Social Justice and Moral Language (with Glenn Beck & Stanley Hauerwas)

(Just a note from me:  I confess that this post has a little more theological and philosophical depth than I'm used to and I might be in over my congested head.  After finishing it, I feel a great need to post a funny music video or something.)

I'm sure there are two persons out there who are less likely to appear together in a blog post...but I can't think of them right now.

On one side, we have Glenn Beck -- conservative news show host, a pundit, tea party fan, and Fox News poster boy.  On the other side we have Stanley Hauerwas -- potty-mouthed Christian ethicist known for some politically explosive commentary which doesn't really fit in with conservatives (or liberals for that matter).  I've watched Beck on TV and I've listened to Hauerwas in ethics class.  I can't see them sitting down for one of Obama's "beer summits."

Regardless, John Schmalzbauer, a sociologist of religion over at Missouri State University brings the two of them together in an article that caught my attention and I've been sitting on it for a while.  It appears in the Duke Divinity Call and Response blog on Faith and Leadership.  The article, itself, is full of links to his references and I encourage you to check it out. 

The article was written shortly after Glenn Beck famously told his radio show listeners to run from those churches who preach "social justice."  ABC News has a pretty good summary (you can find lots of summaries out there):

On his radio and television shows, Beck suggested any church promoting "social justice" or "economic justice" merely was using code words for Nazism and communism.

"I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church Web site," he said. "If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. ... Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If they're going to Jeremiah Wright's church, yes!

"If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish," he said. "Go alert your bishop and tell them, 'Excuse me, are you down with this whole social justice thing?' If it's my church, I'm alerting the church authorities: 'Excuse me, what's this social justice thing?' And if they say, 'Yeah, we're all in on this social justice thing,' I am in the wrong place."

Later, Beck held up a picture of a swastika and one of a hammer and sickle, declaring again that "social justice" has the same philosophy as the Nazis and communists and that the phrase is a code word for both.
Now, when this first came out, I, along with many other Mainline Protestants or Catholics were taken aback....because we're part of churches that preach "social justice."  We use that terminology.  In fact, as Girdwood Chapel strives to fulfill its mission of "Love God. Love Others. Change the World." we strive to act with justice.  And a lot of Scripture seems to come to our defense here....not least of all Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the LORD require of you?   To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

However, Schmalzbauer claims that both of these figures, Beck and Hauerwas, can help us be more cautious about how we use the words "Social Justice" in our churches.  Years ago, in his book After Christendom, Hauerwas posits that the notion of justice, itself, is a bad idea because we've let the world define that word for us.  The church shouldn't be in the business of making the world more just.  The church should be in the business of being the church and keeping the world, well, the world.  In other words, the lines between church and world have gotten so muddy that we really need to focus on reclaiming who it is that we are.  Yet, in still OTHER words, when we talk of "justice" we need to be careful what it is that we're talking about because we may just be pushing the world's agenda, doing th world's work.

And, perhaps, Glenn Beck is really opposed to a particular understanding of understanding that presupposes a liberal church relying upon a government to do their charity work.  He's not opposed to helping people.   He's opposed to "social justice" if it means the government co-opting the church's role in society.

I'll let Schmalzbauer close us out here with what I think are his strongest points:

Concerning Hauerwas and his understanding of Justice:

Unlike Mr. Beck, Hauerwas thinks that “freedom” and “Christian America" are bad ideas. Like his interrogation of the J-word, his critique of these notions is rooted in the conviction that the Enlightenment assumptions of the modern state have corrupted Christian thinking. Like the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, he has challenged the provenance of such taken-for-granted concepts, questioning the influence of Kantian philosophy on contemporary ideas of justice. From this perspective, the key questions are, “Whose justice? Which rationality?” 

A little history on the use of the phrase across the political and social spectrum:
Since the nineteenth-century, social justice has meant different things to different people. Coined by the Italian Jesuit Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, it has been embraced by such diverse figures as Pope John  XIII, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mother Teresa.  On occasion, it has been co-opted by bigots, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, a notorious anti-Semite. 

And a his final, final word:

As religious leaders rise to defend social justice, they should take care to explain what they mean.

Now I'm left to ponder what I mean when I use the phrase "social justice."  How can it all be a matter of the church just being the church, trying to follow in the example of Jesus?  One way to sneak around this, I think, is to truly focus energy on the local issues, that which the church can affect with their hands and feet.  In other words, making sure things such as the Health Bill famously passed this year is secondary to the work of the local church dealing with the plight of the poor and sick in their own neighborhoods.

Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the House, said "All politics is local."  And while I wouldn't want to downplay the work of the church with struggling persons across the world, perhaps "All religion is local" as well.  Or, maybe just most of us.


  1. Some thoughts:
    1)When somebody asks if I believe in God or Jesus, I respond, "What do you mean by that word 'God'?"
    2)Or, because the Divine resides in all humans, all our actions must show reverence to all humans.
    3)A church that preaches justice removed from society makes me suspicious that the individual is liable to be paramount.
    4)Jesus preached the Kingdom of Heaven, not Jim's or Will's or Josh's Private Heaven. A desire for social justice means that one is striving to enact what God wants even if it's not what I want.
    5)As above, so below.

  2. Reminds me, I used to know a pastor's wife who, when asked if she was "saved" she'd ask, "From what?" And, while she meant it to be confrontational to some extent, how one understands "save" affects the answer. Not all that separates us is matter of semantics, but being clear about how we understand our terminology would be helpful to dialogue.