open letter to the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

To the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel:

I am a Christian, an academic and a millennial. I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master’s degree in theology; and I teach ethics, political philosophy and history of philosophy at a liberal arts college on the East Coast. I mention my training and my occupation simply to say, in the spirit of I Timothy 4:12, that I have done my homework.

The purpose of my letter is this. Your Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel purports to clarify the relationship between “social justice” and the Gospel; and I feel compelled to tell you, publicly, that it does nothing of the sort.

I should begin by expressing my sincere hope that your Statement was not crafted for the benefit of my generation. In the main, we have rejected your easy gospel. That’s why we are leaving your church—not the Church, just your church. I hasten to add that no attempts at clarification or explanation will stop the hemorrhaging. We know what you’re selling and we’re just not interested.

Despite its aspirations, your Statement is nothing new. The collective evangelical imagination has long suffered under the yoke of self-appointed spokesmen whose enthusiasm for politics goes unchecked by the limits of their own expertise. Nowhere is the vacuum of discernment more acute than in the field of institutional moral analysis: systemic injustice is invisible to those—like you—whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.

Believers of my generation are eager to embrace a vision of political life that comprehends the social infirmities we stand to inherit. We are not nostalgic for the culture wars of the 1970s and ‘80s. And we are weary of effortless civil religion that serves politicians rather than the poor. Defending orphans and widows is a sacred expression of corporate worship. We want to go to church.

With this in view, your Statement is problematic for several reasons. First, your Statement presents “social justice” as a grab-bag of diverse agendas—some of which are inconsistent with a straightforward reading of Scripture, and others that are not only consistent with but indeed mandated by Scripture. For example, in the addendum to Article 3, social justice is described as an aggregation of concerns over things like economic justice, climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights. By forcing those who care about economic justice into the same political tent as those who support same-sex marriage, you force earnest believers to pit their understanding of God’s design for marriage against God’s command to make laws that give the poor their due. While this false dilemma is useful to politicians, it is unhelpful to the Church.

Second, Article 3 of your Statement affirms that God requires us to give to every person “…what he or she is due,” and that we “…must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.” This insight is to be commended. But it is incommensurate with your opposition to public policies that would soften the echoes of past injustice. So either you misrepresent your beliefs about the importance of correcting historical injustice, or you are ignorant of the economic disadvantages that reverberate in the lives of those whose grandparents were unjustly denied access to the instruments of financial capital. And we don’t need Marx or critical theory to discern the wickedness of laws that permit predatory lending to those whose parents and grandparents were effectively barred from amassing and transferring what would have been their inheritance. The fear of God is sufficient.

Third, the addendum to Article 3 claims that justice as described in the Bible has nothing to do with economic justice. This is patently false. (See the Old Testament. Also see the New Testament, especially where Christ quotes the Old Testament. Marty Duren offers a detailed treatment here.)

Fourth, throughout your Statement, the pursuit of economic justice is carelessly equated with Marxism, communism and the view that all wealth should be evenly distributed. This carelessness is indefensible. And insofar as it engenders baseless anxieties about communism that encourage God’s people to abandon the cause of the poor, it is wicked.

Finally, the overall tone of your Statement is a source of concern. The Gospel is not furthered when ambitious ministers, by virtue of nothing other than their status as ministers, speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they have not studied in any disciplined way.

My generation stands to inherit problems of unprecedented complexity and scale. In practical matters of grave importance, the believers of my generation need guidance that is thoughtful and well-informed. If you are unprepared to offer such guidance, you would do well to take your own advice and restrict your remarks to the Gospel.

Best regards,

Scott M. Coley, Ph.D.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

the incoherent worldview of the Religious Right

In service to the mission, I should offer a brief comment on the worldview of the Religious Right. The three central tenets of the Religious Right’s worldview are as follows:

(i) Prosperity theology. If you work hard and live a morally upright life, God will provide for your material needs. It follows that if you are poor, you have failed to work hard or failed to live uprightly, or both. So the poor are responsible for their own poverty; and providing public assistance to the poor only serves to encourage laziness and immorality. Therefore, we should offer little or no public assistance to the poor, etc.

(ii) Christian libertarianism. The allocation of resources should be determined entirely through free enterprise and market competition. It follows that we should allow market forces to decide the value of everything, including labor and access to medical care. Some people shouldn’t earn a living wage or receive medical benefits, since some people’s labor just isn’t worth that much. But that is a small price to pay for avoiding communism (especially since those who don’t earn a living wage or medical benefits are either lazy or immoral—see prosperity theology). Therefore, we should have no market regulations to protect the poor, and no publicly funded health care option for those who don’t receive insurance through an employer, etc.

(iii) Christian nationalism. America is a Christian nation. And American has traditionally been a great nation, enjoying military and economic supremacy abroad, and law and order at home. But our nation has fallen into moral degeneracy. America will not reclaim its former glory unless we return to our Judeo-Christian roots. Therefore, we should once again have prayer and Bible reading in our public schools, and we must defend the traditional definition of marriage as ‘one man and one woman’, etc.

These three commitments cannot be brought together in any coherent way. I don’t mean to say that every tenet of this worldview is entirely false. On the contrary, as with many popular falsehoods, each tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview is least partly true—but only partly true. Observe.

According to Christian libertarianism, our society should distribute resources entirely on the basis of free enterprise and market competition. Generally speaking, the free market rewards those who are willing and able to sell something that consumers value. Importantly, the free market does not discriminate between things that consumers value and things that consumers should value. Thus, in assigning rewards to those who possess things that consumers value, the free market does not discriminate between, for example, those who sell life-saving medicines and those who sell pornography. So, on the free market, one can make a fortune in the pharmaceutical hustle or selling Hustler. The market cares not which. 

Now, according to Christian nationalism, America has fallen into moral degeneracy. Note that moral degenerates tend to value the wrong sorts of things—that’s what makes them morally degenerate. (For example, Bob is behaving in a morally degenerate fashion if, say, Bob pawns all of his daughter’s textbooks in order to obtain money for booze and gambling. Bob’s behavior is morally degenerate because he should value his daughter’s education far more than he values booze and gambling: he values booze and gambling too highly, and his daughter’s education not highly enough.) So, given our nation’s overall state of moral degeneracy, Americans do not tend to value the things that they should value; and Americans do tend to value things that they shouldn’t value.

Market forces and moral degeneracy conspire in alarming ways. For example, since Americans tend to value the wrong things, such as pornography, Larry Flynt and Hugh Heffner amassed fortunes by producing and selling pornographic materials on the free market. Meanwhile, Americans fail to devote sufficient resources to objectively important things like education. Predictably, the net result is that Flynt and Heffner got rich while most school teachers have to live on Ramen Noodles for five years to pull together a down payment on a modest home. Here’s the takeaway: when we combine an overall state of moral degeneracy with an unregulated free market, pornographers prosper more than teachers.

Finally, recall the first tenet of the Religious Right’s worldview: prosperity theology. It should now be clear that the free market in a morally degenerate society does not distribute wealth in a way that is sensitive to moral worth. It is therefore incoherent to maintain both that our society is morally degenerate and that the free market in our society rewards those who work hard and live uprightly.

Here’s the upshot. You can’t embrace Christian nationalism, Christian libertarianism and prosperity theology, because they can’t all be true–they don’t cohere. So the worldview of the Religious Right is incoherent.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.


The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.


Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.