In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis warns that the enemy sends errors in pairs: "He relies on our dislike of one to send us into the opposite." We’re all prone to address an evil that offends or victimizes us by embracing its flawed opposite. Nowhere is this clearer than the current relationship the church has with social justice, where many American Christians inadvertently embrace the extreme of uncompassionate individualism or permissive secularism. Both are a corruption of the grace and truth that is the gospel, and both feed into one another in subtle but devious ways.
Many conservative Christians reject involvement in what has come to be known as the Christian social justice movement. To them, participation in this movement compromises doctrine by pursuing a false gospel that emphasizes cultural identity, social engineering, and earthly liberation over repentance and spiritual liberation from sin. This world becomes the focus and God’s law is replaced by interpretations of the human experience and relativism. To them, the achievements of this worldly bunch are negated by the frayed social fabric left in their wake. For instance, while they agree with equal treatment under the law for women, many believe the women’s equality movement has become an effort to deny natural gender distinctions and ultimately, to subside biological difference. Accurate or not, many evangelical Christians have used this narrative as justification to disparage and obstruct efforts connected with social justice.
At best, this line of reason ignores injustice; at worst, it rationalizes the church’s participation in the oppressive status quo. From the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration today, overlooking systemic injustices prolongs the suffering of our brothers and sisters. And in an ironic twist, this posture results in fertile ground for the growth of a secularized social gospel influencing the next generation of believers, who struggle to find justice seekers in the evangelical church. In other words, pushing back against social justice has made the “social justice warrior” caricature an attractive reality. Indeed, the majority culture church’s social justice neglect has allowed groups outside—and at times opposed to—the church to fill that gap.
It should be difficult to read the gospels without being overwhelmed by the force of Jesus’ social concern. Whether it's the adulterous woman, the Good Samaritan, or Jesus commanding us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus both models and commands active concern for our neighbor's well-being. This involves more than a "bless your heart" moment or honorable but distant charity. In James 2:15–17, the apostle articulates the insufficiency of well-wishing without action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric that has taken hold in evangelicalism has, purposefully or not, partitioned concepts of social justice from the whole of the gospel. Franklin Graham recently admitted that President Trump won despite disrespecting marginalized groups, among others: “He did everything wrong, politically. … He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States.” Based on these facts, Graham then concluded, “Only God could do that. … No question” that God is supporting Trump.