Justice As Integrity

Every word that public evangelicals uttered in the 90s about the importance of integrity in leadership now serves as an indictment of their own unfitness to lead. But more important than the rank hypocrisy of public evangelicals is the matter of how we arrived at a place where, outside of one or two causes that cost us nothing to promote, many Christians don’t even pretend to integrate their faith with their politics. In fact, such is the disarray of the evangelical political conscience, it may be helpful to comment on what integrity means and why it matters.

As individuals, we all occupy a variety of social roles—e.g., spouse, parent, colleague, citizen, etc. I have integrity when I approach each of these social roles in a way that’s consistent with how I approach the others. When I have integrity, all the different parts of my life fit together—they are integrated—around a single coherent identity. By contrast, I lack integrity when I inhabit one social role in a way that is inconsistent with who I am (or pretend to be) in some other social role.

The opposite of integrity is disintegration—an identity that’s fragmented. My identity is fragmented when I move through the various social roles that I occupy without any real sense of the self that inhabits each role, or how those roles inform the narrative of my life. 

Like an individual, a political community that lacks integrity is fragmented. As a society, we have integrity when we share a sense of concern for what each of us deserves and what we owe to each other—which is to say, a shared concern for justice. (The alternative to justice as a shared point of integration would be an ideology based in some feature identity—such as race, ethnicity or religion. But we tend to reject, e.g., white nationalism as racist, Christian nationalism as idolatrous, and so on.) A shared concern for justice furnishes us with a common goal for civic life, by reference to which it makes sense to debate and seek consensus around moral questions like what our laws ought to be and how our resources should be allocated.

By contrast, when we lack a shared horizon for deciding questions about what people deserve, our society is merely a collection of interest groups that assert their political will without regard for what we owe to each other. And herein lies the source of much white evangelical hypocrisy in the political sphere.

Decades ago, a few self-appointed spokesmen decided that God’s blessed rage for justice is best articulated by a Church that seeks to make America the sort of place where upper-middleclass Christians can await the eschaton in relative comfort. Yet we proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who insisted over and over again that our devotion to him is measured by our regard for the interests of those most vulnerable to injustice: the orphan, the immigrant and the dispossessed. So our conduct in the political arena serves as a public refutation of our witness. Unbelievers read the Bible, too; and they can see that we’re not living out the values we claim to espouse. It’s evident that we’re not truly pro-life or pro-family. The tax policies that we favor reveal what we value: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Instead of advocating for economic policies that are conducive to raising a family, we prefer policies that allow us to keep as much of our paycheck as possible.

It’s important for Christian institutions to retract racist sentiments and establish scholarship funds. But mostly in the way a painkiller is important—it silences the pain momentarily even though it does nothing to heal the underlying infirmity. Evangelicalism’s fractured identity cannot be patched up by attending to symptoms. Evangelicalism won’t have integrity while there are yet unrebuked seminary faculty who’ve made a cottage industry of opposing godly calls for justice, with speeches that are contrary to the sweep of Christian theology and transparently ignorant of Western intellectual history.

Our identity will remain fractured until we set aside our own interests in the interest of justice. And until then, who we vote for matters a lot less than the fact that we’re voting for entirely the wrong reasons.

A Man and His Inheritance (When Clarifications Fail)

There’s been a lot of equivocating from woke-truthers in the last few days, to the effect that: “Well, systemic injustice might be a real thing (at least historically). But CRT though.”

Rather than pick apart all their hedging, I’m just going to offer a detailed example of systemic injustice and consider it in light of Scripture.

In 1934, the U.S. Government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to oversee a mortgage insurance program that facilitated homeownership for millions of Americans. But the FHA only insured mortgages in neighborhoods that systematically excluded people of color.

So white Americans were given an opportunity to accrue equity in real estate with the help of the FHA—a program that was subsidized by all taxpayers, including those of color, who were effectively barred from owning desirable real estate. In other words, the U.S. Government systematically transferred wealth from people of color (in the form of taxpayer subsidies for the FHA mortgage program), to white Americans (in the form of home equity, mortgage interest tax deductions and so on).

The primary consequence of this FHA policy was, of course, segregated neighborhoods. And given that school districting proceeds on the basis of residential location, a secondary consequence of the policy was racially segregated public schools across the country. (Which is why, in the era of school desegregation, black students had to ride buses to the other side of town in order to attend schools that had previously been restricted to students from exclusively white neighborhoods.)

A tertiary effect of the FHA policy was to ensure that public schools zoned for white students received better funding than those zoned for black students: By making it easier for banks to lend to potential buyers in white neighborhoods, the FHA policy increased demand for homes in those neighborhoods, driving up property values and thus the property taxes from which public schools derive much of their funding.

Meanwhile, property values of minority homeowners were diminished by a broader zoning regime that diverted everything from bars, night clubs and factories to toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards away from white neighborhoods. And all these effects of residential segregation conspired to facilitate a system of racially disparate policing and incarceration that has been well documented.

Racially discriminatory zoning was outlawed in 1968; and racial discrimination in mortgage lending was outlawed in 1977. But by that time, the cost of real estate was prohibitive for all but high income-earners and those whose families already had access to home equity. From 1973–80, the value of the average American home increased by 43 percent. For those who didn’t already own homes, who relinquished more and more of their lifetime income with each month’s rent, spiking real estate prices moved homeownership further from reach.

And these decades of dispossession reverberate in the lives of our brothers and sisters of color, whose parents and grandparents were robbed of the opportunity to amass and transfer what would have been their inheritance: Even now, young African Americans are ten times more likely than young white Americans to live in poor neighborhoods (66 percent compared to 6 percent). Less than 10 percent of white families have lived in poor neighborhoods for 2 or more consecutive generations, compared to half of all African American families (48 percent). The median white household has about $134K in wealth, whereas the median black household has about $11K.

Woke-truthers eagerly observe that we must live with the natural and logical consequences of our sin. They are less eager to acknowledge that people of color have long been living with the natural and logical consequences of sins committed against their fathers and grandfathers.

Marxism and CRT are irrelevant here: the fear of God is sufficient for discerning the wickedness of a system that perpetuates disparities in wealth, income and opportunity that originate in explicitly racist laws—i.e., systemic injustice. Here the woke-truthers reply that this is all very regrettable and they are, *just to be absolutely clear, lest the reader misunderstand* categorically opposed to racial discrimination in all its forms. They just think that government intervention isn’t the remedy.

So woke-truthers aren’t anti-justice—they’re just anti-big government. But this attempt at clarification makes them appear more confused than ever. These woke-truthers have spent the last decade promoting a “traditional” ideal of nuclear family with a single breadwinner and his homemaking wife. Yet this ideal was “traditional” only for a narrow subset of Americans, and only for a couple of decades in the mid-twentieth century, and the whole scheme was subsidized by *the largest government redistribution of wealth in U.S. history*, the crown jewel of which was the FHA.

So either they don’t favor small government, or they don’t mean what they say about their ideal of family, or they’ve once again allowed their enthusiasm to outrun their expertise and they simply fail to grasp the contradiction. And personal hypocrisy aside, extolling the virtues of small government and free enterprise once you’ve benefitted from a massive, government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a bit like cheating your way through the first half of a basketball game, and then—with your unfair lead firmly in hand—insisting that the second half be a healthy competition governed by strict principles of fair play. This is the epitome of injustice; and it is precisely that air of entitlement that has invited the left’s most strident criticisms.

Self-appointed spokesmen of the white evangelical church have no one to thank but themselves for the fragmentation of our political community. Instead of calling God’s people to do justice, they have been among the most reliable patrons of injustice.

Good people, this is what the Bible is about. Absent God’s grace made manifest among us, injustice will destroy our civilization from the inside. America doesn’t need law and order. America needs citizens who will put the interest of justice above their own selfish preferences.

“But Scott,” you may say, “aren’t you just being ‘woke’?” I guess that depends on how “woke” you think God is. Here’s God, speaking through the prophet Micah (2:1–2):

 “Woe to those who devise iniquity… Because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.”

That’s a divine invocation of exquisite suffering on those who maintain a social order that deprives families of the intergenerational wealth afforded by real property.

And here’s what God says to the woke-truthers of Micah’s day, who think their religion will save them from the reckoning (3:5–12):

“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant ‘Peace’ while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths… Yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us’. Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of a forest.”

It’s as if God is telling us that if we don’t do justice, some vandalism might happen—not because God condones that sort of thing, but because it’s a natural and logical consequence of an unjust social order. So don’t wink at injustice and then pray for peace.


I don’t know why these woke-truthers have suddenly decided to talk about justice. If I had to guess, I’d say they finally realized that there’s no future for them in nipping at Beth Moore’s heels and shaming the working wives and mothers who pay their seminary salaries. So they looked around for a new controversy to exploit, and “social justice” is where they landed. That’s my guess. But what I know is that these men follow a troubling pattern: bombast, followed by manipulation, followed by bullying. They begin with bold assertions that are predicated, as best I can tell, on nothing more than their own uncultivated intuitions. (Invariably, these pronouncements are attended by lurid adverbial phrases, but never any suggestion of an actual argument.) When others disagree, these men attempt to manipulate Scripture or doctrine to suit their rhetorical goals. And finally, they declare that anyone who refuses to accept their account of Scripture or doctrine is a false teacher and must therefore be excluded from the group.

I can’t imagine this is the sort of conduct that should be held up to seminarians as a model for pastoral care: take a firm position on something you haven’t really studied; when people disagree, tell them the Bible says so; and if they still disagree, show them the door.

No good is served when ambitious theologians speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they haven’t studied in any disciplined way; and it is harmful when they then attempt to shoehorn their views into Scripture and present their convictions as the Word of God. If these men want to give lectures on political philosophy, I suggest they host a dinner party for likeminded friends. Or perhaps they might start a book club. These are fora in which it is appropriate for amateurs to discuss their passions. It is unbecoming of an academic to hold himself out as an expert on subjects that are far afield from his training. Beyond that, it is toxic for theologians in particular to hide extra-Biblical agendas in their presentation of Scripture.

When False Teachers Talk About False Teachers

It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.

Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.

A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.

Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.

So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.

According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.

And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.

Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”

I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.

Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.

This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.

What if America is just another empire?

What if America is just like all the other empires? What if America’s power and wealth aren’t a mark of divine favor, but merely a byproduct of empire-building?

And what if, by mistaking the fruits of empire for God’s blessing, Christian nationalists have gotten confused about what sorts of things God favors—confused about the features of our civilization that believers should make an effort to cultivate and amplify into the future?

For example, what if it’s just a very, very bad thing that our government systematically slaughtered and dispossessed indigenous peoples and desecrated their sacred places? What if that’s just all there is to it: no manifest destiny, nothing redeeming about it—just really bad?

And what if it’s just very, very bad that a lot of America’s early wealth issued from labor that was straightforwardly stolen from people who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What if that’s just evil, full stop?

Read the Exodus account and ask yourself where you fit into the narrative. If you’re a white American evangelical, you’re not among the Israelites—plainly, you’re with the Egyptians. And why think the American empire is any different from that of Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome?

I don’t understand what Christian nationalists are up to, theologically speaking. I just can’t imagine the early Church concerning itself with Rome’s GDP or reputation on the world stage. The greatness of the Roman Empire was perfectly irrelevant to Christ and his followers.

Of course, as an American, I might concern myself with the American economy, national security, etc. But my concern for such things will be tempered by my Christian faith; it certainly won’t be a consequence of my faith. 

The notion that Christianity stands in a special relationship to America makes about as much sense as the idea that Jesus took on flesh to make Rome great again—which is to say, it makes no sense at all: it misunderstands what Christianity is about.

So when, as Christians, we see our nation pursue policies that threaten the well-being of orphans and immigrants in our midst, we really don’t have any business asking whether these policies are good for America. That’s not our concern.

Our concern should be for the ones oppressed, regardless of whether that concern is consistent with ephemeral notions of what makes America great.

Christ has no use for the cultural nostalgia of white American churchgoers: he doesn’t much care for the films of John Wayne. Christ simply doesn’t care whether America is great, or ever was or will be again.

“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter”

Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.

In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”

You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.

We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.

When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:

When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.

Recommended Reading

Here are books I would recommend to those interested in questions at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, political economy, recent U.S. history, theology, evangelicalism, law and American politics.

Sovereign Virtue by Ronald Dworkin
The Evangelicals by Frances FitzGerald

Eclipse of Reason by Max Horkheimer
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse
Redeeming America by Michael Lienesch
The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
Radical Markets by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
The Problems of Jurisprudence by Richard Posner
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2010) by Michael J. Sandel
Lost in Transition The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry
God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel K. Williams
Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills
Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills
Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher J. H. Wright

Man looking out at NYC from inside

COVID, courage and temperance

public health v. economy

The U.S. is dealing with two distinct but related crises. The first is a public health crisis: the spread of a pandemic virus. The second is an economic crisis precipitated by our efforts to mitigate the public health crisis. The public debate around these crises purports to be a debate about competing values: economics versus public health.

Some argue that the economic crisis has become so grave, with unemployment surpassing 20%, that governors should lift restrictions on businesses and accept the public health fallout as an unfortunate consequence of salvaging our economy. After all, they argue, we regularly sacrifice human life on the altar of economic gain. We don’t shut down the entire economy during flu season even though tens of thousands die from flu-related complications every year. We could reduce traffic fatalities to roughly zero if we lowered all speed limits to 15mph; but we don’t do that, either.

On the other hand, public health experts insist that resuming our economic activity now would be an unmitigated disaster. Without rigorous testing and contact tracing, the exponential spread of the virus would overwhelm our healthcare system. Hospitals would be flooded with COVID–19 patients, many of whom require intubation. Without adequate protective equipment, doctors and nurses would get sick (as many already have). Routine medical procedures like appendectomies and bypass surgeries would become increasingly difficult to manage. As local healthcare systems reach the limits of their capacity, doctors would be forced to deny treatment to those who are least likely to benefit from precious resources—gradually reducing the age at which patients are given access to ventilators and ICU beds, from 70 to 65, then 60, and so on.

dire warnings and bad science fiction

Public health experts are issuing dire warnings about the consequences of lifting social restrictions without a rigorous plan for testing and tracing. Meanwhile, some politicians and other non-experts regale the public with stories about a parallel dimension in which we all agree to put on our big-boy pants and go to work. As a cost of doing business, Grandma might be stricken with an exotic plague. These stories are pure science fiction—more precisely, bad science fiction, insofar as they are premised not on surpassing scientific consensus but completely rejecting it.

For the sake of discussion, suppose the experts are correct. (This supposition shouldn’t be too difficult to entertain—they are, after all, experts.) Within months of returning to work, there would be thousands more COVID-19 patients over the age of 60 slowly suffocating to death, without medical intervention, every single day. The death toll would grow exponentially, until either the virus runs its course—claiming somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives—or we relent and agree to start the process of social distancing all over again, at which point the number of COVID–19 deaths would continue to rise for at least a couple of weeks before receding.

Does anyone genuinely believe, even for a moment, that we would have a functioning economy in such a scenario? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. So the narrative about bravely risking our health for the sake of the economy is mere fantasy: there is no possible state of affairs in which our economy flourishes amidst the kind of devastation forecasted by experts.

the folly of “economics first”

The Chinese government learned this the hard way. They tried the “economics first” approach in Wuhan and it failed so spectacularly that COVID–19 is now a pandemic. Strangely, the most severe critics of China’s approach in Wuhan are among the loudest voices promoting the very same “economics first” strategy in the U.S. The economic lesson to be drawn from Wuhan is that the path to economic recovery runs inexorably through public health.

We will not be saved by showmanship or marketing gimmicks. The pandemic is indifferent to public opinion. And a miracle cure is not forthcoming. So, as we await the results of clinical drug trials, we need exactly what we needed a month ago and the month before that: testing and tracing. We must embrace the hard work of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way—in a word, we need virtue.

wisdom, courage and temperance

Plato’s Republic addresses this matter at length. He divides the members of a political community into three estates: political leadership, soldiers, and everyone else. In a good republic, each of these classes exemplifies a cardinal virtue. For obvious reasons, the political class must have wisdom and warriors require courage. To the rest of us he assigns the virtue of temperance. For if the general public becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, the wisdom of our leaders will be overtaken by the tyranny of collective appetite; and insatiable consumption will waste the courage of our soldiers on wars of conquest.

For present purposes, our political community can be usefully divided into three groups: political leadership, essential workers, and everyone else. Our lives depend on the courage of our essential workers—from doctors and nurses to deliverymen and grocery store clerks. And if we proceed with an intemperate “economics first” strategy, the courage of our medical professionals and other essential workers will be wasted on preventable waves of illness.


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 nihilism of the Religious Right

In a 1951 sermon, Billy Graham remarked that government aid to the poor is misguided, since:

Their greatest need is not more money, food, or even medicine; it is Christ. Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic circumstances.

Kruse, Kevin M. One Nation Under God. New York: Basic Books, Inc. (2015): 53.

And few years later, in 1954, Graham wrote in Nation’s Business magazine that:

Wise men are finding out that the words of the Nazarene: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’ were more than the mere rantings of a popular mystic; they embodied a practical, workable philosophy which actually pays off in happiness and peace of mind…. Thousands of businessmen have discovered the satisfaction of having God as a working partner.

“God Before Gold,” Nation’s Business, September 1954, 34. Emphasis in original. Cited in Kruse (2015): 37.

A quarter century later, in his 1976 sermon on “Conditions Corrupting America,” televangelist Jerry Falwell asserted that:

…we are developing a socialistic state in these United States as surely as I am standing here right now. Our give-away programs, our welfarism at home and abroad, is developing a breed of bums and derelicts who wouldn’t work in a pie shop eating the holes out of donuts. And they will stand in line at an unemployment office rather than go look for a job.

“Conditions Corrupting America,” sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell on May 16, 1976. LU-Archives, OTGH-192. Cited in Winters, Sean Michael. God’s Right Hand. New York: Harper Collins (2012): Kindle edition.

And in the opening lines of his 2014 book, Awakening: How America Can Turn from Economic and Moral Destruction Back to Greatness, Ralph Reed offers an exquisite summary of the Religious Right’s basic economic outlook:

Are we watching our nation commit suicide? The United States of America was founded on the principles of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility based on faith in God. Yet it seems we have abandoned those principles to such an extent that it may be too late for this beacon of faith and freedom to turn around. Is America… doomed to inevitable decline and demise? This is the central question of our time. While things aren’t always as they appear (more on that later), the trends are not encouraging.

Reed, Ralph. Awakening. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2014: Kindle edition.

Sidebar: Ralph Reed is founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a perennial Evangelical Tastemaker. Reed is famous for leveraging his Christian Coalition network in lobbying for stricter casino regulations on behalf of the casino industry. Specifically, by his own admission, Reed accepted payments of no less than $1.23M from a consortium of Native American casino operations. In return, Reed unleashed scores of evangelical ministers and political activists to lobby for new casino regulations—neglecting to inform his evangelical friends that their lobbying efforts were aligned with the interests of the aforesaid consortium of casino operations, in that the regulations at issue would bar new competitors from the casino market. (Reed then had the temerity to list legalized gambling among the “alarming social trends” outlined in the first chapter of his 2014 book. Notwithstanding his stated fondness for liberty, regulatory capture didn’t make the list.) End of sidebar.

Reed’s book goes on to suggest that it isn’t too late to save America, provided that we engage in

“…spiritual searching, revival, and a rediscovery of the principles found in the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.”

Reed (2014).

According to the Religious Right, then, our political community faces a simple choice. We can continue down the road to godless communism, driven by government intervention, welfare programs, moral degeneracy and spiritual atrophy; or we can return to God on the wings of free enterprise and market competition, propelled by spiritual revival.

I discussed the basic incoherence of this worldview in an earlier post. My aim in this post is to expose the moral nihilism at its core. 


As of 2018, the highest paid state employees in 31 out of 50 states are college football coaches. In 8 of the remaining 29 states, the highest paid state employees are college basketball coaches. So in 39 states, or roughly 80% of all the states in the U.S., the highest paid state employees are college football or basketball coaches.[1] Missouri is one of those 39 states. The head football coach at the University of Missouri earns an annual salary of $2.4 Million. That’s a big number. Just to put it in some perspective, $2.4M is about 18 times the salary of the Governor of Missouri ($153,821), and more than 48 times the annual income of an average Missouri household ($49,593).[2] In other words, it would take the Governor of Missouri about 18 years to earn as much money as the head football coach at the University of Missouri earns in a single year, and it would take the average Missouri household nearly half a century.

Now consider this. Public school teachers in Missouri are eligible to retire after 30 years of service. As of 2017, the average pay for a Missouri public school teacher was about $50K per year.[3] The product of $50K and 30 is $1.5M, which is about 60% of $2.4M. So, according to the labor market, a career of teaching in a Missouri public school is approximately 60% as valuable as a single year of football coaching at the University of Missouri. (It’s worth noting that this situation is far from exceptional. The salary of the football coach at the University of Missouri is 74% below the average for a football coach in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Alabama pays its football coach $11.1M per year, which is over 220 times the average salary of a public school teacher in the state of Alabama ($50K), and almost 285 times the starting salary for an Alabama state trooper ($39K).)[4]

These features of the labor market raise a number of important questions. For instance, is the labor performed by the head football coach at the University of Missouri in a single year equal in value to the labor performed by an average Missouri household over roughly half a century? In terms of work product, is the football coach at the University of Missouri worth 18 Governors of Missouri? Is a whole career of teaching in Missouri worth less than 8 months of coaching football at the University of Missouri?

In at least one sense, the answer to all of these questions is “Yes”: whether it’s a year of coaching football or a gallon of milk, the value of something just is what it costs to buy that thing. This kind of value is called market value, since it is determined by the price that is agreed upon when buyers and sellers meet in the market to buy and sell goods or services. Thus the market value of the labor performed by a Missouri public school teacher is equal to what it costs public schools in Missouri to buy teaching services. As it happens, that cost is about $1.5M over 30 years. And $1.5M is 60% of $2.4M, which is what it costs the University of Missouri to purchase a year of head football coaching services. So in terms of market value, a 30 year career as a public school teacher in Missouri is equal in value to 60% of a single year of coaching football at the University of Missouri.


Some people think that market value is the only objective truth about value. They reason as follows. “We all place different values on things, based on what’s important to us. For instance, some people value nothing more than living in the biggest house that they can afford; so they build a place in the suburbs, furnish it with whatever Ikea and Target are selling that year and spend the rest of their professional lives sitting in traffic for two or three hours every weekday. Others prefer a midcentury bungalow in a crowded neighborhood that’s only a few miles from the office. Some people don’t care all that much about their house or their job, as long as they can remain in the community where they grew up. Others care very little about where they call home, provided that they can earn decent a living doing something that they find meaningful. Some people value quiet; others want vibrant nightlife. Some people have dogs, some have cats, others have both and some people prefer to have no pets at all. No one is in a position to judge the value of these or any other of the infinitely many preferences that find expression in the different choices that people make. 

So the only objective truth about how valuable things are is the truth about how much things cost: the only truth about the value of a given house is the truth about how much someone is willing to pay for that house; the only truth about the value of a gallon of milk is the truth about how much people pay for a gallon of milk; and the only truth about the value of a teaching career is the truth about how much teachers are paid.” Let’s call this view ‘market realism’, since it asserts that the only real truth about value is the truth about market value.[5]

Notice that if market realism is correct, then there is no such thing as value that exists independently of the value that people assign to things. According to market realism, value is constituted by what people are willing to pay. It follows that people decide how valuable things are; and there is no value apart from what people decide. So if market realism is correct then there is no such thing as intrinsic value. The view that there is no such thing as intrinsic value is called nihilism. (The word ‘nihilism’ comes from the Latin word nihil, which means ‘nothing’. Hence, ‘nothing-ism’—as in, the worth of a thing is nothing unless humans say otherwise.) Thus a consequence of market realism is nihilism. 

This underlying commitment to nihilism explains why the market realist isn’t concerned about the disparity between how much the State of Missouri values the football coach at the University of Missouri and how little the State of Missouri values its public school teachers. Nor is the market realist likely to be bothered by the fact that the public school system in Kansas City hasn’t been fully accredited in three decades.[6] (For 30 years, in other words, the public school system in Missouri’s largest city has, in the judgment of those whose job it is to evaluate such things, failed to provide its students with an adequate education. Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that funding is the sole reason why this is the case. But it’s undoubtedly part of the reason.)[7]

According to the market realist, all of this is as it should be: the value of things is determined by how much we pay for them. So we pay our teachers exactly what they are worth, because the worth of teachers is determined by how much we pay them. The same goes for college football coaches, entire school districts, children’s healthcare, professional sports arenas, roads, bridges and so on.


I agree with the market realist that what we are willing to pay for something reveals how much we value that thing. No matter what we say we value, and no matter what we think we value, we direct our resources to that which we actually value.[8] Consumers demonstrate what they value as individuals in the way that they spend their personal resources (e.g. spending on clothes or travel, investing in hobbies, donating to charity, saving for retirement or what have you). And our political community demonstrates what we value as a society in the ways that we use our collective resources (e.g. spending on law enforcement, national defense, public education, infrastructure, healthcare subsidies and so forth). 

I also agree with the market realist that, as far as it concerns most things, value is determined by the market: objectively speaking, things like cars, toasters, T-shirts, houses, couches and college football coaching services are just as valuable as the price that they command.

But I disagree with the market realist’s nihilism. In my view, some things have value independently of whether or how much we value them. In particular, I believe that all human beings are intrinsically valuable. So it’s not up to us to decide the value of certain things that are essential to human flourishing—like access to basic education, nourishment or healthcare.

As a political community, we are free to decide how valuable we think these things are; and what we decide will be reflected in the resources that we devote to educating our children and caring for the sick. But we aren’t free to decide how valuable those things actually are.

So my disagreement with right-wing evangelicals amounts to this. Since I’m not a nihilist, I think it’s possible for the members of our political community to be mistaken about the value of things like public education and access to healthcare. Christians shouldn’t favor a distribution of resources that’s determined entirely by free enterprise in search of profit. Instead, we should use whatever political influence we have to secure resources for public goods that engender human flourishing—goods like public education and affordable healthcare.

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


[1]According to Business Insider, “College football and basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees—here are the biggest paydays.”  See also ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[2]ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”

[3]National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.” This figure doesn’t adjust for annual salary increases over the course of a single 30-year career, since pay schedules vary dramatically by district. (More on this in Chapter Ten.) In any event, most such raises are vitiated by inflation. So an adjusted figure would overstate the average 2017 market value of 30 years of teaching in a Missouri public school.

[4]See ESPN, “Who’s the Highest-Paid Person in Your State?”; National Education Association, “Rankings of the States 2017 and Estimates of School Statistics 2018.”;State Personnel Department, “State of Alabama Trooper Candidate Information Guide.” 

[5]For technical reasons that are irrelevant to present concerns, economists call this view marginalism. For a secular critique of marginalize from an influential economist, see Mazzucato, Mariana. The Value of Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group (2018).

[6]U.S. News & World Report, “Kansas City School District Doesn’t Make Full Accreditation.” 

[7]Baker, Bruce D., and Kevin G. Welner. “School Finance and Courts: Does Reform Matter, and How Can We Tell?” Teachers College Record 113, no. 11 (2011): 2374-414.

[8]See Matthew 6:21. See also the economic theory of revealed preferences (versus expressed or stated preferences).

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 .