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Does Social Justice Really Have to Divide Us?

Are there understandings of social justice that would help us unite around its aspirations—rather than continue fighting over it?

Last month, Rebecca Taylor published concerns about ways she argued “critical social justice ideology” conflicts with Christian teachings (“Why Latter-day Saints should be Concerned about Social Justice Ideology”)

Days later, James Jones published a response attempting to rebut her arguments and asserting that same social justice as reflecting the beating heart of Christian teaching.     

So, who is right?  Is social justice God’s great hope for America?  Or a threat to the America God has ordained?  

Perhaps the answer depends on what exactly we mean by “social justice.”

While social justice carries strong connotations in the prevailing discourse, the phrase has come to mean very different things. Not only are there meaningful disagreements among those openly advocating for social justice, but the phrase has also taken on other meanings for those with concerns.  Add to this a rich history of different influences on the concept throughout history, and no wonder there is so much confusion and contention around the concept.

We believe that acknowledging the range of these meanings might introduce space for a bigger conversation—one less focused on trying to cleanly fit “social justice” (as popularly defined) into the gospel of Christ—or in the other direction, primarily fighting those trying to do so.  As an alternative to both sides of this fight, this would encourage more exploration around which of the various perspectives on social justice we can or should accept and which we must reject. 

What could we learn in such a conversation?  And what could we see that we aren’t seeing yet?  

Reclaiming an earlier definition.  The phrase “social justice” is at least as old as the United States, even appearing in the Federalist papers, where Alexander Hamilton warned of violence that might arise with state-level “breaches of moral obligation and social justice.”

The term became more widely popularized in 1931 by Pope Pius XI.  In the 2015 text Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, Catholic authors Paul Adams and Michael Novak examine earlier meanings of the term in philosophy and Catholic social teaching—tracing its development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to concerns over industrialization and overreaching government control. These earlier understandings of the term were more closely tied to the just relationship between individuals and society—and associated duties of each. At the time, Pius XI tried to advance these interests by being willing to work with labor organizations to ensure fair wages for workers. 

These roots in American history and a religious focus on helping the “least of these” make it clear there’s greater potential for an embrace of social justice by the faithful than we might realize.  

Rather than consider ways to embrace or support it, however, social justice has come to be increasingly associated by many on the political right with voices on the political left that seem radical and dangerous. There are obvious reasons for this.  With some invoking social justice to justify looting and the tearing down of public statues, it’s clear that orthodox believers cannot accept every interpretation of the movement uncritically.

Yet we wonder:  What would a social justice look like with the gospel of Jesus Christ as its foundational starting point? Is there another kind of conversation about social justice that wouldn’t feel so threatening to orthodox believers?  

In a fascinating article earlier this year, “Reclaiming Social Justice,” Andy Smarick and Bruno Manno call attention to an “alternative understanding of social justice”—one that “has roots in a set of principles often embraced by conservatives” and that “is especially well-suited to helping the nation address many of today’s most troubling challenges.”

Given the heightened suspicion held by many conservatives on the matter—and a belief that social justice is intrinsically part of a left-wing agenda—we believe these other ideas are worth considering. Smarick and Manno go on to note, “the origins and implications of the more conservative understanding [of social justice] seem to have been mostly forgotten or neglected,” calling for these overlooked understandings to be “elevated in our public discussions” and proposing that “it’s time for conservatives to explain this approach and articulate an agenda for the future based on it.”  

What might this alternative view look like in our day?  And how might it overlap with and productively expand public views on the subject?  We’ve been thinking a lot about this alternative view—and what a broader conversation about social justice might mean.  Without pretending to any sort of comprehensiveness, we consider in what follows three distinctive perspectives on social justice underscored by these conservative voices—surfacing elements often lost in our discourse today, which might be reassuring to orthodox believers wanting some way to show more support for improved social justice in the world.         

  1. A social responsibility that begins with individual responsibility.

Pope Pius XI spent much of his ministry working at the organizational and systemic levels to address injustice. But he coupled this message with one that focused on the role of each individual in creating this environment. This is hardly a unique challenge for believers. In thousands of sermons on a typical Sunday, many believers hear a question like:  What more can you do to improve the lot of those around you? 

While acknowledging the value of correcting and improving systems, Rebecca Taylor writes, “Critical social justice ideology encourages people to blame problems on oppressive systems rather than building resilience and recognizing one’s own capability and worth.”

For a person cannot contribute to a well working society if they do not have the means to support themselves first.

Once larger attention goes to what’s taking place outside and around us, it’s only natural that less attention goes to what’s taking place inside us all.  And it’s likely Christian believers will always struggle to embrace ideas that leave out the kind of personal repentance at the heart of the gospel of Christ (something not exclusive to disciples of Jesus, since other faith traditions also focus heavily on personal choice and action). 

This is not to diminish, of course, those who are working to make improvements through awareness and advocacy effortswhich can be important ways of exercising individual responsibility to improve the world as well.  It is important to remember that our Savior condemned the powerful, and ate supper with the downtrodden. But His message to both was the same, “Sin no more.”

To those who see society overflowing with racial injustice, however, any effort to refocus attention on personal responsibility may sound like a three-year-old aggressor trying to avert blame by claiming “it all started when he hit me back.” From this vantage point, however, the call for personal responsibility is not an excuse to ignore social justice, but rather an imperative to find healthy ways to work towards it. And for those who reference individual responsibility as a way to end the conversation, we might well ask why those personal efforts could not also be used to alleviate burdens of inequality around us in the world?  Indeed, Pius XI’s own conception of individual responsibility not only meant the responsibility of the individual to society but of society to the individual. For a person cannot contribute to a well working society if they do not have the means to support themselves first.

Rather than becoming an excuse to ignore personal responsibility, James Jones describes how injustices motivated his own family to excel more

Both of my parents knew racism existed just like I do, and they, like many other Black parents of that generation, taught me, as their parents did, that I need to be twice as good to get half as far. If you repeat the first half of that phrase to any Black person over 40, they’ll be able to finish it. Why? Because…despite their best efforts and talent, they would too often be overlooked for the best opportunities solely based on the color of their skin. There’s no evidence that being told such a thing would make us try less hard, be less self-reliant, or be injured in any way. If anything, the opposite is true. Knowing the odds, we work even harder and are even more self-reliant because doing otherwise would all but guarantee defeat. 

  1. Systemic concerns that consider the many influences on the whole system. 

We’ve seen concerns with systemic racism dismissed more and more by some on the right.  This is unfortunate, because there is a legitimate conversation to be had about overlooked ways that slavery’s effects have rippled throughout time. 

It’s also true that larger inequities continue today, and shouldn’t be ignored. In explaining the concept of social justice, Pope Pius XI considered a hypothetical Christian business owner wishing to pay better wages, but saddled by “an unjust economic regime whose ruinous influence has been felt through many generations.”

Ultimately, solutions to systemic problems like this clearly go beyond personal changes to necessary adjustments to the systemjust as we’re seeing proposed today. Much of the urgency of these ongoing racial justice efforts, then, is understandable.  

Yet it’s also true that larger rhetoric today can at times oversimplify to the point of making everything about race, class, or gender inequities.  Starting with the “view that much of society is flawed or expressly unjust,” Smarick and Manno note how these well-intentioned efforts can “prove divisive by weakening trust in institutions, traditions, and norms.”

They continue, “By indicting so much of our economic and social life, this vision of social justice implicates the organizations, beliefs, practices, and relationships that many of us appreciate and rely on.”

A broader view of social justice might well call for greater patience in the effort to aspire for it as well.  It was Luigi Taparelli who first introduced the idea of social justice into religious philosophy and who saw the path towards social justice as ultimately iterative—thus, cautioning against those tempted to throw out the existing system entirely.  For instance, Taparelli looked at the then-recent French Revolution with its cries for what might today be described as social justice and recognized that it fundamentally failed to achieve it. 

Is it possible to acknowledge systemic challenges along with fair acknowledgment of the social benefits these same systems have ensured to date? Can we call for important changes without demanding perilous upheaval? 

We think so.  Serious efforts to improve racial equity have not and do not require deconstructing the entire American system.  

  1. Social justice efforts taking for granted the fundamental unity of humankind. 

When it comes to a vision aspiring for such societal improvement, why do social justice efforts seem to generate so much conflict?  Is such division essential to the pursuit of social justice—or a barrier that stands in its way?  

There’s a strong argument that much of this conflict comes from a more modern interloper—critical theory.  After acknowledging many legitimate questions and concerns of activists today, Rebecca Taylor wrote, “Critical social justice ideology is the worldview presented as the one true way to interpret these concerns”—even the “only way to interpret and respond to racial problems.” 

Dr. Richard Williams also recently detailed ways in which critical theory has come to infuse modern social justice efforts.  As Smarick and Manno write, this rhetoric, “separates individuals into groups—the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the unprivileged—who then, understandably, see themselves as antagonists instead of partners in a joint enterprise.” They add, “When this kind of social-justice language is at its most zealous, it can make civility, cooperation, and accommodation seem like part of the problem.”

Although it’s true that civility can, at times, suppress open discussion of frustrations, this doesn’t make the aspiration of civility a problem itself.  Heaven knows we still need to hold onto respect, cooperation and space for disagreement. 

Smarick and Manno go on to note that whereas prevailing views “can imply that the only way to solve our problems is through the ‘correct’ vision of justice and swift, uncompromising, uniform interventions,” it also seems clear that the appropriate solutions are diverse and varied according to local needs. That means space and flexibility are needed to hear out—and seek compromise—among different perspectives.

Including this one:  that it’s entirely possible to embrace social justice while rejecting the divisive critical theory it is often packaged in today. This would allow us to better acknowledge concerns about injustice without descending into bitter antagonism. 

The best path to pursue better justice would come not from increasing division.


When starting from a place of Christian social responsibility (rather than critical theory), we might better appreciate the extent to which a  path to pursue greater justice in the world comes not from heightening division, but from working towards greater and deeper unity. 

As the Lord told the Saints early on, “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.”  From this vantage point, it is through a sense of unity that we feel enough of an obligation to our fellow man that we are inspired to work towards more equity and justice. 

And it works the other way too. In a follow-up essay to his Theory of Justice, John Rawls suggests that a shared sense of justice helps produce social unity. 

The aspiration for greater equity is important to Latter-day Saints, who were also counseled early in their history that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”  Rather than see this as a Utopian abstraction, we are inspired by the complete absence of poverty and violence that followed Jesus’ visit to the Americas in the Book of Mormon. This represents a beautiful model of a socially just community.  In striking contrast with the many conflicts among peoples prior to that period (who had differentiated themselves by labels like Nephites, Lamanites, etc.), 4 Nephi reports that there were not “any manner of -ites; but they were in one.”

A social justice everyone can get excited about? 

In conclusion, some well-intentioned voices seem a bit too eager to fit their ideas about social justice into the gospel.  In their enthusiasm for a goodness of fit, we see some of these people de-emphasizing certain aspects of the gospel—while highlighting others.  Like ancient enthusiasm for melding Greek philosophy into a newly Hellenized Christianity, it has seemed at times as if a different kind of gospel is being proposed to try and accommodate social justice. 

Those who push back on these efforts are right to do so—but too often make other errors in the opposite direction. What if we got a little more curious about how we might legitimately embrace certain elements of social justice without “wresting” the scriptures and deforming the teachings of Christ in any way?  

Among other things, this may highlight a path forward out of the all-or-nothing debates about embracing or dismissing social justice entirely.  

In place of that, we might explore ways our faith compels us to support social justice aspirations—ways it might require us to resist it—and how our perspective and tradition might contribute to and improve this emergent force?

When developed further, these lines of inquiry may clarify a vision of social justice that both compels believers to action and preserves essential gospel teachings—while reflecting valuable overlap with more secular visions. As Smarick and Manno write, “Because both progressive and conservative approaches to social justice aim for fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is overlap between them.”

Is there a “common cause” to be found about social justice among the right and left, as they go on to propose?  

If so, we’re all missing it today in our fractious back and forth on the topic.  By starting from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we believe that space for potential unity becomes much more clear.

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