Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Don't Go to Nazi Church: Glenn Beck and "Social Justice"

The ever-inflammatory Glenn Beck raised a lot of eyebrows last week when he encouraged his viewers to leave churches that preach "social justice." Politics Daily quotes Beck: "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Holy buckets, right? But I know what you're about to ask ... code words for what? Three guesses ...

Homosexuality? No! Strike one.

MSNBC? High and on the outside .... the batter swings--no! Strike two.

Nazism and Communism? It's a hit! Back, back, back, back ... gone!

Here's Beck to explain:

What gets opportunistic media hounds like Beck riled up about the term "social justice" is that it sounds like "socialism." Here's Beck's logic: for some of its most progressive theorists, social justice means a top-down, hands-on approach to social reorganization that often involves federally sponsored programs like strengthening unions, implementing welfare aid, and increasing the minimum wage. And who else took a hands-on approach to social reorganization? The Communists and the Nazis! And who wants to go to Nazi Church? Not me!

Now, Beck is bringing us on an all-expenses-paid tour of la-la land here, but he's not totally off his rocker. Others offer saner critiques of the term "social justice." Nobel prize-winner Friedrich von Hayek was one. In a lecture reprinted in First Things, Michael Novak explains von Hayek's position: "Most who use the term, however, ascribe it not to individuals but to social systems. They use 'social justice' to denote a regulative principle of order; again, their focus is not virtue but power."

Novak and von Hayek make a defensible point: those who implement systems of social justice--and Nazis and Soviet Communists are irresponsible examples--could be tempted to abuse their power. But Novak pushes this argument too far: "most" people do not understand social justice as a "regulative principle of order" that focuses on the acquisition of "power." And Beck--in calling for a ban on "social justice" churches--shoves this line of reasoning into crazyland.

Von Hayek himself "recognized that at the end of the nineteenth century, when the term 'social justice' came to prominence, it was first used as an appeal to the ruling classes to attend to the needs of the new masses of uprooted peasants who had become urban workers."

The first people to use the phrase "social justice" understood it as coequal with charity--it was rich people helping peasants. Pope Benedict makes a similar claim in his first encyclical: "Charity is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace." (You can read the rest here.)

To repeat, for "most" social justice is just charity--aiding the poor and feeding the homeless. And you know who was a proponent of aiding the poor and feeding the homeless? Jesus. Here's the Christ himself in Matthew 5:42: "Give to everyone who begs from you." And Luke 18:22: "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Put simply, many good-hearted churchgoers believe they are doing "social justice" when they give to the needy. Or donate to relief efforts in Haiti. Or sew clothes for children in Africa. Or build houses in New Orleans.

So when Beck urges churchgoers to avoid parishes that promote "social justice," he's quibbling in the most dangerous way. He's taking von Hayek's academic critique and blowing it way out of proportion for a popular audience--with potentially deadly results.

In the process, he may be scaring a lot of charitable individuals away from churches that need help right now. After all, Christian parishes--progressive and conservative alike--continue to be some of our most generous institutions, and the Nigeria's, Haiti's and Sudan's of the world aren't going away any time soon. Hence, charity--under any name--is direly needed.

So Glenn Beck should shut the hell up. Or at lest send a big fat check to Habitat for Humanity. I promise--I won't call it social justice.

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