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.

Our Current Dilemma: Many Christians Aren’t Pro-Life Enough

For decades, a pronounced majority of white evangelicals have reliably supported politicians who essentially regard all vulnerable classes except the unborn with contempt (and whose policies, at that, have actually done very little to protect the unborn). Now we are forced to choose between the rights of the most vulnerable and the rights of all but the most vulnerable.

I don’t presume to know who anyone should vote for. But some Christians seem to be approaching their vote with faulty reasoning or incomplete information. In particular, Christians that we might call “single-issue” voters reason as follows. “I must do everything I can, politically, do defend the unborn. So I must vote for the party or politician that favors outlawing abortion, regardless of their other policy stances.” Let’s stipulate that we must do everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Does it follow that we must vote for the politician whose party has been promising to outlaw abortion for the last four decades?

Law and Economics

Because the courts offer the most eligible path to outlawing abortion, and because it takes years for cases to make their way to the Supreme Court, it’s plausible to suppose that abortion isn’t going to be outlawed in the next few years—not before 2030, let’s say. So, between now and 2030 (at least), regardless of which political leaders we elect and which judges they appoint, abortion will be legal in the United States. (Incidentally, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned—which is objectively unlikely to happen for jurisprudential reasons, but certainly won’t happen in the next few years—we’d revert to a pre-Roe situation where states decide the legality of abortion within their respective jurisdictions. So as far as the judiciary is concerned, the best case scenario is most likely a conservative SCOTUS that permits states to reduce access to abortion providers via regulations, e.g. admitting privileges, making abortion marginally more difficult to access but not illegal.)

Some women who contemplate an abortion in the next decade might do so for reasons of economic hardship, in situations where the decisive factor in their thinking is affordable access to basic needs like housing, healthcare, food, etc. In other words, in at least some cases, there’s a relationship between economics and abortion. So we can prevent some abortions in the next decade by implementing economic policies that promote secure access to housing, food and healthcare.

And to the extent that Christians vote against such policies, we are failing to do everything we can, politically, to protect the lives of unborn children who wouldn’t have been aborted in a more pro-life and pro-family economic climate.

Some Christians will be skeptical of this reasoning. For instance, you might think that fewer abortions will happen in the long run if judges allow states to regulate abortion clinics out of business or, eventually, overturn Roe v. Wade.

It may be true that fewer abortions will happen overall with ideologically conservative judges. But it’s important to notice that the goalpost has now shifted. We’re no longer talking about doing everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Now we’re ignoring the abortions that we could prevent over the next ten years via a holistic approach to policy aimed at protecting vulnerable people in general, including the unborn, and talking instead about the overall number of abortions. In other words, we’re thinking along purely consequentialist lines, based on the principle that we should do whatever saves the most lives. I discuss the general problem with consequentialist moral reasoning here.

Basic Moral Principles

As for the specific principle that we should always do whatever saves the most lives (unborn or otherwise), consider the following. Imagine you’re a surgeon responsible for five patients who need a vital organ transplant—heart, kidney, liver, lung and lung, respectively. As it happens, all five patients have the same blood type and they’re all roughly the same height and weight. If you knew for certain that you could save all five of your patients by harvesting the vital organs of a single healthy person, should you do it? Of course not. You wouldn’t butcher one person to save five others; so it must be false that you should always do whatever you can to save the most lives.

Thus you’d need a different principle to justify voting for policies that occasion more economic hardship—leading to preventable abortions in the short term—purely for the sake of (possibly) reducing the overall number of abortions in the long term.

So even if your objective is to do the most you possibly can, politically, to protect the unborn, the choice isn’t as straightforward as a lot of Christians make it out to be.

Our Dilemma

As I said at the outset, I don’t presume to know how other Christians ought to vote. It’s complicated and messy. As believers, protecting the vulnerable should be our highest political objective, and there are none more vulnerable than the unborn.

This dilemma is both of our own making and totally unsurprising. It is of our own making because it is a product of the religious right’s fragmented conception of justice. And it is unsurprising because God doesn’t generally allow his people to select which sacred obligations to honor and which to casually ignore—particularly when we attempt to honor those that cost nothing and ignore those that threaten our material security and social standing.

So, my fellow pro-lifer, I respect and share your pro-life position; but if you’re not the least bit conflicted about which political party best represents your values, it’s possible that you’re not pro-life enough. Whichever way you decide to vote, I hope you won’t be swayed by the celebrity culture warriors who led white American evangelicals to the gilded political prison in which we now find ourselves—in which we are forced to choose between the party that promises to protect all but the most vulnerable and the party that promises to protect only the most vulnerable.

I don’t know what to say about this November. But I know that we should be wary of anyone with the audacity to tell us that it’s obvious how Christians should vote. The path out of our current political wasteland is paved with integrity—which is to say, a pro-life position that is integrated around justice for all, born and unborn alike.

Regarding Matthew J. Franck’s Recent Op-Ed In Newsweek

On September 14, 2020, Newsweek published an op-ed by conservative pundit Matthew J. Franck, entitled Racism Is Real. But Is ‘Systemic Racism?’ Within hours, the piece had been removed from Newsweek’s website (the foregoing link provides an archive).

My initial reaction is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assume that folks like Franck are arguing in good faith. There’s some funny business going on with the way that he uses definitions—which is, frankly, beneath the dignity of someone in his station. For example, he appeals at one point to dictionary definitions in explaining technical terminology—which is something I wouldn’t accept from a student in First Year Seminar.

Elsewhere, the distinction that he makes between ‘systemic’ and ‘systematic’ is, I suspect, helpful to no one. (Perhaps some people use the word ‘systematic’ when they mean ‘systemic’; but I doubt that anyone has the former in mind when speaking of the latter. There’s no substantive confusion there.)

In any case, my main concern about his argument is this. The term ‘systemic racism’—purportedly the subject of his article—is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with features of individual or group psychology. The other has to do with institutions. The author defines ‘systemic racism’ entirely in terms of the former category. He then acknowledges, almost with a shrug, that phenomena in the latter category are a feature of our society—but not technically a form of systemic racism, per his definition.

Thus, by artificially restricting the scope of ‘systemic racism’ to the psychological phenomena discussed in some of the literature, Franck simply defines the other kind of systemic racism (to do with institutions) out of existence. The kind of systemic racism to do with institutions is, incidentally, the kind of systemic racism that most people who think seriously about this subject actually care about—at least in my field.

Overall, my sense is that arguments of this kind are simply a distraction. Instead of talking about how to rectify the kinds of injustice that well-informed people generally understand to exist, we are engaging in sophomoric, sterile conversations about terminology that do absolutely nothing to heal our political community: precisely the opposite, in fact.

Honestly, I don’t know quite what to make of someone in a position of influence who acknowledges the existence of institutional injustice in our society and chooses to spend his leisure patting white folks on the back, offering assurances that none of the “bad stuff” we see around us *technically* counts as systemic racism (provided we define ‘systemic racism’ just so). And insofar as Christ followers participate in this charade, it is to our eternal shame.

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 .