Saturday, November 06, 2004

Conservative Christians and Social Justice

Mark Schmitt asks this thought-provoking question:
We are clearly in the middle of one of the great periods of Christian revival in American history, the third or fourth of the "Great Awakenings" in American Protestantism. Each such period has begun with a change in the nature of worship itself, essentially a private phase, and moved onto a public phase where it engaged with the political process. These have been significant moments of progress for this country. The Second Great Awakening led in it public phase to the Abolitionist movement. What some historians consider the Third Great Awakening beginning in the 1890s led to the Social Gospel movement, settlement houses, and the beginnings of the progressive era idea of a public responsibility to ameliorate poverty.

The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change.
To which Tim Scanlon, a philosopher of some note, responds:
But a concern with justice is not merely a concern with alleviating suffering but a concern with changing unjust social institutions. There is little or none of this concern even at the level of rhetoric in the Christian movements. Your question asks, rightly, why this is so. In answering, we should distinguish between what may be true of the Christian revival you mention and what is true of the use that is made of it in our current politics. As far as the latter is concerned, it is noteworthy that the appeals to moral values almost never require any sacrifice on the part of those to whom these appeals are addressed. They are invited to feel good about their superiority to gays, righteous about their opposition to abortion, satisfied about their devotion to family and so on.
I want to address the bolded text, because it is utterly false.

The exact opposite is the truth. Whether you look at the broadcasts of James Dobson, or the many family-oriented Christian books, or the Promise-Keepers movement, you'll find the same thing: Moral exhortations addressed to other Christians, preaching to them about the many ways that they likely fall short of being a good parent or spouse, and urging them to put their families ahead of career, friends, etc. Far from "never requir[ing] any sacrifice on the part of those to whom these appeals are addressed," the whole point of these appeals is to hector Christians into sacrificing their own desires, if need be, for the sake of their families.

I could well imagine someone criticizing Christian pro-family materials for being too harsh and perfectionist in making demands on other Christians. But the opposite criticism is bizarre. It's as if someone said, "The problem with environmentalist literature is that it never makes any demands on its readers; it just encourages them to feel satisfied about their own consumption of natural resources."

14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stuart Buck sez:

The exact opposite is the truth. Whether you look at the broadcasts of James Dobson, or the many family-oriented Christian books, or the Promise-Keepers movement, you'll find the same thing: Moral exhortations addressed to other Christians, preaching to them about the many ways that they likely fall short of being a good parent or spouse, and urging them to put their families ahead of career, friends, etc. Far from "never requir[ing] any sacrifice on the part of those to whom these appeals are addressed," the whole point of these appeals is to hector Christians into sacrificing their own desires, if need be, for the sake of their families.Since we're talking about Christian values here, I think it's fair to compare Stuart's statement with the actual teachings of ... oh, say, Jesus. (not Paul - Jesus.)

So... could someone come up with one passage from the four gospels where Jesus told fathers to sacrifice for their children and families or put their wives above themselves? If Dobson and others are "family-oriented", what parts of Jesus' actual teachings support this notion?

9:23 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

That question is irrelevant to the point at hand. Whether or not Jesus (and why exclude Paul here? Do you think he wasn't Christian for some reason?) spoke in favor of putting family first, the fact is that Dobson et al. most certainly make that part of their message. The issue that Scanlon addressed wasn't whether Dobson et al. are quoting the words of Jesus; it was whether their message requires any "sacrifice" on the part of the listeners. Contra Scanlon, it certainly does.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Norma said...

Schmitt: "virtually no element of social justice." That's assuming saving the unborn isn't a concern to society.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norma hits the nail on the head. The artice assumes the pro life fight to be about the behavior of the woman and not about the life of the unborn person. The fact is that fighting slavery and fighting poverty were about social justice for an entire class of people who were seen as having lesser rights by those wielding power over them. The fight for the unborn is about social justice for an entire class of people who are seen as having ZERO rights by those wielding power over them.

Michael H

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scanlon divides "what may be true of the Christian revival {Schmitt] mention[s]" and "what is true of the use that is made of it in our current politics." And his claim that no sacrifice is required is relevant only to the second category. But I think that Stuart's post uses examples from the first category, the one that Scanlon does not criticize for not requiring any sacrifice.

10:28 PM  
Blogger damnyanqui said...

Ah yes, the question emerges. How can any of these people really be "Christians" at all if they're not SOCIALISTS???!!!
It is always exciting to enjoy, and take advantages of, the nice easy cues which contemporary language now provides to help us identify whence comes some insight on our society.
Imagine hearing someone you believe to be giving an informed position on race relations casually, and without special affect, use the word "nigger."
Suddenly, you've learned volumes about that speaker and from what position he's speaker is coming. Ah, we have a racist. And not just any racist, but a stupid and ignorant one who seems not to understand that he's advertising his racism by his lack of discretion.

Likewise, in this instance, we find the magic words "social justice."
Their very introduction helps us to understand and properly color the comments of whoever uses them. ...a nice shade of pink I believe.
"Social justice" is a very useful combination of buzzwords that reveal a leftist, socialist, anti traditional bent.
So in the world of such a "Christian," denying homosexuals a social sanction that requires even those who find their behavior abhorrent to support that behavior is not "justice," but denying children the protection from being killed in abortions is indeed "justice."
In this world, extortive taxation on people so gauche as to work, save, invest and contribute to society is apparently "justice," so long as that money is handed out to those who... well... don't work, save, invest or contribute to society.
But holding killers accountable to the point of putting them to death is not "justice."
I'm beginning to get the drift.
All listeners should be grateful when some opinionator rolls out a silly, subjective, but highly informative piece of liberal gobbeldygook like "social justice."

To be honest, I had never even considered putting that expression in any sentence discussing the powerful Christian presence that spoke up in this year's elections.
But now that I've heard it, it comes as a great relief to realize that some mindless hippie notion of "social justice" is NOT a concept for which this newly awakened political force stands.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point in raising the teachings and practices of Jesus should be rather obvious: One cannot talk about Christian sacrifice outside the context of what Jesus said would be such a sacrifice. Even if we were to expand this to other NT teaching, Paul never described being a good father or husband as a sacrifice.

Dobson and others can ascribe anything they want to what they deem to be a "Christian" sacrifice. That doesn't make it such. The point, Stuart, is that Jesus described and taught that certain things would cause a person listening to him to have to give something up. Fatherhood or husbandship weren't part of that teaching. Unless you - and Dobson et al - are willing to discuss what Jesus actually taught by word and deed (followed by Paul and others) it makes no sense to talk about "Christian" anything.

Sacrificing their desires for their families is something that plenty of non-Christians do. We cannot properly discuss Christian sacrifice without 'considering Jesus', to paraphrase the writer of Hebrews.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Doc said...

The problem is terminology. As others have hit on, "social justice" is a subjective term, which liberals do not have a monopoly on. Pro-life Christians typically see abortion as state-approved mass murder. What greater "social justice" is there that in trying to stop mass murder? Look at race issues. Many right-wingers see affirmative action and quotas as discriminatory, little different that Jim Crow-era laws that excluded blacks. Therefore, to them, it is "social justice" to oppose discrimination, just as it is "social justice" for the liberals to redress the evils of racism through these policies.

"Social justice" is in the eye of the beholder.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tim McNabb said...

Paul the Apostle, (from memory) "Husbands, love your wives, like Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it" SOund like sacrifice to me.

Look, some of you may not be able to see the "social justice" in exhortations to be good husbands, fathers, wives, mothers and parents, but that does not mean it isn't there.

There is more to poverty that an empty belly. Poverty of spirit is a terrible thing. Jesus said "What profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"

Broken homes, negligent parents, all lead to impoverished spirits. In the past, we had people who were dirt poor, but were rich spiritually. I think that trend has inverted.

Unfortunately, those who have not experienced Jesus personally may not "get it" which is why I suspect the latest awakening is misunderstood.

Tim McNabb
fivehundredwords.com

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose I would be counted among "conservative Christians" because I oppose abortion, gay marriage, cohabitation, and ESC, and even artificial contraception. (Never mind that I also opposed the Iraq war, and favor both gun control and active UN participation).

Neverthless, as a social scientist, I would argue that preserving the intact, traditional family is the single most important social justice issue.

Why does poverty occur? Largely because the breakdown in family structures give people nowhere to turn when their luck runs out.

What about homelessless? Again, where are the families of these individuals who could give them a home?

Why does domestic violence occur? Because men and women are not raised in healthy families and taught how to be healthy husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers.

Unethical workplace practices? Because society does not place the family at the center of society. Rather individuals are seen as the cog in the wheel of productivity and capitalism. Forgetting that man was not made for work, but work for man.

I could go on. But the fact is, the left's perception of CST often violates the Catholic Priciple of Subsidiarity by bypassing the family altogether in favor of radical government intervention.

The preferential option for the poor is only just if it is placed in the larger context of a preferential option for the family. This is something the left misses. And that is why the left's perception of CST is usually not CST at all, but merely Marxism that smells of incense.

Greg Popcak

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buck appears to have grossly misread Scanlon's comment. Scanlon said that it was important to distinguish between (1) what may be true of the Christian revival and (2) the uses that are made thereof in our current politics. Scanlon then proceeds to note that (2) never requires sacrifice on the part of those to whom such appeals are addressed.

Buck then claims in his post that Scanlon's last point is "utterly false" because (1) requires sacrifice. See the problem? Scanlon distinguishes between (1) and (2) and then makes a point about (2). Buck then says the point about (2) is wrong because of (1). Buck's comment, in other words, is completely non-responsive to Scanlon's point.

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