Marvin Olasky on working for justice

You may have heard about the Glenn Beck-Jim Wallis debate recently.  Beck told people to leave their churches if their clergy supported “social justice”; Wallis said that Beck had attacked a fundamental part of Christian teaching and should be shunned like Howard Stern.  To be frank, nothing that I read about the debate suggested that the important issues were being deeply engaged with.  It seemed much more about scoring points.

Marvin Olasky, on the other hand, had some good comments about it.  He has spent quite a bit of time approaching issues of poverty and justice from a conservative theological and political perspective.  He debated Wallis in March, and afterward wrote this about Christian engagement with the famously malleable term “social justice.”  The third point, which I’ve highlighted in bold, is really important, I think.

How to respond? I’d suggest four possible ways, one of which is a variant of Beck’s: Challenge those who speak of “social justice” in a conventionally leftist way. If your local church is committed to what won’t help the poor but will empower would-be dictators, pray and work for gospel-centered teaching. If necessary, find another church.

A second: Try to recapture the term by giving it a 19th- (and 21st?) century small-government twist. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are trying to do this. I wish them success.

A third way: Accept the left’s focus on systemic problems but not its faulty analysis. Learn about the biggest institutional hindrance to economic advance for the poor: the government’s monopoly control of taxpayer funds committed to education and welfare. Work for school vouchers and tax credits that will help many poor children to grow both their talents and their knowledge of God.

Fourth and best: Tutor a child. Visit a prisoner. Help the sick. Follow Christ.

Systemic analysis is not something that is by and large a strength in a more individualistic mainstream American culture (here is my summary of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s argument about why this is the case for American evangelicals).  I like that Olasky looks at systems that form the context for individual choices.  I think that political conservatives are often too optimistic about the benefits of the free market, given the problems that attend the benefits of capitalism, but this is something that I’m trying to learn more about.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor



  1. Beck and Wallis are blowhards, in my view, so I wouldn’t expect them to engage the issues deeply. Beck would have had to bring on a guy like Charles Chaput to do that, and I doubt that was his goal. After all, bringing someone on his show from the the major religion that originated and popularized the term “social justice” in the 1800’s and today integrates the idea deeply into it’s theology would show his extremism for what it is.

    I like the 2nd goal listed above. It melds very nicely with Catholic social justice teaching, in which the principle of subsidiarity plays an important role. “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry” Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno


  2. I’ve heard a bit about the idea of subsidiarity from Chuck Colson’s daily Breakpoints. It makes a lot of sense.

    I really appreciate Catholic social thought. It seems to me that because it brings 2000 years of wrangling with these issues, it can offer a really deep perspective. On the other hand, evangelicalism has largely been formed in the society that in which we live, and so it’s hard for us to step back and really examine our society in categories that haven’t been formed by our society, it seems.

    I’ve heard of Chaput, but I didn’t know that he was also a thinker on social justice issues.

  3. I should probably say that I really appreciate what I know about Catholic social thought, which is pretty elementary. But I’m impressed for the reasons that I spelled out above.

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