Despite the case in favor of social justice, it is hardly a universally held opinion. In my experience, there are broadly two criticisms of the concept of social justice. I refer to them as “the moral conservative argument” and “the libertarian argument.” These criticisms are not mutually exclusive—indeed, they are often used in concert by those opposing an agenda of social justice. I chose to label these arguments as I do because they have ideological connections with the particular movements from which I derive their names, but they do not necessarily represent official doctrine of any particular party.
The Moral Conservative argument insists that welfare, charity, social spending and welfare, social justice—whatever you wish to call it, ”amounts to coddling people—spoiling them. Instead of having to learn to fend for themselves, people can depend on the public dole. This makes them morally weak, removing the need for self-discipline and willpower. Such moral weakness is a form of immorality (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p. 180-181).”
I’ve heard this argument countless times from the conservative radio pundits and TV commentators; national and local Republican politicians (including most of Utah’s congressional delegation over the years); from national and local conservative organizations, and from self-identified religious conservatives in my local community. Poverty is the just reward of a lack of character or responsibility. If we support the poor in their indolence, they will never learn to be responsible. Giving to the poor only makes them lazy. Social programs only encourage people to “game” the system. Charity encourages dependency. Welfare rewards incompetence and shiftlessness.
And in some measure, they’re right. Oh, the claims are ludicrously exaggerated by Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Savage, Beck, Coulter, Hannity, Delay, Frist, Buchanan, Robertson, Reid (Ralph), et al. But there are indeed those who become dependent on welfare—many of whom suffer debilitating untreated mental illness, but no matter. There are some number on welfare who “game” the system (I wonder what costs more; when some number of poor “game” social welfare for a few thousand dollars each a year, or when a number of highly profitable corporations game the government corporate welfare system for a few hundreds of thousands or even billions of dollars a year?). Some of the poor who qualify for government aid do become complacent and neglect to take any responsibility for their condition.
Jesus didn’t tell the rich young man to give all he had to the poor who would commit to finding gainful employment within the next six months or could prove that their poverty was the result of extenuating circumstances beyond their control, or who demonstrated a realistic plan to become self-sufficient. Our Savior, whose atonement is offered to us whether or not we “deserve” it, said simply “give to the poor (Matt 19:21).”
Evangelical minister Tony Campolo noted in his book, Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat?, recalled an experience in England when he was considering sharing some money with a beggar.
An English woman walking behind us called out to me, “Don’t give her anything! She’ll only use it on booze.” I thought for just a moment, and this simple truth seemed clear: Giving to that woman was my responsibility. What she did with the money after I gave it to her was her responsibility.
God puts the wealth in our hands without any guarantees from us that we will use what He gives us in a way that pleases Him. He trusts us. Ought we not to do to others what He has done for us? (p. 160)
And the Lord does indeed command that the poor should take responsible for their situation as best they can, to labor to the best of their ability to overcome their situation (D&C 56:17). But that is his admonition to them. He does not call on us to enforce that command. Rather, to the rest of us, the community at large, the Lord commands that we give to those in need without condition.
On the other side of the coin, the Lord also warns us against condemning, disparaging, or making light of the poor in their plight, as the statements by those who stand for conservativism seem to do.
- “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker… (Proverbs 17:5)”
- “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard(Proverbs 21:13).”
- Those refuse to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or administer to the sick or imprisoned will be accounted as goats, and cast out by the Good Shepherd (Matthew 25:41-46).
In the restored Gospel, we have an even more explicit admonition against the exact sort of rationalizations we hear from conservatives regarding the poor. We are told in King Benjamin’s sermon—perhaps the greatest sermon on social justice of all time:
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:16-18).
King Benjamin shrewdly notes, we are ourselves beggars in the eyes of God. The Lord will brook no such hypocrisy in his expectation that we serve the least of these. If we accept the moral conservative argument, we put our souls in jeopardy.
It is absolutely acceptable and appropriate that we strive to minimize waste and abuse of our charity, public or private. But if we are to err, as humanity will inevitably do, we must err on the side of compassion. The words of the scriptures lead me to believe that the Lord would judge us much more graciously were we to permit a few to take advantage of our charity in our determination to eliminate the hunger, illness, and suffering of His children than he would if in our determination to prevent any such abuse we were to neglect some of His genuinely suffering offspring.
I do not mean to suggest that none of these conservative advocates engage in in temporal charity. I have little doubt that everyone who has expressed the conservative argument against social justice compassion does indeed participate in private charities (that is, they are all liberal to some degree despite themselves…). And it is entirely appropriate that their specific deeds are not necessarily publicly advertised (Matthew 6:3). That is not the point. The point is that social compassion or justice is not a primary part of their ideology and advocacy. It is secondary at best. You do not hear Hannity, Coulter, or O’Reilly, or any of the other conservative self-described defenders of the Judeo-Christian culture, talk about the need to find a way to provide health care to those who lack, or about the need to ensure everyone has adequate food and housing—even by private means. Among the religious right, rare is the plea to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. As widespread as such declarations are in the scriptures, the issue is virtually ignored by prominent conservative religious organizations such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and their leaders in favor of using the government to inappropriately promote their sexual agenda and of otherwise dissolving the wall separating Church and State. As I’ve noted before, they have even actively challenged those who would make this highly biblical issue a priority. No matter what their private charitable actions, if they as social actors and advocates do not make social compassion a primary part of their agenda, and even demean the very idea of making social justice part of the social agenda, then their essential ideology is an inaccurate representation of the agenda of the God whom they claim to serve, and it must be challenged.