If Christian leaders are using a term popularly used by the culture, but mean something fundamentally different from what the culture means when they use it, shouldn’t they be laboring to make that difference plain? I would like to believe that these Christian writers surely don’t agree with the Marxist connotations of social justice, but it is difficult to find any clear and principled distinction between what they mean and what the culture means in their use of it.
“Why is Socialism Being Promoted by Conservative Christian Outlets?”
That’s the question Joe Carter, at his Acton Institute blog, asks about Andrew Strain’s recent article at First Things. In his piece, Strain claims that free markets are “as mythical as unicorns,” and concludes that government intervention in the market, on behalf of “the common good,” is the ideal toward which we should strive.
But Strain isn’t the only one at First Things attracting Carter’s ire, who also cites an editor who openly identifies as socialist, as well as a columnist who claims that “capitalism is inimical to Christianity.” Much of Carter’s frustration comes from the fact that the now socialist-leaning First Things used to be a conservative bastion for capitalism. It would seem that times are changing—and they’re moving toward a growing Christian acceptance of socialism.
In fact, Jake Meador, editor-in-chief at Mere Orthodoxy, replied to Carter’s article defending the rise of socialism among theologically conservative Christians, explaining that Mere Orthodoxy, itself, has “a small group of writers who probably are Protestant versions” of the socialists whom Carter chastises at First Things.
Unfortunately, First Things and Mere Orthodoxy aren’t the only places we find theologically conservative Christians promoting socialistic ideas. While it may be more subtle, and less intentional, there’s a growing trend among Christian thinkers of adopting Marxist-type ideals for political and cultural interaction. One glaring example of this is the widespread acceptance and use of the term, social justice.
Social Justice & Socialism
Of course, most Christians who use that term would deny that they intend any socialistic connotations, but there’s no denying that, in the wider culture, such connotations are taken almost for granted.
According to Michael Novak, writing for The Heritage Foundation, social justice is today understood to refer to all of the following: state redistribution of wealth; equality of outcomes; a collectivistic notion of the “common good,” which “becomes an excuse for total state control”—the kind of which he compares to Soviet totalitarianism; and “the progressive agenda.”—all of which are essential characteristics of contemporary Marxism.
Jonah Goldberg explains, “ultimately, social justice is about the state amassing ever-increasing power in order to do ‘good things.’” It is code for “good things no one needs to argue for, and no one dares to be against.”
A UN report, cited by Goldberg, says, “social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” It goes on to explain that “Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.”
Of course, ten minutes of watching CNN or scanning Twitter would make it obvious that the above descriptions of social justice are perfectly in keeping with the way almost everyone in the culture understands the term. It is about collectivistic and socialistic policies which are antithetical to property rights and free markets. With these obvious Marxist connotations, it doesn’t seem as though Voddie Baucham was over-exaggerating when he said that social justice is “a Cultural Marxist concept gaining traction in Christian circles.”
Baucham’s comment was two years ago. We’re now well beyond the stage of “gaining traction.” Social justice has become common parlance among evangelical thinkers. You might even say that it has replaced the old buzzword, “missional.” From Christianity Today to the The Gospel Coalition, to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, and almost everywhere in between, social justice is preached as an ideal aspect of Christian involvement in politics and culture.
Of course, I assume that most of those Christians using the term would reject the socialistic and collectivist aspects of it (though it appears that even men like Joe Carter would have assumed the same of First Things, until recently). Kevin DeYoung, for instance, issued a plea back in 2010 for Christians not to “use the term ‘social justice’ without explanation” because of its potential to carry conflicting connotations.
Unfortunately, not many seem to have heeded that call. Even DeYoung’s own clarification for his usage of the term in that article is brief and tepid. He explains that his view of justice is about equal treatment under the law rather than equal opportunity or outcomes, but he is quick to indicate that other Christian writers might have a differing view, and that he isn’t immediately interested in arguing that point. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many other Christian writers who are interested in arguing that point, either.
If They Don’t Mean Socialism, What Do They Mean?
But isn’t that exactly the point that we ought to be arguing, if we really do mean something substantively different from the culture when we speak about social justice? If Christian leaders are using a term popularly used by the culture, but mean something fundamentally different from what the culture means when they use it, shouldn’t they be laboring to make that difference plain? I would like to believe that these Christian writers surely don’t agree with the Marxist connotations of social justice, but it is difficult to find any clear and principled distinction between what they mean and what the culture means in their use of it.
For instance, K. Edward Copeland, writing on “Why All Christians Must Seek Public Justice” at The Gospel Coalition, says, “Contrary to our modern emphasis on individual rights, the Bible typically—if not, overwhelmingly—frames ‘doing justice’… within the context of community.” (I take this—“doing justice in community”—to be what he means by “public justice,” which he uses synonymously with “social justice” later in the article.) Notice that he seems to see this public justice as contrary to “our modern emphasis on individual rights.”
That’s curious, though. Individual rights, in and of themselves, merely limit what the government can do to individuals; they don’t say anything at all about the need or value of community, or even about voluntarily offering aid in the context of community. The only way individual rights could be seen as contrary to “doing justice in community” is if one’s idea of “doing justice in community” involves violating individual rights; if it involves coerced “justice in community.”
That’s exactly what the culture means by social, or “public,” justice—and that’s exactly how they would frame it: social justice versus individual rights. This is just one example of the way in which Christian leaders are sending mixed messages to the Church in their failure to fully distinguish their usage of the term, social justice, from that of the culture.