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“…Of moral obligation and social justice.”

2010 April 20

“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Martin Luther King


In political discourse, we often make the mistake of assuming that both sides seek the same ends, through different means, with the real conflict being centered on purely pragmatic grounds of doing whatever works. Unfortunately, this naiveté often obscures deeper philosophical differences and divergent visions of constitutes a good society.

Glenn Beck recently provided further evidence of his rapid descent into catatonia when he attempted to smear the concept of social justice: “I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” Continuing with the new right-wing meme of conflating Nazism and Communism and more importantly trying to tie modern liberalism to both, Beck added,  “But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ‘social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.” Right-wing economics served with a haystack of religious hysteria.

One response would be to inquire whether those holding this position are in fact supporters of social injustice! Of course the counter would be, and has been, that they actually do believe in justice, only of another kind. But we’ll dip ours toes into that water later. With his statements Beck expose a schism within American religious culture. First let’s examine the historical record of the religious communities and espousing social justice.

The Social Gospel movement arose during, and was a product of, the Progressive Era in the late 1800s. This movement originated in the mainline Protestant churches and was both liberal politically and theologically. Its central idea was the application of Christian Ethics as a critique of contemporary society. In practice, this led the church as an institution engaging the societal issues of the day,  most notably the plight of the impoverished, particularly the new urban poor who moved to the city during industrialization. The Social Gospel also sought the expansion of rights to both women and blacks. Historically, the Social Gospel movement was active in the early twentieth century, fading into the Forties before a revival, embodied in the Civil Rights movement two decades later. (This was rather appropriate as the Social Gospel movement was a descendant of the earlier Abolition movement.)

Much of the inspiration for the Social Gospel came from the Old Testament prophets. As Walter Kaufman wrote in The Faith of a Heretic :  “When the organized religion of a later age came to stress the ritual at the expense of social justice, the prophets took as radical a stand as any great religious figures ever did: they found the essence of their ancestral religion in morality, denounced the fusion of careful attention to the rites with indifference to social justice as a rank abomination, and suggested that rites, unlike social justice, were dispensable.” Martin Luther King’s famous plea for justice in I Have a Dream, which served as the epigraph to this article, came from a line Amos 5:21-24.

One of the key figures of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, Richard Rorty’s maternal grandfather. Rauschenbusch’s seminal work from 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis was written as a critique of society during the Gilded Age, which was marched by rapid industrialization and urbanization, government corruption and gross inequality. Rauschenbusch felt not only that the Church had a responsibility to get involved in these social issues but that it was in it’s self interest   “The organized Church is a great social institution, deeply rooted in the common life of humanity, and if all human life suffers through some permanent evil, the Church is bound to suffer with it.”  Martin Luther King read Christianity and the Social Crisis when he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and described it as having “left an indelible impression upon my mind.”

(Amazingly, Glenn Beck has spoken of King and Mahatma Gandhi in complimentary terms even though he is diametrically opposed to their vision and values. The only way they can even pass of this revisionism is to ignore/reject much of King’s career and writing and to construct a new character based off a single line, something close to what they’ve already done with Adam Smith. I’m hardly one for indulging in hagiography, even of King but one could say with a high degree of certainty that if he were alive, Glenn Beck would be one of those attacking the Reverend for being a “Marxist” and “Communist”, much like his ideological forerunners did a generation ago. To steal a line from the Minneapolis Genius, they “dig you better dead.”)

Another prominent exponent of social justice was German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary and embraced the Social Gospel as espoused by the African-American Church, particularly Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Indeed, Bonhoeffer fellowshipped at Powell’s Abbysinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he preached, taught Sunday School and according to James Deotis Roberts learned “the improvisation of jazz, the contingency pathos of the blues and the liberation of the black spirituals.” Back home in Germany, Bonhoeffer co-founded the Confessing Church, in explicit opposition to the Third Reich. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for “antiwar activities’, including being linked to a plot to assassinate Hitler. In her essay on him in The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson wrote that Bonhoeffer chastised those who “…use Christianity as an escape from the evil of the world and the duties that evil implies.”

But to believe Beck, you’d have to believe the Pastor and the Fuhrer were adherents of the same philosophy. To believe Glenn Beck, you’d have to believe that institutions like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Jane Addams’ Hull House, the Methodist Federation for Social Service and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were part of a vast left wing conspiracy; that The Boston Personalists like Edgar Brightman, one of King’s professors and mentors, were merely forerunners to the dangerous academics who constitute a virtual Fifth Column; that Episcopalian priest Jonathan Daniels and Universalist/Unitarian minister James Reeb were merely martyrs for a dubious cause, ditto for the Quaker Norman Morrison. As for Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu? Little more than Third World rabble-rousers. William Sloan Coffin, who served as Senior Minister for the famous Riverside Church? An arrogant member of the East Coast elite who hated ‘real’ Americans. The less said about the gay Quaker Bayard Rustin or his secular mentor, Asa Randolph, the better. Indeed, according to Glenn Beck’s formulation, Leo Tolstoy was almost as much of an enemy of the righteous as Karl Marx himself.

At the same time, there were parallel strains of social justice thought apart from the Social Gospel Movement. The development of Catholic social teaching began with Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, subtitled “On Capital and Labor” in 1891. Arguably, the most prominent exponent of Catholic social teaching in the United States was the activist and self described anarchist, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. Liberation theology is an extension of this same body of thought and originated in Latin America during the fifties.

Judaism features its own conception of social justice, tikkun olam, itself a much abused term.  One of the most prominent advocates for social justice in the Jewish tradition was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who remarked after participating in the March from Selma to Montgomery “I felt my legs were praying.” He later protested the Vietnam War, ironically along with a young Lutheran priest named Richard John Neuhaus. Heschel’s protégé, Michael Lerner, was also active in the student movement of the sixties and publishes the magazine Tikkun.

It would be negligent to ignore the figure of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the bête noire of Beck and those opposed to social justice. While I have significant disagreements with Wright, many of his positions have been caricatured and dismissed, in some part due to his incendiary style. Take those explosives lines from his “God Damn America!” sermon: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans…” Perhaps one can quibble that state terrorism is an oxymoron but even granting that, almost everything else is factually correct. (I must dutifully note that King’s last undelivered sermon was titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”) Also, the Trinity Unity Church of Christ is involved in what Beck considers an appropriate form of social justice: helping house the homeless, feeding the poor in its Southside community. However, they were also prominent for reaching out to those with HIV/AIDS, despite Wright’s own heterodox views on the origins of that disease, in addition to also welcoming of homosexuals into fellowship; I suppose we can’t all be Pat Robertson.


To be fair, I generally refrain from explicit use of term ‘social justice,’ because as Hayek argued, it can be rather imprecise. (Though many of my views are broadly left of center, I don’t self-identify as ‘progressive’ either but that’s another story.) There are many conceptions of justice just within the liberal tradition, some which overlap and others which don’t; For example, take the views of Robert Nozick, John Rawls and Michael Walzer in the seventies. I have much sympathy for Leszek Kolakowski’s position in an article penned for First Things: “Social justice” merely expresses an attitude toward social problems. It is true that more often than not the expression “social justice” is employed by individuals or entire societies who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. But, as the old saying goes, the abuse does not abrogate the use.” [Italics added.]

(In a tremendous article for, Glenn Beck’s partisan historians, Michael Lind exposes the intellectual roots of Beck’s conflation of fascism with liberalism and demolishes those arguments, in addition to explicating out the difference between Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Modern Liberalism.)

To shift from the abstract to the concrete, as Jesse Larner wrote in a critique of Hayek for Winter 2008 issue of Dissent: “…various episodes of Labour government in Britain—and the British Labour party of the 1920s and 1940s was no watered-down “third way” Blairite party—did not destroy British democracy. Nor did the New Deal in the United States.” One major failing of this attempt to indict by way of terminology is that it remains purely in the realm of political rhetoric and makes only a superficial attempt to correspond to any reality. Larner referenced economic historian Rick Tilman, who pointed out civil liberties in the United States actually expanded dramatically from the New Deal through the Great Society. Leading Larner to conclude “Democracy turned out to be a lot stronger than Hayek expected. Perhaps he never quite escaped his Austrian roots.” (Interestingly, Tony Judt deals with this issue of Austrian roots in his essential lecture What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy.”)

As for Glenn Beck’s perspective on the recent political scene, if the designation of ObamaCare as the onset of totalitarianism is true, we would have to conclude that almost every other developed country in the world is a bona fide totalitarian state. I would hasten to add that this isn’t some dramatic insinuation but a logical extrapolation from the views commonly held by not just the rank and file but Conservative leadership. They don’t just believe that the expansion of universal healthcare, by whatever means, leads inevitably to totalitarianism, which is empirically false, but that it is totalitarianism. By doing so, they trivialize the very notion of totalitarianism; much in the same way they have anesthetized and romanticized violence. But given their support for perpetual war, torture and warrant-less wiretaps, it all makes sense. Despite this, don’t forget “the abuse does not abrogate the use.” We should no more allow Father Coughlin’s accusation of a Jewish plot against America taint social justice anymore than we allow the Glenn Beck’s wild accusations against the Obama Administration taint anti-totalitarianism.

Beck isn’t interested in, nor does he appear to have a capacity for, serious engagement with ideas. Instead, he simply resorts to a crude game of ‘pin the label’ which allows him to make tenuous, contorted connections, all in the service of his ideological impulses, not to mention bizarre personal neuroses. If one really wants to indulge this type of thinking, then the term “State’s Rights” has much more pernicious associations of much more recent vintage, then does social justice and it’s significantly easier to make connections between those pushing that agenda in the sixties and their contemporary counterparts.

Despite all their rhetoric, Beck and his followers claim that they do want to help the poor, just that it should be funneled through private organizations, particularly churches. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with churches helping the poor. However the basis for such assistance would be based on the arbitrary standards set by the institution. Given the extensive list of people and lifestyles not approved of by the Right, or the ‘Real Americans’, it’s easy to predict that many would be excluded from this charity : Would one of Beck’s approved institutions assist poor gay people? (Or for that matter, the people of Canaan?)

Furthermore, public authorities have often had to step in because of the failure/inadequacies of institutions like the family, church, neighborhood. In response to Nathan Glazer’s article “The Limits of Social Policy,” Lewis Coser wrote: “It isn’t that family neighborhood, and ethnic associations broke down because the public authorities took over, but rather that public authorities – and God knows they didn’t take over enough-because these traditional institutions had decayed in the wilderness of the modern city.” This makes sense in a country where among the believers, the prophet with the loudest voice is Ayn Rand, not Amos.

But where does this leave us? Let’s revisit Kolakowski: “Without the market, the economy would collapse (in fact, in “real socialism” there is no economy at all, only economic policy). But it is also generally recognized that the market does not automatically solve all pressing human problems. The concept of social justice is needed to justify the belief that there is“humanity”—and that we must look on other individuals as belonging to this collectivity, toward which we have certain moral duties.”

Taken a step further, it illustrates the hubris in taking a leap from methodological uncertainty to a sort of metaphysical impossibility, even among the well-intentioned, not many of whom are ascendant of the Right.  Indeed, in Politics as Vocation Weber wrote “Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Now, the question of whether churches are somehow obligated to advocate for social change is one I’m not particularly concerned with; those are pastoral and theological issues. Nor should it be assumed from this article that adherence to any sect or belief in any creed necessary for any moral sense; Indeed, John Rawls argued that justice, as conceived by modern liberalism, is essentially practical and political, not metaphysical; the primary requirement is empathy, another evil liberal code word.

What I am interested is the impact of a specific religious culture/conception on society writ large; what I am saying is that the concept of social justice, despite the insinuations of Glen Beck and his ilk has proven to inspire great utility and an honorable legacy that should not be discarded. Those who preached and marched and died for social justice are not hated because of any propensity to totalitarianism but because of their positions on civil rights, the culture of violence and the welfare of the poor. Ultimately, when we view the long arch of history, that places them firmly on the side of the angels.

2 Responses
  1. clinton permalink
    July 21, 2010

    no sense of history them yanks, if MLK jr were around today, would he be on fox news with beck? dare i even say WWJD? nice piece

  2. August 30, 2010

    “Much of the inspiration for the Social Gospel came from the Old Testament prophets. As Walter Kaufman wrote in The Faith of a Heretic : “When the organized religion of a later age came to stress the ritual at the expense of social justice, the prophets took as radical a stand as any great religious figures ever did: they found the essence of their ancestral religion in morality, denounced the fusion of careful attention to the rites with indifference to social justice as a rank abomination, and suggested that rites, unlike social justice, were dispensable.”

    I think most Christians – the Glen Beck variety for sure, but many other, more progressive Christians too – get this wrong still. Just like the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus saw ritual as a means to an end, not an end in itself. At the heart of his Gospel is relationship and love, not rules and ritual. That sounds almost sentimental – who can argue with relationship and love, right? But it’s actually incredibly radical to say that all rules/rituals must be put to the test of whether they actually serve relationships and love, not the other way around. It doesn’t seem so dramatic in this modern age to say, “Eat what you want!” Or even, “Go ahead and talk to a Samaritan woman! It’s fine!” But to suggest, for example, that a particular sexual act is morally neutral, and that the only real question is whether or not it serves healthy, loving relationships – for some reason that seems radical. But I actually think it is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Unfortunately, many Christians have become the Pharisees of our day.

    Not surprisingly, I adore the Hebrew prophets. My son is named for Micah 6:8, in fact.

    “Dig you better dead” – that’s awesome. Exactly. I haven’t read Adam Smith, but would love to hear more about how he’s been reconstructed by the Right. I don’t doubt it’s true.

    So the first part of your essay I love because it basically sets out the spiritual/intellectual/historical basis of why I am a Christian. My denomination – the United Church of Christ – which also is Jeremiah Wright’s, and used to be Obama’s – was the first to ordain an African American person (1785), a woman (1853) and a gay man (1972). I count Dorothy Day as among my saints, and Thomas Merton too (you missed him!;-)

    (As a side note, my former professor of Peace Studies, George Lopez – who I believe is at Notre Dame – wrote a whole book on the state as terrorist. I help with the footnotes and such….)

    Of course, I acknowledge there are other possible readings of the Gospel. Personally the stuff that the Glen Becks et al. focus on is the stuff I find very problematic – the Gospel of John, for example, which is such beautiful poetry but about a Jesus I barely recognize; and Paul of course, who is just … a problem. But whatever. That gets into how one reads Scripture, and how one understands truth and metaphor. But even taking a fundamentalist on his or her own terms, it seems that concerns about social and economic justice are just all over Scripture – way more than the personal salvation/sexual purity stuff. So yes, one must suspect that Glen Beck et al. are not at interested in a true engagement with ideas, or even Scripture.

    The second part of your essay I love because it engages political philosophy and even more practical political concerns without resorting to a script. I think one of the reasons polical discourse has become so polarized is that most sane leftist/progressive voices are unwilling to veer from a script full of sacred cows for fear of conceding some point to the right-wingers. But I think this plays right into the hands of the Glen Becks and the Sarah Palins, because all they’ve got is script. Nuance may ultimately be a losing proposition in the public arena, but it seems to me it’s worth a try, because I fear we’ll never beat those folks at their own game, and I’m not sure why we’d want to try. So I always appreciate folks – like you in this essay — who are not afraid to go “off script.” That’s what I loved, for example, about Obama’s speech on race (given at the Constitution Center in Phila, just a block from my church!) – race is possibly the most scripted conversation we have in this country (the “legacy of slavery” vs. “pull yourself up from your bootstraps”), and I thought Obama went off-script in some interesting and courageous ways (not that he had a lot to lose at that point, but credit where credit is due, right?)

    I’ll stop now. I do tend to go on and on….

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