What Do You Mean by ‘Social Justice’?

You’ve probably seen some of the reports about younger evangelicals’ abandoning the Republican Party during this election cycle, disillusioned as they supposedly are with the GOP’s governance during the past eight years. (Some aren’t so sure of this trend to start with, but that’s a subject for another day.)

While some of these young evangelicals say they plan to vote for the Democratic candidate this year, others aren’t sure what they’re going to do, seeing problems with both major parties. I’m not going to talk about the merits of voting one way or the other. Rather, I’m bothered by a recurring idea expressed in these and similar reports: “social justice.”

“We’re helping churches to build the capacity to couple social justice with the things they’re already doing well,” says one person. “It’s changed our perspective,” says another young evangelical. “Each generation chooses their cause, and ours is AIDs in Africa, or poverty or social justice.”

Now, I’m not against the idea of “social justice,” as such. It sounds nice, but what in the world does it mean? It’s one of those empty, formless political buzz phrases that mean everything and nothing, depending on what meaning the reader brings to it, not the speaker. Oftentimes, I suspect, even the speaker is not precisely sure what he means. It’s one of those buzz words that trip so easily from the tongue, easy to say without having to think too hard about it. (And shame on lazy journalists who mindlessly allow such phrases to be spoken or repeat them themselves without bothering to clarify.)

Another example of this is “working families.” You’ll hear this empty phrase most often spoken by politicians on the leftward side of the spectrum. Think about it: everyone from the highest paid Wall Street broker to the lowest paid ditch digger belongs to a “working family.” But that’s not what the politicians mean. Rather, they’re often referring to those in the lower salary rungs, usually blue- or pink-collar workers. But fearing that saying so explicitly will come across as condescending or perhaps call attention to the obvious, politicians resort to this empty, meaningless phrase to avoid having to say what they really mean. It’s politics by nudge and wink.

So back to the point: What do you mean by “social justice”? Helping the poor? Everyone’s in favor of that. The chief disagreement is on means, not ends. Is just handing out money “helping the poor”? Giving them job training? Working in a soup kitchen? Creating economic conditions that encourage job growth, thus boosting the employment rate? Again, I’m not going to argue specifics; my point is that there are many ways, some better than others, to do “social justice.” But remember: if that’s what you mean by “social justice,” even political conservatives are for it.

More important, would these same people consider protecting the life of the preborn in the womb doing “social justice”? After all, one of the bedrock foundations of justice is the protection of innocent life. We hear much less about this from these same young evangelicals.

Which leads me to believe that, in the end, “social justice” really means “not a conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage conservative who is easily caricatured in the popular culture.”

The least they can do is say so.