Established in 1977 by a group of citizens “interested in developing and communicating an integrated biblical view of political service and responsible government,” the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) is a Christian entity describing itself as “an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to policy research and civic education.” CPJ strives to disseminate its message as broadly as possible via the publications it produces, the speeches and interviews that its officials and spokespersons give in public forums, and the various educational programs it sponsors. The Center also seeks to influence public policy directly by submitting briefs in court cases and assigning staffers to contact and advise lawmakers on the local, state, and national levels. Moreover, CPJ administers a leadership-development program designed to recruit and train individual citizens who demonstrate the potential to someday become political leaders who could conceivably inject the Center’s values and agendas into public policy. While CPJ focuses primarily on domestic governance and civic responsibility, it also addresses some issues related to foreign policy and international relations.
Professing to work “outside the familiar categories of right and left, conservative and liberal,” CPJ encourages Christians—whether or not they serve in elected office—to do everything in their power to “transform public life” by heeding “God’s call to do justice” and working to “establish the proper relationship between government and nongovernmental responsibilities in society.” Lamenting that too many citizens “mistrust government” and thus become “disengaged from the political process,” the Center aims to help Republicans and Democrats alike to achieve the type of “bipartisan agreement” that is “all too rare” in today’s political climate.
Some of CPJ’s policy positions are consistent with conservative political and social values. Others are much more consistent with left-wing values. This report will look first at those that can be described as conservative, either in whole or in part.
Religion in the Public Square
Turning first to the issue of religion in the public square, CPJ advocates a “principled pluralism” that: (a) is “firmly opposed to the public establishment of any religion”—a position consistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and (b) adamantly “reject[s] the idea of a sacred/secular dichotomy that would confine religions to a private sphere.” Says the Center:
“A mistaken interpretation [of the First Amendment] contends that the ‘free exercise’ of religion and the prohibition of any ‘establishment’ of religion mean that religion is a private matter and that there is no requirement for the equal treatment of diverse religious practices in public life. However, the free exercise of religion does not require its privatization but rather the guarantee that all citizens receive equal treatment. Thus, neither a particular religion nor secularism may be established in public life. Instead, government should uphold public pluralism.”
CPJ maintains that “government has a responsibility to fund equitably all the types of education which it certifies, which includes religiously organized schools.” Toward that end, the Center supports the use of “state education vouchers” as “the best means of covering tuition costs equitably” for students who attend schools that are not part of the public education system.
CPJ’s stance on abortion is consistent with a pro-life perspective. Says the Center: “Abortion entails the taking of human life and is a violation of the life-generating process. Therefore, abortion should not be allowed under public law as an ordinary or standard means of family planning, or for the social and psychological convenience of those responsible for a pregnancy…. As a life-ending act, abortion should never be legalized as a freedom right of those responsible for a pregnancy…. [It] should require public-legal authorization, and then only under circumstances of unusual danger to the pregnant woman.”
On the matter of poverty in American society, CPJ asserts that “citizens should not expect the solution to come chiefly from the assistance programs of federal and state governments,” but that it should come instead from “the private sector, [which] often has structures which can better promote the sort of personalized poor relief relied upon in many different eras.”
This stance is somewhat counterbalanced, however, by the Center’s claim that “often … only government is able to provide the fiscal resources needed to lift people out of poverty” by means of “large-scale programs.” Examples of such programs suggested by the Center include an initiative designed to liberate citizens from the economic constraints of government: “changing the tax code to make it easier for people to work their way out of poverty.” Another calls for government to demand that citizens take personal responsibility for their actions: “passing tougher child support laws to make it more costly for men who leave their families without any support.” Other CPJ prescriptions, by contrast, emphasize government’s obligation to dispense publicly funded benefits like “job training, education, child care, and health care” for low-income people.
Dealing With Terrorism
CPJ acknowledges that “responding to unjust foreign aggression by means of war can, under certain limited conditions, be part of ‘achieving justice.’” But the organization dismisses the slogan, “war against terrorism,” as “insufficient and overly broad.” “A true end to conspiratorial terrorism requires, for the most part, cooperative international policing and the strengthening of just governance under the rule of law throughout the world,” says the Center.
Significantly, CPJ rejects the narrative which states that Islamic terrorists are not authentic Muslims, but merely fringe extremists who are trying to exploit an otherwise peaceful faith by misrepresenting its tenets in order to justify their abominable deeds. Said CPJ in the aftermath of 9/11:
“We may not know exactly what the terrorists intended when they committed the terrible acts of September 11, but we do know that Osama bin Laden articulated for his movement a vision of life and death and judgment that he grounds in Islam. His religiously deep view of life and sense of mission may be rejected by many Muslims as deviant and offensive, but it may not be written off by Americans as merely the passion of a madman, or a man without conscience, or someone filled with hatred. Those in the American media and political leadership who paint bin Laden with this brush make a serious mistake, especially when they couple their moral dismissal of bin Laden with an uncritical and approving nod toward the peace-loving, civilized religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and the goodness of all civilized people generally.… In the first dimension, the error leads Americans away from seeking to understand Islam and Al Qaeda’s place within Islam and makes it impossible to grasp why bin Laden’s exploits have met with such enthusiastic sympathy from millions of people.”
“Public welfare assistance,” says CPJ, “must not substitute for, but rather supplement and be coordinated with, help rendered by family, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers.” Moreover, the Center states that “welfare should be designed as temporary assistance” rather than as “long-term income maintenance,” and “should include both incentives to promote self-sufficiency and disincentives to an ongoing reliance on welfare.”
CPJ POSITIONS THAT ARE CONSISTENT WITH THE LEFT
Vis à vis the issues discussed thus far, CPJ’s positions have been consistent, either in whole or part, with conservative values and worldviews. Now we will turn to an exploration of areas where the organization’s views contain elements that, to varying degrees, more closely approximate the positions of the Left.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
For decades, CPJ has drawn a moral equivalence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the early and mid-1990s, for instance, it published essays that lamented “the continuing turmoil caused by rejectionist extremists on both sides,” and “the continued vicious cycles of killing, revenge, and devastation”—as though neither side could be held more culpable than its counterpart.
Such narratives, moreover, were liberally peppered with assertions that the primary source of disharmony in the Middle East was the Jewish state. For example, the aforementioned essays declared that “Israel must stop its repression of the Palestinians”; that “satisfaction of the Palestinian desire for self-rule is the cornerstone for building a more stable and peaceful Middle East”; that Israel’s “refus[al] to allow meaningful autonomy” for the Palestinians was a major reason why the Jewish state felt “the need for continued use of force in trying to control and dominate the West Bank and Gaza”; that Israel could “gain the recognition it has always sought in the region,” if only it would cast aside its obstinacy and finally live up to its obligation to “dea[l] equitably with the Palestinian negotiators”; that the Palestinian call for “a complete Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders” was a position “supported by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242” (an incorrect assertion); that such a withdrawal “is made much more complicated by Israeli actions … especially the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as well as construction in and around Jerusalem”; and that it was unclear exactly “what Israel is willing to concede in return for peace with its neighbors.”
“Perhaps the most serious obstacle to the pursuit of a balanced outcome” in the Holy Land was “the overwhelming strength of the Israeli side,” CPJ-published reports opined in the ’90s, adding that it was incumbent upon the Jewish state’s most vital benefactor—the United States—to “advise Israel not to impose unacceptable terms on the Palestinians.” “Now,” these reports added, “is the time for the United States to prove itself a friend to the Palestinian people and to help welcome them into the family of nations, just as it did Israel in 1948.” Thus could America help “constructively channel the energies and talents of the six million stateless Palestinians into a positive force in the Middle East.”
In more recent times, CPJ has promoted the notion that neither side in the Arab-Israeli conflict has staked out the moral high ground for itself, and that both parties are equally to blame for the hostilities that exist. In March 2015, for example, the Center published a commentary stating that “both sides in this brutal affair have used whatever strategy, tactics, and weapons they have had access to at various times”; that “both sides engage in incredible violence, are guilty of atrocities, and have blood on their hands”; and that “it has become a contest of two scorpions in a bottle—a militarily strong state that is becoming stuck in its self-righteous, narrow understanding of its own region and a misguided notion of the solutions that will ensure its own survival, and a stateless, stubborn people who resent their plight, subservience, poverty, and lack of sovereignty.”
Also outspoken on environmental issues, CPJ seeks to sound “a moral alarm” regarding “the growing scientific evidence of climate change and the role that humans are playing in that change” by engaging in industrial activity that emits large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Emphasizing that the need to take concrete action against this purportedly deadly phenomenon is “urgent,” the Center advocates the passage of “national legislation” such as “a cap-and-trade program” requiring “economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.”
On the issue of race, CPJ has provided a forum for critics who view the United States as a country awash in intractable racism and discrimination. Just prior to the 2012 presidential election, for instance, the Center’s weekly current-affairs publication, Capital Commentary, featured a piece suggesting that “poll taxes” against poor, nonwhite minorities and immigrants were still “prolific”; that these “taxes” were cleverly “masked as voter identification laws requiring photo [IDs]” at polling places on election day; and that the recent “flurry of photo identification activity” was, at its root, a “xenophobic” response to the fact that “a black President” (Barack Obama)—whose “victory [would] be predicated on the turnout of minorities and the poor”—“threaten[ed] to darken the door of the White House again.” In the final analysis, the author exhorted Christians to “see the new poll taxes for what they are: unjust weapons of racial, class, and cultural warfare.”
During the healthcare reform debates of 2009-10, CPJ was a vocal advocate of a comprehensive, far-reaching transformation of the existing system—as opposed to a patchwork of small changes “confined to bargaining within narrow limits.” The need for such sweeping reform, said the Center, was evidenced by the fact that “our American healthcare system does not compare very favorably with the systems of other developed countries” when considering such factors as life expectancy, cost, access to care, and treatment success rates.
In September 2011, CPJ published a guest commentary suggesting that “free markets do not generally work in the health care economy,” just as “many liberal solutions” such as “single-payer care” and “government-mandated price controls” likewise “fail to control costs.” “In the short term,” the piece suggested, “the best hope for fair, but effective, health care cost control comes in a variety of provisions in the 2010 health reform legislation [Obamacare]]: Accountable Care Organizations; electronic medical records; payment per episode of care, instead of by number of procedures; bundled payments and shared savings models to encourage hospitals, physicians, and patients to coordinate care more closely; [and] interdisciplinary ‘medical homes’ for persons with chronic conditions.”
In 2014, CPJ published a commentary that: (a) lauded Obamacare for having “made substantial progress in reducing the number of Americans without health coverage,” and (b) expressed concern that “continued Republican control of the House (and perhaps the Senate) will mean attempts to starve the law of funds for implementation.” Moreover, the piece endorsed the Catholic Health Association’s assertion that while the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was “not perfect,” it represented “a real start on the road to health security for millions of people.”**
With regard to the issue of immigration, CPJ depicts the United States as a nation that has not treated illegal immigrants in a fair manner. Says the Center:
“It is unjust to put most or all of the penalty for law breaking on illegal or noncompliant immigrants and few or none on the businesses who hire them. It makes no sense for the federal government to pass laws that neither it nor the states can or will enforce. It is dishonoring and counterproductive for a government to establish immigration laws but not to supply sufficient means to process people who wish to immigrate legally or sufficient means to deny entry to those who try to immigrate illegally.”
Building on those premises, CPJ reasons that “Congress and the president need to rectify the injustice done to those—probably 11 to 12 million people—who are now living and working in the U.S. illegally. Putting them on a clear path to citizenship seems the only proper course.”
The Debt Crisis
To address America’s ever-worsening debt crisis, CPJ calls for targeted cuts in federal spending—but always with an eye toward sparing “appropriate investments in things like education and infrastructure.” In addition, the Center advocates taxation reforms that would “remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive.” Further, it supports Social Security reforms that “slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security.”
In 2011, CPJ officials Stephanie Summers and Gideon Strauss joined a number of influential evangelical leaders in drafting a statement that urged Congress “not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” Specifically, they proposed “cutting defense spending, curbing health care costs, closing corporate tax loopholes and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, and cutting wasteful subsidy programs, while fully funding domestic and international programs that empower and protect the most vulnerable and prevent hunger and suffering.”
In its approach to economic matters generally, on the one hand CPJ supports “a market economy” and “entrepreneurship” that promotes “the independent exercise of profit-making production and exchange.” But conversely, the Center emphasizes that “free-market capitalism is no more capable, by itself, of achieving public justice, or family well-being, or educational excellence, than is government, by itself, capable of achieving a flourishing economy.” Explicitly and bluntly “rejecting” what it terms “rugged individualism,” CPJ favors some degree of wealth redistribution, which it euphemizes as: (a) “a healthy, loving interdependence with others,” and (b) the pursuit of “the common good” by means of “pool[ing] resources” and placing “the needs of others ahead of our own.”
CPJ contends that government has a crucial role to play in facilitating the functioning of the nation’s economy: “[I]t properly falls to government to establish weights and measures; provide the legal definition of corporations, labor organizations, and property; determine tax and tariff policies; mandate health and safety standards; and guard against restrictive monopolies and other dangers to public health and well-being.”
CPJ has received funding from such sources as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Stewardship Foundation.