Monday, July 30, 2012

When did Social Service become Social Justice?

Dan McKanan’s response back to my question on the UU History Listserv.  Each year at my Church’s SJ Committee retreat we bounce back and forth on a mission statement.  My lone dissent always that we need something in the statement on the personal spiritual growth we get out of our work.

Now, with a whole SJ General Assembly, I thought it worth while asking what UUs have meant by these words in the past.  That search brought to my attention that we sometimes talked of Service and sometimes of Justice.  Dan, who’s written the book on it, responded back, and gave me permission to repost here. Your thoughts back welcomed. 

Bill's question about "social service" and "social justice" is a fascinating

one. I did a google "Ngram" search on this, which revealed that both terms

came into widespread use in American English in the first two decades of the twentieth century, which suggests that both are products of the social

gospel movement (with Catholic social teaching doubtless contributing to

the trend). Usage increased steadily until 1940, declined until 1960, then

increased again. The term "social service" was generally more widely used

than "social justice," but around 1980 the former flattened out while the

latter began a steady upward trend, becoming more common in the late 1990s.


As far as I can tell, the terms were used interchangeably by the social

gospelers who organized denominational fellowships to promote social gospel ideas within their particular denominations. Thus, there was the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, in which John Haynes Holmes was a key player, alongside the Universalist Commission on Social Service, organized by Clarence Skinner and Frank Oliver Hall. The Methodists also opted for "service"--Methodist Federation for Social Service--though that organization spent a lot of time agitating for systematic social change. So I would be suspicious of any attempt to find a sharp distinction between the two terms between 1900 and 1920--it is a situation comparable to the different labels used for queer-friendly congregations in different denominations--welcoming, reconciling, open and affirming, more light, etc.


Bill said that as a young socialist he was taught that "social justice" was

a term used by Catholics to co-opt the socialist agenda. I suspect this

interpretation emerged in response to Father Charles Coughlin, the 1930s

priest who blended economic radicalism with anti-Semitism and enthusiasm for European fascism. Coughlin's movement and periodical both used the phrase "social justice," which may have forced others to avoid the term.


The Unitarian Service Committee used the term "service" because it was

modeled on the American Friends Service Committee (organized during WWI), which in turn used "service" because its original mission was to provide alternative forms of wartime service for conscientious objectors.


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