What do American evangelicals believe about social justice? This is not an easy question to answer because it largely depends on which evangelical you ask and at what point in time you asked them.
Broadly speaking, social justice refers to the equitable distribution of privileges and opportunities in society across racial, ethnic, and economic spectrums.
Throughout the decades, various issues of social justice, including racial equality and economic justice, have been debated on the pages of evangelical publications, in elder meetings, at congregational gatherings, and during denominational conferences. Further, these debates have often been shaped by historical and cultural contexts as much as they have been by underlying theological commitments.
Looking over the history of the evangelical movement, attitudes toward issues of social justice have never been monolithic. However, patterns have emerged that are instructive for evangelicals today who are seeking to understand how their faith ought to inform their civic engagement and vice versa.
Below is a brief overview of the historical controversies and movements within American evangelicalism with regard to social justice, beginning with a theological debate that began over a century ago.
1900s-1930s: The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy and the Social Gospel
Oddly enough, this discussion about evangelical attitudes toward social justice begins with Charles Darwin—and the theological shakeup in American Christianity that followed his rise to prominence.
When Darwin published his seminal work “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, setting forth his theory of evolutionary biology, he sent shockwaves not only through the scientific community but also the Christian church, calling into question literal interpretations of the creation account found in Genesis.
Coupled with the popularity of higher criticism, which rose to prominence around the same time and cast doubt on traditionally held views about the authorship and proper interpretation of certain biblical texts, many Christian thinkers began to reconsider certain theological commitments that had long defined Christian orthodoxy.1
Among the commitments being reconsidered were the literal virgin birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his miracles and atoning sacrifice on the cross, and the inspiration of Scripture. What emerged was a “modernist” version of Christianity that bore little resemblance to orthodox Protestantism.2
For example, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who would today be considered a progressive Christian and who was an early influencer in the higher criticism movement, once said, “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” To Schleiermacher, whether Jesus literally rose from the dead had little effect on this theology.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1930s, the modernist theological framework took hold of most mainline Protestant denominations and seminaries, resulting in conservative Christian leaders founding their own denominational networks and learning institutions.3 These conservative thinkers came to be known as fundamentalists, a name that was not yet derogatory and was derived from “The Fundamentals,” a series of 90 essays about essential Christian doctrines published between 1910 and 1915.
1 Bruce L. Shelley, “Church History in Plain Language,” 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 397-400.
2 Edward Engelbrecht, ed., “The Church From Age to Age: A History From Galilee to Global Christianity” (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2011), 818-819.
3 Ibid., 857-858.