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.
Surely, God could use the President for his own purposes, but the suggestion that political victory in light of the disrespect of minority groups is a sign of God’s favor is misguided. After all, what good is a powerful ally if supporting him forces Christians to overlook rhetoric and policies that downplay the image of God in others and exploit the most vulnerable people in our society?
But Trump’s disparaging remarks toward minority groups may prick few white Christian consciences because, for decades, these justice issues rarely have. Many Christians have long refused to acknowledge or even discuss issues like systemic racism, however obvious the historical case or how consistently our country is confronted by instances of deadly injustice. Addressing systemic issues is important because they exist and have negative consequences even when one isn’t directly supporting discrimination in its various forms. For instance, after decades of de jure segregation, disparities in education and housing don’t automatically disappear with changes in the law. They linger and can be perpetuated by hidden biases within culture and the structure of institutions.
For many, addressing racial injustice politically would involve the voluntary forfeiture of political capital and sideline concerns like abortion and religious liberty. For others, social justice blinds people of color to “real” sources of their plight—poor judgment and impiety.
On the other hand, many Christians rightly reject a narrow focus on personal piety at the exclusion of social concern. But it’s all too easy to run to the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Hurt—and determined to foil racist Bible thumpers—some believers embrace a social gospel that denies Christian convictions on family and sexual ethics. This position falls short of the biblical challenge to pursue sanctification by growing into the fullness of Christ. The character of Christ is not weighted in one direction toward loving compassion or ethical and moral clarity. It is perfectly balanced, emphasizing both.
The Civil Rights Movement was rooted in biblical narratives, strategically devised in churches and led by Christian clergy. Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke plainly of their aims as “the cause of Christ,” insisting that they were “daringly proclaiming the good news of the gospel.”
Today, many of our most popular social justice movements are rooted instead in an ideology that substitutes faith in God for faith in human progress and seeks to undermine structures and values that limit individual choice. The recent Women’s March excluded a pro-life groups from its list of sponsor organizations. Meanwhile, one of the guiding principles of the founding organization behind Black Lives Matter movement is “disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.”
In their zeal for social justice, many Christians have failed to distinguish themselves from the secular left, embracing the modern idea that one must affirm all forms of self-expression in order to recognize the dignity of all people. Consequently, their pursuit of social justice requires the surrender of biblical values that inform our views of gender, sex, and the sanctity of life.
While today’s movements bring attention to important issues, Christians who wish to participate in their aims will need to be honest with themselves about their shortcomings. Because justice is so important to God, it’s tempting to join in on any cause that purports to fight for it. But Christians who care about social justice must at times draw ideological lines to preserve the integrity and authenticity of their faith. At times, Christians will need to actively vocalize the flaws in these initiatives, even if we fear that conservatives will use our criticism to dismiss the cause.
Yet Christians should consistently advocate for and partner with others on behalf of the common good. The Freedom Riders are an example of how diverse individuals can partner to better society. Black Christians and white liberals, southerners and northerners, the educated and uneducated all suffered and sacrificed together to change the country. They emphasized justice and common ground to support a goal that was bigger than themselves. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wouldn’t have passed without the efforts of groups from different demographics and ideologies.
Another element crucial to bridging the Christian divide on social justice is both sides holding their leaders accountable for uncompassionate rhetoric and policy. Many Christians have failed to condemn Trump’s criticisms of minorities, refugees, and immigrants. On other hand, social justice Christians who didn’t speak out when Hillary Clinton said believers need to change their “deep-seated” beliefs or were mum when Planned Parenthood was caught on video discussing selling body parts perpetuated distrust from those on the other side. Christians on both sides compromise fidelity to Scripture when political victories are on the line. Their errors don’t have to be equivalent to both be wrong and detrimental. Further, this silence only mutually increases suspicion that their counterparts may not be driven by best intentions.
Evangelical Christians’ historic failure to stand up to groups like the White Citizens Council and leaders like Bull Connor still impacts the lives of people of color. This will linger until it’s recognized in repentance and actively addressed with restorative measures. The movement will need to travel a painful road to restoration without deflecting in the face of piercing examination. There are no painless or half-hearted shortcuts to reconciliation.
Christians have been called to speak the truth in love, a command that bears itself out in the tone, focus, and substance of social and political outreach. Social justice that has the gospel at the center is both active and redemptive. It liberates us from both an oppressive society and our own personal depravity. It dismantles injustice and speaks the truth, no matter how unpopular, and sees our natural desires for what they are—flawed and deceptive. A church that actively embraces compassion and conviction in the public square will find itself emerging from clouds of apathy and rage with an exceptional message for a world gone wrong.
Justin Giboney is an attorney, political strategist and the President of the AND Campaign.