2010 Archives

Texas Faith: Should government practice social justice?


The following is from the March 23, 2010, edition of The Dallas Morning News. Professor William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, and Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson of SMU's Dedman College, provided expertise for this story.

March 29, 2010

By Wayne Slater
The Dallas Morning News

Cable TV talker Glenn Beck says Christians should leave churches that preach social justice. Here's what Beck had to say: "I beg you, look for the word words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. They are code words." Code words, he suggests, for socialism, fascism, totalitarianism. . .

Should government be practicing social justice? And should religious organizations be advocating it?

The Texas Faith panel has a lot to say about it:

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

The travesty of this situation is that anyone turns to Mr. Beck for theological analysis. He is so hopelessly misinformed about the substance of Biblical teachings, Christian theology, and church doctrine that it is difficult to imagine finding a place to begin for correcting his errors. He is so thoroughly out of touch with the views of Christians in other cultures, besides the Fox News subset of religious interpretation, that he has absolutely no credibility on matters of faith.

Further, while my own expertise is not in the area of political science or political theory, I question whether he has any expert opinions to offer in this area. Anyone who thinks that a single code word of any kind could represent both communism and fascism does not understand the differences between the two.

But I must return to the theological dimensions of this discussion.

Christians have been advocates for, critics against, architects of, and challengers to social policy since the founding of the faith. The Apostle Paul offered an opinion about obedience to governing authorities in Romans and about the institution of slavery in his letter to Philemon, for instance. The book of Revelation offers a very different biblical perspective from Paul's on the matter of governing authorities. And that is before Christianity stretched beyond the first century or the canonical age. The next nineteen centuries are filled with discussions regarding social systems.

Sad to say, Mr. Beck is theologically illiterate. He needs an enormous amount of remedial education. But that would require him to listen. And, in his case, listening appears to be a grossly underdeveloped talent.

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

It is ironic that a conservative commentator would make these comments, because they echo almost exactly what we hear so often from those on the left: a desire to banish religion to the margins of public life, to neuter religious conviction to the point that it can no longer shape public policy. It is an impulse, whether coming from Beck or anyone else, that I find dangerous and absurd.

Throughout this nation's history, people of faith have been inspired by their deeply-held convictions to effect change in society. Those who have struggled against slavery, child labor, segregation, abortion, and other evils have largely been driven by "religious teaching that advocates public policy." Would we really want to tell a Martin Luther King to keep his faith to himself, or to stop talking so much about public policy? I hope not.

Social justice is a core element of virtually every major faith. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, condemnation of people and systems that oppress the poor runs throughout scripture, from the Prophets to the Gospels. Is the term "social justice" susceptible to misuse? Sure. I object strongly to those who use it as a euphemism for ever-expanding statism, or who believe that it obliges us to support every redistributive scheme out there. Some churches lose their way, and develop agendas that are indistinguishable from those of the secular left. However, the idea that human beings, because they are created by and in the image of God, have certain basic rights (including access to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care) is not tantamount to communism. To even suggest such is exactly the sort of hyperbolic talk-radio bloviation that has so debased our social and political discourse. 

Read the full story.

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