Acton Institute Powerblog

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.

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.


  • Thanks, John!

    At my blogsite I cross-referenced back to this entry of yours:

    What the Church really means by social justice and what the liberal left says are two entirely different things. People should actually READ the entirety of Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII instead of lifting key words and trickey phrases out of context to suit a Marxist atheist agenda:

  • When I was completing my Master’s degree in theology, I was elected co-chair of the school’s social justice committee. I quickly found–as I knew I would–that my concept of social justice differed greatly with that of most of the members.

    I’ll never forget opening a day of retreat for the committee with a prayer consisting of verses from the Bible that included the word “justice” (you can replicate my effort easily by searching that keyword on

    Needless to say, the other members found it a jarring and eye-opening experience. The “social justice” movement has been hijacked by socialists and secularists. Perhaps it is time to introduce the concept of “biblical justice” in its place.

  • Stephen

    These sound like great events. For those who can’t make it to Grand Rapids, they can hear Rudy Carrasco and other like-minded leaders explain a healthy approach to social justice in a new DVD curriculum called Seek Social Justice (which can be accessed for free at

  • Thanks, Stephen. My post on the excellent Seek Social Justice DVD is here. While we’re at it, consider ordering the Acton/Zondervan Effective Stewardship DVD from the Acton Bookshoppe. Here’s the description:

    Christian stewardship is about more than the money we drop into the collection plate. Stewardship is everything we do after we say we believe.

    In this five session video study, hosted by Dave Stotts, you will learn how to think critically and biblically about the areas of responsibility that have been entrusted to you by God.

    * Session 1 — Our Talents and Skills: How to use our God-given talents to serve God in our daily vocation.

    * Session 2 — Care for the Environment: A proper, biblical understanding of resources and of humanity’s relationship to nature, providing the basis for an environmental ethic of stewardship.

    * Session 3 — Loving Our Neighbors: How to effectively care for those in need and ensure that our attempts to help do not cause more harm than good.

    * Session 4 — Family, Church, and State: How effective stewardship in our homes and in our churches strengthens the social impact of our families and faith congregations.

    * Session 5 — Money and Finances: How to be good stewards of our wealth by following time-tested principles of budgeting and wealth management.

  • Roger McKinney

    I’ve been debating the social justice crowd over at the sojourner web site. There main tactic is dishonest. They admit that the term is ambiguous and contains the idea of helping the poor, but also includes socialist policies. So when you attack the socialist policies, they claim you hate the poor. When you assert you want to help the poor through charity, they claim you support social justice.

    Knowing they have two very distinct definitions of the term, they can switch between them at their convenience. It’s all very dishonest.

  • Pace Simlh

    Thanks for clearing that up.

    Mr. Leo says it best, ” in plain English, ‘social justice’ is a goal of all churches and refers to helping the poor and seeking equality.”

    Charity is an ambiguous term in it’s own right; it can refer to something as specific as giving to a person or persons in need, to “the theological virtue defined as love [agape] directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one’s neighbors as objects of God’s love.”

    If speaking in plain non-theological English, charity is being generous with one’s material wealth or one’s time to aid those in need.

    Sounds like social justice could be understood to include acts of charity and “seeking equality.” Or social justice could just be the “seeking equality” part, and charity (in the general sense) could be “helping the poor” as need arises.

    Either way, if “equality” is achieved we’ll probably have fewer people in need.

  • Alz

    I think Glenn is a bit unfocused, but I think he is essentially correct. From what I can see, when you peel more layers off the onion, all of this leftism has the same cause. And Leo is incorrect to try to remove Communism and Nazi-ism from the mix. They all have the same roots.

    As for Glenn being unfocused, I think he’s unfocused because he is still learning about the roots of this Leftism.

    For the most part, I thought Leo’s piece didn’t add much to our body of knowledge.

  • Patrick Powers

    It is pleasing that the absence of an agreed definition of “social justice” is pointed out in the commentary here. I suppose that where we may lack an academic definition, we might hope to have examples to guide our understanding “social justice”. If Glenn Beck calls it national socialism, I wonder what advocates might offer to counter his definition, and provide us examples where it has been effective.

    That “social justice” mixes religion and the state is troubling. Government ultimately achieves its goals at the point of a gun, while religion requests that we boldly assume our cross through free will. Peter Kreeft, a philosopher from Boston College, notes that the happiest people he has met are the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa, hardly a group that would benefit from government funds (social justice) and accompanying strings.

    Beck promotes his 9/12 Project to return the general public to traditional the moral beliefs and behaviors of the Founding Fathers, as opposed to seeking governmental fixes for bad behaviors. Keep in mind that national socialism was imposed on and accepted by a culture for which Fredrick Nietzsche declared “God is dead.”

    Peter Kreeft in his book “Culture Wars” says that we are in a battle with Satan (the Muslims say we are “The Great Satan”) for souls. Zenit recently reported that the Vatican Exorcist said that there were Satanic influences permeating many in high places. Are these coincidences?

    C. S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” deals with these issues quite well.

  • It’s always fascinating to see how other people think. Are *only* Christian people allowed to have a definition of social justice? Are socialists (oooh, scary) *not* allowed to have their own just-as-valid definition of social justice? Why is theirs “code” and yours is right (no pun intended)? Why is fairness so difficult to “get”? Why is safeguarding the planet (sustainability) for everyone’s children and grandchildren (including yours) a lefty plot? Why should some have access to decent health care and others not? Why should some make a living wage and others not? (What’s your formula for deciding, if it’s not 100% who deserve basic human rights, what percentage should receive them?) And if capitalism is so grand, why can it not stand up to scrutiny of its impacts on the less fortunate among us — without slinging arrows and calling names?

    If Christians are all about Jesus’s message, then why is it so hard to simply apply his message of “Love thy neighbour” to everyblinkingbody? I’m no Biblical scholar, but I don’t think Jesus ever said, “Unless your neighbour is gay, poor, on the other side of the world, socialist, working a lousy job, down on her luck, or of a different skin colour.”

    Capitalism smiles on the few and exploits the many. If there were a benevolence within the capitalist cultures, perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for social justice. But until capitalism shuns greed and hoarding, there will be plenty of people in the world seeking social (and economic) justice.

    p.s Your “religious conservatives,” as you call them, might want to recall the important biblical concept of debt forgiveness (Deuteronomy 15:1-2) before deciding that “forgiveness of national debts in the developing world” is some sort of anti-capitalist government plot. If you’re going to keep mixing up an economic system with a religious system, then why not stop cherry picking, too?

    Mixing up capitalism and Christianity tends to dilute one or the other, and it ain’t capitalism that’s getting watered down.

  • Roger McKinney

    greenhearted, welcome to the site. I hope you’ll stick around and learn how distorted your view of capitalism is. Like most socialists, you may think that the existing system in the US is capitalist. It is not. It is mostly socialist with just enough capitalism to keep it from imploding like the USSR.

    As for private definitions of words, socialists have committed a great evil by redefining every important word in the discussion. They have done so in order to make their argument for socialism win by default. But communication can take place only when people use the same defintions for words. If the communicator uses one definition while the audience thinks he is using another, then no communication takes place. Worse, fraud often takes place. Using a private definition for an important term that is the opposite of the commonly understood definition is no different than using false scales in commers. It’s immoral.

  • GreenHearted says: Capitalism smiles on the few and exploits the many.

    This just in:

    Capitalism has made society ‘kinder’: study

    Free-enterprising, impersonal markets may seem cutthroat and mean-spirited, but a provocative new study says markets have been a force for good over the last 10,000 years, helping to drive the evolution of more trusting and co-operative societies.

    GreenHearted: How do you explain the massive decline in world poverty in recent years? A miracle of socialism?

    And to this comment:

    I’m no Biblical scholar, but I don’t think Jesus ever said, “Unless your neighbour is gay, poor, on the other side of the world, socialist, working a lousy job, down on her luck, or of a different skin colour.

    No, Jesus Christ never preached that. Where did you hear that un-Christian rigmarole? Or did you make that up?

  • Following up on John’s suggestion to GreenHearted; There’s a very fine article by Dwight Lee that appeared in Intercollegiate Review last Spring and can be found at

    Lee’s a professor in the business school at SMU. His very easily understood examination of the marvels of our capitalistic and entrepreneurial system cannot but be helpful to those who see every glass as half empty and every slip a reason to call a member of the tort bar.

  • almond603

    “As for private definitions of words, socialists have committed a great evil by redefining every important word in the discussion. They have done so in order to make their argument for socialism win by default. But communication can take place only when people use the same defintions for words. If the communicator uses one definition while the audience thinks he is using another, then no communication takes place. Worse, fraud often takes place. Using a private definition for an important term that is the opposite of the commonly understood definition is no different than using false scales in commers. It’s immoral.”

    but don’t both sides use words that push their argument further. take the differences between “reconciliation” and “the nuclear option.” they mean the same thing, yet, when the republicans used it while they were in power, it was seen as a force for good to those on their side, while the democrats called it the nuclear option. both paint a clear and opposing view when the words are used. now they have switched their terminology to highlight either the danger (republicans using the phrase “nuclear option”) or the better sounding word (democrats using the phrase “reconciliation) to discuss their opinions. socialists didn’t invent this way of communicating. we do it all the time.

    another example would be using the term “pro-life.” while it is pushing it’s own agenda which I agree with, we are by the effect calling those opposed to our stance “pro-death.” are they pro-death? most would say no. but that is the implication in our phrasing.

    now I could say that “conservative” is code word for “middle aged, white, privileged, gun-owning, pro-industrial capitalist, war mongering, union hating, poverty inducing moralist.” while some of these may be true of conservatives (and have been true of some conservatives of the past and future), it is an unhelpful (and offensive) way of portraying the entire conservative arm of our nation. but it is this same linear thinking that this post (and Glenn Beck) that is encouraging us to say that sustainability = environmentalism = liberal = believer in equal rights = gay rights advocate = a myriad of other things “associated” with the left; or social justice = poverty awareness = liberal = distributor of wealth advocate = socialist. one thing does not lead to another, and the slippery slope or however you want to phrase these “ideologies” are not as slippery as we may like to believe. the fear that people are going to take your money away (and I do think that this is where the HEART of the argument is) shows that what we are treasuring is not God, but our money. I am a capitalist and a believer in social justice and an activist for sustainability.

    I apologize for the length of this post. hopefully I’ve added something to this discussion though. I think rudy carassco’s (sp?) piece has much to say on this.

  • In a recent post on my blog I said: “No one thinks about the means or the real ends. They just hear health care, education, and welfare and condemn anyone who’s against it as being selfish. It’s wonderful for politicians and government agents. They get the distinction for being humanitarian, while using other peoples money, or borrowed money, or counterfeited money, to increase their power. Anyone who questions this is conveniently condemned for their greed and inhumanity.

    Insisting on the protection of individual rights, the protection of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property (that is, Human Rights!) as well as insisting on the rule of law, would lead to far greater justice in society than what we have now.”