In late May, I spent a week studying the intersection of faith, justice, and civil society at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Heritage, as many of you are no doubt familiar with, is America’s premier conservative think tank on issues relating to public policy.

The “Week in Washington Fellowship” was sponsored by  The DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, a department within Heritage, and organized and facilitated Dr. Ryan Messmore. Messmore’s academic skill complements his genuine humility and a love for teaching. The DeVos Center “examines the role that religion, family, and community plan in society and public policy […]to convey the indispensable role of family and religion in our American order and in our conservative philosophy.”

Central to the week’s mission was reframing and perhaps even reclaiming our understanding of “social justice” by asking pertinent questions like, ”What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to flourish as humans?” in order to arrive at a more satisfactory explanation of justice than simply assigning a monetary figure or government program to address an injustice.

The popular phrase that it is, social justice has been associated with greater government dependence and intervention, wealth redistribution, and economic egalitarianism. To combat this misunderstanding, Heritage commissioned an impressive curriculum titled Seek Social Justice to define the terms of the debate and demonstrate how “justice” is rarely a program that can be imposed upon a segment of society, but an exchange of repaired and renewed relationships. Heritage’s goal is to present a compelling and cohesive program for social justice that advocates for limited government intervention and that simultaneously relies upon free market enterprise for its success. The curriculum launched us each day into further discussion. Phrasing “Justice” as “Right Relationships,” the week’s events and discussions were dedicated to exploring the manifold ways in which civil society—church, family, civic associations, cultural institutions—can cultivate and strengthen justice by restoring broken relationships with God, other people, and the rest of creation. It goes without saying that there isn’t justice that  isn’t already inherently relational and social.

Of particular focus was the issue of “justice institutions.” In mainstream American discourse, we’ve been conditioned to pursue justice as an activity or program, and rarely as a personal virtue. Justice, we’re told, is something “we do” more than it is something “we embody.” If “right relationships” form the condition in which justice is cultivated, it is imperative that conservatives and Christians prioritize the incubator of social stability—the family, a primary institution that cultivates justice.  Edmund Burke, the father of traditionalist conservatism, spoke this way regarding the family:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

In other words, my identity as a father is part of a “social justice” institution. My role as a father will play a vital role in the stability of my daughter’s future. Assuring her of care, love, and provision is not a program that the government can solidify, but it can protect it and uphold the primacy of fathers. Fatherhood and other institutions like it—churchmanship, statesmanship, and civic leadership—are of significance and consequence to the pursuit of a just society. This also isn’t  just a conservative position—it’s a biblical position.

The focus of the week, however, was not limited to strengthening family relationships alone. Each day was assigned a particular aspect of how justice is to be appropriated in each ordained sphere, particularly within the the assigned tasks of the church and state. We also heard from policy analysts on issues pertaining to American first principles, education, marriage and family, welfare, and religious liberty. The week was equal parts public policy, justice, political theology, and American first principles.

On Wednesday, we traveled to Waldorf, Maryland to visit a church who is incarnating the type of relational justice that we spent the week theorizing about. At this predominantly African-American church, we encountered a rehabilitative mercy ministry that invites homeless individuals and other troubled persons in and ministers not to the person’s financial needs, but to the person as a whole. Woods, our tour leader, was a former drug addict who entered the mercy ministry ten years ago and eventually became a leader at the ministry of which he was first a recipient. He would tell you that he is a restored individual not because he was fed and clothed, but because he got his relationships right with Christ and found personal redemption in the midst.

I share this post with the readers for several reasons. One, everyone should plug into the resources of the Heritage Foundation, and specifically the DeVos Center. Secondly, the conservative ethos driving Mere Orthodoxy resonates with placing justice in the private and relational sphere, as opposed to the public (government) sphere. Third, the importance of the Seek Social Justice curriculum cannot go unstated. Part of liberalism’s success has been its vacuous and ego-driven appeals to “hope” and “change” with little thought to what such programs actually entail. Good intentions doesn’t entail effective achievement.  Fourth, and I know he’ll deflect any attention away from himself, but everyone here should be following the writings of Ryan Messmore, pieces like this.


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Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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