Has Social-Justice been Co-opted?

Over at Patheos, Timothy Dalrymple offers Part I of what he is referring to as a “Three Part ‘Tea Party Suite’”. Here he asks the thoughtful question, Is the Tea Party a Social Justice Movement?

Since it is intent on the formation of a more accountable and more restrained government that will better serve the interest of all Americans: Is the Tea Party movement a social justice movement?

When I asked this question of my beloved liberal friends, they were mortified. There may be no quicker way to help a food-poisoned progressive empty the contents of her stomach than to suggest that the Tea Party movement is just as much a “social justice” movement as are living wage or immigrants’ rights movements.

The reason for their response is simple. For many religious progressives, “social justice” has eclipsed the old God in whom they no longer quite believe. The hope of a socially just world has not complemented and enriched (as it should) but impoverished and occluded their hope of eternity with God. Thus, for them, social justice is the final refuge of the transcendent, the one pure act that remains in a tarnished world, the last vision with the power to stir the graying embers of their religious devotion.

Even religious progressives who still believe in an eternal relationship with God tend to see social justice as holy in the Hebrew sense, as that which sets them apart — apart from the fat cats and the country clubbers, to be sure, but also apart from those Christians, the Christians who live in “Jesusland,” attend megachurches, and wear flags on their lapels: the very same conservative Christians who might be found at a Tea Party rally. Thus, to suggest that the Tea Partiers are engaged in a social justice movement is not only to soil their sacred ideal with the grubby fingers of the bigoted Tea Partiers, but to suggest that progressive Christians and conservative Christians are not separated so much by the presence or absence of love for the poor but by their sense of the policies that best serve the poor and the rest of society.

As Dalrymple notes, defining “social justice” is not easy in a world that is become so uncomfortable with absolutes; the term itself has become so narrowly identified with “progressive” church movements that Glenn Beck recently referred to “social justice” as a “codeword” for agendized socialistists working to excite legislation in their interests.

To argue that the Tea Partiers want what “will better serve the interest of all Americans,” is to express similar sentiments as the social justice establishment, but with this difference: the establishment believes that “all Americans” will be better served by addressing the interests of some. As with Barack Obama talking of “spreading the wealth around,” it bases its solutions on bringing down some and raising others, until everyone is standing on a level field that has been carefully culled; it seeks equality of outcome. The Tea Party, less interested in social engineering, seeks equality of opportunity, trusting that the rising tide lifts all boats.

Both outlooks have within them elements of recklessness and naivete; all movements have some unintended consequences. Stipulating that both operate in “good faith,” perhaps their greatest difference lies in their attitudes. The establishment operates from a pessimistic distrust that is not entirely unearned; it believes people must be compelled to make sure no one is left behind. The Tea Partiers on the other hand optimistically claim that free people can be trusted to extend help to others. After Hurricane Katrina, refugees from New Orleans found Texas churches and counties opening their coffers and homes to the displaced, and studies have shown that conservatives generally volunteer more than progressives, and contribute more to charities, so their beliefs are not entirely unearned, either.

It is, perhaps, in the narrow slats separating both sides that what is objectionable occurs, where even the best intentions can contain elements of injustice, where opportunities or liberties can be lost.

Read the whole Dalrymple piece. I’ll keep an eye open for Part II.

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  • http://vita-nostra-in-ecclesia.blogspot.com Neo-Marxist

    Is the Tea Party movement a social justice movement?

    No fair. No fair. We co-opted social justice first!

  • Jeff

    The left should just accept that the “tea partiers” are basically a majority of the country. Everyone is sick of confiscatory taxation, wasteful spending, and huge and ever-expanding federal government. The Founders were all tea partiers for that matter. And yes it is definitely a social justice movement.

  • Feeney

    Great post! In my experience, “liberals” or “progressives” usually define themselves by what they dislike or what they are afraid to be associated with: “fundamentalists”, “racism” (real or imagined), chastity, financial success (unless it’s their own), inequality (unless it directly benefits them) etc. Conservatives are more likely to hold to traditional virtues, and have the courage to measure government actions according to those virtues. In other words, liberals like to feel good about themselves, whether individually or in packs; whereas conservatives care about ancient virtues like justice, prudence, moderation etc.

  • Pingback: Is the Tea Party a “Social Justice” Movement? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  • Mike Walsh, MM

    Fortunately, people (including the likes of the Institute for Economic Affairs, based in London) are beginning to take back the idea of “social justice” from out-of-touch progressivists. As I read on (and copied from) Auntie Joanna’s site: “There is a growing recognition that Catholic social teaching is not about making more and more demands for Government action and expenditure on welfare schemes. [It's more about the] centrality of the family unit, based on marriage, the negative effect of current taxation policies, which favour the break-up of families as benefits go to single-parents, [and] the increasingly uncomfortable pressure being placed on Catholic projects which receive public funds.”

  • Mr. Graves

    Mr. Walsh, would you post a link to the article you reference (Aunt Joanna’s?). It sounds great! I can’t find it though. Thank you.

  • http://westernchauvinist.blogspot.com Western Chauvinist

    Yes, “social justice” has been co-opted by the Left. I’ve been saying for years now that “social justice” is euphemism for socialist policies. Having read the excerpt, I’m eager to read the rest, because I’ve come to believe “social justice” is also moral vanity for progressive Christians. It isn’t so much about what really does good in the world as it is about accruing good for one’s self-image and status among other progressive Christians. It ends up being idolatry. Idolatry of the state (alignment with secular Messianism = Marxism) and idolatry of oneself in one’s good intentions.

  • Beth

    Great read. Thanks, Anchoress.

    It’s interesting that Tea Parties are popping up internationally: Tel Aviv, the Hague and Moscow!.

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I have always maintained that government taking more than 25% of your earnings against your will and at the point of a gun (because that’s how they will come to get you if you don’t capitulate) is inherently immoral. This has been the implied moral underpinnings of conservatism at least since Ronald Reagan. And whether it is consciously acknowledged or not, it is there as a moral justice issue. Period. There is nothing all that new about the Tea Party morality. It has been here all along.

  • Mike Walsh, MM

    Here is a link to Auntie Joanna’s post: Fascinating Conference

  • Maureen

    Auntie Joanna Writes is the name of a blog by the eponymous Joanna Bogle, a Catholic journalist and writer from the UK. She also had a show on Catholic holiday customs on EWTN, based on a book, and she came across as aunt-like. (She also had a history/talk show with her husband about the military religious orders in the Middle Ages, which was interesting.)

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    I have my doubts if the Tea Party movement is Social Justice movement. Partly because we don’t know what the Tea Party is. I think it has different factions and is different from place to place.

    It is going to take time to find out what and if anything it becomes.

    In some areas I can see the point. In other areas (like some areas related to immigration) I am not seeing a lot of social justic at all.

  • AvantiBev

    I was at the April 2009 Tea Party here in Chicago only about 75 feet away from a CNN reporterette who exclaimed to the anchors that she was signing off because: “As you can see, this is not really for family viewing.” That report went viral and those of us who were there on Federal Plaza that day didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. If she and her camera operator had reported honestly you would have seen folks like me in business atire, grandmoms and dads carrying flags and some witty homemade signs, moms with kids in tow or babies in strollers and a whole lot of good cheer. That was one of the most optimistic, patriotic, peaceful and good natured crowds I have even been part of. Yet, since that day I have doubted all MSM and some alternative media coverage of “Tea Parties” because of that reporter’s myopic view.

    By the way, this weekend we celebrate Father’s Day. If we were really serious about improving the lives of all Americans, especially the poorest, we would celebrate it 365 days a year. We have had 40+ years of just drop off your sperm, your support check and maybe visit once in a while. A sexual revolution that promised the boys they could be like Peter Pan and Hugh Hefner and never grow up and it promised the girls they could have their “freedom” and their kids would be just fine being “parented” unisexually by them. How’s that working for us America?

  • http://westernchauvinist.blogspot.com Western Chauvinist

    Ditto AvantiBev. I had the same experience at a Tea Party rally in Colorado. Good natured people gathered together to sing patriotic songs, express love of country and voice concerns over the direction our country is headed. The rally was planned for lunch time and most people were in business attire and obviously on their way back to work later. All age groups were represented and there were even a few black people there (in a very white town) with one being a speaker. As I said to a fellow parishioner, “these were the kind of folks you’d leave your kids with for a couple hours to go run errands. No worries.” I saw/heard nothing about immigration. The biggest concern expressed by far was spending.