Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What is my beef with social justice? Part I

A commenter on a previous post asked me a good question. I said that I was trying to oppose the Evangelical Left because it is pushing a social justice agenda that is rooted in the Enlightenment and this made no sense to him. So he asked me “What is your beef with social justice?” I understand completely that in today’s environment this sounds like being upset with motherhood and apple pie. How on earth could any thinking person oppose social justice? Is that not like being against freeing the slaves?

I realize that people use the phrase “social justice” to mean different things and to most it is a fuzzy phrase that signifies being nice to others and not being a mean old capitalist. The evil of capitalism is one of the pillars of orthodoxy on the Left and is unquestionable and seldom thought through carefully because it is never questioned. I hope to at least offer some food for thought that will make you question the left-wing orthodoxy so often assumed today. Up until about five years ago I could describe myself as theologically conservative and politically liberal (in the sense of leaning toward socialism, not classical 19th century liberalism). Since then I have gradually come to realize that these two stances are contradictory and I had to give up one or the other. Since I have been committed to Nicene orthodoxy and a biblical and Evangelical theological position all my life, it was no contest as to which one had to go. But I have struggled with how much I could retain and how much I had to let go. It turns out that I have had to give up feminism, socialism, population control and statism, among other things.

So the question is “Is social justice compatible with conservative theology?” First, some definitions are in order.

1. 1. Conservative Theology: This is not controversial, really. It is what Pope Benedict XVI, C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham and John R. W. Stott have in common. It is the "Great Tradition" common to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. There are Evangelical distinctive and Roman Catholic distinctives, but basically it is what we hold in common. It is enshrined in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and is expressed in many systematic theology textbooks including those of Tom Oden, Herman Bavinck and Millard Erickson. It is grounded in the Augustinian-Thomist tradition of the first Christian millennium.

2. Social Justice: By social justice I mean the following interconnected set of beliefs:

1. equality is the highest goal of society

2. equality is best defined in terms of equal economic opportunity

3. natural inequality must be overcome by human will

4. individual freedom must be sacrificed in the pursuit of equality

5. the rule of law must be sacrificed in the pursuit of equality

6. the state is responsible to create equality

3. Statism: Is the pursuit of “social justice” a socialist project? Not quite; it is a “modern” project, i.e. a project of the Enlightenment. I call this project “Statism” because the state assumes center stage as the engine of history in order to create equality. This is also known as “progressivism” or sometimes “liberalism.” It is not liberalism in the classical 19th century sense, but liberalism has gradually been drifting throughout the 20th century into a statist quasi-socialism.

The Enlightenment produced 2 great systems of political economy: Capitalism (freedom) and Socialism (equality), but these two systems are being combined into one entity in the Western European welfare state or social democracy. Social democracy, European style, is the means by which the social justice agenda is pursued. Increasingly, in Western culture, freedom is being re-defined as economic freedom, which means equality. But this is not equality of opportunity in which all people are equal before the law and no gets special treatment. Rather, it is equality of outcome in which the State must intervene in order to ensure that all individuals end up with a certain minimum level of economic resources regardless of how hard the person works, how talented he is or how much risk he took. So what many liberals and socialists mean today by “freedom” is not really freedom, but rather, “economic equality of outcome.” This “economic equality of outcome” is regarded as the definition of freedom and the mark of social democracy.

Socialism as such is dying as a revolutionary movement because its ideal of equality has gone mainstream. The modern Western nation-state is a synthesis of socialism & capitalism in the corporate, welfare state. An article in the New York Times by Steven Erlanger on Sept. 28, 2009, illustrates my point. It is entitled: “Europe’s Socialists Suffering Even in Downturn” and it says:

“Europe’s center-right parties have embraced many ideas of the left: generous welfare benefits, nationalized health care, sharp restrictions on carbon emissions, the ceding of some sovereignty to the European Union. But they have won votes by promising to deliver more efficiently than the left, while working to lower taxes, improve financial regulation, and grapple with aging populations.

Europe’s conservatives, says Michel Winock, a historian at the Paris Institut d’√Čtudes Politiques, “have adapted themselves to modernity.” When Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Germany’s Angela Merkel condemn the excesses of the “Anglo-Saxon model” of capitalism while praising the protective power of the state, they are using Socialist ideas that have become mainstream, he said.

Another way to express what has happened is to say that, while economic socialism has proven to be a failure, cultural Marxism, (channeled through “critical theory”), has “gone viral” within Western liberal democracies (especially the universities and the media) and is changing them into welfare states with a progressively statist trajectory. [To be continued in next post]

No comments: