The Critical Church? American Christianity and the Social Justice Temptation
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, an intense debate has erupted in the United States on issues of justice in policing specifically, and racial justice more broadly. American Christians have taken to the debate with vigor, with some indicting various Christian denominations for being insufficiently responsive to racial inequality or injustice, while others emphasize the vital role Christians played in the abolitionist and civil rights movements. These claims are not mutually exclusive. Despite their shared commitment to love their neighbor and seek justice for the oppressed, American Christians may be rooting these commitments in very different understandings of what “justice” entails. But justice is a central theme of the biblical narrative, and its meaning for Christians must therefore be defined by those textual boundaries.
Failure to recognize and articulate the distinctions between competing conceptions of justice will frustrate discussions between even well-meaning Christians and hamper engagement with those outside the Church. Believers must be able to identify the various conceptual influences on their thinking, and how those may differ from the first principles of their faith. To attempt to define justice in America today, Christians must consider widely varying interpretations of U.S. history, contrasting definitions of both historical and current forms of injustice, and divergent conceptions of human nature. This state of affairs makes it challenging even to agree on whether injustice is manifest in a given situation, let alone what an appropriate response should be. Unfortunately, a potent ideology has subtly infiltrated discussions on how best to respond to this moment of social strife and racial tension, inside and outside the Church. Christians must resist it.
Social Justice Ideology vs. Christian Orthodoxy
In their recent book, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay usefully contrast social justice (a broad sensibility about achieving general fairness in society and righting societal wrongs) with “Social Justice” (a specific body of theory). Traditionally, Christianity has framed the idea of social justice in terms of specific instances of oppression or inequality brought about by unjust, and therefore sinful, actions. Those actions could occur at the purely individual level or be channeled through a range of institutions. They could ultimately be traced to identifiable oppressors who should and would be held responsible for their actions, whether in this life or the next. The role of individual Christians, and the Church corporately, was to identify injustice, to speak and work against it in their own lives and in the ministry of their churches, and, when applicable, in their broader political community. This understanding asserted a common humanity, with each person created in the image and likeness of God and recognized as a moral agent who will be judged by God on that individual basis because “all have sinned.”
Social Justice, by contrast, rejects the notion that justice occurs when exercises of moral agency, by individuals and the spectrum of human institutions, align with God’s intent for His creation. Rather, Social Justice utilizes various Critical Theories to engage in what Pluckrose and Lindsay refer to as applied postmodernism, which focuses on hidden structures of systemic power as the root cause of all societal injustice or inequality. Social Justice adherents thus concern themselves primarily with identifying and criticizing discourses, which are frames of language or knowledge that reinforce the structures used to oppress or marginalize those who are not members of the dominant identity group. Accordingly, the idea of a common humanity populated by individuals who derive their primary identity from their created-ness (“I am a person with these attributes”) is rejected in favor of a definition of identity as membership in a group or groups based on one’s attributes (“I am this/these attribute(s)”).
Consider, for example, the recent National Educator Anti-Racism Conference held online last month, which according to one report attracted more than 6,000 teachers from 7 states. Anti-racist teachers, the keynote speaker explained, are those who recognize that “racism exists in our school system,” agree that “to do nothing about the racism in our school system is to be complicit,” and make “a commitment to fight against white supremacy in our school system by working with communities of color and by allowing their work to be led by those communities.” Describing the intersection of anti-racism (a subset of Social Justice ideology) and teaching math, another conference speaker is quoted saying, “Learning how to be an anti-racist math teacher has a lot to do with the self and less to do with math content … I try to help our secondary teachers understand that poverty, segregation, gentrification, all of these things [are] going to impact your child sitting in your geometry class.”
Thus, applying Social Justice ideology with regard to race in education demands that every aspect of American schooling – from curriculum to norms and expectations – must assume the existence of hidden structures of systemic oppression against non-white students. Any disparities in educational outcomes are therefore de facto racist, and any standard that cannot be achieved proportionally across racial groups must be illegitimate. The exact contours of the alleged systemic oppression need not be well-defined, but the theme must be comprehensively applied. To be clear, this is not to argue that there are no subtle biases (or even not-so-subtle ones) against which racial minorities must contend; rather, the problem is the assumption that the structural nature of that bias strips those students of their ability to overcome those biases and exercise moral agency in the world. By absolving children of the responsibility for their moral choices, Social Justice ideology actually degrades those it intends to lift up by removing any expectation of individual moral action, regardless of the deleterious consequences.
This distinction between possessing one’s attributes and being one’s attributes has profound consequences for the manner in which modern American Christianity engages with the society it inhabits. Where orthodox Christianity asserts, “All humans, though infinitely variable in attributes, are equally valued by God as such,” Social Justice responds, “Humans have no intrinsic identity beyond the intersection of their attributes, and by their membership in larger groups of people who share those attributes.” When orthodox Christianity stipulates that “All humans are individual moral agents and will be held responsible for their own thoughts and actions,” Social Justice counters that “No individual has true agency; all human experiences and actions are subject to differential power structures that limit true freedom of thought and action.”
Competing Faith Propositions
The Christian understanding of fundamental objective truth (a Creator God exists, He has a specific and discernable will for His creation, and He loves and desires a relationship with individual human beings) is thus cast aside. Replacing it is a relativistic and deeply ironic belief that human experience, as determined by one’s attributes and consequent social position in various power structures, is the only objectively true way of knowing. When Christians engage with those who knowingly or unknowingly adopt the tenets of Social Justice ideology, they must realize that they are really dealing with a competing faith. Christians should not enter into interfaith dialogue assuming that all parties agree on first principles. In the same way, Christians engaging with Social Justice claims should recognize their interlocutors’ expectations of unquestioning assent as an invitation not to discussion, but rather conversion.
The Appeal and Alarm of Identity-By-Attribute
So why has Social Justice ideology been able to make inroads into modern American Christianity? The reasons are extensive and varied, but chief among them is the subtle genius by which the Social Justice focus on identity-by-attribute and experiential knowledge has exploited Jesus’s admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians have long disagreed on the details, but there has been general agreement that love for our fellow humans does not involve support for sinful behavior, as expressed in the hoary old cliché: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Social Justice ideology collapses this distinction, rendering individuals inextricable from their attributes and subjecting them to a form of crude, impersonal determinism in their thoughts and actions. For example, Christians could no longer say, “I love the person, but I cannot support his or her acting on feelings of same-sex attraction because that would be sinful” because Social Justice maintains as an article of faith that his or her same-sex attraction is the defining feature of that person’s identity and life experiences. Therefore, if we accept the premises of Social Justice ideology, any questioning of an assertion based on an identity attribute is a de facto questioning of the person (and the group that shares the attribute). As a result, efforts to draw a contrary distinction are considered obtuse at best and deliberately hateful at worst.
Christian Engagement with Social Justice
So how should Christians and the Church proceed? At the outset of any discussion, great care should be given to defining terms so all parties can understand the ground on which the dialogue is taking place. Using the same words does not always represent an intent to convey the same meaning. Much of the heat generated by discussions of social justice issues is a result of a failure to clarify both the overt meaning as well as the assumptions underlying certain words or phrases, which allows both sides to impute positions to the other that they may not hold.
Christians should also intuitively understand the unfalsifiable nature of faith propositions, and adjust their expectations accordingly. Just as Christians were likely not convinced by empiricism to place their faith in God, they are unlikely to reason their discussion partner out of a faith in systemic racism, for example. Moreover, every effort should be made to tease out the specific situations that underlie claims of systemic injustice – otherwise it remains an unfalsifiable abstraction that does very little work in a real conversation.
Christians should always be willing to listen to the experiences of others and can acknowledge those experiences as formative for the speaker without stipulating that they necessarily point to any deeper truth. The Church can provide an institutional setting for these discussions to take place and be synthesized, situating personal experiences in the context of Christian orthodoxy. Ultimately, the Church must patiently but persistently make the positive case for its faith propositions and first principles while its congregants demonstrate those principles via their actions in the world.
Matters of injustice are at the forefront of the minds of Americans across the political, ideological, and religious spectrum. The Church, embodied in real congregations, must grapple with and address racism and other forms of injustice in a sober, sustained, and creative manner. The emerging Social Justice ideology, however, remains entirely off-limits for Christians. Its tenets are fundamentally incompatible with a Christian view of the human person and of reality itself.
Nathan Berkeley is the Communications Director and Research Coordinator with the Religious Freedom Institute, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. committed to advancing religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.
Phil Rexroth is a former federal law enforcement officer who holds Master’s degrees in World Politics and Strategic Intelligence.