On Oct. 4, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, spoke about social justice at the 2012 Hillsdale College Free Market Forum in Houston. The theme of the Forum, which encourages the study of free enterprise by bringing scholars together for dynamic exchanges of ideas on topics related to free market economics, was “Markets, Government, and the Common Good.” Rev. Sirico spoke about the evolved meaning of the phrase “social justice,” explaining the current usage of the phrase as well as its literal meaning. He also warned that if words and phrases lose their meaning then “chaos can result.” (more…)
Father Peter Preble, pastor of St. Michael Orthodox Church, and Stephen Kokx, adjunct professor of political science and RenewAmerica.com columnist, both recently reviewed Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.
In the final installment of a three-part interview with Patheos, Joseph E. Gorra interviews Acton Institute president and co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico about social justice and his interpretation of its right societal implementation. In the interview, Sirico outlines some of the principles highlighted in his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. To begin, Gorra asks Sirico about the proper interaction between politics, specifically economics, and religion. What follows is an intriguing discussion on faith-based activism and the origins of the term “social justice”:
Gorra: You are making some important distinctions here, which perhaps also have some cash-value when discussing ‘social justice.’ For it is often conceptualized with wealth distributionist and equalitarian notions. Why is that a mistake, and is there an older (pre-Rawlsian), more robust concept of social justice that can be recovered?
Sirico: The term “social justice” originates with 19th-century Italian Catholic thinkers who were trying to apply the Church’s teaching on the nature of justice and the common good to the post-Enlightenment, post-mercantilist world. In many ways, it is a synonym for “the common good,” which are the conditions that must exist in a given society if people are to be able to freely pursue human flourishing. In that sense, it is not value-neutral—as Rawls more-or-less tries to be—nor can it be reduced to efforts to equalize everything by eliminating differences or vast exercises in wealth-redistribution. Indeed, if you read some of the Italian writers on this subject—Blessed Antonio Rosmini being a good example—you discover that one of the things which they were trying to do was to remind individuals and communities that they also have responsibilities to their neighbor, and that they cannot and should not expect the state to do everything in this regard.
The “social” of social justice did not translate for them into a vast impersonal welfare state; rather, it was primarily about people fulfilling their responsibilities in justice to their neighbor in the circumstances they found themselves, with the state playing a subsidiary role.
Read “What if ‘Social Justice’ Demands Small Government?: Interview with Robert Sirico, Part 3″ on the Patheos Evangelical Channel. Part one: “Is Capitalism Immoral” and part two: “Does Capitalism Promote Greed” are also available online.
On FoxNews.com, Rev. Robert A. Sirico looks at the recent anti-capitalism, anti-NATO protests in Chicago:
In countless debates and conversations with modern proponents of social justice, I have noticed that they are less interested in justice than in material equality. They borrow the language of justice and the common good but have either forgotten or rejected the classical meanings of those terms.
In the classical tradition of reflection on justice (especially seen in Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and their intellectual descendants) it is clear that inequality—in the sense of unequal wealth or social status—is mostly compatible with justice, because justice is “to give to each his due.”
What one is due, of course, differs from person to person—in addition to those things due everyone: life, dignity, and liberty for example.
When we speak of the idea of the common good, we need to be open-minded about the most likely way to bring it about. The common good is, after all, a range of conditions, not a set of policies. It cannot be achieved by way of the “commonality of goods” proposed by socialists, but rather through the institutions that the socialists worked so hard to discredit.
Read “There is no ‘social justice’ without economic freedom” by Rev. Robert A. Sirico on FoxNews.com.
Review of The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg, (New York, NY: Sentinel, 2012)
With proper training, and maybe a bit of experience on the debate team, it’s easy to recognize logical fallacies in an opponent’s argument. When it comes to popular give and take, the sort of thing we have so much of now on opinion websites and news channels, there hasn’t been decent preparation for arguments outside the columns and blog posts of Jonah Goldberg.
In The Tyranny of Cliches, the National Review contributor, syndicated columnist, author of the bestseller Liberal Fascism, and American Enterprise Institute fellow, convincingly demolishes the Left’s oft-repeated, bumper-sticker slogans that seemingly defy repudiation by many who fear being depicted as a heartless jackanape.
For example, if an impassioned public figure pleads that yet another government expansion and encroachment is “for the children” it is therefore ipso facto in the best interests of everyone. This is a “case-closed” logical fallacy that circumvents rational discussion by declaring that if millions of cute kids benefit, only meanies, bullies, or some contemporary amalgamation of Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Darth Vader could oppose it.
Not so fast. Goldberg’s new book wonderfully dissects such liberal shibboleths as “social justice,” “diversity,” attacks on organized religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, and “separation of church and state” to reveal the hollowness within. In this regard, Goldberg resembles most William F. Buckley, with the difference that the latter stood athwart history yelling stop, and the former stands astride postmodernism to scream “enough!”
All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
Galatians 2:10 NIV
This video is part of an extended interview with Rev. Dr. John Dickson (Director, Centre for Public Christianity and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University) for The Faith Effect, a project of World Vision Australia. (HT: Justin Taylor)
Update: I should also add that a useful collection of primary texts on the social thought of the early church is edited by Peter C. Phan, Social Thought (Michael Glazier, 1984).
Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival. It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times. Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.
In Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.
Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, offers very little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself. Ultimately what emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of their witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.
Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues like women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position of defending segregation in their home states.
While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements. This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls. Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:
Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?
Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that begins to overtake the denomination. This amounted to the equivocating of a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism to one where a committee of bishops would pronounce by the 1980s, that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”
Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979 – 1981. United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.” The General conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that it hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with and offered praise for officials in the new Iranian government. One former hostage recalled:
Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.
The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church. It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box,” said Bishop James Armstrong. Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.
In the 1990s one General Board of Global Ministry official bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.” General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount.
Hyperventilating over partisan politics would continue in The United Methodist Church and continues to this day by American officials. Most recently many have joined forces with the “What Would Jesus Cut Campaign?” But because Methodism is a connectional denomination, the growing African influence is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. They have already reached the pinnacle of their power, which has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority they once held. It is a lesson for all churches and those that wish to bring their faith into the public square. At the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference one lay delegate offered what can be seen only as prophetic now when he declared, “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”
Just a few weeks ago, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society heaped praise on President Obama’s HHS mandate with no mention of the measure’s threat to religious liberty, deciding to only view it as a partisan measure to defend for furthering the role of government in health care.
At the conclusion of the book, after reading through 100 years of political pronouncements, Tooley finally offers just a hint of his own assessment,
American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable. One hundred years later, it had already endured several decades of steep membership decline and accompanying political marginalization as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.
Tooley, through the myriad of voices that he has chronicled over such a lengthy period, understands those voices only need to speak for themselves to make his point.
In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge once said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.” One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.
In his commentary this week, Acton Research Fellow Anthony Bradley looks at the phenomenon of a black president whose policies have “not led to significant progress for blacks.” Bradley is the author of the new book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development. Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter here.
Despite Economic and Social Ills, Blacks Give Obama a Pass
By Anthony Bradley
With the approach of Black History Month we are reminded of the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president. Some black leaders, however, believe that Mr. Obama has let the black community down. For example, prominent voices like Dr. Cornell West and PBS’s Tavis Smiley, former supporters of Obama, believe that having a black president has not led to significant progress for blacks. The truth is that blacks are not only worse off under Barack Obama’s presidency but are grappling with deep-seated economic and social issues that the President himself has little or no expertise in solving.
In spite of these realities, some leaders are asking the black community to support Obama for odd reasons like race. For example, Tom Joyner, host of one of the highest rated morning shows in America, said in an October 2011 column, “Let’s not even deal with facts right now. Let’s deal with our blackness and pride — and loyalty. We have a chance to reelect the first African American president … And I’m not afraid or ashamed to say that as black people, we should do it because he’s a black man.” The historic enthusiasm is understandable but we must deal with facts that tell us race-based voting is futile.
Take unemployment, for example. According to a January report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, black worker unemployment steadied around 15-16 percent in 2011, while unemployment for the rest of the workforce dropped below 9 percent. That is, in 2011 the unemployment rate for African-Americans stayed almost exactly the same and declined for everyone else.
Second, with respect to family issues, it is well known that blacks continue to lead the nation in single motherhood. According to 2008 figures, the most recent year for which accurate data is available, 72 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers compared to 17 percent of Asians, 29 percent of whites, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of Native Americans. By extension, then, fatherlessness continues to undermine black progress in America. According to FathersUnite.org, 90 percent of runaway children, 85 percent of all children who exhibit behavioral disorders, 70 percent of all high school dropouts, and 85 percent of all youths sitting in prisons are from fatherless homes.
How would voting again for Barack Obama — simply because he is black — fix these problems? Barack Obama is not an entrepreneur nor can he be a father to the fatherless. The best thing that President Obama could do if elected for a second-term would be to remove all the barriers in the way of entrepreneurs so that they can do the things that they do well, such as provide the sustainable employment opportunities that allow adults to take care of their families and permit the marketplace to meet the needs of all of us. Government is neither designed nor equipped to create and sustain jobs. Thousands of years of experience show clearly: Only entrepreneurs have the gifts and expertise to create jobs. We need to encourage them because sustainable employment is the only long-term solution to poverty and unemployment.
With respect to family, one important thing President Obama can do is to continue to provide an encouraging example. Even if you do not agree with Obama’s politics, the president is certainly a model of a man who is committed to his wife and children. In fact, if more black men were committed to their children and their mothers in the way that President Obama is through the institution of marriage, many of the statistics listed above would plummet. However, there is no political solution that President Obama can promote because fatherlessness is fundamentally a moral problem. If we want to make a better black history – and leave a better legacy for our youth — we have to morally form black men so that they remain committed to loving women and children within the context of marriage.
If blacks want to chart a new course reversing these statistics, we should look not to politicians for answers but ask them to get regulatory barriers out of the way of entrepreneurs and moral institutions so that they can do what they have proven the best at for centuries — namely, create the conditions for virtuous human flourishing.
My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.
First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.
A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.
Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.
King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.
The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.
Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.
Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.
Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:
Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.
Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …
The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.
What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.
I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.
Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.
In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.