Social Justice Goes to Church, the New Left in Modern American Evangelicalism
by Jon Harris (Greenville, South Carolina: Ambassador International, 2020) 205 pp., paper $16.99
Jon Harris has written an important book documenting the history leading up to the modern Social Justice Movement which has infiltrated evangelicalism. In part one he traces the roots to the progressive radicals of the 1960s and 1970s (pp. 13-19), devoting a chapter each to the key leaders: Jim Wallis, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Sharon Gallagher, John Anderson, Richard Mouw and Ron Sider. Others mentioned include: Tom Skinner (p. 94), Anthony Campolo (p. 47), Mark Hatfield (pp. 28, 64), and the editors of Christianity Today. These early left-wing Christian leaders summarized their views in the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern published in 1973 (pp. 17, 45-49). Harris identifies the key ingredients of the declaration:
The Declaration itself acknowledged Christians’ failure to demonstrate the
“love of God to those suffering social abuses,” notably the American church’s complicity in a racist “economic system” and “institutional structures,” the “imbalance and injustice of international trade and development,” and the “prideful domination” . . . of men over women. The document called for attacking “materialism . . . and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services,” rethinking living standards, promoting “a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources,” challenging “a national pathology of war and violence,” and calling men and women to “mutual submission” (p. 47).
Almost all of the early progressive leaders came from Fundamentalism or conservative evangelical backgrounds, were influenced by the social revolutionary ideas of the times and sought eventually to incorporate those ideas into Christianity (pp. 19-20). For example, Jim Wallis rejected capitalism, taught that the world was poor because Americans are rich, and spread his ideas through his Sojourners magazine (pp. 21-25). Sharon Gallagher challenged what she called the Bible’s sexist interpretation which oppresses women (pp. 31-34). John Alexander was radically anti-capitalist and used his magazine, The Other Side, to spread his views (pp. 35-36). Rich Mouw would be instrumental in bridging the gap between the left and more mainstream evangelicals, especially in his role as president of Fuller Seminary. Ron Sider promoted redistribution of wealth (p. 41), was against the right to own personal property (p. 41) and even claimed, “God is a Marxist” (p. 42). His book, Rich Christian in the Age of Hunger (p. 40), would be the most important book published from the evangelical left, perhaps even to this day.
Part two repeats some of the major themes that this stable of leaders promoted, and in the process altered biblical orthodoxy. These included the rise of Christian feminism and mutual submission (pp. 55-62), redistribution of wealth (p. 60) and a normalizing of homosexuality by some, but not all, of these progressives (pp. 58-59). The idea of corporate sins became popular (p. 62) and Tom Skinner denounced Americanism, the police, and the one-percenters who supposedly controlled the world’s economy, and he proclaimed Jesus a revolutionary (p. 94). Liberation Theology, led by Gustavo Gutierrez in South America (pp 65-67, 164), was embraced by some. But by far the most damaging concept advanced was that of the “whole gospel.” Up until the 1970s, most evangelicals defined the gospel as Jesus’ cross-work, which provided the means that sinners alienated from God could be made righteous. It was not the job of the church, therefore, to reform society except through the influence of those whose lives had been changed by the gospel (pp. 95-98). This was not enough for the young radicals and the “whole gospel” became the hallmark of progressive evangelicalism (pp. 63-75). The whole gospel was the inclusion of the social agenda into the biblical gospel. Both society and individuals need to be saved, Harris writes
Members of the evangelical left adopted a watered down theology of liberation which attempted to undergird Marxism with a biblical foundation by extending the gospel into the corporate world while still retaining a concept of personal redemption. The gospel was “good news” not just for individual souls, but also for political and social systems that existed in modern states. Christ’s death not only made a way for sinners to be in a right relationship with God, but it also paved the way for temporary physical liberation from unjust earthly structures (p. 69).
To buttress their whole gospel theology, the left turned to 19th century revivalists such as Charles Finney and the early social gospel adherents (pp. 111-127). These tactics worked for a time, but due to various reasons, the movement lost steam toward the end of the twentieth century, as evangelicals increasing saw the progressive as radical liberals (pp. 131-137). But entering the twenty-first century, suspicion concerning the left and its views began to evaporate as “a new generation of Christian leaders, influenced by progressive ideas, started new ministries and was granted leadership within mainstream evangelical organizations. Remarkably, members of the evangelical left like Ron Sider, Richard Mouw, John Perkins and Jim Wallis gained a measure of acceptance within mainstream evangelicalism forty years after they signed the Chicago Declaration” (p. 137).
The final chapter and appendix of Social Gospel Goes to Church fast-forwards to the present, demonstrating how many of the ideas advanced by the founders of the radical progressive movement have now received a new voice by those claiming to be evangelicals. To various degrees, Harris implicates Russell Moore, John Piper, 9Marks, Southern Seminary, David Platt, The Gospel Coalition, Matt Chandler, J. D. Greear, Eric Mason, Aimee Byrd, Jan Hatmaker, Francis Chan and especially Tim Keller (pp. 140-151). Tim Keller claims that “the whole purpose of salvation is to cleanse and purify the material world” (p. 144, see pp. 161, 165) and has taken a softening view of homosexuality (pp. 148, 171). The author writes, “Keller’s contribution to moving evangelicals in a leftward direction cannot be underestimated. The impact of his teachings will be felt for years to come” (p. 171). The vision statement of Keller’s church is reflective of his views:
The vision of Redeemer Presbyterian is “to help build a great city for all people through a movement of gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world” (p. 170).
Harris has rendered a valuable service by tracing the modern day social gospel to its roots in the left-leaning progressives of the 1970s. Strangely, what appeared radical and was deemed rank liberalism until recently is now being seen as central, even conservative, evangelicalism today. Harris’ great concern is that “mainstream evangelicals were not only partnering with 1970s era progressive evangelicals, they were also speaking their language” (p. 150), especially as everything is now being turned into a “gospel issue,” according to J.D. Greear (p. 151). All this could serve as an “off-ramp” from Christianity itself (p. 153), the author laments. Harris warns:
If anything is certain for the future of evangelicalism, it is that lasting changes are happening now. The most important question for Christians themselves is if they will be able to hold on to their orthodoxy while combining their faith tradition with ideas stemming from neo-Marxist ideology. The myriad of empty churches belonging to mainline denominations in the United States are monuments to what can happen when a social gospel which downplays defining Christian doctrines, replaces the personal message of Christ’s sacrifice for individuals (p. 153).
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel