What is a Just Politics?

This past weekend the Center For Cultural Leadership held our annual West Coast symposium, this year on the topic of "social justice." These are my prepared remarks, which were then followed by a stimulating group conversation. Sadly, to get in on that you need an invitation. Support CCL and you just might get one next year!

You may well be scratching your head at the (assigned) title of my presentation: “What is a Just Politics?” From a conventional perspective it sounds like asking “What is a square circle?” or “What is a four-sided triangle?” It seems oxymoronic because politics is usually the art of compromise; it is how we organize society without killing each other. The search for purity or rectitude in politics thus seems a bit like a fool’s errand. (Something Libertarians and certain Tea-Party types might need to reflect on.)

However, justice is conformity to a standard, and the fact is that in a constitutional republic there are standards for politics, standards sets forth in our foundational documents. And at a mere superficial level there are ways our politics conceivably deviates from those standards. For one example, a somewhat pressing need in our system is better protection for the integrity of our voting system. It is unconscionable that Iraq or a backwater, Stone-Age country like Afghanistan holds more transparent elections than the United States of America. They ink-stain the fingers of people who voted. They seem actually committed to the principle of “one person, one vote.” Moreover, not requiring identification to vote is a key ingredient for an “unjust” politics. Few things are more bizarre than this gaping hole in America’s electoral procedure. You need an ID to buy a beer or board an airplane, but not to help steer the direction of the country? It is so absurd it is no wonder the only counter-argument is to talk about the red-herring of racism. (And, by the way, what could possibly be more racist than to suggest that black people are incapable of having ID?)

But those are mere procedural concerns with respect to our politics. They do erode the justice of our political system, but they are but surface issues. The more important worries are decidedly more subterranean and ideological. They clearly emerge with our current infatuation with something called “social justice.” 

Indeed, the rhetoric of politics in our time gives the illusion that we care deeply about justice. No proposed government action, no civic action, no corporate mission statement, is complete without affirming our commitment to something called “social justice.” It’s a concept so vague Jonah Goldberg’s definition is probably the best we can do: Social justice is just a euphemism for “do-goodery.” It is an “empty vessel to be filled with any and all leftist ideals, and then promptly wielded as a political bludgeon against any and all dissenters.” 

And the real problem is that it quite literally champions injustice in the name of its opposite. Let me explain.

Over half a century ago C.S. Lewis wrote a breathtaking essay called, “On the Humanitarian Theory of Justice.” His concern was specifically related to criminal law and the untethering of “justice” from the concept of “punishment” or “just desserts.” Instead of retribution, the humanitarian theory is concerned with “rehabilitation.” Instead of talk of “punishment” we should talk with the nicer, more loving vocabulary of “therapy.” Lewis pointed out that if criminal sanctions are divorced from the concept of what we actually “deserve,” if we abandon, in other words, the concept of Lex Talionis (“Eye for an eye,” arguably the most foundational legal maxim in human civilization), the result will be unimaginable tyranny. For the “sanction” of undergoing therapy (or “sensitivity training” or re-education camps) will be just as coerced as a prison sentence; only those carrying it out will be therapists and doctors doing it for “our own good,” and its duration will be unknown and completely arbitrary. Paying off restitution is a pretty simple formula: getting “cured” is wholly in the eyes of the one doing the curing.

The notion of “social justice” as it is used today is simply the civil law correlary to Lewis’s criminal law context. Like the “humanitarian” theory Lewis’s battled, we view justice as not a matter of ethics but ontology. That is, instead of viewing justice as a matter of human behavior or rectifying the consequences of wrongful actions between man and man, justice is now about rectifying states of affairs that have no perpetrator. We all know the concept of a “victimless crime.” We are now obsessed with the novel concept of a “perpetratorless crime.” Think of it: we are a society of victims—victims of “structural” or “institutional” injustices, racism, so-called “micro-aggressions” (a vogue term meaning “having your feelings hurt”), bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, discrimination, poverty—but we are woefully short of actual perpetrators. Who, exactly, is responsible for these social “injustices”? What have they done? What should their sentence be? Who will impose it?” We are talking about allegedly “unjust” states of affairs with no one in particular committing any actual observable injustices. When justice is conceived in other than retributive terms, it becomes an instrument of raw, arbitrary tyranny.

The reality is that there are, for lack of a better term, societal outcomes that are “natural.” They are simply the outworkings or products of free human interactions. The economic inequities produced by a free market, for example, are the result of factors so numerous they are, for all practical purposes, infinite. Personal choices, good or bad, wise or foolish, the social status one is born into, whether educational opportunities are pursued, the presence or absence of good role models—all these things contribute to a variety of outcomes in life. Outcomes for which nobody in particular is “at fault.” Yet advocates of social justice contend that we must rectify these sorts of natural outcomes. And to do that, a perpetrator must be identified and forced to pay the necessary restitution. In the case of the “social justice” issue of poverty, the obvious culprit should be those who aren’t poor. The “injustice” is ontological, a state of affairs, not ethical, the result of a person being wronged. But finding someone blameworthy in these sorts of natural societal outcomes becomes something completely arbitrary. Punishing a successful person simply because he’s successful and, well, available, is a strange notion of “justice.” Historically, one would call punishing somebody not guilty of a crime “injustice.” But if it is done with the right motives—that is, if it supplies the remedy for social injustice—it is a matter of (as our President once put it) “basic fairness.”

We ought to see that this drive for social justice is, at bottom, a theological impulse. What the advocates of social justice are really saying is that natural outcomes—that is, outcomes not produced by actual culpable human behavior—are intolerable. These outcomes must be smoothed out and made more equitable. In other words, it is not “injustice” that makes them unhappy; it is the providence of God with which they are unsatisfied. The sovereignty of God in their view is producing the wrong outcomes. We know better. More than that, this is an attack of the ethical goodness of God; he is either incompetent or morally perverse. Our moral sense must gain priority over his.

So the solution is what it has always been in the progressive view of things. Since Hegel modern progressivism has clearly understood that the State must embody the divine; the State must replace God and become its own providence, ordering all things to suit its whims.

But the State is not God. It doesn’t have the goodness, the omniscience, nor the omnipotence to justly order all natural societal outcomes. And when it tries, it should not surprise us that it makes a mess of things. Idols always do a very bad job playing God. In this case the State must find someone to bear the brunt of the “restitution” necessary, and by definition this must be something arbitrary—or, to put a fine point on it, something unjust. So the rich man—or, even more in vogue, the hateful, bigoted Christian must be made to pay for the injustice and disorder hindering our egalitarian utopia, even if he or she isn’t guilty of anything in particular. A Christian baker forced to attend “sensitivity training,” a Christian photographer put out of business, a Christian florist who loses her livelihood, all are made the scapegoat in the literal Old Testament sense of the term. We will lay our sins on them and they must be exiled to pay for our “social injustices.”

It is almost enough to remind us of another time and place where a civil authority fancied itself divine. The Roman Empire was itself wracked with social disorder and then, as now, it was members of the Christian community that were made scapegoats. They were enemies of humanity for not acknowledging and worshiping the State as God and bowing to its efforts to effect the “common good”—efforts that involved, among other things, the eradication of “undesirables.” The parallels are uncanny. We, too, have been declared enemies of humanity, no less by a sitting “Justice” of the United State Supreme Court for not bowing to the State’s whims. A reporter for the newspaper of record, The New York Times, says that we must be “stamped out, ruthlessly.” Given that the collective memory of life under Nero still exists, we might nervously wonder what he means by “ruthlessly.”

On the surface, this is all quite depressing. The word justice has been co-opted and put into service as its very opposite: the righting of every imaginable “wrong” by way of sacrifice—not blood sacrifice, yet, thankfully, but sacrifice nonetheless. And it is only going to get worse before it gets better.

But there is a silver lining, something to encourage us. Whenever an idolatrous State starts blaming Christians, specifically, for hindering its social justice aims, history indicates that we are doing something very right. 

And, contrary to those who constantly claim to be on the “right side of history,” history actually tells us who wins in the end. And it isn’t them.

Jesus on Trial, by David Limbaugh

Today marks the release of author David Limbaugh's new book, Jesus on Trial: A Lawyer Affirms the Truth of the Gospel, published by Regnery Publishing. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about the book for our inaugural episode of True North With Dr. Brian Mattson, which will air shortly on Dead Reckoning Digital Network. (Stay tuned!)

Amazingly, an hour is not enough time to have a conversation equal to the ambitions of the book itself. It is that wide-ranging. I thought I might follow up with a short review of the book.

Jesus on Trial is an unexpected book from an unexpected author. An unexpected book because it comes from Regnery -- not exactly known for its library of religiously oriented titles. And, moreover, it isn't just a "religious" title. It is a full-throated, unapologetic, and spirited intellectual defense of believing in Jesus Christ for your personal salvation. Not a lot of hmm-ing and haw-ing; not many "it seems to me's" or "perhapses." It is confident, straightforward, and completely unashamed. A surprisingly controversial offering from Regnery in our increasingly post-Christian times.

An unexpected author because David Limbaugh admittedly has no special credentials in the fields the book covers: theology, history, philosophy, science, and apologetics. His credentials are that he himself is a person who has been converted from a skeptical mindset to faith in Jesus. The book is an explanation of many, many of the factors that played into his gradual acceptance of the Bible's claims, and he feels that perhaps these factors might play a similar role for many like him. This is a highly admirable endeavor, and the personal biographical element (one which I feel lamentably got "lost" a bit in the center of the book--I sense both from the book and my interview that he isn't really comfortable talking about himself) is one of its most compelling features.

Here are some positives and negatives, in that order:

Credentials, schrementials. Limbaugh enlists the testimony of a wide variety of intellectuals to make his case, many who are well-known and gifted Christian apologists. I am impressed by his ecumenicity. Limbaugh is not easily pigeon-holed into just one particular backwater brand of Christianity: he's learned from Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, and Reformed writers, although he's not shy about saying where he disagrees.

But more than anything, this book simply abounds with the Bible. Indeed, at first glance it sort of takes your breath away: is he really going to quote all these verses? Yes. He is. Every last one of them. I wryly remarked to him that this book has more Bible, page-for-page, than anything Crossway has ever published! That's because he refuses to just give a citation to a Bible verse. And there's a method to that madness: in David's experience, and my own, biblical literacy among skeptics is uniformly abysmal. That's not a personal insult; it is just reality. Far too many people (Limbaugh in early days included) are too lazy to pick up a Bible to look up a reference. Many wouldn't know how if they wanted to. Limbaugh rightly senses that for many readers this is the first time they will actually read the biblical text. So he quotes the Bible, a lot, trusting that it is the voice of God himself. Bravo. And bravo to his publisher for letting him do it.

Readers acquainted with standard Christian apologetics texts of the Norman Geisler/Josh McDowell sort will find much of Limbaugh's work familiar. He admits as much. His goal is to take some of this "standard" fare to audiences the typical apologetic crowd doesn't much mingle with. But there is actually something fairly different here: Limbaugh doesn't just have a passion for apologetics, evidences, and arguments; he has a passion for theology. Much (but not all) of the book is a marriage between apologetics and theology. In the first part of the book, for example, he is the kind of author who cannot talk about the fact of, say, the resurrection of Jesus Christ without also talking about the astounding theological significance of it. In this regard, he is, in my view, much more in accord with Apostolic apologetics than a lot of "classical" apologists in the Christian tradition (e.g., Paul's reference to the resurrection in Athens in Acts 17 is a theological argument, not strictly an empirical one). Unfortunately, later in the book this theological component all but disappears in the actual chapter on the resurrection. We get a lot on the "fact" of the resurrection without a word of its meaning. (More on this below, but this is one of the ways the tradition of apologetics that--happily--greatly influenced him has actually underserved him.)

Finally, the openly evangelistic character of the book is incredibly refreshing. Here is somebody who believes what he writes, has the courage of his convictions, and cares enough about his readers to not leave them ambivalent. He openly challenges his skeptical readers to dig in, to seek the truth, to study further, to ask questions. In a twist on Pascal's wager he argues that they have nothing to lose and everything (a good education, at very least) to gain.

Limbaugh does a fine job debunking the truly absurd narrative that somehow Christian faith is an anti-intellectual affair. It is, in fact, the intellectual faith par excellence.

A good review includes downsides, so I'll offer a few here, admittedly from the perspective of a professional theologian. So they may not be exactly "fair" to the kind of book and author I'm addressing. But I'll offer them anyway.

The "missing footnote" criticism is notoriously dodgy since it amounts to "The author didn't write the book would have written." Nevertheless, I longed for more Francis Schaeffer than the very brief section on pp.259-60. In my view Tim Keller, with his Reason for God, has written one of the finest public defenses of Christianity since Lewis's Mere Christianity. And I would have liked more Keller insight than is offered. And, speaking of the resurrection, I was actually very surprised that the name "N.T. Wright" never appears in the book. This is an unfortunate omission, since nobody has done deeper or better work on the resurrection (among many other things!) than he. Indeed, next to Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God a lot of standard-fare material on the resurrection looks like See Dick Run. The other names I've mentioned are quite negotiable; but to omit Wright, the contemporary theologian of highest world-renown, in a book like Jesus on Trial is... not really very explicable.

The apologetic tradition that influenced Limbaugh in his journey, commonly called "classical" or "evidentialist," has a built-in downside which many of its proponents do not openly acknowledge or admit, but Limbaugh does (e.g., p.247; 269). That is, "evidence" must be interpreted, and it is interpreted by people with various presuppositions and commitments.  People are not epistemologically "neutral," willing to follow evidence wherever it leads because sometimes it leads to places they do not want to go. And a "Just the facts, ma'am" apologetic method that never quite gets at those deeper desires and heart commitments just isn't robust enough. For example, Limbaugh beautifully exposes how many devotees of "scientism" have a pre-commitment to philosophic naturalism (The Richard Lewontin quote on p.292 is simply delicious). That is, they love naturalism. They're married to it. They self-consciously interpret all evidence in light of it. Now, it is one thing to expose that fact and point out how closed-minded that is; it is quite another thing altogether to affirmatively blow philosophical naturalism to smithereens. That is, in my view apologetics cannot always be content to simply acknowledge unbelieving presuppositions and kindly ask people to consider leaving those presuppositions behind. Often people must be shown (politely, of course) why those presuppositions are rationally futile and must be left behind if rationality and meaning are to survive at all. The brand of apologetics Limbaugh is most familiar with is very good at the former, but deficient in the latter. I think he (and the book) would benefit from some voices from the (broadly) presuppositional apologetic world: names like Van Til, Schaeffer, Plantinga, Frame, and Bahnsen.

Theologically, I have a few quibbles, but they are just that. I am not as enamored as Limbaugh with certain Dispensational brands of prophecy interpretation because its hermeneutic is far too thin. A more robust (and less parochial) view understands every prophecy, or "all God's promises," as Paul puts it (2 Cor. 1:20), and not just a few we call "Messianic," as being summed up and fulfilled in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. That is, after all, what Jesus taught in Luke 24, as Limbaugh himself acknowledges. Another reason Limbaugh should read N.T. Wright. 

Limbaugh's unwavering commitment to God's absolute sovereignty, well, wavers in a couple of places. (Disclosure: I am thoroughly a son of the Reformed/Calvinist Tradition.) His brief suggestion that perhaps Molinism helps relieve some of the tension we feel between God's sovereignty and human responsibility (p.109) may well be true, but it is only a psychological placebo. It doesn't really help, as deeper published discussions would reveal. He discusses "free will" on a few occasions, but the concept is left too vague; one suspects that he is operating with a libertarian or voluntarist understanding of the will (strict "power of contrary choice"), and I think a more robust Augustinian understanding of the will (free "agency") would serve him well in that respect.

This is illustrated in a remarkable three-page section in the discussion on the so-called "problem" of evil (321-23). On page 321 he gives us what he thinks is a rationally satisfying answer: that God permits evil for the same reason he allowed it in the first place. If he couldn't create the universe as it is without the reality of free will, neither can he destroy evil without eradicating free will. Well, there are a lot of assumptions to tease out there, but let me just point out that this sort of explanation places the "will" of God and the "will" of man on some sort of continuum, a Teeter-Totter. "Hey, God, you chose to make a cosmos where we are "free" (in a libertarian sense?); now you have to live with the consequences!" (That place in Mere Christianity where Lewis argues this makes me cringe every time.) God is, in other words, constrained by human freedom. As a card-carrying Augustinian, this is just not going to cut it.

And I think, deep down, Limbaugh knows it.

Because two pages later (p.323) he offers us this (very different) analysis, taken right from the Book of Job:

"[...] Our initial failure to understand God's approach to the question is tied to the limitations inherent in humanity--limitations that He reveals to us in His response to Job's question. We can't put God in a box; we can't bring Him down to our level [Teeter-Totter? -bgm], which is precisely what we do when we demand that He answer the question on our terms or submit to some outside moral standard apart from Himself. In the end, His answer is majestic, exciting, and uplifting because it gives us hope and reaffirms our basis for trusting Him, even if it isn't what we initially anticipated."

Forgive me for seeing a great deal of tension between these two explanations of the "problem" of evil. One seeks to give a rationally satisfying answer (complete with a logical syllogism); the other rests in the fact that because we are creatures and he is the Creator, there will necessarily be mystery about these things. Mystery that prompts us to awe, wonder, and, ultimately, trust.

I've said it before, and I'm happy to say it again: among all the options in the God's sovereignty/human responsibility debate, it is the Calvinist who eschews "rational" and "logical" explanations. It is the Calvinist who doesn't "put God in a box" or place him on a Teeter-Totter where the more free we are, the less free he is. That is the Pelagian path, as Augustine understood. Limbaugh's second crack at it gives off a much sweeter sound to my Calvinist ears.

Limbaugh's book doesn't major on these questions, so neither will I and neither should the reader. All in all, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading. I pray that God blesses its publication and that many who may not otherwise be exposed to the vast intellectual tradition of Christianity would through it come to know that, at very least, becoming a Christian is a completely rational thing to do, and even better, that they would actually come to personally know the Triune God.

I thank God for David Limbaugh's effort to bring that about.