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In 2009, America lost two political leaders whose names won’t soon be forgotten. They were two very different men, with very different ideas. They both, at one time, took a run at the presidency. One was a Democrat. One was a Republican. One was hailed as “a beacon of social justice” at his funeral. The other, by his life’s work, challenged the conventional idea that social justice is the work of the Left.
Ted Kennedy and Jack Kemp both died in 2009. The sitting senator from Massachusetts had an all-day televised funeral and burial. The former New York congressman had a standing-room-only send-off at National Cathedral, even if it didn’t have all the pomp accorded to the family that comes closest to royalty in the United States.
Live on MSNBC, one of Ted Kennedy’s sons hailed him as a “beacon of social justice,” a description that is rarely questioned, despite his insistence that America’s laws not defend the most innocent life among us. At a recent forum at the Heritage Foundation in D.C., Jeff Kemp, eldest son of Jack and Joanne and president of a group called Stronger Families, helped highlight his own father as a “social-justice conservative.”
The late-fall forum, “Hope, Growth, and Enterprise,” sought to take “Social Justice Lessons from the Life of Jack Kemp.” The tribute to the former secretary of housing and urban development was meant to be a “challenge” as well for “emerging conservative leaders” who are “interested in tackling poverty and social breakdown,” said Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic-policy studies at the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at Heritage. The gathering was meant, she said, to encourage “effective leaders who believe passionately in the promise of free societies for all people,” leaders who “creatively and energetically apply the ideas of free enterprise and free society to our most challenging” social problems. “As Jack Kemp’s example reminds us,” she explained, “social justice begins at the ground level where relationships foster the personal dignity and responsibility that lead to opportunity.”
Think tanks are famous for declaring, as Richard Weaver did, that “ideas have consequences.” But politics has to be directed toward “get[ting] them into action to help people” — which, Jeff Kemp said, was the whole point of his father’s political career.
Jack Kemp believed that it was an untruth that the welfare state was somehow the ending chapter of the civil-rights movement. He believed that free enterprise, including enterprise zones in the inner cities, rather than government handouts, was the key to freedom. And he found that the inner city agreed! He believed in the principle of subsidiarity, a tenet of Catholic social thought that teaches that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” Smaller organizations are local, and thus closer to the problems they seek to address. For Kemp, his heralding of free enterprise was about helping people to “meet their dreams,” to “be whatever God called them to be.” Again, in Jeff’s words, his father believed that “labor and capital are the same person in different stages in life. They are not against one another.”
Jeff Kemp remembered that his father believed, when he approached a campaign or a political battle, that “people were never the opponent. It was the ideas.” In his father’s tradition, Jeff Kemp’s tribute offered practical advice from his father’s career: If you don’t get someone’s vote the first cycle, keep campaigning there. Eventually the tide turns. Compete for the vote.
And so right now, the world may consider social justice a monopoly of the Left. But it’s not. This was not the first and won’t be the last confab on the right framed around the contention that “Social Justice Is Not What You Think It Is” (as another event hosted by Jennifer Marshall this past year was billed). It’s a contention that deserves to be aired. And the challenge has been laid down. It even has a website, restoringsocialjustice.com, where one reads: “We’re troubled that four out of 10 children and nearly seven out of 10 black children in America are born to unmarried mothers, a fact that will cast a long shadow down the course of a child’s life.” They worry that the supposed answers to poverty have turned into an industry with little connection to the people it claims to serve — and that government has eliminated the essential relationships in the solution-making process.
At the same time, Jeff Kemp warns: “Our ideas seem very principled and pure. But if we treat ourselves as if we have our act together and are the paragons of virtue and everyone can get it because we’ve got these good ideas, then we’ve set ourselves above others, and no one wants to learn from someone who’s setting themselves above others. It’s humility that allows your ideas to be transferred.”
That was Jack Kemp’s approach. It’s also what Ronald Reagan did when he attracted so many so-called Reagan Democrats. It’s how you win, and not just elections. It’s how you change the world.
“The character of a nation is determined by how we treat the least of God’s children” — that was a guiding principle by which Kemp operated, Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, explained during the Kemp forum. That’s only right. And it’s not Right or Left. Politics should be a competition of men seeking to ensure the freedom of men.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Copyright 2009, Kathryn Jean Lopez. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.