I’ve honestly not paid much attention to Glenn Beck–I’ve never even seen a clip of his show, and most of what I know about him comes from blogs and other media reports. This past weekend’s “Beckfest” on the Mall, though, significantly raised his profile. It’s even being suggested that he’s now the head of a new religious movement.
It seems that one of Beck’s signature themes is that Christians should have nothing to do with “social justice”–apparently he even told his viewers to leave their churches(!) if their pastors advocated social justice. Social justice has long been a bogey of the political Right–in the view of many conservatives it stands for an attempt to engineer socio-economic outcomes rather than leaving those outcomes to the workings of the free market. Libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek even claimed to find the phrase “social justice” vacuous.
The inconvenient fact, though, is that Christianity is inseparable from the quest for social justice. We could define social justice, in a rough and ready way, as social institutions oriented toward the common good and the flourishing of all people. The key point here is the attention to institutions. “Changes of heart” where people become more generous, loving, etc. are perhaps a necessary but not a sufficient condition for social justice. The structures of society (e.g., law, economy, or government) result from human decisions, and when they are unjust, humans are responsible for changing them. The idea of individual improvement divorced from efforts at social reform is a peculiarly American heresy.
This is not some fringe, lefty view of the matter. Everwhere Christianity has garnered significant influence, that influence has spilled over into attempts to reform social institutions (for both good and ill, it should be admitted–viz. prohibition). Christianity has always been a significant impetus for social reform, including playing a role the creation of a welfare and regulatory state to provide a safety net and rein in the excesses of the market.
In contrast to the majority Christian tradition, the knee-jerk vulgar libertarianism of Beck seems to oppose any efforts on the part of the government to temper the workings of the market to ensure, for instance, that no one goes without basic necessities of life or the goods they need to flourish as human persons (goods like health care, education, and a clean and healthy environment). But mainstream Christian social thought doesn’t recognize an absolute “right” to unlimited accumulation of private property severed from an orientation to the common good, and its ideal is not a government that is studiously “neutral” with respect to the outcomes of markets or other social structures. For instance, as I’ve pointed out before, the general consensus of the tradition has been that the poor are entitled, by right, to the excess wealth of the rich, so long as they lack basic necessities.
Justice, it has been said, is simply the social form of love. Clearly there’s room for reasonable disagreement about what the best means are for reforming social institutions to bring about greater justice. But it has to be said: the idea of a totally hands-off government indifferent to institutional outcomes is, at best, a minority position within Christian social thought.