Dr. Bennett’s twisted vision, the fault lies almost wholly with the West while judgment is almost wholly being executed on the East!
(4) Dr. Bennett reads the world situation in terms of totalitarian threats from both right and left. “At the present time,” we are relieved to learn, “only the totalitarianism of the left, communism, is a real threat.” The fact that fascists and communists have battled among themselves should not blind us to their essential similarity. In the Wars of Religion, Christian fought Christian, but neither side could be properly labeled “infidel.” As long as the communists can get people to concentrate on the distinction, “right” and “left,” so that any opposition to communism may be labeled “rightist” or “reactionary,” it will be impossible to think straight about the political and economic conditions which bedevil the modern world.
E. A. Opitz