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What Do Evangelicals Believe About Social Justice?: A Brief History

1990s: The Evangelical Racial Reconciliation Movement

Beginning in the early 1990s, a growing movement among evangelicals sought to bring about racial reconciliation, emphasizing personal relationships rather than political dynamics. 

Perhaps most notable among this movement was the Promise Keepers, an evangelical parachurch organization that began hosting men’s conferences, drawing crowds in the thousands. Their first event, held in July 1991, drew 4,200 men. During the conference, Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney committed to racial reconciliation, stating that if men of color were not a part of the men’s movement, God would not bless it. 

The second event drew a crowd of 52,000. 

“All future events would feature a diverse lineup of speakers, including Black preachers such as Tony Evans, E. V. Hill, Crawford Loritts, Wellington Boone, and A. R. Bernard,” writes journalist and historian Daniel Silliman. “At least one speaker would be assigned the task of addressing racism and leading the crowds in a prayer of repentance and a commitment to reconciliation.”

The racial reconciliation movement soon became popular, in part because of its emphasis on being apolitical. Framing reconciliation as a personal and spiritual matter, leaders in the movement never ventured to speak of policy stances. This was not a social justice movement.

Response to the message was largely positive, with the caveat that it was offered in small doses. In her book “Jesus and John Wayne,” historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez notes, “In 1996, for instance, 40 percent of complaints registered by [Promise Keepers] conference participants were negative responses to the theme of racial reconciliation.”

Be that as it may, in the coming years, evangelical pastors and church planters would begin to emphasize cultivating multiethnic congregations, championing diversity in their pews and on their stages.

Admittedly, this inclusion of people of color often had less effect on the culture of evangelical organizations than it did the complexion of the people featured in their promotional literature. However, the effects of the racial reconciliation movement continue to be significant. A recent study found that in 2019, 23% of evangelical churches had at least 20% racial or ethnic diversity in their attending membership. This was up from 15% in 2012 and 7% in 1998.

“Many Black Christians, especially men, invested themselves in the idea of racial reconciliation as well. They enthusiastically threw themselves into the evangelical racial reconciliation project in hopes of changing not only the church, but possibly even the whole country,” writes historian Jemar Tisby. “It seemed to be working.”

However, as Tisby notes, the movement’s focus on personal reconciliation to the neglect of social justice and systemic change has revealed itself as a glaring weakness in recent years. 

2010s-2020s: Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and ‘Wokeness’

Though the evangelical racial reconciliation movement seemed successful—and indeed in many ways was—the root assumptions of that movement, namely colorblindness, remained unchallenged in the minds of evangelicals. That is, until 2014 when a Black teen named Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, resulting in protests, riots, and the rise of Black Lives Matter

Some evangelicals were supportive of calls for reform, including influential pastor John Piper, who said in 2016 that although the Black Lives Matter organization holds views that are anti-Christian, “Patently, Black lives matter. That is true.”