During my most dedicated years as a conservative evangelical, among the most irksome experiences to me was being labeled a liberal, or—and this one was downright infuriating—a “social gospel liberal.” That I cared about a cause that some might characterize as liberal or progressive did not mean I was one of “them”—a liberal.
And I was by no means alone in such reactionary binary reasoning. For many—perhaps most—evangelicals, life is a long series of binary choices. Far too many fundamentalists see virtually every choice as placing one in a position of siding with God or Satan. Conservative or liberal.
As I mentioned above, I spent many years in the evangelical world. And one lesson I learned during those decades is that evangelicals, though not all, tend to be lazy, shallow thinkers who happily outsource their deeper thinking. And for lazy, shallow thinkers, binary reasoning is gold (fool’s gold, I’ve since learned).
My decades within conservative evangelicalism revealed to me a culture or rigid reactionism; the simplest way for them to assess any other movement was to observe its backers. If a cause or movement’s supporters are liberals, then the cause or movement is, by definition, satanic and must be opposed. At that point, any possible rational evaluation of the cause ends. So too, not surprisingly, does the possibility of discussing the issue with those who raised it. The whole oppose-anything-favored-by-liberals notion is a ridiculous perversion of the concept of non-contradiction. Yes, two opposites cannot be concurrently true. But that’s not what evangelical reactionism is about.
A classic—and sad—example of this evangelical reactionism can be seen in the current unrest over police brutality, white privilege, and the Black Lives Matter movement. For decades, white evangelical leaders—although there are exceptions—have fostered among their congregations the binary view that two versions of Christianity exist: 1. The “real” Christianity, which focuses on personal piety—you know, the kind so many of those leaders violated when they thought no one was watching—and 2. social gospel Christianity, which is less concerned with personal piety and more concerned with nurturing a just and peaceful world.
In the binary view common in white evangelicalism one cannot be both a social gospel Christian and a “real, born-again” Christian. “Choose ye this day whom you will serve,” was a common-but-misunderstood mandate among the misguided faithful. If liberals support government programs aimed at helping the poor, then conservatives must oppose such programs.
So when liberal activists—and plain common folks—label the struggles for equality highlighted by George Floyd’s murder by cop—and so many similar incidents—as a matter of social justice, many white evangelicals instinctively recoil. They assume they must take the opposite view; to do otherwise would be to side with Satan. Justice demands are tied to the social gospel. Bad. Must oppose.
The Bible’s Calls for Justice
Such thinking comes from corrupt interpretations of the Bible, passed down by corrupt clergy, not from the Bible itself. Here are some examples of what the Bible says about social justice:
· “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:17
· “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:9
· “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
· “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” – Psalm 82:3
· “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:27
· “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
And perhaps most pertinent: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8
Some Are More Equal
Not surprisingly, passages such as the ones listed above get little to no attention in most white evangelical churches, which instead tend to focus on evangelizing (getting people “saved”) and on resisting temptations to sexual sins. Yeah, I know, many prominent evangelical leaders who preached against sexual sins were later brought down when their own sexual misbehaviors were discovered and publicized. Yes, I know, too, that President Trump has a long, boastful history of marital infidelities. Curiously, however, in a culture that proclaims, “the priesthood of all believers” and that also claims “all are equal at the foot of the cross,” some are more equal than others. A president who gives his followers political power gets “a mulligan” regarding his own misconduct.
And that curious and contemptible contradiction brings us back to George Floyd, who has become the symbol for racial inequality and injustice. These days, I rarely speak with my Trump-loving friends and relatives, but I still know them well enough to be certain they continue to espouse the racist (though they’d label it conservative or traditional) assessment that “law breakers and agitators merely reap what they’ve sown.” (Never mind that George Floyd did nothing more than pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and that he likely did so unaware that it was phony.)
I am no expert in identifying counterfeit currency. For all I know, I may have passed some along over the years. Had my doing so led to a cop killing me, I suspect my friends and relatives would have demanded justice (though perhaps no longer, now that they see me as a liberal). But such a harsh outcome would not have happened to me, an old, straight, white Protestant. That it happened to George Floyd—and that Mr. Floyd represents so many others like him—cries out for equal justice.
Not a Binary Faith
Perhaps (might we hope?) that cry for justice will, finally, reach the white evangelical community that has—for far too long—closed its collective ears and hardened its collective heart. May empathy, finally, prompt white evangelicals to see beyond themselves. And may white evangelicals—beginning with their leaders—experience a new Great Awakening that will broaden their concerns beyond calls for personal piety—many of which are mere pretense—to include genuine concern and compassion for every human being.
May white evangelicals, en masse, come to realize that their faith is not binary; they can pursue personal piety and social justice.