Monday, March 22, 2010

Visions of Social Justice 1: Christians and Democrats

Visions of Social Justice

“Social justice” has become a pale shadow of its former self, in the following sense. Both in the U.S. and the U.K., it has become associated with a narrow statist politics and liberal religion. An important aspect of conservatism in its historical context and of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, it has lately elicited a dismissive rolling of the eyes from those quarters and a passionate advocacy of ever more governmental intrusion into every aspect of life from its liberal-statist advocates. Social justice is one of the core values of professional social work, according to the NASW Code of Ethics and CSWE’s EPAS. But in the absence of any serious examination, the concept becomes—if not, as Glenn Beck called it, code for extremist political ideas akin to those of Nazis and Communists—a symptom of the kind of ideological conformism of which Tocqueville warned in his Democracy in America.

The Devil is in the Definition
Beck, on a recent talk show, urged his audience to abandon any church that espoused social justice. His comments are themselves an extreme reaction against a kind of “mission creep” in the liberal churches and among liberal Catholics, where advocacy and lobbying for social justice largely substitutes for liturgy and worship, sacraments and prayer. Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the modestly titled manifesto, “God’s Politics,” argues that “Social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity” but proceeds to conflate the concept with strong political partisanship and a statist vision of social reform. It is an understanding of social justice that, with or without reference to the Judeo-Christian and especially Evangelical roots of the profession and the Social Gospel tradition, is largely taken for granted in social work. (For more on this, see my exchanges with two University of Kansas professors, Spano and Koenig, in the online Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics.)

In a recent column on this phenomenon, Colleen Carroll Campbell argues that social justice is indeed a key element of the Christian Gospel, from which no believer is exempt, but at the same time it has been claimed as the monopoly of a partisan politics that privileges the secular and promotes a disempowering statism. “The promotion of leftist politics as infallible religious dogma by pastors such as [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright [the ranting preacher whose Chicago church Obama attended for decades] and, to a lesser extent, Wallis, goes a long way to toward explaining public fatigue with the term.” That fatigue, she points out, extends beyond Protestants into Catholic circles, where the phrase “social justice” has its origins.

“The Catholic Catechism defines social justice as a situation in which people are able to 'obtain what is their due' and says such justice 'can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man.' The church lays out a few non-negotiable principles when it comes to respecting this personal dignity -- defense of the right to life is preeminent among them -- while leaving many public policy decisions subject to the prudential judgment of individual Catholics.

“Catholicism is not libertarianism by any stretch; government is expected to have a role in protecting the poor and weak. Yet the church also defends the principle of subsidiarity in political life -- the idea that the people closest to a problem should be the ones to solve it.

“Despite these careful doctrinal distinctions, many Catholics -- like many mainline Protestants -- assume that social justice demands their reflexive support for unlimited expansion of the social welfare state, even when a new government program may not be the most effective way to help the poor. Meanwhile, many of these same Catholics ignore the Church's clear admonition to defend social justice by defending the right to life of the unborn from abortion and the elderly from euthanasia.

“The call for social justice is an outgrowth, not a perversion, of the Gospel. But the devil is in the definition. Christians concerned about mission creep in their churches should not abandon social justice. They should fight to reclaim a fuller understanding of it, one independent of any narrowly partisan political agenda”

The Catholic Bishops in the U.S. have been consistent in their support of social justice, so understood. That does not mean—but nor does it reject—expansion of government programs. It does mean commitment to the poor, the disabled, the homeless. It also includes defending the right to life of the unborn from abortion and the elderly from euthanasia. Stripping legal protection from the most vulnerable promotes a culture of death where the unencumbered self has the right to rid itself of such encumbrances. Removing that most basic of rights--the right to life--puts all other rights at risk. Without life, no other rights can be enjoyed or assured. Talking of social justice while denying this most basic right for the most vulnerable is best compared to claiming to support slavery and justice at the same time. Of course, supporters of either or both may claim they are not pro-abortion or pro-slavery. Still, if you say you personally would never buy or own a slave, but you defend the right of others to do so, I would say, you are not pro-choice but pro-slavery.

Democrat’s Dilemma
Herein we find a problem for those who accept a consistent concept of social justice that includes protection for the most vulnerable among us, from conception to natural death. Most social workers and other champions of “social justice” in the U.S. identify with the Democratic Party. The U.S. bishops lean strongly to the Democratic Party. Working-class Catholics have traditionally been strongly Democratic. Yet the party, above all on the matter of abortion and embryo-destructive research, has become the party of death, of the denial of social justice to those most dependent and vulnerable.

The recent and ongoing struggle over a form of national health insurance illustrates this clearly. The Democrats, once the more pro-life of the two main parties, has become increasingly inhospitable to and intolerant of leaders who adhere to the traditional pro-life position of the Church (and of Evangelicals, for that matter). Pro-life Democrats survive in shrinking numbers but they have no prospect even of being taken seriously unless they are the margin in a crucial vote. Even then, they are subjected to intemperate invective and abuse—see Maureen Dowd’s all too typical column in the NYT and the hundreds of comments supporting it eraser&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=print .

Showing themselves incapable of even understanding the pro-life position, many Democratic commentators made an interesting charge against Bart Stupak, who at the time was holding out against his party’s health bill because of the loopholes it allowed for federal funding of abortion. (In the end, Stupak caved on the promise of an executive order from Obama that would affirm the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition of such funding—a hollow promise that our most pro-abortion president ever can rescind at any time.) Several comments on Dowd’s column and elsewhere said that Stupak was holding the health care of millions hostage to this single issue of abortion.

The significant truth, of course, is just the other way around. For the Democratic leadership, abortion trumps all other issues, including health care for millions. They insisted on language in the Senate Bill that—in the eyes of their pro-life supporters--left open the possibility of federal funding for abortion, putting the whole bill in jeopardy when it came to the House. They refused to make any change or even discuss the matter despite, amazingly, claiming that the language of the bill already met all the demands of pro-life supporters of national health insurance like Stupak and the Catholic bishops. So they seemed willing until the last minute to let the whole thing go down to defeat rather than accept changes that they claimed made no difference.

There could hardly be a clearer statement of the Democratic Party’s unshakeable commitment to abortion and its willingness to sacrifice all else to the cause. Pro-life Democrats can do nothing to change this from within. It seems they have reached the end of the road and there is no longer a place for them in the party. There is no longer a way to be a Democratic politician and not be complicit in the deliberate destruction of innocent human life on a truly horrific scale and hence in a politics deeply antithetical to social justice at its most fundamental level. The gap can only grow between the leadership and money of the party on one hand, and the mass of voters who remain unaware that abortion on demand is the law of the land or that their leaders support that position, on the other. The issue of abortion has become a litmus test, the key requirement for inclusion in the Democratic leadership. Countless politicians like Edward Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton abandoned their pro-life positions as the pro-abortion forces consolidated their grip on the leadership and funding of the party. That switch has been catastrophic for the party and will continue to inflict immense damage on it as its grass-roots supporters figure out what is going on, according to a post at First Things--see .

Does the Republican Party, now solidly anti-abortion, offer an alternative to those committed to social justice? Many pro-life Democrats must now be asking themselves this question. A postive answer, though, seems doubtful, given the contradiction between the party's notion of social justice, which in some sections embraces a strong libertarian individualism that recalls Ayn Rand, Frederich Hayek, or even Ludwig von Mises, and the clear teaching of the Gospel and Catholic social doctrine. But that’s a matter for another post.

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