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What do you mean by ‘social justice’?

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On NRO, John Leo points out how Glenn Beck missed the mark in his recent criticism of “social justice” churches (the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy, again). But Beck is on to something, Leo says:

When Glenn Beck urged Christians to leave churches that preach social justice, he allowed himself to be tripped up by conventional buzzwords of the campus Left. In plain English, “social justice” is a goal of all churches and refers to helping the poor and seeking equality. As a code word, it refers to a controversial package of goals including political redistribution of wealth, gay marriage, and a campaign against “institutional racism,” “classism,” “ableism,” and “heterosexism.” Beck was wildly off base linking “social justice” (of either form) to Communism and Nazism, but he was correct to note that the term is often used as a code.

Leo cites an article on Minding the Campus by Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, on one of the newest buzzwords in play today — sustainability:

The most potent of the current buzzwords is “sustainability,” which ties traditional environmentalism to the entire left-wing agenda. As Wood says, hundreds of campuses now have sustainability officers, courses that promote the ideology, and most ominously “co-curricular programs run through student life and residence halls to ‘educate’ students about their mistaken ‘worldviews’ and bring them aboard this new ideological ark.” Kathleen Kerr, who ran an astonishing all-out indoctrination program in the residential halls of the University of Delaware (students were all expected to accuse themselves of racism, for example), admitted in a speech that “the social-justice aspects of sustainability education” included lessons on “environmental racism” “domestic partnerships,” and “gender equity.” We are far from tree-hugging here.

A couple years ago, I wrote an article for the Conciliar Press magazine AGAIN on the use of social justice language in the Orthodox Church as it comes to grips with globalization. When you talk about “social justice” you really need to be careful:

What, exactly, is social justice? It is an ambiguous concept, loaded with ideological freight. No politically correct person would dare oppose it. To be against “social justice” would be tantamount to opposing “fairness.” Today, the term is most often employed by liberal-progressive activists and a “social justice movement” that advances an economic agenda which includes such causes as a “living wage,” universal health care and expanded welfare benefits, increased labor union powers, forgiveness of national debts in the developing world, and vastly increased transfers of foreign aid from rich countries to the poor. Because religious conservatives tend toward support for free market economic systems, they have largely shunned the “social justice” agenda and its government-based solutions.

The religious left is making quite a stink about Beck’s criticism of social justice churches (and let’s be honest here — Beck deserves some of this for his hyperbolic and dismissive attack). Jim Wallis, for example, is egging on Beck for a public debate, so far with no luck. Well, well. Wallis has been ducking Acton’s invitations for years to debate the concept of social justice.

For a serious discussion of what social justice really means today, mark your calendars for these upcoming Acton events. (Jim Wallis, you’re invited!)

“Do the poor need capitalism?” March 18, Grand Rapids. Acton Lecture Series with Rudy Carrasco

— “Must Social Justice & Capitalism Be Mutually Exclusive?” March 31, Grand Rapids. Acton on Tap with Rudy Carrasco. Details: 6 p.m. casual start time; 6:30 p.m., Rudy speaks! Location: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing), 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. No registration required.

— “Does social justice require socialism?” with Rev. Robert A. Sirico. Acton Lecture Series in Grand Rapids on April 15; Chicago luncheon on April 29.

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John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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