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Another possible definition of “socialist”

Yesterday I was listening to Jane Mayer, a writer for The New Yorker, being interviewed by Terry Gross. Mayer has recently written about Bryan Fischer, a conservative religious radio talk-show host. Mayer attributed an idea to Fischer and others in what she calls “the farthest edge of the Evangelical Christian right”.

I think everything you need to know about how they see Obama was what happened at um where Bryan Fischer works with the American Family Association. Shortly after the election in 2008 the group that calls itself a Christian ministry passed around a picture of Obama’s face which they had blended with that of Adolf Hitler. And they sort of posted it on the wall and they passed it around and all laughed at it and you know it showed Obama with you know a little Hitler mustache and swastikas behind him. But they have attacked Obama relentlessly since his election in 2008. And um they regard him as sort of the avatar of godless socialism, so an assault on everything they think they believe in.
[Note: My transcription of the radio broadcast differs slightly from NPR’s.]

What struck me is Mayer’s use of the word socialism, and particularly the phrase godless socialism. I have written previously about the word socialism and other labels for political philosophies, and how the popular use of such terms differs from their use in political science and other scholarly fields.

The phrase godless socialism and its opposition to Evangelical Christianity seems to suggest a religious, rather than an economic position. One definition of socialism (or Socialism) is “a theory or system of social organization based on state or collective ownership and regulation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange for the common benefit of all members of society” (Oxford English Dictionary 2012). But the idea of godless socialism as described by Mayer seems relatively unconcerned with means of production or economic regulation, and instead to concern the place of God and religion in social organization.

The phrase godless communists was fairly common during the Cold War, an idea I assume relates to the atheist and sometimes anti-religious nature of the Soviet and the Chinese communist parties, as well as Karl Marx’s argument that religion is “the opium of the people“. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that an opposition between communism (and by extension socialism) versus religion should become salient to religious people, particularly those opposed to communism on economic, nationalist, or other political bases.

It is Mayers, the critical reporter, and not Fischer, the Evangelical Christian and political opinion speaker, who used that term. Therefore, I don’t know whether this usage is common among politically conservative Christians, or even whether the word is used this way.

If it is common, though, I find that very interesting. It is not that I am unfamiliar with such usage of socialism, but rather that I am familiar with the usage from a quarter that, I suspect, the Evangelical Christian right would strongly reject.

Consider the following message from Osama bin Laden, as broadcast on al Jazeera 11 February 2003 and translated by BBC Monitor.

Under these circumstances, there will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders, despite our belief in the infidelity of socialists.

The jurisdiction of the socialists and those rulers has fallen a long time ago.

Socialists are infidels wherever they are, whether they are in Baghdad or Aden.

Here “the socialists” refers to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, while “the crusaders” refers to the United States under George W. Bush. Bin Laden labeled Hussein a socialist based not on economic philosophy but on his secular approach to governing and his (in bin Laden’s view) insufficient religious piety.


“socialism, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary online. June 2012. Oxford University Press.

2 thoughts on “Another possible definition of “socialist””

  1. Magnus Pharao Hansen

    I think the reason he calls Baghdad and Aden socialist is that the Ba’ath party actually defined its ideology as Arab Socialism, and because South Yemen in fact was a socialist state during the 1980s. Of course in this case being socialist does equal not being the kind of Islamist that Bin Laden would consider good Muslims so there is an aspect of “not religious enough” – but it is not the same as calling Obama a socialist since both Hussein and South Yemen actually defined themselves as socialists (and at least in the case of South Yemen actually practiced socialism).

  2. Don’t you think that “opiate of the masses” is a better, more vivid translation of what Max was trying to convey than the pedantic “opium of the people”?

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