In his 1972 book A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher John Rawls argued that any social or economic disparities are ipso facto unjust, as they stem from a distribution of goods and status based on luck alone. In his recent book The Theology of Liberalism, Eric Nelson traces the roots of Rawls’s thinking to ancient Christian debates regarding free will and predestination, noting that in his early works on theology the philosopher firmly took the side of the “anti-Pelagians,” who believe salvation is unearned. Reviewing Nelson’s book, Tal Fortgang notes how strongly Rawlsian thought is echoed in the discussion of privilege by today’s progressives, and explains how Judaism fits in to Nelson’s understanding of Rawls:
Nelson lays bare more than just the weakness of progressive redistributionism. He also shows how its anti-liberal underpinnings actually invited the contemporary secular form of the old specter of Jew-hatred. Preceding Rawls in anti-merit analysis was Karl Marx, whose call for the abolition both of Jews and of capitalism hinged on an argument against merit itself. Marx’s criticism of liberalism’s tendency to estrange individuals from each other was for Marx, in Nelson’s words, “a manifestation of [liberalism’s] essential ‘Jewishness.’”
These anti-Jewish currents in Marxism flow neatly into Rawls’s anti-Pelagianism. . . . “The bargain scheme of redemption,” wrote Rawls of the notion that man can make claims on God’s justice, “manifests itself in the barrier of legalism in religion [Judaism] and in contract theories in politics.” Legalism, to the young Rawls, is the Judaized form of Pelagianism. It encourages man to accumulate merit through freely chosen adherence to the law and performance of commandments, and to present it to God as evidence of one’s desert.
This view of justice was rejected by the apostle Paul and deemed worthy of abolition by Marx, and it speaks to the corruption of Judaism, according to Rawls. “The best efforts in Judaism were so corrupted—not the worst, but the best,” Rawls wrote, for Judaism is mired in delusion about merit and God’s justice. Marxist and Rawlsian redistributionism, we must conclude, opposes not just the Jews but Judaism, rejecting the nature of man and God that the Hebrew Bible offers. Nelson’s sobering, rigorous, and difficult analysis reveals that Jews have every reason to find the logic of redistributionism troubling at its core, because at its core it is a rejection of Judaism itself.