[Editors note: Michael Kleen has had better experience with social action in the church than many of us. He discusses the origins of the social gospel and offers an understanding perspective.]
Much hay has been recently made out of Glenn Beck’s ill-advised comments about the term “social justice.” In the first week of March, on his popular radio and television shows, he said, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.” Code words, he claimed, for Marxism. The overwhelmingly condemnatory commentary regarding this quote, though understandable, has so far overlooked a critical point about social justice and Christianity—and its use by some on the statist left—that can and should be debated. There are many activists, such as Sister Diane Drufenbrock (the 1980 vice-presidential candidate for the Socialist Party USA), who have used social justice as a rallying cry in their war against hierarchy and private property, and therefore Beck’s concern about the Marxist use of the terms social and economic justice is somewhat valid. His assumption about the danger of social justice as a moral philosophy, however, is not. His mistake can be excused by his lack of education, but there is no excuse for the trained theologians who willingly distort Christian social teaching for political ends.
The modern concept of social justice incubated in the Catholic Church. In the 1840s, Father Luigi Taparelli used the phrase to criticize the major economic theories at the time for ignoring moral philosophy and for undermining the unity of society by dividing it into competing classes. Since then, the Catholic Church has been clear about its condemnation of both socialism and unrestrained capitalism. In Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, he praised laws that “undertake the protection of life, health, strength, family, homes, workshops, wages and labor hazards, in fine, everything which pertains to the condition of wage workers, with special concern for women and children,” but noted, “it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community.”
Social justice, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, involves the promotion of a living wage based on the dignity of the employed, as well as the protection of workers from abuse by their employers. It is immoral, the Pope argued, for an employer to harm their employees, whether it be through unreasonable wages or hazardous working conditions. However, the Church has consistently reiterated its stance that private property is a natural right given by God (as long as that right does not come into conflict with the common good) and that society is an organic unity (a body) consisting of interdependent parts. Marxism, on the other hand, is a secular ideology that argues that private property is a tool of the ownership class (the bourgeoisie), which is used to exploit the working class. That exploitation will not end until the working class overthrows the bourgeoisie, takes political power, and eliminates private property.
Unfortunately, some theologians in the 1960s and ‘70s began using social justice to bolster their arguments in favor of socialism and Marxism. This became known as “liberation theology” after Gustavo Gutierrez published his book A Theology of Liberation (1972), which incorporated Marxist ideas of class conflict into Catholic moral philosophy. While the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith praised their concern for the poor, it formally rebuked the movement for its Marxist underpinnings and its political aspirations, which, perhaps ironically, attacked the hierarchy of the Church itself. Liberation theology, according to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Pope Benedict XVI), “facilitates the fusing of the biblical horizon with the marxist idea of history, which progresses in a dialectical manner and is the real bringer of salvation,” thus replacing God with a teleological and revolutionary interpretation of history.
While it is right to be concerned over the Marxist use of religious social teaching, an attack on the teaching itself on those grounds is not justified. Christian charity, as demonstrated in the Bible by the works of Jesus Christ, had nothing to do with the state-controlled redistribution of wealth or the division of society into opposing classes. Jesus told his followers, “whatever you have done for one of these least brothers of Mine, you have done for Me,” but he also urged them, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Christian social justice has been and continues to be co-opted by those who wish to justify the use of government to favor one class at the expense of another, but this is a willful distortion of moral philosophy, history, and religion that should be condemned by Christians everywhere.
Michael Kleen is the publisher of Black Oak Presents, a quarterly digital magazine of Middle American art and culture and proprietor of Black Oak Media. His columns have appeared in the Rock River Times, Daily Eastern News, World Net Daily, and Strike the Root. He is also the author of One Voice, a collection of columns regarding issues in contemporary America.