Social Justice II: The Moral Conservative Criticism of Social Justice

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.

So what?

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.

Previous: Social Justice I: The Need to Help the Poor.

Next: Social Justice III: The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice.

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22 Responses to “Social Justice II: The Moral Conservative Criticism of Social Justice”

  1. jennifer Says:

    Nicely put, Derek. Thank you for clarifying some of my thoughts. I can always use them in discussions with “conservative” family and friends 😉

  2. AnonyMo Says:

    Here’s one you left out:

    “Neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor’s house, his field … or anything that is thy neighbor’s.” (Deuteronomy 5:21)

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Actually AnonyMo that commandment helps makes the case against Derek’s next Social Justice post!

    🙂

    Thanks Derek. This was an awesome post. I’ve always believed the conservative case against helping those in need was pathetically weak due to excessive doublespeak. The fact that conservative governments are so willing to forcefully take my money through taxation to help rich corporations and such while decrying public assistance to the poor is a hypocrisy I’ve never gotten a conservative to explain to my satisfaction.

  4. Jesse Harris Says:

    That’s a big problem with the mainstream of conservative thought: few of us try and come up with solutions of our own to liberal/progressive causes, instead spending all of our time simply trashing their solutions. It’s counterproductive and ends up looking like a lack of willingness to acknowledge the problem, much less do something about it.

  5. replier Says:

    they are all liberal to some degree despite themselves…

    No, they are generous themselves (just as is anyone who voluntarily acts for the good of others). Forcible redistribution of wealth makes an individual liberal despite him or herself.

    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.

    This is a mis-characterization, albeit a carefully phrased one. I don’t listen to Hannity, Coulter, or O’Reilly, so I don’t know what they plead and don’t plead for. But I suppose that I am a member of the so-called religious right, who associates with other members of that same movement, and “the plea to feed the hungry and clothe the naked” is not a rare one.

    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.

    Another carefully phrased sentence that begins with a wrong conclusion. Apparently, an individual who engages in private acts of charity is not acting “socially” and therefore demeans the welfare of other individuals even as he or she takes individual steps–personalized, individualized acts of caring and compassion–to aid those who are among the least of these. One’s personal beliefs and actions must not be part of one’s agenda.

    Unfortunately, Derek is right when he asserts that some people hide behind what he calls the “Moral Conservative” criticism of social justice. Unfortunately, he is not content to end his post acknowledging that there are exceptions to that . . . can we even call it a rule? . . ., he has to go on and assure his readers that, yes, even those conservative people who perform private acts of devotion are really just as selfish as they want to believe that they are. They’re not really serving God, just claiming to . . .

    Perhaps Derek can address an issue he left out of this posting . . . how the smug complacency of those who believe that a vote every two years coupled with stated willingness to have someone more wealthy than you be taxed at a higher rate fulfills any kind of moral social justice obligation (and, as per the rules you set out in this posting, it won’t be good enough just to claim that not all “liberals” think/act that way).

  6. jennifer Says:

    to Replier: You are right – – there are MANY generous people who offer assistance of their own free will (and these people are from all political and apolitical groups)….. But many issues in our current tax codes/trade laws/labor laws actually subsidize the wealthiest corporations and citizens while punishing those trying to work for a meager living. This trend has worsened the past 20 years and I really take issue with this forced redistribution of wealth upwards – while many citizens struggle to buy groceries, pay rent, or get needed health/dental care.
    My point is that despite kind and charitable acts on all sides, there are myriads of unmet needs, amid a shrinking middle class & growing rolls of poverty & uninsured?? Should we as a society, turn a blind eye and blame the poor for their predicaments – – or should we actively pursue solutions, at the government level if needed? What do you suggest???????????

  7. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Thanks for the various comments.

    Anonymo, that scripture is certainly valid—and in no way changes the fact that we are commanded to give to those who lack.

    Replier, “generous” is a synonym for “liberal.” Anyone who is being generous is being liberal. I will certainly not deny that “redistribution” is a political method of liberalism, but is hardly the only method within the larger context of social liberalism. I presume, due to the fact that you are in no way contesting the moral conservative argument and are instead resorting to the libertarian argument, that you recognize the flaws of the moral conservative argument and those who perpetuate it?

    Perhaps I am wrong about the lack of emphasis on social justice within the conservative movement. But I’ve yet to see in their speeches, in their printed materials, or on their websites any concerted effort to address poverty, housing, health-care, or other issues of social compassion by Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, the Eagle Forum, and most other self-described moral or religious conservative organizations.

    I applaud their private actions. They are very much valued. But I challenge their social agenda and their claim to represent Jesus in that agenda if they do not advocate social compassion—whether public or private—as at least as high a priority as marginalizing homosexuality, banning abortion, promoting school prayer, and introducing creationism in whatever guise into school curricula. And if they participate in perpetuating the moral conservative criticism of social justice, they are actively promoting an error.

    I have no doubt that there are politicians who cynically use populist demagoguery for tactical political purposes. The same case can be made about those who start winding up alarms about the homosexual agenda or the secularization of America every two years. The fact that there are conspiring men in the political sphere is no revelation, nor has it anything to do with the discussion of ideology at hand.

  8. Ben Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. Even my conservative friend agrees that while many conservatives aren’t necessarily opposed to charity, it really isn’t on the agenda.

  9. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I would like to see this being emphasized a little more. I’ve spent a large part of the three years since graduating from college feeling downtrodden and struggling financially, and aside from family, not a lot of people have offered more than a kind word (which I did still appreciate). When I started my business and had some financial backing fall through, I did have one friend who offered money. I declined because we were getting by and doing so much better than others in the world, but the fact that he asked if he could sacrifice what he had left over brightened my spirits, and I knew that I had a true friend.

    One other thought, which has to uplift and inspire you no matter how far left you may be. A couple of months ago, I heard that Dick Cheney had donated over 78 percent of his 2006 income to charity He brought in millions of dollars, mostly from stock options from Halliburton and royalties from books written by his wife, and gave nearly $7 million dollars to various charities, including one for low-income high school students in the D.C. area. Yes, he got a major tax break for it. Yes, he seems like a grumpy old man. Yes, he is extremely wealthy, and the way he made his fortune is not something most Americans can identify with. I don’t care. Whether his career at Halliburton was on the up-and-up is between him and God. You liberals need to give him points that aren’t followed by a “but”. That is extremely generous. And I give the same praise to Angelina Jolie, who donates one-third of her salary to charity, as well as all the humanitarian work she does. It is people like Jolie and Bono who give me hope that politics can be put aside in the name of giving hope to many whose time on earth might be all too brief otherwise.

  10. Rick Says:

    I just wanted to say that if you are a mormon, than you also claim to believe in the modern day words of the Prophets. You need to research what they have said on the subject of so-called “social justice,” which is socialism. They have taught that socialism and communism in all it’s forms are Satan’s counterfeit versions of the united order. Unlike the united order, which is based on charity, love and humility, socialism is materialistic and based entirely on force by the state. They have warned us against supporting government welfare programs which reward idleness. The law of God is that all men must work for what they get, and that it is a sin for the idle to recieve what has been worked for by others. I think you guys are seriously misguided and need to really study the words of the gospel more carefully.

  11. jennifer Says:

    There are plenty of scriptures decrying the sin of ignoring the poor, fatherless, derelict among us. You are assuming that those groups are “idle”.

  12. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Rick, be careful. You were totally right on about socialism, until you derailed near the end. It is NOT a sin to give to people, and whether they are “idle” or not is not for you to decide; in fact, it is presumptuous for you, with your finite mind, to even make that kind of eternal judgment. There is more desperation in the world caused by wicked governments, fatherlessness, and generations of natural causes than idleness. Most people would lift themselves out if they could, or knew how. “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therfore 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”. Those are the words. Wrest them to your own destruction.

  13. Forest Simmons Says:

    Those who think “this man has brought this upon himself” should read Jack London’s account of his investigation of the East side of London in the summer of 1902, where he lived among the poor and homeless for several weeks and tried to survive as one of them. Even with his youth and good health it was touch and go He had to cheat by resorting to his backup gold coins more than once. His report of that experience is titled, “People of the Abyss.” Here’s a link to an online copy of it

    http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/PeopleOfTheAbyss/

    You can read his analysis and recommendation in the last chapter of the book.

    Part of the analysis is that capitalism had made men so productive that only a dozen or so men were needed to produce all of the basic necessities for a thousand men. So in England at that time there wasn’t enough honest work for most of the able bodied men. How were the rest of the people supposed to make a living?

    As we tighten our belts in our own economic meltdown, we are cutting back to the basic necessities that can be produced by a small percentage of our own population (assuming that we have at least as much productivity as they had in England at the beginning of the 20th century).

    So most people (the ones not producing the basic necessities) will be out of work. Then how are they supposed to get money to buy the basic necessities for their families?

    Will the invisible hand (the holy ghost of capitalism) solve this problem for them? Will mankind learn how to share in a systematic way? Or will death through hunger and war force a solution?

  14. americana83 Says:

    Jesus does say that true religion is helping the poor and widows. However, the key is who is supposed to. No where does the scripture say that the government is to coerce or force people to give of their goods to massive social programs that do nothing to further the gospel of Christ in conjunction with their programs, which actually encourage abortion, discourage marriage, and perpetuate subsistence living.

    The church-the members of the church are actually supposed to be the ones helping the helpless. unhindered by secular humanist regulations, they can provide assistance that nourishes not only the body or mind, but the soul as well as moral values that all combine to help pull the person up, instead of keeping them changed to the IV drip of government “mercy.”

  15. Annelle Arundel Says:

    I go along with you, I do believe! Should that become likely for you to have your site translated in to French? English is my own second language.

  16. Nikki Says:

    The problem with social justice as you have described is that the money isn’t being given freely, it’s being taken by the govt and distributed to whom the govt deems “poor.”Christ taught to take care of the sick and widowed, not petition the Romans to do it. If more Christians lived their faith to the fullest, govt social programs would be much less necessary. If we voted moral people into office, special interest groups wouldn’t be an issue either. They wouldn’t get govt “charity” if we were more diligent in whom we sent to DC to serve us.
    I believe we all want to help the poor and the sick, we differ on the means to accomplish the same goal. I want to help through charity, others want to help through more govt. (social justice)

  17. Tom Boyce Says:

    I concur with what Nikki said, only to add that when we seek to institutionalize charity and talk of enforcement of the same through taxation, it sounds like we are speaking of Satan’s plan more than Christ’s. Let us not forget that, in The Book of Mormon, when they speak of no poor among them, the populace was first converted to Christ

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