Dr. Horton begins his essay on “Redeeming Justice” by condemning progressives and conservatives for using faith as a cover for selfish political agendas and using Jesus as a political football. Of course, there is truth to that portrait of the sad condition of American politics. President Donald Trump is an unlikely “defender of the faith.” However, many Christian conservatives support President Trump for extremely specific policy reasons, especially those concerned with religious liberty. President Trump has been a significant defender of religious liberty through judicial appointments, executive orders, and The Ministerial on Religious Freedom. Rather than debating whether Donald Trump is a Christian, it is more productive to carefully consider the foundational differences between progressives and conservatives. These differences call into question whether conservatives should try to redeem social justice from the hands of the progressives.
Progressives and conservatives differ fundamentally on the source of moral values. Conservatives believe that absolute moral values come from God, either through reason or revelation, and those values do not change. Progressives believe that human societies construct relative moral values and that these values constantly change for the better as societies evolve.
Conservatives believe that although we have not always been honest or insightful in our discernment of moral values, those values themselves do not change. The African slave trade was always wrong, even though from around 1480 to 1888, many Christians deceived themselves on this issue.
Conservatives and progressives are distinguished by radically different attitudes towards the federal government. Whenever a “social problem” is identified, progressives consistently call for more action by the federal government, backed by force or the threat of force. Conservatives instead look for voluntary solutions coming from individuals, businesses, nonprofits, local communities, and churches.
Conservatives take the view that the government’s function is to maintain peace and order. The government has the power to tax and can use force to punish the criminal lawbreaker. Christians conservatives note that it is clear from the New Testament that God ordains government to maintain peace and order. This is true whether pagans or Christians rule the state. Citizens of the state are to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. However, when the government oversteps its bounds, Christians “ought to obey God rather than men.” The martyrs of the Church died in this life rather than give Caesar what belongs to God.
Conservatives believe that the United States was founded on “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Conservatives “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The founders’ vision of limited representative government, capped with a bill of individual rights, is unique in human history.
Limited government is consistent with a Christian awareness of human sin and selfishness. As James Madison famously stated in the Federalist, “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
Progressives denigrate the Declaration and Constitution as obsolete cultural relics that only serve as barriers to further progress. From the 1800s to the present day, progressives have consistently tried to undermine this vision of limited government and replace it with unrestrained direct democracy. At the same time, progressives have worked to transfer government authority to unelected administrative bureaucracies, which combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions with little accountability or control.
Progressives have pushed the Federal government to replace the family, the community, the church, and eventually God. I would recommend that everyone read or reread Brave New World, 1984, and That Hideous Strength. In the 21st century the primary enemy of Christ and his church is the progressive national state, whether it is trending towards socialism, fascism, or some blend of the two.
Social Justice Trends
In the 20th Century, social justice advocates asserted an increasing number of human rights, including remunerative work, social security, paid parental leave, health, education, and an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing. More recently, social justice advocates have asserted additional rights. These include LGBTQ rights, which have expanded to include the right to choose your gender, and reproductive (abortion) rights which some social justice advocates believe include the right to infanticide.
Social justice advocates envision a society where the state guarantees a uniform distribution of society’s advantages and disadvantages. Progressives seek social justice as a strategy that uses the power of the Federal government to transform society towards radical equality of outcomes by transferring assets, opportunities, and privileges from dominant groups—whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians, and the wealthy—to disadvantaged groups.
Conservatives on the Defensive
Conservatives are often fighting a desperate defensive action, trying to preserve things they value against change. It is true that they sometimes defend the wrong traditions, but most of the things they defend—weekly church attendance, individual liberty, property rights, free markets, private and home schooling, the Constitution, balanced budgets, civility, Great Books, Western culture, the Bible—have real value.
Teaching our children our values is not brainwashing. If anything, Christians are too tentative in communicating traditional values, both in the home and in Sunday school and youth group. Although Fox News and conservative talk radio are influential among older generations, the young receive their values from peers, social media, popular music, and an overwhelmingly progressive public education system. Conservative Christians feel powerless and ineffective in their efforts to counteract the weight of the culture against their traditional values.
Doubts about Progress
Many conservatives believe that although human civilization, driven by technological change, grows and changes, it does not progress toward any high level of being. In many cases, although technology develops, human “morals and manners” degenerate. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were especially concerned about the costs of industrialization, mass production, urbanization, and concentration of wealth. They saw capitalism and socialism converging to create the “Servile State.” Their prophecy may still prove correct.
If progressives are often hidden Gnostics, conservatives clearly affirm the goodness of God’s creation. Defense of the unborn from abortion and the aged from active euthanasia affirm our earthly lives. Complementary male and female genders, traditional marriages, sexual fidelity, and childbearing all affirm God’s order for our bodies. Conservatives affirm the Biblical charge to steward creation, although they disagree on the appropriate level of government action on issues such as climate change. Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship argues that “environmental stewardship and natural resource conservation are inherently conservative, and that true conservatives endeavor to be good stewards of the natural systems and resources that sustain life on earth.”
American Christians have always been concerned with saving souls. Many American Christians have seen the world as perishing. Yet the same evangelists who passed out tracts and taught the “sinner’s prayer” also opened soup kitchens and homeless shelters in tough urban neighborhoods to tend the perishing bodies of sinners. The Moody Bible Institute is still concerned with saving souls, but it describes its mission as providing resources to “prepare and inspire you to put the Word into action: feeding the hungry, tending the sick and spreading the good news.”
Conservative Christians are givers who are generous towards their neighbors. The dividing line between progressives and conservatives is not over whether we should provide material aid to our neighbors. The actual divide is over whether that aid should be provided by the individuals, local communities, nonprofits, businesses, and churches or by the Federal government. Conservative Christians believe that voluntary giving to local and distant neighbors is the best option.
Christian advocates of “social justice” speak about systemic or collective sin. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares contradicts the idea that we can identify a group of people as sinful (Matthew 13:24-30). The church (and world) is a mixed multitude and only God can separate the sinful and the righteous (Matthew 13:36-43). Collective sin is associated with collective responsibility and collective punishment. If a member of a community breaks the law, all other members of that community bear responsibility for that violation and can be punished for it. This has been the practice of communist and fascist regimes. Conservatives generally reject the concept of collective responsibility because individuals, not groups are moral agents and collective responsibility violates principles of both individual responsibility and fairness.
Despite Dr. Horton’s good efforts, we cannot redeem “social justice” and “social justice warriors” as positive terms for the Bible-believing church. Instead, American Christians must continue to assert that rights, law, justice, and liberty come from God, not from society or from society’s master, the all-powerful Federal government. Equal justice for all under law remains the American ideal. American Christians must pursue justice by protecting their neighbors’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All Americans who stand for liberty against the progressive agenda, including Trump supporters, are our allies, not our enemies.
Daniel Johnson is a retired, licensed pastor who has been serving churches as a lay preacher, deacon, and pastor for the past 25 years. He has served as president of his local ministerial alliance and has worked for racial reconciliation. He is active in his community in efforts to address hunger, housing, homelessness, and neighborhood revitalization. He has also served in supervisory and managerial positions in the Federal government and in the private sector.