Advocates for social justice support government regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth against people whose ideology is based on axioms about private property that are as old as Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense. Paine's ideological framework posits freedom of conscience that clashes with the current reading of Thomas Jefferson's statements about separation of church and state.
Is there any way out of the culture war these frameworks provoke and through which we interpret the issues? For people of faith an analogy can be drawn between ideologically based thinking and St. Paul's discussion of justification of the law versus salvation by faith.
Romans 4: 13-16Early Christians contended with Judiazers who insisted that their coreligionists follow the Law of Moses. Paul distinguishes adherence to the legal code from comprehension of a more profound ethic of the heart and conscience.
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants--not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all.
Romans 2: 13-16For this this analog to be of use, it helps to acknowledge that ideology can be rigid and intolerant on both sides of the cultural/political divide. Advocates use ideology to simplify issues into false dichotomies and create stereotypes of their opponents. The religious right vilifies the politically correct dogmatists in academe and academics return the "compliment". From either perspective the stereotype seems justifiable, and the culture war becomes a religious war. It should help to acknowledge that thinking in dichotomies and stereotyping groups of people are the methods of propaganda. Stereotypes are the hard core of prejudice.
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
We started by quoting St. Paul. It is interesting to mention a couple of ideas from Saul Alinsky's book, Rules for Radicals:
5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon. There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions."
13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions."The terminology of these tactics--weapon, enemy, target--leaves no doubt that the objective isn't truth but inflicting damage on opponents. It doesn't take much imagination to find examples of this strategy in contemporary politics. Broadsides attacking Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi come readily to mind. For Donald Trump these methods are stock in trade. To be clear, St. Paul also talks about spiritual warfare, but Christians have applied the metaphor literally to opponents whose differences were doctrinal or demographic.
The first thing to note about Alinsky's rules is that they reduce to the logical fallacy known as ad hominem argumentation. Attacking or discrediting the person instead of the concept or position they hold doesn't prove anything. Illustrating the ways that Trump can be a jerk doesn't mean his campaign was wrong about trade policy, immigration, or foreign wars. Even if corrupt politically connected investors made Solyndra into a crony capitalist scam on taxpayers' money, it doesn't prove that government funding for research and development is destructive of free enterprise.
We all want to win arguments, but what is it that disposes some people to believe Trump in spite of his character flaws? Many of these people see corruption in every government program regardless of evidence that is contrary to their expectations? The ideological framework of our thinking includes premises that can determine the conclusions that we will reach and how the evidence will be interpreted.
Lest we neglect the obvious, some people refuse to see corruption in government programs even when it is indisputable: drugmakers led by Pfizer agreed to run a very significant public campaign bankrolling political support for the 2010 health-care law, while the Obama administration promised to block provisions opposed by drugmakers worth 80 billion in tax savings and discounts. The administration's stated, noble intent to provide health care for uninsured people has been sufficient to keep millions of people in support of the Affordable Care Act, continuously assuming any opposition is irrational if not immoral.
Vested interest is surely one of the reasons people's thinking tends to be constrained by ideological preconceptions. Upton Sinclair, who advocated socialist views, is credited with the statement, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." This quote comes from Sinclair's 1935 book about his campaign for governor of California, subtitled, How I got Licked. Now, eighty years later, California has armies of people vested in jobs represented by public employees unions, who understand the arguments for socialism very well.
Another way to dissect the monstrous stereotypes created by the culture war is to ask not "who is harmed by the problem?", but rather, "who benefits from the problem?" Many advocates make careers of controversy. The writer's dilemma is getting readers past the first paragraph. Selling out to one faction in a dispute can be good for ratings. Maybe in the process you create fake news. Speaking one language in the political tower of Babel may be widely unintelligible, but those who understand can make a polemicist's career. Ask Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter about anything in the news and you know what kind of answer you'll get, but they're doing very well financially. Ask CNN executives how their attacks on Donald Trump have been for the bottom line, but don't ask whether they think Russia-gate is anything more than a "Nothing burger", as Van Jones put it in a moment of candor. Jones' point was not necessarily that the Russian collusion narrative is false, but that it is a distraction from substantive issues such as joblessness, drug addiction, and crime, and not likely to lead to impeachment of a President, even if he is insufferable to progressives.
All this is a prelude to saying that ideology is inadequate to understanding, much less solving, the kinds of problems that evoke our bitter disputes. St. Paul's discourses distinguish between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The law can be helpful, but in the difficult cases, that is to say, the important ones, the rules don't fit the game. Paul goes as far as saying, "the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life." [2nd Corinthians 3:6]
Another familiar passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians includes this gem: "Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect." [1st Corinthians 13:9] This is a startling admonition from the man whose epistles are read authoritatively every Sunday. The church has historically relied on scripture, tradition, and reason to establish doctrine and polity. Paul had all these and a personal encounter with a man risen from the dead, yet he conceded that his knowledge was imperfect. An honest appraisal of our disputes and our failures should lead to acknowledgement that the law and, for people faith, even prophecy can't eliminate uncertainty in our encounters with other people's minds. For Christians, whose prayers affirm faith in the Holy Spirit and providence, it's theologically incoherent to assert that the formulations of socialism or laissez-faire capitalism can resolve our arguments about economic policy and its effects on business, labor, or the poor.
Pope John Paul II made frequent references to "a preferential option for the poor". And social justice is a fine metaphor. But historical evidence indicates that capitalism has lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system. Ideals, metaphors, and facts comprise our thinking and our discussions. They motivate and mobilize advocates and adversaries. Eventually these cultural artifacts become the foundation for ideologies and institutions. Human rights and constitutional government are built on ideas that took centuries to develop in civilized society. We ignore the ideas that generated them at our peril. But ideas are not absolute. We need all the perspectives on the issues, especially on those that lead to conflict, because, as St. Paul wrote, quoting an earlier prophet, "None is righteous, no, not one".