The modernist movement did not remain confined within the walls of seminaries or theological discourse. It also affected how many activists understood their task of pursuing social justice. Around the same time, the Social Gospel movement featured prominently in American Christianity and centered on social justice issues, such as racial justice, poverty, child labor, environmental protections, unionization, and anti-war activism.4
Many within the Social Gospel movement were orthodox Christians, and from the beginning of the movement in the latter decades of the 19th century, its stated purpose was to testify to the good news of Jesus both in word and in deed to see God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
However, the movement later came to be seen as advocating for social justice without gospel proclamation. Consequently, fundamentalists tended toward counterbalance by focusing entirely on gospel proclamation to the detriment of social justice.
In fact, expressing concern for social justice issues eventually became cause for suspicion among fundamentalists as to a person’s commitment to orthodox theology. That is, social justice increasingly became associated with theological liberalism.
Thus, many evangelicals came to oppose social programs that they may have endorsed and even lobbied for a generation previous, particularly when it came to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and other expansive government programs aimed at reducing poverty during the Great Depression—measures many evangelicals saw as akin to communism.
“Evangelicals were convinced that Franklin Roosevelt was laying the foundation for a revolution,” writes historian Allen Cornwell. “His controversial policies, expansion of his power as chief executive, and connections with bankers and politicians seemed to parallel biblical descriptions of the general unrest reflected in the last days.”
This association between social justice and heterodoxy remained strong in the minds of many evangelicals for decades to come, even long after the Social Gospel movement had petered out.
1940s-1950s: Dispensationalism, Carl F.H. Henry, and ‘The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism’
In conjunction with suspicion toward the Social Gospel movement and its legacy, American evangelicals increasingly embraced a theological doctrine that further disincentivized social justice efforts: dispensationalism.
Though the system of theology was originally developed by John Nelson Darby in the mid-19th century and embraced by contemporaries such as D.L. Moody, the term “dispensationalist” did not become a self-aware identity marker among evangelicals until the late 1930s and early 1940s, as notes historian Daniel G. Hummel.
The theological system, which is “premillennial,” posits that the world and the cultures therein will continue in moral decay until Christians are taken out of the world (an event known as “the rapture”) and a period of tribulation begins. To dispensationalists, only after the “great tribulation” has concluded will Christ make his glorious return to reign on earth for a thousand years.
In contrast to the postmillennial viewpoint, which predominated a century previous and posited that the moral and social activism of the church would itself hasten Christ’s return, dispensationalists came to broadly see social justice as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
4 Shelley, 412-415.