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.

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.

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.