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 rplaced 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 governmentcan 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.
Obviously, that lack of a clear distinction doesn’t mean that they secretly agree with the cultural Marxists, and are engaging in some kind of conspiracy from within the Church. It could just as easily mean that they aren’t very clear on the distinctions, themselves. This, of course, would be somewhat understandable for men whose central focus is rightly on theology, rather than political theory. However, there is another sense in which that focus on theology makes it all the more important that we have clarity when it comes to applying that theology to politics and culture. A lack of clarity in applied theology can lead very quickly to a lack of clarity in the theology being applied.
If we want to ensure against such confusion, then as we seek to apply our theology to culture and politics, it will be necessary to clearly and intentionally engage in principled thinking on those issues. That—principled thinking—is the essential component missing from much of this discussion, and that lack of principled thinking has resulted in the current ambiguities.
No Clarity and No Principles
To think in principle on this topic would be to ask, and honestly answer, questions like: “What is the essential difference between what we Christians mean by social justice and what the world means by it?”; “What, if any, role should the government have in carrying out social justice?”; “How does social justice relate to individual rights?”; “What are individual rights, and do we affirm them?”
Apart from carefully answering such questions, how can these Christian writers, who strongly endorse things like social justice, honestly expect their readers to come away with any other understanding of that term than the one supplied by the culture?
But it gets worse: it’s not just that they fail to carefully differentiate their meaning from the culture’s, which is potentially disastrous in itself. When they do talk about related issues where they would have opportunity to demonstrate fundamental disagreement with the culture, they seem to waver.
Take the topic of individual rights, for instance. The Founders’ understanding of the principle of individual rights, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, is explicitly antithetical to the contemporary Cultural Marxist ideal of social justice. A clear articulation and defense of this political principle—grounded in the fact that man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the command to defend life (Gen. 9:6), and the second table of the law (Ex. 20:13-17)—could quickly give assurance that, whatever these Christian men mean by social justice, they surely couldn’t mean what the culture does. But a clear articulation and defense of the principle of individual rights is not to be found among these writers.
Instead, what we find from them on individual rights often contains the same level of opacity which they offer on the topic of social justice.
For example, when Dr. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes on “A Christian Understanding of Economics,” he begins with affirming the principle of “private property and ownership”—but he then seems to immediately undermine that affirmation with numerous “theses” which are antithetical to that very principle. The most explicit point of cognitive dissonance comes when he says that an economy must “reward righteousness,” and cites the American tax code, “which incentivizes desired economic behaviors,” as an example. It’s difficult to believe that Dr. Mohler doesn’t realize that using the tax code to reward desired behavior (and punish undesired behavior, which is necessarily entailed) is the quintessential violation of property rights. If you can be forced by the government to pay more in taxes because you don’t engage in “desired behavior,” then you do not own your property. The government does. And it is merely allowing you to keep a portion—contingent on your behavior.
The idea that the government can pick winners and losers via the tax code completely undercuts the individual right to private property. It is also the choice method of transitioning an economy from free to coerced; from capitalist to socialist—by means of an ever-increasing number of pressure groups petitioning the government to make them the winner of the moment.
But it’s not just property rights which seem to be fuzzy in the minds of evangelical leaders. In a recent video discussion on religious liberty, Dr. Russell Moore, the President of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that “every right that we have is never an absolute.” Such a statement is, of course, concerning for those who view rights as inalienable. However, because this was in the context of answering objections which pertained to the apparent abuse of “religious liberty,” some have argued that Dr. Moore really just meant that our rights can’t ever be allowed to conflict with the rights of others. If that’s all he meant, I would disagree with his wording, but I’d heartily affirm his meaning. However, the ensuing conversation in the video suggests that that was not what he meant. In discussing the military draft as an elaboration on his point, Dr. Moore mockingly denounced the idea that “we all have a golden ticket” which allows us to decline being drafted. But that’s exactly what the principle of individual rights would insist: that the government cannot force an individual to go fight in a war against his will. That Dr. Moore endorses the draft, and that he sees such an endorsement as an example of what he means when he says “every right that we have is never an absolute,” seems to indicate pretty clearly that he either does not understand, or does not agree with, the idea that our rights are individual and inalienable.
Less explicit, but equally as disturbing, are the innumerable little jabs and sneers at the concept of individual rights which are scattered among Christian literature. Sometimes this is a result of conflating the principle individual rights with superficiality and consumerism, as Rod Dreher implicitly does when he links individual rights and freedom to “[the maximization of] opportunities for individuals to express and satisfy their desires.” Sometimes it’s the failure to properly distinguish between the role of the Church and the role of the State, as when Timothy Paul Jones, Associate Vice President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, questions whether Christians ought to have participated in the American Revolution in light of the fact that early Christians—who “were taxed more heavily, with less representation”—never revolted against Rome.
No Christian Defense Against the Rising Tide of Socialism
While such jabs are concerning, they are, in and of themselves, harmless. In fact, almost anything listed above—from the widespread Christian talk of social justice, to the failure to clarify what is meant by it, to the inconsistent talk about individual rights, to the hostile jabs against individual rights—each, considered by itself, wouldn’t be cause for alarm. However, when you consider that the culture is moving toward socialism faster than ever before; that, according to a recent Barna study, “36% of practicing Christians accept ideas associated with Marxism;” and that once politically conservative Christian institutions are coming out in favor of socialism (or variants thereof), the cumulation of these things leaves one wondering whether our Christian thought leaders really are as competently opposed to the ideology of Marxism as we might think. Sure, they may be honest when they say that they don’t want socialism, but one begins to wonder whether they truly want—or even understand—the only consistent alternative to socialism, which is the American system founded on individual rights.
It has been noted by many wise men that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If Marxism is an evil ideology, then what good ideology—other than its antithesis: the ideology of individual rights—will be raised up to stop it? If Cultural Marxism is an advancing societal evil, then what good men will stand up against it? It will not be stopped by adopting its language. It will not be stopped by ignoring its advance. It will not be stopped by ambiguous, half-hearted, and half-minded, appeals to the good. And it certainly will not be stopped by mocking and scoffing at the good.
Where is the Christian defense of the good on this issue? Where is the unfiltered, unambiguous, unapologetic, principled, defense of individual rights in the Church today? It doesn’t appear as though there is one. The more troubling aspect is that most lay Christians think that the above writers are providing that defense. They don’t realize that, whether due to ignorance, incompetence, or apathy, these Christian leaders are paving the way for a Cultural Marxist revolution—in the Church. That trend can be stopped, but only if Christian leaders start seriously thinking through those principled questions above; only if we, as Christians, relearn what it means for individual rights to be inalienable, and how those inalienable rights are grounded in our God-given nature; and only if we stand up in an unapologetic ideological defense of those rights.