First Things Student Essay Contest 2015

Earlier this year, the journal First Things, a prominent publication on American religion and public life, held its first student essay contest for all college and graduate-level students. Contestants had three prompts to choose from, focused around essays and material the journal had covered in 2014-15. I became aware of the contest late in the spring semester but quickly forgot about it as final assignments and papers came due. However, at the last minute, I decided to enter. I chose to respond to prompt #2: In a recent issue of First Things, Mary Eberstadt wrote, “Everybody who cares about social justice ought to deplore the new intolerance.” I would encourage you to read Eberstadt’s article first, before reading my essay. Unfortunately, I didn’t win (first place, second place), but it was fun to compete all the same! Perhaps next year I’ll try again. Below is my essay.

The Incompatibility of the New Intolerance and Social Justice

In November of last year, Mary Eberstadt delivered an important and lucid lecture on the face of the “new intolerance,” later published in the March 2015 edition of First Things. A major point in her talk was that this ideological movement is not just a problem for Christians, but for everyone. Eberstadt concluded that “Everybody who cares about social justice ought to deplore the new intolerance.” In backing up this claim, she recounted how the new intolerance has intimidated and penalized individuals and institutions that adhere to Judeo-Christian values, including those who were doing critical social work to care for the neediest among us. For example, Catholic Charities USA foster care and adoption services were under threat of being shut down. As a purely descriptive exercise in observing the social and legal conflicts between new intolerance activists and those engaged in social justice work, it is not difficult to admit and define the conflict so far. The question is, to what extent do the new intolerance and social justice stand in tension? Is it merely a descriptive fact of current history that these two forces have collided, or are there underlying irreconcilable differences that make them mutually incompatible? In other words, is the new intolerance capable of doing true acts of social justice or not?

In order to answer these questions, and to further explore why advocates of social justice should reject the new intolerance movement, it is first necessary to understand what the new intolerance is, what it believes, and where it came from. Exactly when the new intolerance emerged is difficult to pin down, but Eberstadt is certainly correct that it is a “wholly owned subsidiary of that [i.e., the sexual] revolution.” The sexual revolution was not just about liberation from the constraining sexual beliefs and behaviors of prior generations, but it was at its core a rebellion against authority. The preeminent belief was that each person owned their own body and nobody – no parent, government official, not even God – could tell another how to behave sexually. The goal was not just a happiness centered around eros, but a desire for authentic life and self-expression, unconstrained from the supposed prudishness and religious legalism of earlier generations. The result of this revolution and the beliefs it spawned was an entirely new value system and vision for life. These values included toleration, celebration of diversity, and self-expression in the sexual and moral realms; inclusion of all without judgment or condemnation; and a belief that love and acceptance was all the world needed for peace and prosperity. In this worldview, intolerance and giving offense constituted the original sins of humanity and were to be immediately condemned, while sexual fulfillment and authenticity were thought to lead to true happiness. Thus, while the sexual revolution gave off an aura of sexual and moral relativism, it really was not relativism at all; instead, it was the formation of new moral absolutes that were strictly enforced. In this way, the new intolerance has actually become totalitarian.

While the sexual revolution stands as the central genesis of the new intolerance, it is both possible and necessary to point out other influences. The most important of these was the Civil Rights Movement which culminated with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As Shelby Steele has persuasively argued in his seminal essay, White Guilt, the realization that slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and white supremacy were deeply immoral, unjustifiable, and harmful to black Americans, fell like a thunderclap upon white America, indelibly impressing itself upon Generation X (those born between early 1960 and early 1980). Understanding the significance of the sin and moral failings of their parents and grandparents towards black Americans, the children of the sexual revolution vowed not only to make restitution to those oppressed, but that they would never be found guilty of the same. Thus white guilt became the primary racial motivator of this generation, spawning new racial absolutes and legal demands of its own. Here, racism was thought to be the original sin and salvation was vindication from charges of racism. Justice was thought to not only include equal treatment towards blacks and minorities, but the ever-increasing demands for affirmative action and equal representation and results for blacks and minorities across American society. In addition, any vestigial remains of racism were conceptually removed from individual offenders and abstracted and explained via “institutional” offenses, “systemic” injustices, claims of a “new Jim Crow,” and national racial narratives that dominated the media. Thus, white privilege became the new theory of racial oppression in America and provided a way for those encumbered with white guilt to not only become civil rights crusaders themselves, but to harshly condemn anyone who failed to fall in line.

A third influence on the new intolerance was the rise of the welfare state with the announcement of the Great Society and the war on poverty by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964-65. This event was actually the culmination of various economic and political forces that had been put in place during the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal plan. Beyond the dangerous precedents set by FDR with his government programs, spending, and attempts at packing the Supreme Court, the most pernicious influence was his (mis)understanding of human freedom and human rights. In his 1941 State of the Union speech, FDR put forward four freedoms he believed were everyone’s right: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. While the first two are famously enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the last two should be seen as anomalous interlopers. Instead of freedom of, these latter two freedoms were classified as freedom from. But if freedom from want and fear were to be enjoyed by all – and indeed were a right for everyone – then somebody had an obligation to remove want and fear. This somebody was the government. Thus, in his 1944 State of the Union address, FDR proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” as a way to ensure equality, the pursuit of happiness, and above all, security. These included a right to a job, adequate food, clothing, and recreation; the right to trade unhindered by unfair competition; the right to a decent home, adequate medical care and health, and good education; and protection from old age, sickness, and accident. The state was the vehicle that would assure these new “rights,” but it was not until the advent of the Great Society that these ideas began to be implemented. The new intolerance has imbibed this vision of freedom and rights, and thus it is unsurprising that they demand that they are entitled to such a life at the provision and expense of the state.

Other influences upon the new intolerance could be elaborated, such as the rise of radical feminism and egalitarianism with the right to an abortion, the obsession over campus rape, the so-called wage gender gap, and the all-inclusive and generic “war on women.” Another influence has been the proliferation of self-righteous and vindictive historical judgmentalism, with the never-ending condemnation of all historical events and eras deemed to have fallen short of modern standards – from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, to colonialism and imperialism, to slavery and the treatment of the American Indians. The results of all these influences have had profound effects; most importantly, a radically new moral epistemology that has reshaped the moral beliefs and knowledge of an entire generation and the values that stem from these beliefs. The most notable aspect of this epistemology is that it is divorced from any kind of religious belief, creed, or tradition. In place of religion, the new absolutes of tolerance, diversity, sexual expression, racial theories and narratives, and human rights and social entitlements have sprung up, filling the vacuum that traditional religious structures once occupied. In addition, a new political philosophy has developed, centered on a redefinition of human freedoms and rights and the intrusive role of the state that such freedoms and rights necessitate. Finally, historical amnesia and a fiercely judgmental attitude have left the new intolerance untethered from any sense of historical perspective and wisdom. How does this relate to social justice? Is it possible for the new intolerance as described above, with its secular morality, political philosophy, social and racial explanations and expectations, and historical amnesia, to properly do social justice? To answer this question, we must know what social justice is and what it requires.

To do justice is to give each person what they are due, what is known as a desert or merit-based understanding of justice (following Aristotle). While justice qua justice does not require the presence of preexisting evils, usually acts of justice occur in response to outstanding injustices. All acts of justice are right and produce righteous character, but not all right acts are acts of justice since it is possible to do a good that isn’t giving someone what they deserve. Therefore, we can see that doing justice requires the ability to not only identify what a person is rightly due (i.e., justice), but when they are wrongly denied their due (i.e., injustice). This boils down to judgments about what is right and wrong, or in other words, a correct moral epistemology. In addition, justice requires that one not only be able to identify good and evil, right and wrong, but that one correctly define human moral obligations to those who have been wronged (restitution) and to those who have committed wrong (retribution). We can see that if one’s moral epistemology is off, then justice becomes very difficult, if not impossible.

Yet, moral epistemology is not sufficient. When dealing with social justice, which is justice applied to the public square, one also needs moral teleology, which is a moral epistemology that is ordered to some social and communal good. Without a true vision of the good and beautiful life, a right understanding of the way we ought to live, and knowledge of the purpose for living, doing justice becomes futile and meaningless, nothing more than another material cog in the slow death of the universe. Social justice is not just aimed at righting particular wrongs, but doing so for the purpose of achieving a good and flourishing society that has meaning and significance. What does moral epistemology and moral teleology require? At the least, they require three things. First, they require a correct anthropology, or metaphysic of humanity. Are we simply highly evolved animals with developed reasoning abilities and moral consciences, or are we more? Were we created innocent by God but then fell into sin and evil, or is that nothing but religious mysticism? Do we have intrinsic worth and value, have we been endowed with inalienable rights, and is there a right and wrong way to live? The answers to all of these questions hinge on one’s anthropological understandings.

Second, a correct political and social philosophy is needed. This deals with the origins, purpose, and functioning of government and society and their relationship. In addition, it addresses the roles of various social institutions – the family, churches, businesses, charities, schools, the judicial system, and a host of other human organizations – how these are related and what their respective jurisdictions and social contributions should be. Third and finally, moral epistemology and moral teleology require belief in God. Without God the distinction between good and evil would collapse since God is the ontological ground of every good thing. In addition, without God’s commands that flow from his character, there would be no moral obligations or duties, and humans would be adrift and blind as to what we ought to do and how we ought to live. Finally, without God life would be absurd, without meaning or significance, and there would be no purpose in living or seeking to create a just and good society.

The new intolerance has a distorted and repulsive anthropology stemming from the sexual revolution’s ideas of sex and gender freedom, self-expression, and authenticity. In addition, having borrowed FDR’s mistaken ideas of human freedoms and rights, the new intolerance has no idea what true freedom and true human rights are. It offers a false political and social philosophy that has grown out of the New Deal and the Great Society that feeds followers the lie that they are entitled to cradle-to-grave care by the state, and which denigrates the role of the family and church in social responsibility and personal character formation. In addition, the new intolerance has adopted unhealthy views of racial and ethnic relations in American society, eschewing personal, familial, cultural, and economic explanations in exchange for narratives of oppression, marches against institutional racism, and theories of privilege. Finally, having abandoned belief in God, the new intolerance is left with a vacuous and meaningless morality that is only propped up through self-righteousness and will power, but which will undoubtedly fail the test of time. Their teleology of life fairs no better, for without a Christian understanding of the good life and a God that makes life worth living, the new intolerance can only substitute futile utopian visions in its place.

In the end, the new intolerance is incapable of doing social justice, for social justice requires a correct moral epistemology and moral teleology. These in turn rest upon a true understanding of anthropology, an accurate political and social philosophy, and belief in God. Having abandoned the latter and wildly erring on the former two, the new intolerance not only fails to do social justice, but they have blinded and deceived themselves and others, for many within the movement believe they are the epitome of social justice itself. This in turn leads to beliefs, acts, and laws that actually thwart true social justice, oppose and penalize those who do social justice, and contribute to the decline of American society. It is no wonder that Mary Eberstadt stated so clearly and forcefully that all those who truly care about social justice should deplore the new intolerance.

Social justice is paramount for the Christian because it is the temporal, human dimension of the righteousness of God. The “righteousness of God” is the central theme of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and by it he means the covenantal faithfulness by which God will put the world, inflicted by the injustice of sin and evil, to right. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God’s righteousness has been displayed and all who believe in him are justified in the present. Yet the world is still a broken place, in need of justice and righteousness, and the Church – and all those who will join with her – is God’s chosen instrument to do social justice as we wait for the consummation of all things at Christ’s parousia. If we get social justice wrong, or if we let the new intolerance pervert it, we risk defaming God’s character and frustrating his work to redeem the world.

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