Evangelicals Who Love Social Justice but Hate Federal Social Programs

Evangelicals Who Love Social Justice but Hate Federal Social Programs February 8, 2022

Many conservative white evangelicals are now embracing social justice causes that are often associated with the progressive side of the political spectrum.  In the first decade of the twenty-first century, concern for the environment (what many dubbed “creation care”) and the vision of ending human trafficking captured the imagination of many young evangelicals.  In the last decade, some evangelicals – even centrist evangelicals at institutions such as Christianity Today – have advocated for the rights of immigrants.  And recently, racial justice advocacy has permeated even the most theologically conservative side of the evangelical spectrum – with the Gospel Coalition, for instance, running a steady stream of articles on racial issues during the past year and a half.

But in contrast to the experiences of many socially conscious liberal Protestants (and some Catholics), social justice advocacy has not resulted in any widespread partisan realignment among white evangelicals.  Even as discussion of social justice issues among white evangelicals has increased in recent years, Republican voting has remained as strong as ever, confounding the predictions that many pundits made fifteen years ago, when they suggested that younger white evangelicals’ concerns about the environment and other social justice issues would lead them to repudiate the Religious Right.  (In fact, the percentage of white evangelical voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 was even higher than the percentage who supported George W. Bush in either 2000 or 2004 or who voted for John McCain in 2008).


Why has evangelical support for social justice causes not translated into support for a Democratic Party that would seem, on the surface, to support socially conscious evangelicals’ concerns about racial justice, the environment, and humane treatment of immigrants?  Some analysts cite the abortion issue as a reason for this phenomenon, and that does indeed play a major role.  The Gospel Coalition, for instance, published numerous articles about racial justice for month after month following the killing of George Floyd, only to then publish an editorial declaring that because of abortion, it was a sin to vote for the pro-choice presidential candidate Joe Biden – which guaranteed that no evangelical Christian who heeded that advice would vote for the first major-party ticket with a female vice presidential candidate of color or the presidential candidate who received the support of the overwhelming majority of African American voters.


But in addition to abortion, there is also another reason that most socially conscious white evangelicals have not become converts to the Democratic Party: white evangelicalism’s deep suspicion of the federal government.  Because of that suspicion, many evangelicals who care about social justice expect the church and private individuals or nonprofit organizations to address social evils and correct longstanding structural injustices.  They don’t believe that the government will be able to help.  By contrast, liberal Protestants tend to think the opposite.  And as a result, evangelical versions of social justice – even among those who might be expected to lean toward the political left – are often accompanied by much less support for government social programs than liberal Protestants or Catholics have provided.


This has confounded some non-evangelicals, who wonder how evangelical Christians who say they love Jesus and the poor can vote so often vote for Republicans who want to cut social services to the poor, and they mistake evangelical antipathy to government social programs for evangelical hypocrisy or indifference to matters of social justice.  But in reality, many evangelicals are deeply concerned about social justice; they just think that churches, families, and private charitable organizations are better equipped to address such matters than the government is.


As evidence for the evangelical view of social justice advocacy without the federal government’s help, consider the way that Christianity Today magazine has covered social justice issues in recent months.  To get a systematic view of the magazine’s approach, I quickly looked through all of the past year’s issues of Christianity Today (January 2021 through February 2022) to see how the magazine addressed issues of social justice.  Since I’m a subscriber to the magazine, I already knew that Christianity Today advocates for some measure of social justice nearly every month, so I was not surprised, as I looked through the issues again, that social justice advocacy was a prominent theme throughout the past year.

I saw multiple articles on criminal justice reform and the dignity of prisoners.  I saw a couple articles on environmentalism and climate change.  There was one article endorsing COVID mask-wearing.  Multiple articles addressed the issue of racial justice, with one suggesting the possible need for reparations for the descendants of people who were wronged by enslavement.  Social justice themes were so prominent in the September 2021 issue that the cover featured an image of Afghan women eating a traditional meal, along with a headline proclaiming, “After the Withdrawal: America’s ‘Forever War’ in Afghanistan Is Over, but Christian Aid Work Continues.”


But that headline on Afghanistan offers a clue to the approach Christianity Today took to nearly every social justice issue it covered: In nearly every case, the magazine’s articles suggested that the real solution to social problems was to look to God to work through private Christian efforts that operate independently of the state.  In the case of Afghanistan, Christianity Today viewed the end of the American government’s commitment to the country as an opportunity for private Christian charities to step in where the state had failed (for more on efforts to help Afghan refugees, see Melissa Borja’s recent Anxious Bench post).  On matters of domestic politics, the magazine suggested a similarly dim view of government’s capabilities but an optimistic view of what God could accomplish through the church.  One editorial, for instance, was titled, “The River of Justice Flows Downhill: We Can Make Modest Progress through Human Effort, but Only God Can Deliver True Equity.”  Even on the issue of abortion, the magazine’s only article on the subject in 2021 was titled, “Pro-Life Advocates Push Local Resolutions,” a piece that was framed around the idea that in the absence of success at the federal or even state level, pro-life advocates had made gains by turning their local communities into pro-life “sanctuaries.”


Evangelical pro-life advocates who have little faith in the federal government’s ability to help pregnant women have therefore taken on this task themselves.  In contrast to some of the pro-life activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s who wanted to help women facing crisis pregnancies by expanding the social initiatives of the Great Society, pro-lifers today (who are overwhelmingly Republican and, in many cases, evangelical) have pursued a similar project through the private sphere by creating crisis pregnancy centers.  By some estimates, there are now three times as many pro-life crisis pregnancy centers as there are abortion clinics in the United States.  The rapid growth of these centers – each one of which counsels or assists hundreds of women each year – is evidence of what pro-life activists have been able to accomplish mostly without the federal government.


By contrast, both Catholics and mainline Protestants have long held more favorable views of the federal government, which is why both groups have been more willing than evangelicals to lobby the federal government for social programs.  The liberal Protestant magazine Christian Century routinely runs pointed political commentary about specific legislative proposals to a degree that’s almost never seen in Christianity Today.  Last month, for instance, one of the pieces in Christian Century was titled, “The Biden Administration’s Offshore Oil Drilling Is Voluntary – and Dangerous: It’s Time for the President’s Actions on Fossil Fuels to Match His Words.”  Sojourners, the leading publication for progressive evangelicals, might also run such an article, since that magazine does comment on specific legislative proposals to a much greater degree than Christianity Today.

But outside of those progressive circles (which attract the support of only a minority of white evangelicals), it’s difficult to find evangelical publications that express hope that evangelicals’ social justice concerns can be accomplished through political action.  For the most part, evangelicals have lobbied the government only when for regulation of individual morality or, more commonly, for protections for their religious liberty.  For the past half century, they have generally seen the growth of the federal government as a threat, not as an opportunity to help others or promote any of their social justice concerns.


Where did this evangelical suspicion of the federal government come from?  In my previous scholarship, I have mentioned a few possible catalysts, including white evangelicals’ perception that a liberal federal government was threatening both their ministries and their values in the 1970s.  Matthew Avery Sutton has traced evangelicals’ antipathy to the federal government to fundamentalist skepticism of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  And, of course, there was the federal civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which attracted the ire of many white southerners and turned them against federal programs.


But while all of these explanations for evangelicals’ longstanding suspicion of the federal government are at least partly true, I wonder if they are only one piece of the story.  I wonder if there’s actually a deeper underlying reason that explains why evangelical suspicion of the federal government can be found in nearly every era of American history, from the Jeffersonian populism of early nineteenth-century Baptists who worried about the propensity of Federalists to favor a religious establishment and deprive them of their liberties to the tendency of many Southern Baptists to favor a Trump-led anti-government populism today.


This is not to imply, of course, that every evangelical has been suspicious of the federal government – far from it.  In the early nineteenth century, some of the evangelical Whigs of the northeast saw an expanded federal government as the key to moral and social reform that would usher in the millennium, and during the Great Depression, many evangelical southern whites who might ordinarily have been suspicious of the federal government were in such deep poverty that they were more apt to criticize Roosevelt’s New Deal for doing too little rather than too much.  In every era of American history, if one looks hard enough one can find evangelicals who supported an expanded federal state to accomplish a moral agenda.  Nevertheless, the connection between a large swath of evangelicalism and suspicion of the federal government is too prevalent to dismiss as a coincidence.


What I think has happened is that a religion that is arguably the most individualistically oriented of the various branches of Christianity has been fused in its American incarnation with a longstanding white southern and Appalachian suspicion of federal interference (see Colin Woodard’s American Nations for more on this theme).  The result has been an anti-government sentiment that is so strong that even socially conscious evangelicals cannot believe that the federal government could play any useful role in the project of societal transformation.  If social transformation occurs, they think, it will come primarily through the direct work of God’s Spirit and through the agency of churches and individual Christians.


By contrast, liberal Protestants have been very comfortable with the federal government for more than a century, largely because their theology has encouraged them to see society as a whole – and not the church in particular – as the kingdom of God.  While evangelicals have tended to divide society into the categories of “saved” and “lost,” and to see a radical differentiation between the church and the “world,” liberal Protestants have been much more universalistic in their understanding of salvation and God’s kingdom and have often blurred the distinctions between church and society, at least as far as social reform is concerned.  They have also placed a primacy on democracy, which they have seen for the past 120 years as one of the highest ideals.  They have long seen the federal government, therefore, as a natural partner in the work of the Social Gospel.  From the beginning of the Federal Council of Churches and the creation of its Social Creed in 1908, liberal Protestants have believed that churches had a duty to lobby the federal government for socially beneficial legislation that would alleviate poverty and bring to fruition the principles of the kingdom of God.  Now, more than 100 years later, liberal Protestant clergy still see the church’s role in those terms.

Evangelicals, for the most part, do not.  At times, they have lobbied the government for protective legislation for their own enterprises or for moral regulations to curb individual sin.  But with very few exceptions, they do not see the federal government as a partner in accomplishing the work of God’s kingdom.  Instead, they have seen it as an alien force – at worst, a potential anti-Christ and at best, a Leviathan that must constantly be reigned in.  Political conservatism’s suspicion of federal power has thus had strong appeal for the vast majority of American white evangelicals.


This negative view of the federal government, of course, is closely connected to region and race, as well as religion.  Black Christians – and especially Black Christian women – may share white evangelicals’ individualism when it comes to personal salvation but are far less likely apply this thinking to the political arena and become converts to the Republican Party.  Similarly, northern evangelicals – and especially contemporary northern evangelicals who are urban graduate-educated young professionals – are also far less likely than white evangelicals in the rural South to view federal social programs with deep suspicion.  Rural white southern evangelicals’ veneration of an individualistic interpretation of the Second Amendment is not shared by the northern urban evangelicals who edit Christianity Today magazine.

But even at Christianity Today, there seems to be a general reluctance to think that the solution to any of the social justice issues that the editors care about might come from the federal government.  Evangelical suspicion of the federal government clearly extends far beyond the South, even if it might be particularly concentrated in southern regions.


What should I make of this as both a historian of American evangelicalism and an evangelical Christian myself?  As a historian who wants to be fair to my subjects, I think that I need to avoid the temptation to view evangelical antipathy to a federal social program as evidence of a lack of evangelical concern about that issue.  Many white evangelicals have been very interested in alleviating poverty while simultaneously opposing federal anti-poverty initiatives.  So, to those who claim that white evangelicals are insufficiently concerned about social justice, I would urge a note of caution.  The criticism might be justified in many cases, but before jumping to this conclusion, we need to consider whether it’s possible that evangelical social concern is simply taking different forms than the strictly political.

We might discover, for instance, that a lot of white evangelicals are spending their Saturdays volunteering their time for Habitat for Humanity even while voting for politicians who are cutting low-income housing subsidies. We might find that they’re caring for minority children through foster-parenting even while voting for political candidates whose policies will likely put more young Black men in prison and reduce funding for inner-city schools.  Are these white evangelicals unconcerned about social justice?  The answer is complicated, but I think that it’s most accurate to say that they believe in social justice – they just think that social justice can be achieved through private means rather than through government policy.


But even while trying to be fair to white evangelicals who hold a deep antipathy to federal social policy, I think we also need to ask whether their voting choices have undermined the social good that they’re trying to do in the private sphere.  I think that it’s wonderful that the Gospel Coalition has published numerous articles on racial justice and the experiences that African Americans have had with discriminatory policies and actions, but if in the end, the readers of those articles vote for candidates whom the majority of African Americans believe are exacerbating problems of racial injustice, how much good has actually been accomplished?

White evangelicals have acted as though most of the issues of social justice they care about can be effectively addressed while ignoring politics.  I’m glad that they have not depended solely on politics to solve these issues.  I’m glad that they have shown a willingness to sacrifice their own time and money to help their neighbors and address social problems.  But I would hate to see their sacrifice of time and money undercut by their own voting choices.

White evangelicals are right, I believe, to remind us that government initiatives cannot transform lives or solve social problems.  But maybe while seeking social transformation through other means, they can at least consider whether the politicians they vote into office are exacerbating the very problems that concern them.  If they are, maybe they really do have a reason to fear the federal government – but perhaps not for quite the same reasons that they historically have.

About Daniel K. Williams
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. You can read more about the author here.

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