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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