There, I Said It: Religious Social Justice Activists Often Have No Idea What Causes Poverty

Earlier this month, I noticed Glenn Beck of Fox and Jim Wallis of Sojourner’s were crossing swords over the topic of social justice and the Bible. Beck got things started on his radio show when he said, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words…If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish.”

Wallis, however, really frightened me with his suggestion that one could wrap yourself in the Christian faith to promote cold, anti-capitalist propaganda.  “Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches,” remarked Wallis, “so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck…what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.”

“When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor,” said Wallis, “you don’t want to hear about economic justice.”

I’m glad Glenn Beck is calling attention to something I have found annoying about the Christian churches (mostly Southern Baptist) which I have attended over the years – a certain tendency to swap socially accepted ideas that the rich harm the poor for contemporary social science perspectives that trace poverty to easily understood individual or family-level variables like child labor, lack of schooling, drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy, failure to save and invest, inappropriate single-parenting and so on. 

I was flabbergasted back in 2005 when my Southern Baptist church signed on to the famous ONE Campaign which had the goal of changing government policies to save lives in Africa.  The group included a broad coalition of religious and political leaders such as Live 8’s Bob Geldof, U2’s Bono, Jars of Clay, Kanye West, Rick Warren and Pat Robertson.  This eclectic group endorsed policies which – from the perspective of a political scientist – would lead to a measurable worsening of poverty including: 1) Doubling financial aid sent to the world’s poorest countries, 2) Debt cancellation for the poorest nations and 3) Reform of trade laws so poor nations are not shut out of global markets.

As a political scientist, I found this whole “social justice” theme – generally soak the rich, in disguise – appalling and destructive to genuinely valuable efforts to end global poverty. 

In my view, for example, I think efforts to abolish child labor and enforce compulsory schooling in America and Europe have been infinitely more successful in ending poverty and promoting economic development/modernization, than any scheme of redistribution which would have caused poor parents to avoid cutting loose from their dependence on child labor as a form of social security, disability insurance and cheap agricultural/sweatshop labor.  In some countries, our contemporary view that the parents should support their children is turned upside down so much that poor parents routinely seek to profit from their offspring by selling them into sexual slavery or work camp environments. 

Hopefully, the efforts of folks like Glenn Beck will assist in getting out the word that the activists pursuing “social justice” often have limited and unrealistic understandings of the simple, controllable things that cause global poverty – things that could be fixed with condoms and child labor laws – instead socialist schemes that redistribute the wealth.  Otherwise, we are likely to see another generation of religious, “social justice” pioneers miss the causal factors of poverty that are right in front of their very eyes – parents and government too calloused to see that they create and maintain their own poverty through the abuse and mistreatment of their most vulnerable fellow citizens – their children.