Is the Tea Party a 'Social Justice' Movement? – From the Vault

Is the Tea Party a 'Social Justice' Movement? – From the Vault August 14, 2011

For my Sunday reposts, I choose pieces previously written, but still relevant, and share them here for a largely-new audience.  The following piece attracted a fair amount of attention:

“Is the Tea Party a ‘Social Justice’ Movement?”

As I made my way on an April morning from Harvard Square to a Tea Party Express rally on the Boston Commons, a quotation and a question wound together in my mind. The quotation is a familiar one from William F. Buckley, that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand people listed in the Boston phone directory than the two thousand who comprise the faculty at Harvard University. Buckley was not condemning intelligence or intellectual achievement. He was expressing trust in the moral intuitions and pragmatic sensibilities of ordinary Americans, and indulging in a playful bit of sacred cow tipping.

The liberal aristocracy are apt to swoon not over intelligence — which is found just as much in nurses, mechanics, and executives as it is in the halls of academe — but over the appearance of intelligence, advanced degrees and faculty appointments, the trappings of an elite education. As Buckley understood, a graduate degree is all too often an elaborate exercise in the avoidance of common sense. Impressionable minds are encouraged to reject the conventions of broader society and conform to the trends and fashions of the illuminati instead, and to cultivate the superior disdain of the learned herd for the unlearned horde.

All of this was abundantly in evidence at the Boston Tea Party rally. Animosity and ignorance, prejudice and bigotry, aggression and scorn for “the other” were on full and lurid display on that otherwise beautiful spring morning (see pictures here). However, very little came from the Tea Partiers themselves. More by far came from the numerous counter-protestors, many of whom had obviously shambled over from the scores of colleges and universities scattered around the Boston/Cambridge area. They held signs extolling the entertainment value of abortions, mocked the participants, and accused them of all the usual phobias and -isms.

Sign-holders who were apparently in secure possession of their mental faculties were scarcely bothered by reporters and photographers. Yet the journalists were irresistibly attracted to those (and there were a few) who wore hunting gear or combat fatigues or otherwise looked like they might have just left a militia meeting. These fit the narrative the journalists had been determined to tell ever since they had woken up that morning.

What I witnessed in the Tea Partiers, however, were a moral, sensible, and patriotic people who had a justified concern that their representatives have grown disconnected from those they represent, and are perpetuating a dysfunctional political culture that will thrust our country back to the precipice of economic collapse. Washington cannot pour rivers of money we do not possess into thousands of programs we do not need, in exchange for the mountains of votes that will keep them in power, and complain when the taxpayers get upset. The Tea Partiers are not objecting because they would rather leave the poor to rot than surrender a little more of their money; polls show (as I will discuss in the next part of this series) that Tea Partiers are perfectly willing to accept the need for moderate taxation and social services. Rather, Tea Partiers are objecting because they fear that Washington is caught in a vicious circle of reckless spending and political payback that will cripple our economy and harm all Americans, rich and poor.

This led to the question on my mind that morning. 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.

Whether the Tea Party movement actually is a social justice movement obviously depends on how the term is defined. The irony is that one cannot exclude the Tea Party from the social justice category without betraying that “social justice” is a partisan political theory.

Defining social justice is no simple task. The term first gained some measure of literary solidity in the mid-19th century in the writings of the Sicilian Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, and it was passed down by various Catholic popes and theologians. Father Coughlin popularized the term in the Roosevelt era through his enormously popular weekly radio broadcasts. First he saw social justice as a way of charting a course for worker’s rights between the Scylla and Charybdis of godless communism and heartless capitalism. Never afraid to claim the favor of God for one political party over another, Coughlin coined the phrase, “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal,” and once reported to Congress that, “God is directing President Roosevelt.” From there, his vision of social justice careened into more radical political territory, and eventually his popularity dissolved in a flurry of fascist sympathies and antisemitic paranoia. In a December 1938 issue of his Social Justice magazine, Coughlin published a screed that was largely copied from an English translation of a Joseph Goebbels speech. Although Coughlin was an ardent critic of Marxism, his vision of social justice centered on the advocacy of what we would consider liberal policies on behalf of workers and the poor. He rejected Roosevelt when he believed the latter had fallen in bed with Jewish Wall Street capitalists, and his National Union for Social Justice advocated dramatic redistributions of wealth through taxation of the wealthy, government seizure of property for the greater good, and the nationalization of crucial industries.

When Glenn Beck condemned social justice as a “code word” for liberal political activism, the question that was presented to progressive activists like Jim Wallis was whether social justice is the sole province of left-wing political agitators. With apologies to Albert Einstein, we distinguish between general and special theories of social justice. The general theory is that “social justice is in fact a personal commitment to serve the poor and to attack the conditions that lead to poverty.” That is how Jim Wallis defined the term in a Washington Post column. The special theory, by contrast, asserts that social justice is when one attacks “the conditions that lead to poverty” by advocating specifically the policies that liberals prefer. In other words, on the special theory, it is not enough to fight for the conditions that would allow the poor to prosper; one must do so through redistributionist policies, or living wage movements, or stronger unions, or etc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I know Jim Wallis and I promise I will elaborate in the next post in this series, in which I will respond to an article in which Wallis argues that the Tea Party movement is un-Christian. What is important presently is that when Wallis is pressed on whether he is merely anointing his own political preferences in religious rhetoric, he retreats to the general theory of social justice. People all over the spectrum, he says, are social justice Christians; what is important is simply “to stand up for the poor, even against wealth and power when necessary.” Wallis cites Martin Luther King, Jr., as the prototypical “social justice Christian,” and frequently refers to social justice not only in relation to poverty but also to issues of race, immigration, health care, and the environment.

The Catholic theologian Michael Novak also offers a universal definition of social justice. After noting all the ambiguities in its history and meaning, Novak suggests that social justice is a joint, cooperative action (thus “social” in its form) for the good of the whole of society (and thus “social” in its end). By this definition, social justice is not an “ideological marker,” but is “ideologically neutral.” Social justice “is practiced both by those on the left and those on the right” because there is “more than one way to imagine the future good of society.”

If we adopt Novak’s definition, or Wallis’ universal definition, then the Tea Party movement is in fact a social justice movement. The great majority of those attending the rallies would tell you that the policies they advocate are for the common good of all, including the poor. On the conservative way of seeing things, the interests of the haves and the have-nots are not as easily divisible as Wallis portrays them. Much though it may strain the credulity of the trained progressive, Tea Partiers sincerely believe that taking more and more money away from society’s most productive citizens, and thus disincentivizing productivity and diminishing the resources for private investment; spending more and more in Washington, and thus making economic decisions on political criteria and expanding a federal government that is rife with self-serving inefficiency and corruption; and giving more and more through government distribution, fostering a culture of dependency and vote-buying, is poisonous to our national character and economy and will adversely affect everyone, the poor most of all.

Furthermore, the Tea Partiers would tell you that they are “standing up” against powerful media and political (and even religious) establishments that would mock, slander, and squelch their movement. In his beloved image of “speaking truth to power,” Jim Wallis is no longer the one speaking. He is the one spoken to.

Yet Wallis does not actually hold to the universal theory of social justice. When Wallis actually uses social justice language amongst his supporters, it clearly means pressing for the systemic changes that Wallis and other leaders of “the faith community” prefer. I have never seen Wallis refer to a movement pressing for conservative policies, even when those policies are overtly intended to serve the poor and needy, as a social justice action.

One might respond that movements must press for a biblical vision of justice in order to qualify for the social justice category, and that conservative policies are simply not oriented toward the biblical ideal. To which the answer must be: According to whom? Countless thousands of conservative Christians vote the way they do, and press for the policies they do, precisely because they believe that they fulfill the biblical ideal of justice.

Or one might say that conservatives are really motivated by selfishness and not concern for the poor. Yet this is simply a failure of imagination, a failure to comprehend how conservatives quite genuinely believe that their policy preferences are for the betterment of all society and not only for themselves. Just because conservatives have a different vision of the just society does not mean that they do not care to bring justice to the poor and needy.

Thus one must adopt the general, ideologically neutral theory of social justice, and then accept that all sorts of activities from soup kitchens to living wage demonstrations to, yes, Tea Party rallies, can count as social justice movements — or else one must adopt the special, partisan theory of social justice and accept that Glenn Beck had a point. I leave it to my liberal friends to determine which is the more painful.

I did not agree with everything I heard at the Tea Party rally that day. I have no interest in defending the leaders of the movement. Yet I know these three things.

First: the great majority of those who participate in the Tea Party movement do so because they believe it represents ideals, principles, and policies that would serve the greater good of the American people, and not only their own pocketbooks. What separates religious progressives from the religious conservatives that participate in Tea Party rallies is not compassion but ideology.

Second: my trust in the moral intuitions and pragmatic instincts of the thousands who attended the rally that morning is just as strong, if not stronger, than my trust in the insight and expertise of the two thousand intellectuals who sit atop the academic food chain at Harvard University.

And third: I am less concerned with the anger and bigotry I had been warned to expect in the Tea Partiers than I am with the anger and bigotry I have seen directed against them. The latter, to my eyes, appeared the stronger by far.


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