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Christianity and social justice?

By Richard Mulgan - posted Friday, 2 March 2007

By linking his political commitment with his Christian convictions, Kevin Rudd, the new ALP leader, has certainly stirred up the commentariat. At a time when Labor appears to be drifting in a moral and political vacuum, any attempt to revitalise its ethical foundations is as welcome as it is rare.

The message is hardly new. The rise of labour parties in the 19th century owed much more to working class Christianity (particularly Methodism and Catholicism) than it ever did to Marxism. Rudd’s declaration would have appeared commonplace to earlier generations and hardly worthy of comment. That it has provoked almost a frenzy of comment indicates how secularised the left has become and how ignorant of its own history.

Yet, how far invoking the Gospel will resolve Labor’s moral and political dilemmas is questionable. Certainly, at the level of fundamental principle, Christian teachings can underpin key values espoused by the left, such as human dignity, economic co-operation and social justice.


Secular progressives who placed their faith in historical evolution towards a socialist future, have been demoralised by the recent successes of global capitalism. Today, it is the right, not the left, that seems to have history on its side.

For some, religion offers a valuable, fixed mooring from which to withstand such hostile political currents. But it is by no means essential. After all, any genuine belief in social justice, whether religious or secular, should be sufficient to withstand political setbacks. Moreover, the left’s problems stem less from lack of moral conviction than from uncertainty about how to apply its principles in a global capitalist world. Here, Christianity has little concrete to offer and can, indeed, lead in unhelpful directions.

The socialist and social democratic approach to welfare has always been community-wide in inspiration, linking state welfare to the rights of citizenship. It has its origins in the union movement and friendly societies where enlightened self-interest encouraged people to share their resources for protection against hardship.

Even when state support became targeted to specific categories, such as the unemployed or disabled, it was on the understanding that anyone might become unemployed or disabled one day and might therefore be in need a helping hand.

Mass hardship and unemployment in times of economic depression, together with shared experience of wartime deprivation, encouraged the view of welfare as mutual support or institutionalised “mateship”.

Social democrats sought to distinguish welfare from charity, as represented by the hated Poor Laws. Charity implied grace and favour rather than entitlement, as well as a social gulf between a superior giver and a stigmatised recipient.


For social democrats, state welfare was not just for the down-and-out but rather a guarantee of equal opportunity for all.

In recent years, however, the charitable view has begun to return. With increasing prosperity and individual security, many citizens now see welfare as a residual safety net which they themselves, their families and friends, will never need to call on.

Welfare is now being justified more in terms of compassionate help for the long-term disadvantaged rather than as “social security” for all citizens. Significantly, F.A. Hayek, the philosophical guru of market capitalism, who famously attacked social justice as a “mirage”, still gave a prominent role to charity, both public and private, as a means of redressing individual hardship.

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This article first appeared in Eureka Street 23 January 2007.

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About the Author

Richard Mulgan is author of Holding Power to Account (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and a former professor in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU.

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