Last week FOX personality Glenn Beck criticized churches that talk about “social justice,” calling it a code word for Nazism and Communism.

Setting aside the part about fascists and Communists, his comments sounded vaguely familiar. When I read Beck’s words, I immediately thought of a book I first encountered twenty years ago. Published by the United Methodist Abingdon Press, it declared that “justice is a bad idea for Christians.”

Anyone familiar with the recent history of Christian theology would have no trouble recognizing the voice of Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas. Far from a partisan of FOX News, he has been a vocal opponent of America’s wars. All of them. Rejecting the God-and-country rhetoric of the Moral Majority, he once explained “why Jerry Falwell is such a pain.” Aside from a profile in "Time" magazine, he has little in common with Glenn Beck.

Unlike Mr. Beck, Hauerwas thinks that “freedom” and “Christian America" are bad ideas. Like his interrogation of the J-word, his critique of these notions is rooted in the conviction that the Enlightenment assumptions of the modern state have corrupted Christian thinking. Like the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, he has challenged the provenance of such taken-for-granted concepts, questioning the influence of Kantian philosophy on contemporary ideas of justice. From this perspective, the key questions are, “Whose justice? Which rationality?”

In the wake of the controversy over Glenn Beck, these are good questions to keep in mind. Though Hauerwas may have engaged in hyperbole, his critique is a reminder of the incommensurable ways Americans have talked about social and economic justice.

Not surprisingly, the phrase “social justice” appears 894 times on the web site of Sojourners, where it is associated with government health care and civil rights. Less well-known is the release of a six-lesson DVD series on social justice by the Heritage Foundation. Assuming that “social justice is not what you think it is,” the curriculum argues that government “doesn’t bear sole -- or even primary responsibility for justice,” a view echoed by the conservative Acton Institute.

Since the nineteenth-century, social justice has meant different things to different people. Coined by the Italian Jesuit Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, it has been embraced by such diverse figures as Pope John XXIII, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Mother Teresa.

On occasion, it has been co-opted by bigots, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, a notorious anti-Semite. Known as the “radio priest,” he founded the National Union for Social Justice in 1934. Though Glenn Beck has portrayed Coughlin as an exemplar of “liberal fascism” (a concept that has been debunked by serious historians), the Detroit demagogue was anything but, turning his vitriol against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Federal Reserve, and an imaginary conspiracy of Jewish bankers.

Coughlin’s bigotry is a reminder of the plasticity of moral language. So are the contradictory references to social justice in contemporary America. Any phrase that can be embraced by the Heritage Foundation and the Nation does not have a stable meaning.

Like Father Coughlin, Glenn Beck has used the airwaves to play on the darker impulses in American culture. Fanning the flames of paranoia and suspicion, he has advanced a conspiratorial view of American politics. His smears against justice-oriented churches are part of the same toxic rhetoric.

Though Beck’s rant was misguided, it has provoked an important conversation. As religious leaders rise to defend social justice, they should take care to explain what they mean.

John Schmalzbauer is a sociologist of religion teaching at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.