Social Justice, Free Markets, and Evangelicals
About This Event

What is the best way to help Americans in need? How we approach this question cuts to our core beliefs about how society should be rightly ordered. For some, the free market is the most natural tool to use in the fight against poverty because it fosters innovation and prosperity Listen to Audio

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while providing equal opportunity to all citizens. Others argue that social justice is best achieved through economic redistribution, in which a benevolent, centralized government levels the playing field and ensures equal results for all citizens. If the free market is the most efficient way to deliver goods and services across the American economy, does the risk of economic inequality make it unjust? If the idealism of social justice stifles economic growth through policies designed to ensure similar outcomes for all, does it take mobility and opportunity from the very people it is trying to save? Society often portrays mercy and equality as goals that conflict with innovation and efficiency. But is it true that free markets are incompatible with social justice?

At this event, Marvin Olasky will discuss the false dichotomy between freedom and justice and offer his ideas on reconciling these aims. Olasky is editor-in-chief of
WORLD Magazine, provost of the King's College, professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of over thirteen books of history and cultural analysis. He will be joined by James W. Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice. AEI's Henry Olsen will moderate.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, JUNE 24, 2009--Two leading evangelical Christian thinkers engaged the relationship of "social justice" and freedom at AEI on June 23. The term, usually found in Roman Catholic or liberal Protestant discourse on public policy, is gaining currency among evangelicals. Marvin Olasky, the provost of the King's College and editor of World magazine, found "inherent problems" with the term, arguing that social justice obscures the biblical understanding of justice as righteousness done from one individual to another. James W. Skillen, the president of the Center for Public Justice, said that institutions have responsibilities too, including the government, whose responsibility is the enforcement of individuals' responsibilities.

"Social justice" is usually used to refer to justice beyond that adjudicated in a court of law. Thus, for example, the poor may be given benefits or thought to have rights beyond those which are accorded to them in law in order to achieve equity or reduce poverty. Olasky opened with a roundabout critique of the nebulousness of the concept. He quoted President Obama's Father's Day remarks: "That doesn't mean that I didn't feel my father's absence. That's something that leaves a hole in a child's heart that a government can't fill." Olasky asked: "Is there any injustice greater than that inflicted on a child than not having a father?" He then attributed the breakdown in fatherhood to social welfare policies that were enacted in the pursuit of social justice.

Olasky then turned to the biblical concept of justice, which he said is closely linked to righteousness. Justice also happens in relationships: parent and child, husband and wife, employee and employer. "What, then, is the role of government in all this?" he asked. "A government that promotes strong families and marriages can be seen to be promoting justice; we may even call that social justice." Moreover, Olasky added, social justice programs can crowd out opportunities for civil society--individuals, churches, civic organizations--to act with justice, just as public assistance has crowded out many forms of charity.

"Love is slower than revolution," Olasky added. "But justice, person by person, family by family, is what changes lives."

Skillen agreed with Olasky that "social justice" lacks definition. "It is too broad and undifferentiated a term," he said. He prefers "public justice," which is rooted in the question of who's responsible for what. He contended with Olasky's view of justice as strictly between individuals: "There is a lot more to human society than that and that begins to get at the issue of social justice. . . . The political community--its job is to do public justice." It does this first by identifying the responsibilities of individuals and institutions and making sure they do them. Skillen, a student of Christian Democracy in Europe, adapted Dutch theologian-politican Abraham Kuyper's concept of "sphere sovereignty" as "spheres of responsibility." Within its sphere, "the political community is precisely called to do justice." Skillen applied this concept in response to a question from Cato Institute chairman Bill Niskanen about justice and the recent government interventions in the private economy. The bailouts are outside of government responsibilities and are an imposition on private enterprise, Skillen replied, making them a "public injustice."

Olasky traced the provenance of social justice. It originated in Roman Catholic social thought in the late nineteenth century, he said, especially in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. The phrase came to the United States in the 1930s with Charles Coughlin, who became famous as "Father Coughlin" for his radio sermons. The left adopted the term widely in the 1960s, Olasky said.

AEI has a long history of supporting research into the religious and philosophical moorings of public policy. In the 1970s, then-AEI president William Baroody Sr. invited Michael Novak to take up residence at the Institute, where Novak authored The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and later received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The June 23 discussion, moderator Henry Olsen said, is the first event as part of AEI's Program on American Values and Capitalism, which will engage evangelicals and evangelical thought in debates about policy.




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Speaker biographies

Marvin Olasky is the editor-in-chief of the national news magazine World, provost of the King's College, and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written thirteen books of history and cultural analysis, including Compassionate Conservatism (Simon and Schuster, 2000), The American Leadership Tradition (Free Press, 1999), The Religions Next Door (B&H Publishing Group, 2004), and The Tragedy of American Compassion (Regnery Gateway, 1992). Mr. Olasky has also coauthored seven more books (including the recent Monkey Business), written seven monographs, and served as general editor of the Turning Point Christian Worldview series from Crossway Books.

Henry Olsen is a vice president and director of the National Research Initiative (NRI) at AEI. He disseminates and publicizes the Institute’s work to the academic community; works with AEI’s visiting, adjunct, and NRI research fellows; commissions and supervises NRI projects; and oversees the production of NRI publications. Mr. Olsen was previously vice president for programs at the Manhattan Institute and a judicial clerk to the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Danny J. Boggs.

James W. Skillen is the president of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). He assumed the role of executive director at CPJ in 1981, a position he held until becoming president in 2000. Mr. Skillen edits CPJ’s biweekly Capital Commentary and occasional Root & Branch, and he edited the quarterly Public Justice Report until its final issue in 2007. His books include With or Against the World? America’s Role Among the Nations (Rowman & Littlefield and CPJ, 2005), In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (Rowman & Littlefield and CPJ, 2004), and A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (CRC Publications and CPJ, 2000).

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  • Henry Olsen, a lawyer by training, is the director of AEI's National Research Initiative. In that capacity, he identifies leading academics and public intellectuals who work in an aspect of domestic public policy and recruits them to visit or write for AEI. Mr. Olsen studies and writes about the policy and political implications of long-term trends in social, economic, and political thought.
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