Like a lot of people old enough to drink during the '90s, I find the political right’s hissy fit over the current wave of campus activism very familiar. Accusations that universities are turning out a generation of soft-headed pushovers? Check. Hand-wringing that student demands for concessions on issues regarding race/gender/sexuality are a form of creeping totalitarianism (“You know who else wanted ‘safe spaces?’”)? Check. The rise of taunting, ironic performance artists who tour universities mainly to incite, and then mock, protests? Check.
But another argument has also emerged. Critics see in the social justice movement's occasional excesses and frequently overheated rhetoric something more than misguided enthusiasm — they see literal derangement. Last year, Jonathan Haidt co-authored a much-discussed Atlantic cover story on the crisis (“The Coddling of the American Mind”) that used the structure of cognitive behavioral therapy to diagnose American colleges as having the same tendencies as someone with a mental illness (“blaming,” “negative filtering,” “dichotomous thinking”). Haidt has since adjusted the metaphor. In a recent talk at the Manhattan Institute, he argued that social justice activism isn’t just a mental illness, it’s a religion.
It’s true that, historically, the two have often been confused.
Haidt, who writes about the “foundations of morality,” says that what he sees on campus is the perversion of well-intended causes — like fighting against racism or homophobia — into “sacred” ideas, and “when they become sacred, when they become essentially objects of worship, fundamentalist religion,” then “there is no nuance, you cannot trade off any other goods with it.”
I’m not sure who should be more offended: people of faith or those in social justice movements. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose — and that’s the first problem with Haidt’s metaphor: The social justice movement is steeped in religion, both as a matter of historical fact and philosophically.
The term “social justice” itself was coined by a Jesuit priest in the 1840s, who himself was distilling the work of Thomas Aquinas. But the modern conception of social justice has its roots in the “social gospel” movement of the Progressive era, when American evangelicals crusaded for the poor, women’s rights, civil rights, and more. It also gained meaning through the spread of liberation theology in the 1960s, when New World Catholics reinvigorated the notion that Christ’s message was one of radical equality and the shared dignity of all children of God. The father of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, essentially argued that Jesus was the first social justice warrior.
Haidt, a libertarian, has previously written sympathetically (if somewhat condescendingly) of the place of religion in society. Religion, he said in a TED talk in 2012, is an evolutionary adaptation that offers us a way to transcend self-interest. As of 2016, his dire warning about the rise of social justice "fundamentalism" ("If it keeps going the way it's going we might as well just shut [all universities] down in 10 or 20 years because they will be worthless") suggests a more dour view of that religious impulse.
But apparently the desire to portray campus activists as unthinking, herdlike, and hostile appeals to those in favor of religion as well. National Review writer (and fantasy presidential candidate) David French sneered about “a ferocious new faith — a social-justice progressivism unrestrained by humility and consumed with righteous zeal … so grim, so angry, and so arrogant that it can prosper only through intimidation and coercion.” French consoles his audience that they will triumph, though, as “people who possess real courage, whose eyes are set on a different God, a true God who has protected his church from foes far more formidable than gangs of Millennials and their middle-aged enablers.”
French’s error is almost more pure than Haidt’s, because he at least makes clear that he’s (incorrectly) slandering social justice as being a distinctly non-Christian religion. But, like Haidt, he seems not to understand that religion is about more than what you worship or what laws you enforce. If religion was only about what you believed, there would be no wars over it. In the real world, religion is about how you treat other people.
Gutierrez himself urged readers to not think of “liberation theology” as the motivation for behavior, but rather proposed that liberation theology was the obvious result of following the simplest (but most difficult) of God’s commandments: Love one another. “Theology is a reflection, a critical attitude,” he wrote. “The commitment of love, of service, comes first. Theology follows. It is the second step.”
Social justice springs from a commitment to love and service, and in that way it is religious, whether or not its practitioners think of it as such. That critics only see the punitive aspects of the social justice "religion" means they’ve never actually spent time among its believers — or, I suppose, among those who benefit from its activism. Those who think evangelical Christians are about nothing but “hate” suffer from the same sort of ignorance — but you’d think conservatives especially would understand “religion” to encompass community and joy and giving thanks as well as orthodoxy.
That people would damn social justice for having a sense of the sacred is already a perversion of what religion can mean to people. Even stranger is the implication that “sacred” means, in practice, the same thing as “blind loyalty.” If that’s the case, then I am doing my religion wrong — maybe most people are. I question the sacred! I rail against it sometimes! And certainly, on college campuses and among millennials, there is little sense that the question of how to proceed toward justice is permanently settled. When the mainstream media cover social justice activists’ overreaches (which do exist), they tend not to see the multitude of debates within the movement, the self-questioning and self-correction that leads to shifts in attitude if not abandonment of the cause. Coping with blasphemies is what moves a religion forward; if the social justice movement is truly intolerant, it has little chance of survival.
Reflection and doubt are an expected part of the deal in most faiths — any vibrant faith, at least. Only dead faiths have no heretics.