Saturday, January 2, 2010

Define Social Justice.

The infamous Kathryn Lopez writes at that Teddy Kennedy and the left don't own social justice. Jack Kemp, who also died last year, also stood up for social justice. But Lopez is only promoting the right's version of social justice, a strain of the conservative movement that saw "compassion" as a way to shore up the support of the socially concerned - and to impose religious restrictions on "the least of these," an easy target because of their vulnerability in society. They sought/seek to reframe social justice as a patriarchal, religiously dictated approach to serving the poor, the undereducated, the unemployed. And doing so feels good! It means you can pat yourself on the back for your superiority.

I have no interest in painting a left-right, good-evil argument as Lopez does (based on "family values" and the "killing of the unborn.") Both sides of the legislative fence have instituted noble and ill-serving social policies. Many churches, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, work for the good of the underprivileged and have stood up for health care for immigrants, for instance. Churches do often make a difference for those in need. But when assistance is given with prayer strings attached, it takes the poor hostage. Prayer for food; the belief of the giver in exchanged for what is received.

When social justice is framed as paternalistic "charity" and comes with a strict religious or ideological concept of what lifestyles are acceptable, it becomes patronizing discrimination. Concern for unwed mothers, as noted below, is a good thing when absent the judgement of black women for "having out of wedlock sex" or black men for not marrying their girlfriends. There's nothing the matter with having a child out of wedlock unless you ascribe to a lifestyle view that determines marriage an answer to social problems. Or abstinence an answer to unwanted pregnancy. Such positions approach social challenges with ideological answers, answers that are found in traditional ideas of "life" and family structure and personal responsibility but have little to do with fact and autonomy.

Lopez seems to believe that enforcing traditional, religious laws on the underprivileged will return us to a golden day when all Americans were equal. That day never existed, nor will it. She is willfully ignoring personal freedom of faith and conflating it with poverty. Call it "spiritual poverty."

Our last president worked hard to paint his administration as "compassionate." To prove that compassion, he brought in faith-based initiatives and solutions to social challenges such as abstinence education which have again and again proven ineffective.

True, effective social justice is not the imposition of traditional or religious ideology on the poor. It is a fact-based use of the government's resources and laws to create equality. It is not an excuse to discriminate against lifestyle choices. Until the right gets that straight, they are still working to impose restrictions on segments of society they find lesser and distasteful, not lifting them.

And so right now the world may consider social justice a monopoly of the left. But it's not. The left's dominance over justice issues is a contention that deserves to be challenged. And the challenge has been laid down. It even has a Web site,, organized by the Heritage Foundation, and featuring a broad list of contributing organizations, where one can read: “We're troubled that four out of 10 children and nearly seven out of 10 black children in America are born to unmarried mothers, a fact that will cast a long shadow down the course of a child's life.”

They worry that the supposed answers to poverty have turned into an industry with little connection to the people it claims to serve - and they're concerned that government has eliminated the essential relationships in the solution-making process. At the same time, Jeff Kemp warns: “Our ideas seem very principled and pure. But if we treat ourselves as if we have our act together and are the paragons of virtue and everyone can get it because we've got these good ideas, then we've set ourselves above others and no one wants to learn from someone who's setting themselves above others. It's humility that allows your ideas to be transferred.”

That was Jack Kemp's approach. It's also what Ronald Reagan did when he attracted so many so-called Reagan Democrats. It's how you win, and not just elections. It's how you change the world.

“The character of a nation is determined by how we treat the least of God's children,” was a guiding principle by which Kemp operated, as Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise explained during the Kemp forum. That's only right.

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