Science in Christian Perspective
Social Problems and Social Issues
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania 15010
From: JASA 21 (September 1969): 81-82.
In a dynamic society such as ours, one call no longer clearly expect to share opinions on social questions with other persons. Often the Christian feels threatened when he finds his views to he in discrepancy with those of his fellows. In order to appreciate the implications inherent in such differing viewpoints, one must first understand the differences between social problems and social issues.
A well accepted definition of social problems refers to them as "conditions which affect sizable proportions of the population, which are out of harmony with the values of a significant segment of the population, and which people feel can be improved or eliminated".1 The important point here is that social problems reflect social values. To agree with the mass of society, then, on the definition of a social problem produces an apparent agreement with its values. If one sees our society to be secularized as a result of the separation of the religious and secular spheres, it is to be expected that the Christian will, on occasion, find himself to be in a minority position.
What is more important, however, is that when the Christian agrees with the majority he also asks himself why he is in agreement. For instance, smoking and gluttony are viewed as social problems by many in our society, thanks to the support provided by modern medicine. The Christian has held this view for some time. It is important, however, that he keep the reasons for this position clearly in mind, otherwise the majority position might be held merely because it is supported by the majority.
The fundamental question, then, is to ask why the Christian is in agreement with the majority view on social questions. It may be because Christian traditions have been strongly aligned with the majority view in this country. It may also be that the individual seeks to avoid the minority position which appears to represent the forces of evil. Only in those cases where the minority position has been traditionally supported by a Christian apologetic may there be willingness to argue against the mass.
The critical point being developed here is that the secularization process in contemporary society cautions us not to assume that the majority position on a social problem is the appropriate one for the Christian. In fact, it might he preferable for him to join the deviant minority. This has been done by the Christian in isolated circumstances. Generally, however, the dichotomous circumstances which have existed in our society provided the Christian with a readily discernible perspective.
The critical point being developed here is that the secularization process in contemporary society cautions us not to assume that the majority position on a social problem is the appropriate one for the Christian.
The world in which we are living, however, can no longer be simply
Social problems are increasingly being replaced by social issues in which there
are no clear distinctions between majorities and minorities. Capital
birth control, violence, and race relations are all representative of
On such questions, it is imperative that the Christian clarify his position. As
is true with social problems, basic social values are being
questioned in social
issues. The need for the Christian to find himself engaged in the
arena of social
issues is based on the need to sharpen and strengthen those values
which are being
stretched by those issues.
It may very well be, however, that the Christian takes no position on social issues, not only because he is uncertain of what his position should be, but also because he fears that he will find himself in support of a deviant group as a result. The issue of "police brutality" is an appropriate one to refer to at this point. The individual may be reluctant to support criticism of the police because he feels that such an action would be in support of revolutionaries. What he overlooks, of course, is that he supports the majority group and the values which it espouses, whether those values are consistent with a Christian perspective or not.
One can say with a degree of confidence that the Christian scientist is particularly vulnerable on this point, since science has been the major factor in moving social problems into the sphere of social issues. Population problems, birth control, leisure, and war have all been made more complex as issues because of the influence of science. Thus, it is no longer possible for the scientist to say that he is "value free" in his science. He supports some group in society which desires his services.
It is critical to note, then, that in supporting values we also give positive recognition to groups by implication. In our attempts to remain "unspotted from the world", we have usually shunned those groups which appeared to take the non-Christian position on issues, as ambiguous as it might have been. By default, the Christian found himself comfortably ensconced in what is referred to as the Establishment or the power structure. For quite a long period of time, this bastion of the majority could be defended. This is no longer true. The weakening of a dichotomized society in which social problems were clearly understood brought with it a weakening of the power base which represented the majority.
The Christian is no longer sheltered by traditional social enclosures. Increasingly, the power structure has been taken over by secular forces, often in the name of Christianity. These forces maintain "an official position" of morality. In the attempt to maintain power, this morality has been propped up by traditional religious imagery. By implication, to question the power structure is to question the morality and the reality behind the imagery.
In this sense, then, the Christian can appreciate the needs of minorities which represent "unofficial positions". Their voices do not speak with the authority of tradition. Such a position is taken by the black community when it charges police with brutality and a corresponding attitude of permissiveness toward crime. Some legal authorities, representative of the official position, however, would have us believe that such claims are unwarranted. On the other hand, the criticism directed against the white Christian by the black man for the early support of the slave trade by the religious establishment is justified. Such accusations are, however, no longer clearly appropriate, since the secularization of the power structure has resulted in a separation from much Christian influence, Nevertheless, the Christian remains guilty by association.
This is not to say, of course, that the white Christian is guiltless today. Since he has often avoided asking the uncomfortable question, his discriminatory attitudes, reflective of values which can no longer be supported by doctrine or reason, still prevail. What is critical, however, is that he need not feel that he has to hold those attitudes. No longer is he in a clear majority. No longer does the majority represent an apparent virtue. Indeed, the Christian may find the unofficial position to be worthy of his support.
From this all too brief presentation, it should become apparent that the Christian needs to review his position on social issues. No longer can he take the majority side with assurance because he will often find himself in a secularized camp which simply desires to maintain its own power. Nor can he avoid contact with the minority position because it represents "the world". Society is too complex to allow for such a ready solution. Finally, it is necessary that he reevaluate the traditional reasons for holding views on questions which have separated him from the world. Lacking such a reevaluation, the Christian may find himself sleeping with very strange bedfellows indeed.
1Arnold M. Rose, "Theory for the Study of Social Problems", Social Problems, Vol. 4, 1957, p. 190