Mormonism and Social Justice

September 12, 2011 | 64 comments
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Recently, we’ve seen some distrust of religions that advocate social justice, from sources as diverse as the political punditry and lay Mormons.[fn1] The criticism is unfounded, of course, and strikes me as ahistorical and anti-Catholic. The term “social justice” comes from 1840, when the Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli as he worked through the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. As you look at Jesuit schools’ mission statements, you begin to understand how central social justice is to the Jesuit identity.

I teach at a Jesuit law school. Part of our mission is to “prepare graduates who will be ethical advocates for justice and the rule of law.” This social justice emphasis is inspired by the belief that each human being “deserves dignity and respect.” And Pope Benedict XVI takes this dessert further: he says that charity is inseparable from justice.[fn2]

So why spend this time, on a Mormon blog, talking about Catholic conceptions of social justice? Because not only does the Mormon tradition has the same biblical and traditional Christian justifications to pursue a just society,[fn3] but Restoration scripture and modern prophets provide additional impetus.[fn4] That is, as Mormons, we have a duty to pursue a just society.

Recognizing this duty doesn’t, of course, define the contours of a just society, or prescribe the route we use to arrive at this just society. We still need to ask what and how. Neither is a simple question, and I don’t have an overarching vision for what I believe a just society would look like. I do, however, want to ask, with respect to discrete issues, what Mormonism adds to the discussion of social justice and how we, as Mormons, can contribute to that justice.

So I mean this post mostly as an introduction to that project. I don’t plan on doing it as a multi-part series with a common title and links back to all of the parts, and I certainly don’t plan on blogging about nothing but social justice issues, but I do plan to return the subject on occasion with more specificity with respect to a variety of particular issues.[fn5]

[fn1] I don’t want to suggest, of course, that Mormons (whether pundits or not) are the only religious persons up in arms over socialist social justice churches. But I don’t feel like taking the time to search for anti-social justice invective, so I’ll stick with the two sources I knew of off the top of my head.

[fn2] “If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.” Caritas in Veritate.

[fn3] See, e.g., the story of the Good Samaritan.

[fn4] I’m thinking of things ranging from the City of Enoch to the Nephites after Christ’s visit to our belief in the ultimate spiritual significance of even putatively temporal concerns to the affirmative side of the Church’s political neutrality statement.

[fn5] For example, the first post in this series will probably revolve around New York’s recent requirement that schools teach a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. But we’ll get to that later.

64 Responses to Mormonism and Social Justice

  1. Dan on September 12, 2011 at 7:56 am

    Sam,

    Didn’t you know? Of the “lost scriptures” one of them had this: Jesus said, “sell all that you have and give to the poor, except through government socialistic programs, because they’re of Satan!”

  2. Grant Hardy on September 12, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Sam,

    Thanks for the link to my Meridian article on Immigration. I tried to take on the topic directly with an earlier essay on “The Book of Mormon and Social Justice” and a followup:

    http://www.ldsmag.com/component/zine/article/7677?ac=1

    http://www.ldsmag.com/component/zine/article/7748?ac=1

    As is often the case, the comments were probably as revealing as the original articles.

  3. Bob on September 12, 2011 at 9:03 am

    To me, the Church, if it were really into ‘Social Justice’ , would spend more of it’s money on the poor than it does on itself. It would look more like the Salvation Army. But the Church sees it’s plan less worldly. and more Heavenly.

  4. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Mormonism and social justice…what a strange topic. :)

  5. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Thanks, Grant. Incidentally, what inspired this introduction to the kind-of series I’ll be doing was some of the vitriolic responses to your excellent posts. People seem to have an idea of what social justice means, and it doesn’t seem to correspond to my understanding of the idea.

    Bob, I disagree, but will try to convince you in future posts.

    Chris H., I expect some good feedback. :)

  6. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Sam, I love the idea for this series of posts.

    IMO, the reason for the disparate views of social justice really lies in political rhetoric — social justice has been identified with and labeled as a “liberal” vision or tool, and is therefore suspect to conservatives.

    Despite this view, I, personally, think that many of the social justice ideas are very similar to what we, Mormons, preach. The only genuine issue in social justice that is usually interpreted differently by conservatives is how much government should be involved in dispensing social justice — and I don’t know enough about the proponents of social justice to know if that is even what they actually believe should happen.

    I look forward to learning a lot more.

  7. Chris on September 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Dan… seriously? Can you see the difference in:
    -an individual(s) making an extremely tough personal decision that would leave them much worse off of their own free will and choice but doing so out of love so that another could be better off(and by doing so to giver would be improved)
    and
    -an individual wanting that same decision to not only be required of someone else with little to no choice involved so that the sacrifice is extracted without the tough decisions and love behind it that make you a better person as well as the recipient better off

    The top one describes everything from charitable giving to tithing to the atonement. The bottom one not so much. It as already been observed by some closer to the Lord than you or I (but we could and should hope for the same kind of witness) that one system is focused on rearranging materials to spark a change in society while another is focused on changing hearts that lead to the rearrangement of materials.

    This observation says nothing of the evils and hypocricies of our practiced captialism in which rampant pursuit of self interest is obssessed with material gain.

  8. ji on September 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

    If “social justice” = a particular political agenda, then I hope there never is a “Mormon conception of social justice.” The term is already loaded, and social justice really does not mean societal fairness.

    I hope every Latter-day Saint will contribute to social justice by living a Christ-like life according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, and without being judged in comparison to other Latter-day Saints. Oh, I hope there never is a Mormon conception of social justice, to which all good Mormons are expected to subscribe.

  9. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Chris,
    While Dan can clearly defend his own views, and while his observation was also clearly flippant, I’m going to take a go at my understanding of what he’s saying.

    Essentially, while individual charity is a good thing, it’s not the only way to achieve a just society, and it may or may not be the best way. The Church encourages us to vote for good people who will make society better (or, in some cases, to run as such good people). If justice could be achieved solely as a result of our own personal charity, there would be no need to engage in the broader world of politics and policy.

    Basically, as I see it, our aim of achieving social justice is separate from our aim of making ourselves more Christlike. You may be right that paying our taxes only helps moderately in making me a better person individually (a conclusion I may contest, but here’s not the place for it). But that is not the my only goal, the only goal of the Church, or the only goal of society at large.

  10. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 10:14 am

    The term is already loaded, and social justice really does not mean societal fairness.

    Actually, no it’s not—that’s sort of the point of this post. The term is nearly as old as our church and, notwithstanding attempts to pull it into the political realm, it’s a religious concept, derived from scripture and Thomas Aquinas.

  11. ji on September 12, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Sam (no. 10)– Yes, the term is loaded. But you are right that there is a religious aspect to the term. You write, “We still need to ask what and how.” I agree, as long as “we” are individual Latter-day Saints acting as individuals within our communities with whatever portion of the Holy Spirit we might have. I hope “we” never becomes a ward under the direction of its bishop, or a stake under the direction of its president. Let every man and woman be anxiously engaged in a good cause of his or her own choosing. I suppose I prefer a tapestry of ten thousand individually-planted and individually-nurtured flowers rather than a monolithic mass of good works under one person’s direction with everyone else following. That is why I wrote, “I hope there never is a Mormon conception of social justice, to which all good Mormons are expected to subscribe.”

  12. Jax on September 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Sam,

    I’m really looking forward to this post and where you take us in it. The deathgrip that LDS people have on capitalism and material gain is frightening and I would love to see how those get addressed.

    You did say this however:

    Actually, no it’s not—that’s sort of the point of this post. The term is nearly as old as our church and, notwithstanding attempts to pull it into the political realm, it’s a religious concept, derived from scripture and Thomas Aquinas.

    Is there some reason that an idea or phrase that is old and religious can’t also become politically charged? Maybe the term used in original sources does mean societal fairness, but to many today that is NOT what it means. Also, doesn’t saying that it comes from scripture and Thomas Aquinas (a philosopher) sound like the definition of “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture”?

  13. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Jax, just as the term can acquire new meaning, as you suggest that “social justice” did (and I agree with that assessment), it can also have more than one meaning.

    IMO, “social justice” has acquired both meanings. In the political realm it is clearly associated with liberal causes. But, I believe it has also maintained, at least in some circles and especially outside of the United States, its original religious meaning.

    For all I know, it may have still other meanings as well.

  14. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Jax,
    Would you be more comfortable with my saying that “social justice” shouldn’t be politically freighted, and that such political freighting derives, not from any objection to the concept, but as make-work by people who need something to object to? Basically, I think the objections are to a strawman, not to social justice.

    As for philosophers and scripture: what’s wrong with that? Scripture isn’t self-interpreting, nor does it apply itself to the world. It requires some sort of interpretive lens to be of any value (although, again, that’s far afield of what I’m doing here).

  15. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Sam, I look forward to your posts…but I dread the comments.

  16. Jonathan Green on September 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Chris H., I was just about to post the exact same thing. I’m also looking forward to your posts, Sam.

  17. Aaron B on September 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    If we ever achieve true social justice, this will mean that the gross inequalities and radically different life circumstances of mankind will no longer stand as witness to the poor choices made and fence-sitting postures adopted by many of us in the Pre-Existence. In such a world, many of us would be unable to use the poor and suffering as object lessons as we teach our children about their special place in the divinely-mandated hierarchy of worth God has imposed on His children. This would be a terrible tragedy, and indeed, would thwart the plan of God. Thank goodness for righteous men like Glenn Beck, who can see through Satan’s devious plans and warn the rest of us accordingly.

  18. Jax on September 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Sam,

    I would be more comfortable saying it shouldn’t be politically charged. And I agree that it shouldn’t be, but that ignores the truth that for many people it is. Some use it as a religious term to bring about political ends while at the same time some deride it as a political term used to influence religion. I don’t think either the liberal Jesse Jackson crowd or the conservative Glenn Beck crowd use it as it ought be used. That is why I’m looking forward to your posts – To see if and how you can separate both of those crowd’s ideologies away from it and give some real world visual of what social justice should look like. If Kent is right that outside the US it is still solely a religious term, then I would love read how it is used to affect real change and improvement in peoples lives and how we could incorporate that here in the US.

  19. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Aaron,

    I love you.

  20. ceej@y on September 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Maybe Chris H. was dreading a comment like this one.

    What does “social change” mean?
    “social” = tendency of agents to support, depend, and interdepend on each other
    “change” = communism

    By this definition Mormons are largely against “social” + “change.” Duh.

  21. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    “Maybe Chris H. was dreading a comment like this one.”

    Yep.

  22. Bryan on September 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I don’t comment very often because I’m not too great a writer and usually my comments come off as combative so I usually refrain. I assure you, I am sincere in my question.

    I don’t think I’m fully understanding the goal of the upcoming blogs. It seems to me like they will try to define what social justice should mean and not what politics/religion today has defined it as, and by doing this we will be able to accomplish a goal.

    What I don’t understand is that even if we change our definition of what “social justice” means. That won’t change how anyone else in the world intends it and it wouldn’t be useful in any sort of dialogue with someone else.

    I guess my point is I am pretty sure I’m missing the point :)

  23. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Bryan,
    Fair question. The upcoming posts aren’t going to spend any time exploring what “social justice” means; that’s solely the purpose of this post. Instead, they’ll look at various social problems and/or proposed solutions to social problems and try to figure out what insights we, as Mormons, can bring to bear on these problems (or, in some cases, question why we, as Mormons, would oppose certain solutions to the problems).

  24. PLM on September 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    I want to live in a just society. Unfortunately, the term “social justice,” whether we like it or not, is now undeniably linked to the political position that people’s lives are best improved by government appropriating and redistributing personal property.

    If that is your position, then own up to it. If you are truly trying to explore how we as Mormons can personally contribute to helping others, then find another name for it. But please don’t let this devolve into a self-righteous, self-congratulatory discussion of how Lefty Mormons are the ones who really care for the poor, and anyone who disagrees is either selfish, or stupid.

  25. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    ceej@y (20), so if change = communism, then why do we here so many calls for things like a “change of heart” in general conference?

    Personally, I think that any definition of “change” as “communism” is hopelessly charged with political rhetoric and basically useless.

    But then, so many political uses of words are backwards or encoded with ideology that you can never really trust the words themselves. [Else why would we have so many Republicans effectively against a true Republic and Democrats effectively against Democracy?]

  26. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    PLM,
    I’ve learned, from sad experience, that I don’t have the ability to keep threads from devolving, if a critical mass of people who want them to devolve show up. Still, I feel like, more often than not, threads don’t devolve and I’ve enjoyed the great ideas that some people have brought to the table, and sincerely hope that the discussions go in that direction instead.

    That said, in my world, “social justice” means exactly what I’ve laid out. As such, I’m sticking with the phrase. Ultimately, though, I’m not interested in whether Lefty Mormons or Righty Mormons care more about the poor—I’m ultimately a pragmatist, and want to explore ways that we, as Mormons, can make our society better.

  27. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    PLM (24), I suspect that this is more a spectrum of positions instead of the duality you imply.

    Personally, I reject both the idea that “people’s lives are best improved by government appropriating and redistributing personal property” AND the idea that government should never try to improve people’s lives by redistributing wealth.

    Like it or not, sometimes government programs, even those that “redistribute wealth” (whatever your definition of that is) actually work. Why shouldn’t we continue the programs that work (with a minimum of “appropriation”) and try to find others that work also? In other cases the programs don’t work, and clearly should be changed or eliminated. Why must we have ideological purity on this issue?

  28. PLM on September 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Sam,

    I can always appreciate a pragmatist. Well said.

  29. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    FWIW, apparently one journalist has a way we can figure out whether “social justice” is good for us or not:

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/okay_so_let_try_real_science_wG03sB8eLQPoygAxguOA0K

  30. PLM on September 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Kent,

    I did not intend to imply a duality of positions. I hope everyone can recognize that the answer lies somewhere in the murky middle. I did not say that all forms of redistribution are per se bad.

    But that is my point: “social justice” is a term that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the far left. That caused me to question the motivations of this series.

    It would be like me starting a thread on patriotism and called it, “being a ‘Real American’” (that phrase, of course, being a favorite of the likes of Sarah Palin).

    But all that being said, my critique is largely cosmetic, and I look forward to hearing more from Sam.

  31. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    PLM (30): “But that is my point: “social justice” is a term that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the far left. That caused me to question the motivations of this series.”

    I’m not sure I would say that. I have the impression that the term isn’t widely used on the left, and when those on the left refer to “social justice” they do so to reference the religious idea(s). Since many on the left aren’t religious, they don’t often use the term.

    Instead, I hear the term more often used by conservatives as a way to criticize the left, a shorthand for “government appropriating and redistributing personal property.”

  32. Al on September 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    “the criticism is unfounded, of course”

    Of course?

    Okay if you say so it must be so.

  33. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    “social justice” is a term that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the far left.

    See, I see the term as being very religious, and not terribly political. It’s used by Jesuit schools, which probably fall largely on the left on the U.S. political scene, but it’s also used by the current Pope who, as I understand it, is considered fairly conservative. Like I said, it seems pretty central to the Catholic worldview, and Catholics span the spectrum, from liberation theologists to anti-Prop. 8 voters. So I have trouble seeing the phrase or the concept mapping comfortably onto contemporary political discourse (even if contemporary political discoursers would like to appropriate it for one reason or another).

  34. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I guess I don’t understand how you are using the term “justice” and “just society”. If a man decides not to work, when he has the capacity to do so, and fails to earn income as a result, that condition appears “just” and “fair” to me.

    In my view, the most basic element of “social justice” and a “just society” is one in which everyone who has the capacity to contribute toward his or her own livelihood is expected to do so. Such a policy maximizes the material goods available for all, and frees up more of a surplus of goods to aid those who are lacking the capacity to care for themselves. My understanding of the Church’s welfare system is that the expectation that people will do all they can to care for themselves is the most effective way of maximizing the “justice” within a society.

    The recent riots in Britain, and the ongoing destruction of peace and security in Europe by people who are paid not to work, does not have any of the hallmarks of a “just society”, even though the politicians in the US who most regularly invoke the rhetoric of “social justice” appear to have exactly that process in mind, of government taking wealth from those who have worked for it and giving it to people who have intentionally avoided work.

  35. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    “I guess I don’t understand how you are using the term “justice” and “just society”.”

    That is the point freaking series!

    Sam, give up now.

  36. PLM on September 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Kent & Sam,

    I’m sure that both of you are better informed about the definition than I am, so just consider me as one data point saying that in my limited experience, “social justice” is code for left-wing politics. FWIW, I am a law student and hear the term thrown about quite a lot by the likes of Outlaw, BLSA, and Street Law, and not so much at Federalist Society events.

    But I’ll take your word for it.

  37. Julie M. Smith on September 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    “But that is my point: “social justice” is a term that is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the far left.”

    No, unless you consider every Catholic person in the universe far left. Within the past year or so, Glenn Beck made an effort to define the term this way, but that is far removed from how the term was actually used before he began talking about it.

    “Sam, give up now.”

    Yeah, probably. But I’ll enjoy the posts, even if the comments set my teeth on edge.

  38. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I do not really want him to give up…this is just for me the theoretical equivalent of pearls before swine.

  39. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks, Chris H. and Julie, for your votes of confidence and interest. I hope not to disappoint.

  40. Jax on September 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I guess I don’t understand how you are using the term “justice” and “just society”.”

    That is the point freaking series!

    Sam, give up now.

    If that were the “freaking point” of the post, then he failed miserably. Nowhere in the OP does he define what he means by “just society.” He does tell us of the words origins

    The term “social justice” comes from 1840, when the Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli as he worked through the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas

    Also who uses it and why it is important

    As you look at Jesuit schools’ mission statements, you begin to understand how central social justice is to the Jesuit identity.

    He even tells us how mission of the people who use it and what inspired the term

    I teach at a Jesuit law school. Part of our mission is to “prepare graduates who will be ethical advocates for justice and the rule of law.” This social justice emphasis is inspired by the belief that each human being “deserves dignity and respect.”

    So unless your computer gives you paragraphs in the post that my computer, or Raymond Takashi Swenson’s computer leave out, then asking for the definition that he is using for the term seems more than fair AND seems like something a lawyer would want to include so that their was no confusion on what they were trying say.

  41. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Jax,

    This is an introductory post to a longer series on the topic. To be honest, the best explanation of social justice I know of is a 600 page book. This sounds as though this series will be philosophical in nature…yet many of you want this to be high school-level debate club.

  42. Bob on September 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Well, from my personal spot the Left_ I will take ownership of the idea of ‘Social Justice’.
    For PLM (or others) IMO__ it means not “redistributing personal property”, but redistributing the people’s property, (taken from them by the rich-not earned.), to all.
    How Marxist is that!

  43. me on September 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I think the phrase “redistrubuting wealth” is misunderstood by most people. It’s a buzz phrase for the right to condemn the left – but they fail to realize that the corporate tax cuts they favor is their own version redistribution. The left, as we know, is terrible with claiming/creating stong phrases – they need to get with it. I mean, really, the Affordable Care Act?

    Anyway, I’m very exicted for the post – and hope the comments down degenerate into Partisan bickering. Here’s to eductated discussion!

  44. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    me (43) wrote:

    the corporate tax cuts they favor is their own version redistribution

    Ooooh. Never heard it put that way.

    So, if I understand it from your perspective, then you might also say that paying unfair wages is also a forced redistribution of wealth from the worker to the capitalist?

    Wow. Turn those terms on their ear!

  45. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Chris H.,
    Do you mind sharing what book that is? Although I wish that the series could be philosophically-grounded, I don’t really have the chops for that. It will be more policy-grounded, although I’d appreciate any philosophical groundings/corrections/etc. that you (and others) could bring to the table.

    And can I just say, I love how even non-tax stuff that I write eventually comes around to tax? (Seriously—I absolutely love it!)

  46. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    “A Theory of Justice”

    Sam, philosophical by blog standards….you are more than up to the task.

  47. Jax on September 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    So, if I understand it from your perspective, then you might also say that paying unfair wages is also a forced redistribution of wealth from the worker to the capitalist?

    Wow. Turn those terms on their ear!

    Yep! Be sure to include the biblical warning to the capitalist against oppressing the hireling in his wages. It’s “redistribution” one way or the other. Capitalists favor it up the chain, socialists favor it down. I don’t know if tax cuts qualify though, and to be fair I don’t think the ‘right’ calls tax cuts to the poor redistribution. But giving money to them through welfare payments or corporate bailouts certainly do!

  48. me on September 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Sorry for all of the typos in my last comment. I hope my thoughts were discernible enough.

    Kent (44) – I’m not sure that I would say generally unfair wages are “forced” redistribution because the worker rarely has any say in the matter, but “unjust,” to fit the context of this OP, absolutely.

    Though to push it farther, however, I would discuss unfair wages as loosely and possibly “forced” by the legal mandate of the corporation, which is to make as much profit as possible.

    Either way, I don’t think the pejorative “redistribution of wealth” phrase should not be attached to the left becuase both of the current parties do it, just in different ways. And none of this assumes that it’s unjust.

  49. me on September 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    To correct another typo (in 48):

    Either way, I DON’T think the pejorative “redistribution of wealth” phrase should be attached to the left, becuase both of the current parties do it, just in different ways.

  50. ji on September 12, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Sam (no. 23) — “The upcoming posts aren’t going to spend any time exploring what “social justice” means; that’s solely the purpose of this post. Instead, they’ll look at various social problems and/or proposed solutions to social problems and try to figure out what insights we, as Mormons, can bring to bear on these problems (or, in some cases, question why we, as Mormons, would oppose certain solutions to the problems).”

    I usually don’t like it when some Mormons propose to speak for all Mormons. To me, it is better for each Mormon, acting individually or in small like-minded collective groups, to do what seems best to him or her. I think our own political or economic or social backgrounds color our thoughts on social justice more than our religion does.

  51. Chris H. on September 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    My religion is a pretty substantial part of my social and cultural background.

  52. clark on September 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Wow – what a sad lot of comments. Guys, you can disagree with the politics of social justice (I probably do) but it seems to me that the comments are really poor. Come on. Those who disagree get specific. Those who are just saying, “I don’t understand,” that’s fine but doesn’t really contribute much.

    Sam, you say, “it’s a religious concept, derived from scripture and Thomas Aquinas

    To what degree do you see it tied to Aquinas? Because I have to say that much of what I disagree with within Catholicism seems tied to Aquinas. (Say the view of birth control and sex) I confess that while Aquinas was a brilliant man that I have a pretty hard time reconciling his thought to Mormon thought.

    I think one can focus on justice and even accept that there are both personal and societal duties and responsibilities. However the form this takes, it seems to me, will vary based upon a whole slew of circumstances. I’m pretty unsympathetic to knee jerk reactions of “free choice” since it seems we have all sorts of programs people aren’t free to chose beyond the ballot box. Things like roads, particular wars, payments to research and development etc. Most people don’t mind this and I think few who attack social justice on these terms are actually Nozick styled Libertarians. That said, I do think that the concerns about freedom of various sorts do matter. Especially since a lot that appears to be social justice often has a strong social engineering aspect. I wonder how many of those doing the knee jerk “socialist” attack are open to say Milton Friedman’s negative income tax? (He was hardly a socialist)

  53. Kaimi Wenger on September 12, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Nicely done, Sam.

    I’ve previously poked fun at Beck’s over-the-top rhetoric about social justice. But this post really frames the topic and sets the stage for some good substantive discussion. Nicely done!

  54. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    clark,

    To what degree do you see it tied to Aquinas?

    I don’t know; I’m not familiar enough with Aquinas’s thought. I’m just providing derivation: from everything that I’ve read, Taparelli, the Jesuit who coined the phrase, based his ideas on Aquinas, and perhaps was trying to revive Aquinas’s thought. How social justice relates to Aquinas is (a) something I’d be dramatically interested in knowing (hint to all of you philosophers and historians!) and (b) well beyond my knowledge-base.

  55. Kaimi Wenger on September 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Also, Sam, have you seen Rebecca Van Uitert’s law review article about a Mormon approach to social justice? (Rebecca van Uitert, Undocumented Immigrants In The United States: A Discussion Of Catholic Social Thought And ‘Mormon Social Thought’ Principles, 46 J. Cath. L. Studies 277 (2007).) It’s very good, I thought. Becca went to law school at St. John’s, and her article draws quite a bit on Catholic social thought.

  56. N. on September 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    I see the term as being very religious, and not terribly political.

    I lived in the Bay Area and have seen many, many San Francisco-based anti-Republican political protests/rallies. You can’t throw a Not Dog 10 feet without hitting 3 people who have the phrase “Social Justice” on a sign, teeshirt, flyer, or in a chant. Not a Jesuit among them.

    So how you see the term may in fact be different than how other people see the term –regardless of the Aquinas/Jesuit/Catholic connection.

  57. Sam Brunson on September 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks, Kaimi. I haven’t seen it, but will definitely pull it up tomorrow.

    Many (though not all): I’m not terribly interested in the fact that you see more liberals than conservatives (or more conservatives than liberals) embrace the concept of “social justice.” What does interest me is your vision of how Mormonism can contribute to a just society. Or, if you object to a just society, why, what vision of society you subscribe to, and how Mormonism can lead to such a society.

  58. Yav on September 13, 2011 at 1:53 am

    Sam:

    I’d be interested in how you would present the following scripture in some practical way:

    But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. (D&C 49:20)

  59. Dan on September 13, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Chris,

    The top one describes everything from charitable giving to tithing to the atonement. The bottom one not so much. It as already been observed by some closer to the Lord than you or I (but we could and should hope for the same kind of witness) that one system is focused on rearranging materials to spark a change in society while another is focused on changing hearts that lead to the rearrangement of materials.

    I love the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, and Jesus himself never qualified how exactly we are to take care of the poor. Frankly, in our world today, the capitalist America is not doing as well as the “socialist” countries of Europe. Not only are the “socialist” countries of Europe providing full health care to all their citizens, doing their best to ensure no one is hungry, providing some of the best education in the world so that children grow up and become productive members of society, but their policies seem to also provide a better environment for small businesses to thrive in than ours does. To make a claim that we need less government programs for the poor, that that somehow helps the poor out better flies in the face of real life. I’m sorry, but the prophet you do not name, but we both know who that is, happens to be completely wrong on this issue, and I would tell that to his face, were he not passed on to the other life.

    The other nature of “social justice” is that there is an inherent bias in life toward those of different cultures, skin color, ethnicity, and even gender. Since society has proven it cannot correct such injustices without the force of law, how can one ensure a black man is not discriminated against because of the color of his skin? Or that a woman is discriminated against because of her gender? Even today, women are STILL paid less than men in equal jobs. Is there something about a woman that makes her less capable of doing a particular job? The “free market” does nothing to correct this. Jesus did not discriminate between men and women when he taught his principles, or when he performed his miracles. He treated all with equal respect, in a society that didn’t treat women equally. He was the world’s first feminist.

    There’s more to social justice than just helping the poor. It is a matter of changing society so that not only rich white men get the best out of life.

  60. John AC on September 13, 2011 at 11:17 am

    FWIW, the OED defines social justice as “justice at the level of a society or state as regards the possession of wealth, commodities, opportunities, and privileges,” and gives as its earliest citation a quotation from William Thompson’s Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness (1824). Thompson was an Irish political philosopher and early critic of capitalist exploitation, a big influence on Marx and Engels.

    Still, the term “social justice” was used more often in the nineteenth century by utilitarians in the vein of J.S. Mill, who were hardly interested in the kind of equalizing distributive policies that we might associate with the term today. I was a bit surprised that you located the term in Jesuit writing in 1840, Sam. I would have thought that its religious connotations came later, with liberation theology. All of which is to say that since its very inception the term has occasioned no small amount of disagreement.

    From my perspective, I would say that between 4 Nephi, Moses 7, and several revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, we have a pretty clear blueprint for what a just society should look like. No poor, basically equal distribution of wealth, unity of purpose in Christ. In terms of policy, I don’t see an easy way of extrapolating from ancient, non-capitalist societies to today (hence, I wouldn’t know what to say about the BoM or PoGP). On the other hand, I also think it’s significant that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were contemporaries of folks like Thompson and Marx. It would be a mistake to think that their solutions to the problems of exploitation and inequality were the same, but it would be IMO a worse mistake to ignore their very similar critiques.

  61. Tatiana on September 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I want to bring in what Paul Farmer says about the historical connections between the rich and poor countries, and extend it to the historical connections between rich and poor in the US, and particularly between black and white here.

    I realized when reading Pathologies of Power that what he says is completely true. The relations between rich and poor countries today (and also the relationship between blacks and whites in the US), simply cannot be understood in an ahistorical way. There’s a direct connection between the rich countries’ treatment of their colonies in the 17th, 18th, 19th c. and their wealth today. There’s a direction connection between slavery, Jim Crow, and all the wrongs done by whites to blacks in the 17th, 18th, and 19th c. and the greater poverty of black people today, and everything that comes with that level of poverty including the worse health outcomes, the greater violence black men experience, the higher unemployment rate, and on and on.

    We can’t just take this moment in history and see it as separate, and say we, as a society, don’t owe anyone anything. Of course we do!

    If what we’re striving for is a Zion society, if the whole earth is to become a good neighborhood, rather than looking more like the Horn of Africa does today, then we have to recognize why things are the way they are, what in history caused this situation, and how we can make political choices that will embed into the future some form of justice that rights those wrongs.

  62. Tatiana on September 13, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I guess underlining doesn’t work. The book Pathologies of Power by Dr. Paul Farmer, really opened my eyes, and I recommend it to everyone. Dr. Farmer is one of the founders of Partners in Health, the group that convinced the WHO that every person is a person, and that treatment for AIDS, MDR-TB, maternal health is worthwhile even if the person is poor. PIH also negotiated with the drug companies to get the price of AIDS drugs for the poor dropped by about 95%. They created the model of using paid community health workers effectively to deliver care to the poor which vastly improve outcomes. They bring in clean water projects, housing and agriculture projects, get local farmers to begin producing theraputic foods to treat malnutrition; in short, they do whatever it takes to treat the poor the same way they’d want to be treated or for their family to be treated.

    This book is amazing, and it developed within me a giant-sized feeling that we must, we absolutely must, address these things and fix them. The feeling I got was like a spiritual jolt of high voltage from above. The Egyptian goddess of protective wrath is named Sekhmet, and I felt something like her presence, like the rage of a billion mother bears to protect and nurture those billion infants and children growing up in poverty, violence, sickness, malnutrition, and ignorance. I felt the many millions of millstones weighing on all our necks for not doing something to make their circumstances better, for even contributing to the problem, albeit unwittingly.

    This power is vast and electrifying, and it’s coming into the world now. I deeply urge all of you to heed it.

  63. Mary B. on September 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    I recently read the book — Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. This book focuses on the difficulty that evangelicals are having in overcoming racial issues within their religion, in spite of their rhetoric of not being racist, there still exists a huge color and economic division among its congregations. The authors(non LDS) explore the evangelical belief that once your heart has changed to believe in Christ, all the social issues dividing people will simply disappear. Definitely, an inside out dynamic which LDS people will commend. However, the authors point out that the racisim still exists and is in fact growing among evangelicals, due to a lack of social direction and some kind of top down plan. I bring this up, not to divert the blog to digress into the differences between Mormons and Evangelicals regarding social justice, but merely to point out one well documented source that might give readers some food for thought. It is an interesting read that I think can give insight into the current discussion.

  64. Sam Brunson on September 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks, Mary. That sounds like an interesting book.