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Social Justice Before Your Very Eyes

Mark Schmitt is bored of all the Jesusland business and wants to ask the right question about religion, namely "why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice?"

I think the answer is that it does have a strong element of social justice. Who's working to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa? Who's trying to help refugees in Darfur? Who's trying to stop global trafficking in women? Why, that would be socially conservative religious movements. For that matter, who's charged off on a neo-Wilsonian quest to spread democracy at gunpoint. The efficacy of the religious right's preferred means of spreading liberty around the world can and should be questioned, as should the sincerity of at least some of the architects of the strategy, but there's every reason to think that many -- if not most -- of the people who vote for George W. Bush and his forward strategy of freedom are perfectly sincere in their belief that this is what's happening and that it's a good idea.

For that matter, there's every reason to believe that most supporters of school vouchers, and most supporters of the president's "faith-based initatives" sincerely think that these are sound methods of securing social justice here at home. Primarily, though, the social justice impulses of contemporary Christianity are directed abroad. That, however, is by no means obviously inappropriate. What used to be known as the "third world" is, rather clearly, the location of social injustice that is both more severe than what exists here at home, and also effects far more people.

The fact that many of these social justice initiatives are ill-designed, and that they are tacked on to various more-or-less nutty proposals that strike Mark and I as unrelated to social justice is by no means unique. For a very long time in America, a great deal of fervor went into criminalizing the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This was believed by many at the time to be absolutely vital to the future moral integrity of the nation. The impulse in question was, meanwhile, by no means unrelated to some worthy impulses toward social reform, and to some totally unworthy impulses toward nativism and xenophobia. The religious impulse today is, of course, not precisely akin to the one that existed in previous times, but it is similar to past manifestations of the trend in that it mixes good ideas with bad approaches to worthy aims to dogmatic pursuit of certain goals that strike secular people as silly or malevolent.

November 5, 2004 | Permalink


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But there is also a pattern, in this administration, of using good works abroad (esp. in environment, but also in social policy) as a cover for retrograde policies at home.

Posted by: Invigilator | Nov 5, 2004 8:29:35 PM

Well at least you realize that far-right evangelical Christians and absolute moral values are the source of all good in the world.

Proud member of the "Subtantance", "Due Check", AND "Intept" Based Community.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Nov 5, 2004 8:32:02 PM

What about Uganda? That strikes me as some good work.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 5, 2004 8:39:27 PM

"Well at least you realize that far-right evangelical Christians and absolute moral values are the source of all good in the world." (?) That is patently untrue. There is good in the world almost anywhere you look, and it isn't at all combined with Christianity, let alone evangelical Christianity. The world contains an awful lot of people, and the majority of them are not Christians. To suggest that that majority is not a source of good is asinine at best.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Nov 5, 2004 8:41:32 PM

Good post. Incidentally, You might want to think about a rating system for posts, for those times when there's nothing to say but you still want to register approval or disapproval (or, for that matter, right track/wrong track)

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Nov 5, 2004 8:44:11 PM

Well, you're right and you're wrong. There's no doubt that many believers truly want to bring the bible to non-believers all across the world, and help them with their troubles. However, that's not how the system works or how it was set up. I'm sure you know I could talk for hours about this, and feel free to shoot me an email, but if you're looking for answers to these questions, there are two excellent books, both by Sara Diamond, called "Spiritual Warfare" and "Roads to Dominion." The first is more about this post, but the latter is just as important.

Posted by: dstein | Nov 5, 2004 8:51:14 PM

Mark Schmitt is bored of all the Jesusland business and wants to ask the right question about religion, namely "why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice?"

Because that's never been the case with the evangelicals. Most of the "social justice" and good works stuff has, in this country, been the domain of the Catholics and mainline Protestants. The Civil Rights movement is the only exception of conservative Christians, and these were Black churches initially, leading the way on something that was to the benefit of everyone.

Posted by: Jeff I | Nov 5, 2004 8:55:37 PM

Who's working to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa? Who's trying to help refugees in Darfur? Who's trying to stop global trafficking in women?

there are probably dozens of groups, many of them UN-related, many not, many secular, many lefty, all doing all this. sheesh. try Google.

Posted by: cleek | Nov 5, 2004 8:57:12 PM

"most supporters of the president's "faith-based initatives" sincerely think that these are sound methods of securing social justice here at home."

Actually, faith based initiatives are quite a selfish concept. Where I live Catholic Community Services and Jewish Community Services are two of the most active and well-funded social service organizations in town. They both do similar work in wide variety of areas - feeding the poor, helping the elderly and the disabled. They both receive federal, state, local and church/ synagogue related funds. They receive United Way monies. What they do not do, and cannot do, however, is insist that the employees of the Community Services orgs, which are separate from church/synagogue related activities (separate budgets, professional employees), be either Catholic or Jewish. And, what they also do not do, is insist on serving only people who are Catholic or Jewish, or attempt to convert people who aren't.

The deal about faith-based initiatives is that people want federal monies to run organizations where they can, for example hire only born-again Southern Baptists, and serve, for example, only people who will let em dunk em in water and birth them again. It is outrageous. It is exclusionary. It is something that really angers people I know in the human service sector. It is selfish and bordering on immoral because the people in need of certain services are generally vulnerable and thus not in a position to say no, or are often, as in the case with people with a mental illness or a serious addiction, not in a position to make sound decisions. So remember, when you hear about faith based initiatives, they are about exclusion. Plenty of religious groups who do fine work can and do receive federal monies.

Posted by: Abigail | Nov 5, 2004 9:00:39 PM

Aristotle said magnanimity was the greatest of virtues. But telling the dude with his foot on your neck that you appreciate his good intentions probably has a more useful description.

To dstein's reading list I add Marvin Olasky, again. I suddenly have an urge for some G.B. Shaw.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 5, 2004 9:04:16 PM

There is among the conservative Christians a hefty "prosperity theology" contingent, which teaches that wealth is God's reward, and poverty is God's punishment.

I'd actually like to see an inventory of conservative Christian vs. mainline Christian vs. secular good works.

Likewise to inventory the various different international involvements of the evangelicals. Evangelicals have a pretty nasty skeleton in their closet in Central America. During the early eighties down there, in Guatamala anyway, the dictator (Montt) was an evangelical, and the Army was sent to massacre Catholic villagers (tending left) while sparing evangelical villagers (tending passive). Realistically speaking, of course, that's very effective missionary work.

Pat Robertson has also had some very dubious dealings in Liberia.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 5, 2004 9:05:47 PM

Halting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa is a very important project. It is the sort of thing that the US should focus on. I actually felt sorry for Bush in the debate where he was asked to discuss HIV/AIDS in the US without discussing HIV/AIDS in Africa. The level of the problem in Africa is out of control and Bush has made the first steps that Clinton did not do.

Increasing humanitarian foriegn aid is a good idea. People tend to be against increases in humanitarian foriegn aid, but they also radically overestimate the current level of humanitarian foriegn aid by a factor of about ten.

Posted by: joe o | Nov 5, 2004 9:11:58 PM

Ah yes, the "But They Mean Well" defense.

I bet many witch-burners had good, if irrational and lethal, intentions.

What does it take exactly to prove the point that suspending rationality is never a bright idea when trying to Do Good Things?

And when exactly do we add the damage they leave in their wake into the equation?

Sorry, I'm still giving my money and backing to Medicins Sans Frontiers, not Pat Robertson's 3rd World Abstinence Brigade (condoms are bad, mmkay?), or Chimpy's Democracy At Gunpoint Movement (bless the children, every one).

Brain on = good. Blind Faith = disastrous.

Posted by: melior | Nov 5, 2004 9:14:11 PM

Interesting that you noticed the lack of "social justice" as that is just what one of the bishops of the President's own church, The United Methodist Church, said in a letter published on several Op-Ed pages in newspapers in January 2004. It is quite interesting and raises many of the same questions. There is a full text copy of the bishop's letter at the following link:


Posted by: BV | Nov 5, 2004 9:22:26 PM

Great post Matthew.

However, you do not have to be religious to have morals very similar to American Christians. You have to be American. If the center-left cannot define the Democratic Party, and select genuine candidates, than they will be reduced to a perpetual minority party. We need a two party system, not a large party and a bunch of also-rans. Many of the responses in this topic should be a concern - especially those not merely critical, but antagonistic, to values considered by Americans to be American.

Try to understand something: The Democratic Party and its allies ran an aggressive campaign that implemented scorched earth tactics. The Republican Party used the Democrats unbalanced aggression to beat them. The Democrats spent money, but the effect was neutralized by Republicans spent money. Here is the main problem for the Democratic Party – The conservative movement barely breathed in this contest. It did not challenge them. The next election will see more movement to the right.

Posted by: BoghRD | Nov 5, 2004 10:08:19 PM

Bogh, what a load of crap. Crawl back under your pious little rock.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 5, 2004 10:21:42 PM

Matt, you're putting the cart before the horse. The first question is, is heaven one continuous blow job? Because if it is, I just want to get to heaven. Surely God will know that if I kill dark skinned people, or slay the liberals, all in the great cause of values, then I can get a ticket to heaven. I'll pay any price, bear any burden ... just choose me.

Posted by: poputonian | Nov 5, 2004 10:22:30 PM


I think it's time you came out more strongly against the Struassian elements at work here in the administration. I mean, you read that Suskind article, you have "reality-based community" written in bold letters across your title, and you're a philosophy major. I know it's a bit passé to be dealing with this particular conspiracy theory, but it's totally applicable to the subject we're on here,

Posted by: SAO | Nov 5, 2004 10:32:19 PM

"I'd actually like to see an inventory of conservative Christian vs. mainline Christian vs. secular good works."

You bring up a good point, zizka. I have a feeling that mainline Christian churches would easily outstrip their conservative friends for sheer numbers of what we call good works, partly because among evangelicals what you BELIEVE is more important than what you DO, while to an extent the reverse is true of mainliners. I say this as someone with more than ample experience in both camps.

And if you factored in the social programs of more secular European countries I'd say that plain 'ol good works are probably giving evangelicals a run for their money. Interestingly, now that they've been let out of the box, so to speak, even heathen and pagan organizations are mounting charitable efforts -- contrary to what the White House's faith-based idiot Jim Towey had to say on the matter.

Posted by: Windhorse | Nov 5, 2004 10:33:26 PM

Joe O - Please correct the following statement you made for historical accuracy, "People tend to be against increases in humanitarian foriegn aid...." to "republicans tend to be against foreign aid...."

Also try googling the work Clinton has done. His approach, especially after his presidency, has been deemed far more effective by those in the field than anything Bush has promised but not delivered on. One thing about that Bush dude, you really have to check on the follow-up. If you just listen to him or FOX you'd be under the impression that the US actually gave $15 billion to help fight AIDS in Africa, when in reality we're way behind what we said we would give and have extended our giving schedule, and not even met the extended schedule payments. There are also issues like not being able to distribute condoms - hard to believe but true, Joe. Don't feel sorry for Bush, feel sorry for the people he made promises to but didn't deliver. Feel sorry for us because we are powerless to make him keep his word.

Posted by: karol | Nov 5, 2004 10:53:42 PM

The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (sccbs) was undertaken in 2000 by researchers at universities throughout the United States and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. The data consist of nearly 30,000 observations drawn from 50 communities across the United States and ask individuals about their “civic behavior,” including their giving and volunteering during the year preceding the survey.

The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent).

Neither political ideology nor income is responsible for much of the charitable differences between secular and religious people. For example, religious liberals are 19 points more likely than secular liberals to give to charity, while religious conservatives are 28 points more likely than secular conservatives to do so. In other words, religious conservatives (who give and volunteer at rates of 91 percent and 67 percent) appear to differ from secular liberals (who give and volunteer at rates of 72 percent and 52 percent) more due to religion than to politics. Similarly, giving differences do not disappear when income is neutralized.

For full disclosure, I'm a secular atheist.

Not surprisingly, I think that buying a product made by a person in poverty in India, thus giving them a job and lifting them from subsitence farming, is the best thing I can do...

Posted by: Thomas | Nov 5, 2004 10:53:48 PM

A philosophy major who's never read, or at least understood, a word of Aristotle's First Cause argument. I'm not sure how that's possible but I find it amusing.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Nov 5, 2004 10:56:15 PM

For the record, Roads To Dominion is not a good book. It is precisely the sort of nonsense about the right, written by a member of the left who clearly has no real world experience with any real life members thereof, that leads to questions like the one answered - very well - in this post. You're doing just fine without that pabulum.

Posted by: Dodd | Nov 5, 2004 11:09:21 PM

Caveat: I speak as a card-carrying member of the Secular Humanist Reality-Based Community, and an ardent defender of "a woman's right to choose."

But the biggest "social justice" campaign in the Christian Right's armament is the anti-abortion movement. If one believes that abortion is indeed murder, then what greater social justice campaign could there be than stopping the murder of millions of innocent American children every year?

Posted by: The Confidence Man | Nov 5, 2004 11:12:12 PM

I agree with you about evangelicals and both foreign policy and NGO work in the developing world. Its at home they seem to have no appetite for social justice. A return to genuinely progressive taxation seems to me the cornerstone of alleviating poverty and misery in this country, and yet the evangelical movement seems to have sided pretty squarely with the anti-tax jihadist crowd. You remember that modest but noble effort by the Republican governor in Alabama towards progressive taxation in the state that was resoundingly defeated at the polls? The Christian coalition and other major Christian conservative organizations came out squarely against it. That's just one example, but it aint an isolated one.

Posted by: Scoop Democrat | Nov 5, 2004 11:20:13 PM

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