By Christopher Reese
Nov 17, 2023
It’s obvious to any observant Christian in America that we live in a time in which religion is marginalized by the culture-forming institutions of the country—education, media, and big business, to name a few. As philosopher Charles Taylor has famously argued, in the West we live in a disenchanted world that rejects the existence of the supernatural and instead views reality through the “immanent frame”—a natural, material order that operates without reference to transcendent meaning.1
This doesn’t mean, however, that human beings are any less “religious.” We are spiritual beings made in God’s image, and as such God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). As one commentator on this verse explains, “The eternity of God’s dealings with mankind corresponds to something inside us: we have a capacity for eternal things, are concerned about the future, want to understand ‘from the beginning to the end’, and have a sense of something which transcends our immediate situation.”2 Augustine echoed the same thought when he wrote, “you [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”3 But despite the secular waters that we swim in, signals of transcendence still break through.4 Many committed secularists and skeptics can relate to the following admission by the noted atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Even when one feels nearest to other people, something in one seems obstinately to belong to God, and to refuse to enter into any earthly communion—at least that is how I should express it if I thought there was a God. It is odd, isn’t it? I care passionately for this world and many things and people in it, and yet . . . what is it all for? There must be something more important, one feels, though I don’t believe there is.5
In the absence of belief in God, humans will inevitably look for a substitute—something that feels transcendent and larger than one’s personal circumstances. This can take many forms, but one that is prevalent today, especially among young adults, is a quasi-religious commitment to “social justice.” This term is typically understood to mean the promotion of “fairness, equity, inclusion, [and] self-determination” especially for “currently or historically oppressed, exploited, or marginalized populations.”6
Without a doubt, a commitment to justice for all, especially for the marginalized, is a biblical mandate that God has called his followers to carry out for thousands of years. The prophet Micah, for example, declared, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Similarly, Jesus instructed his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). The apostle James proclaimed that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).7
These divine commands, however, are part of the fabric of the Christian worldview rather than a basis for a secular religious movement, which is what many have embraced today. Below, we’ll look briefly at how the commitment to social justice functions for many like a religion, and also propose some ways we might engage those who adhere to it with the gospel.
The Religion of Social Justice
Can a commitment to social justice really be compared to a religious commitment? One might be tempted to think this is a tendentious comparison invented by conservative Christians, but a number of nonevangelical, and even secular, thinkers have made this argument.
For example, the journalist Andrew Sullivan observed in New York Magazine that in our secular culture the need for “meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults.” One of these cults, he writes, is the “cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are ﬁlling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”
He goes on to contend that social-justice ideology “does everything a religion should”:
It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. . . . the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. . . . A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke.8
The secular, African American linguist and political commentator John McWhorter makes similar observations. “With the rise of [contemporary social-justice ideology],” he writes, “we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, just as Romans witnessed the birth of Christianity.” He describes several parallels between traditional religions and social-justice ideology.9 I’ll note some of these below.
Clergy – Social-justice ideology has its own clergy—especially some of its best-selling authors, many of whom also play a role similar to traveling preachers when they give talks and lectures.
Heretics – As Sullivan alluded to above, social-justice activists “consider it imperative to not only critique those who disagree with their creed, but to seek their punishment and elimination to whatever degree real-life conditions can accommodate. There is an overriding sense that unbelievers must be not just spoken out against, but called out, isolated, and banned.”
Evangelical – “They are evangelists” who believe in converting others to their viewpoint.
Apocalyptic – Many adherents hope for a kind of judgment day when America finally admits all of its past faults and fixes them.10
Engaging Adherents of Social-Justice Ideology
How might we approach sharing the gospel with advocates of this deeply held ideology? As is the case when sharing with anyone, the first step is listening carefully. As Jana Harmon wisely observes,
It is important to take time to listen to [a person’s] individual perspectives, to hear what they believe, why they believe it, and to understand their views and objections to God and faith. Listening toward understanding not only allows you to value who they are and what they think, it also reveals personal issues that are often lurking beneath the surface of intellectual objections.11
It’s important to understand exactly what the person believes, and why, without jumping to premature conclusions.
We should also affirm as good and right any person’s desire to pursue justice and help the marginalized and disenfranchised. As touched on earlier, Scripture reveals that God is just and that he requires all people to act justly and in love. It may be helpful to point out that the Judeo-Christian tradition is unique among the world’s religions in insisting that every human is made in God’s image and therefore possesses inherent value, worth, and dignity.12 It’s also noteworthy that Christians have often been at the forefront of helping those in need and working to change unjust laws and practices.13 (Christians have also, at times, committed horrendous acts, but in doing so always contradict God’s scriptural commands.)
A discussion about justice naturally provides an opportunity to ask what a person sees as the foundation for right and wrong, and our ability to know it. As many Christian thinkers have argued, apart from God, there is no ultimate basis for objective moral values and duties. Without a foundation higher than the opinion of one or even a group of humans, morality appears to be subjective and relativistic. A number of atheistic thinkers have agreed with this conclusion.14 If this is the case, then the decision to act justly or unjustly is similar to the decision to drink either Coke or Sprite—it’s purely a matter of one’s subjective preference. Apart from God, morality becomes an illusion, and we’re left wondering why we feel so strongly about something that doesn’t exist.
Finally, contemporary social-justice ideology looks for evil in external systems and hierarchies, but fails to acknowledge the evil each of us carries in our own hearts. Evils like racism are just one symptom of the disease, rather than the disease itself, which is our fallen, sinful natures. As Thaddeus Williams points out, “A biblical worldview sees evil not only in systems (Psalm 94:20), where we ought to seek justice, but also within the twisted hearts of those who make those systems unjust. All the external activism in the world won’t bring about any lasting justice if we downplay our need for the regenerating, love-infusing work of God through the gospel.”15 The first step in living a good life, characterized by justice and love, is to acknowledge one’s sins and be reconciled to God, the source and foundation of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. It is only through this spiritual transformation that we will experience harmony with God, ourselves, and others.
1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
2. Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 95.
3. Confessions, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.
4. For several real-life examples of how these signals have led people to embrace Christianity, see Os Guinness, Signals of Transcendence: Listening to the Promptings of Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2023).
5. Cited in Peter S. Williams, C. S. Lewis vs the New Atheists (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2013), 86. The quotation comes from Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (Boston: Little Brown, 1968), 125–6.
6. “Social Justice,” Britannica, June 16, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-justice.
7. See also Ex. 22:22-23; Deut. 27:19; Ps. 82:3-4; Prov. 31:9; Is. 1:17; Jer. 22:3.
8. Andrew Sullivan, “America’s New Religions,” Intelligencer, New York Magazine, December 7, 2018, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/andrew-sullivan-americas-new-religions.html. Although it would be a valuable exercise, it is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate the various tenets of social-justice theory that Sullivan and McWhorter mention. My aim here, instead, is to highlight the ways social-justice ideology is embraced and defended with the zeal one normally observes in relation to deeply held religious beliefs.
9. While McWhorter’s tone is satirical and hyperbolic, he makes several substantial points. One need not agree with every point to appreciate his overall argument. I disagree, for example, with his characterization of religion as irrational and requiring blind faith.
10. John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America (New York: Portfolio, 2021). All of the material cited comes from chapter 2.
11. Jana Harmon, “What I Learned from 100 Atheists Who Converted to Christianity,” The Worldview Bulletin, July 9, 2023, https://worldviewbulletin.substack.com/p/what-i-learned-from-100-atheists.
12. For a more detailed explanation of the connection between human value and God’s image, see my article “Human Value & the Image of God.”
13. For examples, see Glen Scrivener, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022); Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004); Sharon James, How Christianity Transformed the World (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021); Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
14. For example, Richard Dawkins, who claims the universe contains “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” For this and similar statements, see my article “Human Value & the Image of God.” For a defense of how theism accounts for morality and naturalism fails to, see Paul Copan, “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success,” in Angus J. L. Menuge, ed., Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), available online at http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/pdf/Paul_Copan-Grounding_Human_Rights_in_Menuge_2013.pdf.
15. Thaddeus Williams, “Thinking Biblically About Social Justice: How to Tell the Difference Between Real Justice and Its 21st Century Counterfeits,” Talbot Magazine, June 16, 2021, https://www.biola.edu/blogs/talbot-magazine/2021/thinking-biblically-about-social-justice.
* This article first appeared at Summit Ministries.
— Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the founder and editor of The Worldview Bulletin and a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, Summit Ministries, and other sites.
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