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“Social Justice” and Jell-O Nomenclature

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Adapted from an introduction to the Center for Cultural Leadership‘s 2014 West Coast symposium on “Social Justice: A Christian View” in Saratoga, California, October 25

We’re talking today about social justice. “Social justice” has become ubiquitous in sociopolitical discourse. It’s what I like to term “Jell-O nomenclature”: its meaning is obvious until you actually have to nail it down. I’m reminded of what the Western church father Augustine said about the concept of time: “When nobody asks me, I know what it is. But when somebody asks me what it is, I do not know.” We tend to have a vague sense of what social justice is, and in the end it can mean all sorts of things or, perhaps, really nothing at all.

Rather than define it, however, we probably can accurately describe what most people mean when they use or hear it. Social justice is basically the idea that there are unwholesome inequalities among humans in the world, and deeply caring people should use the state (that is, political means) in order to eliminate, or at least seriously reduce, these inequalities. By “human inequalities,” I mean things like income inequalities, inequalities among the sexes, inequalities among religions and races, inequalities between the young and the old, between children and parents, between rich nations and poor nations, and such. By “political means,” I denote using the coercive power of the state in order to force greater equality. Both of these factors are important in understanding social justice. Getting rid of inequality is not enough. How you get rid of it is just as important.

For example, a business entrepreneur who starts a new company in order to provide jobs and income for young people in poverty isn’t an example of social justice. Federal law raising the minimum wage for some of these same young people is an example of social justice.

A university that establishes a policy of hiring the most qualified faculty, whether men or women, is not an instance of social justice. Federally mandated hiring quotas requiring universities to enlist a specific number of women faculty is an example of social justice.

A Roman Catholic hospital that provides designated healthcare funds for its employees to spend as they wish is not an example of social justice. A state requirement that the same hospital provide abortifacients to its employees is an instance of social justice.

In other words, you don’t get to call an action that reduces inequalities social justice unless the state forces you to do it.

The expression “social justice” is Jell-O nomenclature for another reason. As Thomas Sowell once said, all justice is social. After all, if you were alone on a desert island, there’d be no need for justice. Justice is necessary when you have a society, not when you have an individual. So “social justice” is a redundancy.

That’s why it’s much better simply to refer to “justice.” That’s the language in Christian revelation. In the Bible, our English word “justice” is often a translation of the word meaning “righteousness.” To act justly is to act in the right.[1] There’s a right way to treat people, and a wrong way to treat people, and if you treat them rightly, you treat them justly.

In considering social justice, we’re really addressing  justice.

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[1] James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God,” in The Justice of God, James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 31–42.

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Political Conservatives Are (Finally) Figuring Out that Culture Trumps Politics

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Some of the most significant words written by a political conservative in the United States in the last quarter century are here, uttered not by a United States citizen, but by Canadian conservative Mark Steyn. He (finally?) understands that in a constitutional democracy, all of the political victories in the world cannot overturn a single significant cultural victory. You must fight culture with culture, not politics.

On his website, Steyn summarizes his view as “culture trumps politics.” This is the same language and idea that the Center for Cultural Leadership has been using for several years, but I’m less interested in taking credit for a genealogy that in communicating a truth, which Steyn artfully expresses:

If the culture’s liberal, if the schools are liberal, if the churches are liberal, if the hip, groovy business elite is liberal, if the guys who make the movies and the pop songs are liberal, then electing a guy with an “R” after his name isn’t going to make a lot of difference.

I’m far from implying that we should abandon politics — far from it. The Christian conservative stake in politics is, ironically, to downsize and deescalate politics: to expand and preserve liberty for zones of cultural “privacy” — the family, the church, business, and other aspects of what has been called civil (= non-political) society. But we must never be lured into the illusion that political victories will secure the society — the culture — we envision.

If you want to overturn cultural depravity, you can’t do it by winning elections. You must win the culture.

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On Being Proudly Neo-Reformational

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In the current atmosphere of conservative Christian cultural engagement, the Center for Cultural Leadership stands squarely within the neo-Reformational (or neo-Calvinist) paradigm (most notably in the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Cornelius Van Til, today championed also by John M. Frame).

Its leading features with reference to culture are:

  1. The inescapably religious character of humanity
  1. The antithesis between righteous cultural thinking and acting and unrighteous cultural thinking and acting
  1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things
  1. The Bible as providing the basis for society
  1. Each sphere of culture (family, church, state, education, science, arts, etc.) fulfilling its own Christian tasks, related, but not subordinate, to other spheres (“sphere sovereignty”)
  1. The calling of Christians to Christianize culture (“cultural mandate”)

The nearly unforgivable and embarrassing scandal of this neo-Reformational paradigm among many Christians, including many Christians rightly working to reverse the secular trends in our culture, is its:

  1. Appeal to special and not merely natural revelation for governing a society (they don’t want the Bible involved)
  1. Refusal to privilege the church vis a vis other spheres (they want the church to be the fountainhead of God’s working in culture)
  1. Commitment to (non-coercive) Christian hegemony (they are often committed to structural pluralism and recoil at any suggestion that biblical Christianity should dominate a culture)

Prominent Christian conservatives invested in natural law alone or in the Two-Kingdom theory or in merely traditional non-neo-Reformational approaches to cultural engagement are often our allies in the cultural battles of our time, and we are grateful for them.

But we are convinced that the neo-Reformational paradigm alone furnishes the most consistent, God-honoring, potentially permanent program for turning back our regnant cultural apostasy.

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