Social justice and Christianity are inseparable

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.


5 thoughts on “Social justice and Christianity are inseparable

  1. Living as we do in the United States of Amnesia, contemporary progressives of a secular bent have no recollection, or wish to have no recollection, of the very strong role played by the Great Commoner and the strain of Protestant fundamentalism he represented in the first bloom of their movement.

    They forget, or wish to forget, that a century or so ago numerous shoes were on other feet, and the denominations that today power the religious right and share Beck’s disdain for social justice were themselves wedded to it, and were active in its pursuit.

  2. While me might define “social justice” as “social institutions oriented toward the common good and the flourishing of all people,” it’s already a label for something much more specific. Your defense sounds like someone defending the Democratic party by saying, “Who is against democracy?” or the Republican party by saying, “Who is against the republic?” As labels these currently stand for something far different from their original definitions.

    The right and left have different ideas about what justice means. (And before what I say next is disputed, I’ll be quick to grant that many on the right and left care little for any kind of justice.) The right believes in a level playing field where people are equal before the law. The left believes in equality of outcome.

    I find the idea that “the poor are entitled, by right, to the excess wealth of the rich, so long as they lack basic necessities” to be terribly muddled. If someone has one jacket and loses it foolishly, does he really have a right to take a jacket from the person with two? Some cases where one person has “excess” while another is lacking in necessities ARE just. Where they are not, there are better ways of addressing it than creating vague principles of entitlement for goods and services. What good is a justice theory that leaves people certain that they are entitled to more than they have, but with nobody specific that they can sue for justice?

    Much better to ask whether institutions are creating artificial barriers to success. Otherwise what you create is artificial dependency that is difficult to overcome. The Old Testament social vision was not one of dependency. Everyone would own land and be able to live off of it. When we cut people off from that possibility, they end up having to be parasitic off of each other.

  3. Always appreciate your challenging comments, Rick.

    I think you do a bit of definitional base-stealing yourself, though. Is it really true that the right believes in “a level playing field”? Can the playing field be level if people lack basic prerequisites for even competing? And I don’t think “the left” believes in “equality of outcome” in any widespread way, if by that you mean strict equality of condition.

    I do grant that there are competing notions of justice. But let me pose a hypothetical: suppose that you had institutions that were “just” in, say, a Nozickian/Hayekian sense where everyone acquired what they had be original acquisition from the “state of nature” and/or by voluntary exchange, and yet there were still people without access to basic necessities. Would there be some public obligation to rectify that state of affairs? If so, then justice entails more than “procedural” justice, but also must look to outcomes.

  4. Well, I guess I’m offering the more purist definitions. As to how they tend to define things, though, I think this is a fundamental difference.

    I would say that you have justice when you have proper procedures. If the outcomes left some without access to basic necessities, it would be something other than justice to rectify this. I would hope that compassion would move people to help in many of these situations. But I also trust that fewer such situations would arise.

    I don’t think there can be a public obligation to do what the public has no right to do. And use of power to redistribute wealth is an example of this.

    Necessities are made scarce through regulation. The regulations may be made with the best of intentions, but they usually have unintended consequences. For instance, over-the-counter bronchodilators have been removed from grocery shelves for a variety of reasons. This has been followed by a halving of the allowed dosage in the prescription inhalers. For many, this means that to breathe they must be able to get a prescription, requiring a doctor visit. And unless they have a generous doctor, they must make double the number of visits they would have had to make in the past to keep stocked. Now this is all the case under the current system. Some doctors will claim that doing this increases the level of care of those with asthma. I think they usually have little idea of how things like this actually work in the real world. Such situations can arise even outside of poverty, so I have to imagine they are worse within it. If I project this kind of situation out, I have to imagine that what is now considered necessary is often regulated into existence. You are not allowed to buy less than perfect care, and that is supposed to ensure you are perfectly cared for. But with less regulation, you could probably care for yourself, and more cheaply. This is probably even more true with regard to housing.

  5. I agree that this pushes us back to fundamental starting points: I think that justice involves more than procedure, but also outcomes.

    (Although I’m not sure that’s the best way to characterize the distinction, now that I think of it. “Proceduralists” favor a specific conception of justice at least in part because of the outcomes they think will result, and hardly anyone is a pure consequentialist who doesn’t care about procedure.)

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