The Socialist Bizarro World of David Bentley Hart
This Orthodox theologian chose Orthodox Easter to resurrect the worst heresy of the 20th century.
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the most joyous festival of the year began Saturday night. At the Easter vigil, fasting becomes feasting. Dark churches turn radiant. Plaintive Lenten melodies give way to bright-toned songs.
This is the day of resurrection! Let us be illumined by the Feast! Let us embrace each other! Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection!
David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, picked this perfect day to launch a caustic attack on his political enemies. And Hart’s reversal of the paschal call to peace infuses his whole New York Times article. Nearly everything he wrote, from theology to economics, came out backwards.
Reversal 1: “That’s Not Real Socialism”
Hart wants his readers to believe socialism is just “a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness.” To pull that off, Hart attacks the dictionary definition of the word. He insists that Venezuela, the USSR, and North Korea never practiced real socialism. That’s a notion Kristian Niemetz comprehensively refutes in his latest book. Then Hart conflates “socialism” with the most benign intentions of social democracy. This even after European scholars have gone out of their way to clarify that Nordic countries are not socialist.
Reversal 2: The Sick Do Better Under Socialized Medicine
Hart insists that under socialism “the lives of the vast majority of citizens, most especially in regard to affordable health care, have improved enormously.” But when the American “child of a working family has cancer, the child [will] be denied the most expensive treatments, and then probably die.”
In the real world, global surveys find something different. The U.S. has the highest cancer survival rates in the world. That includes 90 percent for childhood leukemia. Twice as many lung cancer patients survive in the U.S. as in the UK. The main cause? NPR reports it as total national income. Of course, that’s tied to economic freedom. The average person in the economically freest nations lives 15 years longer. Infant mortality is seven times lower.
Meanwhile, the British Red Cross recently said NHS rationing created a “humanitarian crisis.” The UK’s goal of a four-hour emergency room wait is double the U.S. average. But the NHS hasn’t even met it in years. Now, the government plans to scrap that goal altogether. Yet the NHS outshines Finland, where a British expat wrote the system “forces people to go private or rely on friends who are doctors.”
The former Notre Dame fellow showed the same blind spot for the vulnerable when he praised Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “moral vitality.” Remember that AOC “does not accept any federal, state or local rollbacks, cuts, or restrictions” on “affordable abortion.” That’s a position she shares with Ralph Northam. The same AOC asked,“Is it OK to still have children?”
Nevertheless, he persisted.
Reversal 3: America Has Nothing to Fear From Socialism
“Only in America,” he writes, “is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.”
This seems a particularly inartful expression. Russians shipped freight trains full of dissidents to gulags deep inside the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But again, Hart has it backwards. In America, socialism has undergone a renaissance that’s lasted longer than the Prague Spring. It is survivors of socialism who warn us not to adopt their system.
Take Daniel Di Martino, a Venezuelan expatriate now studying in the United States. His writings prove he’s wiser than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The real reason my family went without water and electricity was the socialist economy,” he wrote. He specifically blames “welfare programs, many minimum-wage hikes and nationalizations,” and “price controls.” Yet American socialists “have praised the same kind of policies that produced famine, mass exodus and soaring inflation in Venezuela.”
Or listen to Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking defector from the Eastern Bloc. “In 1978, I paid with two death sentences from my native Romania for helping her people rid themselves of their Marxist dictatorship, carefully disguised as socialism,” he wrote. “Thirty years later I witnessed how the same Marxism, camouflaged as socialism, began infecting the shores of my adoptive country, the United States.”
Pacepa particularly cautioned Americans against adopting single-payer healthcare.
Counterfeiting Heaven on Earth
Then there’s Czech dissident Václav Benda. He warned that tyranny in the name of quashing “social inequality” is “not an accident brought about by the imperfection of” past regimes. In fact:
Social equality represents the liquidation of societas, the polis, its transformation into a shapeless, nonsensical, and in the end permanently enslaved mass of individuals, dispossessed of their generally useful freedoms, of their human dignity and values, and of their rights and privileges.
“Not even in the Kingdom of Christ,” Benda wrote, “will there be equality in this [socialist] sense.”
Which brings us to Hart’s most significant misstatement of fact.
Reversal 4: Pope Pius XI, Socialist Leader
“Democratic socialism is … grounded in deep Christian convictions,” Hart writes. Among its alleged “continental expressions” is Pope Pius XI’s letter Quadragesimo Anno.
In reality, that encyclical states, “Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism … cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church, because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” Further, “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”
Later, Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus extends the papal condemnation to the “welfare state” for putting “bureaucratic ways of thinking” ahead of people’s well-being, for the “loss of human energies,” and “an enormous increase in spending.”
One of the peculiar geniuses of Orthodoxy is our embrace of the material. The Divine Liturgy (and the Traditional Latin Mass) gears all five senses to worship. When a couple establishes a new house – the Greek root of the word “economy” – the Orthodox wedding ceremony asks God to “fill their houses with wheat, wine, and oil, and with every good thing, so that they may give in turn to those in need,” voluntarily.
Hart ignores the wording as readily as he avoids the paschal invitation to embrace our enemies.
Reversal 5: Heaven or Earth?
Dostoyevsky would understand Hart’s upside-down decision to spend Holy Week preaching the gospel of socialism. He wrote in The Brothers Karamazov:
In this stinking tavern, for instance, here, they meet and sit down in a corner. … And what do they talk about in that momentary halt in the tavern? Of the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out.
David Bentley Hart has turned these questions inside out and chosen the worse part.
Rev. Ben Johnson is an Eastern Orthodox priest. He’s editor-in-chief of the Acton Institute‘s flagship publication Religion & Liberty. He serves also as senior editor of Acton’s transatlantic website. His views are his own.