Economic Justice and the Christian Community
It is now an almost universal belief in white evangelical circles that Black Lives Matter and the larger struggle for racial & economic justice are somehow fundamentally anti-Christian. In the United States today, the evangelical Christian community and advocates for economic justice are seen as opposing political ideologies; however, that is a recent phenomenon. Historically, the leading advocates for social justice and economic fairness in the US have been the evangelical Christian community. Even as late as the civil rights era only evangelicals in the Deep South openly opposed social justice. So the question is, why has 21st century evangelical Christianity rejected its historical position and allied with their enemy?
Though a thorough exposition of this question would fill a book, I will attempt to answer that question in my short format.
The early Christian church practiced communal living, at least in some cases. In the book of The Acts of the Apostles, we find that the first generation of Christians came together “and shared all things in common”. This appears to be an attempt to live a life free from the temptations associated with ownership of possessions and a reflection of the way Jesus lived communally with the apostles. This lifestyle does not however become the mark of Christianity after it becomes the state religion of the Roman Empire. We do find that beginning in the 5th century religious orders of monks and later nuns attempted over and over to recreate this communal lifestyle with varying degrees of success. Despite their limited success and limited application, they did show a model of communal living as a Christian ideal.
It was not until the 19th century do we find a rebirth of Christian communistic living. Particularly in the United States we see such efforts at communal living as a deliberate rejection of the focus on materialism and the nascent consumerism that was taking hold in the early 1800's. Though these efforts were seen as peculiar and even threatening to the social order, they were not branded as anti-Christian. Rather, like the flagellants of the Middle Ages, these people were seen as being overly zealous in their Christianity. Some of these communities survived for several generations; however, the intrinsic flaw of communal living kept cropping up. The tendency for the egalitarian community to become dominated over time by a single charismatic (and sociopathic) figure led to many of these communities to become personality cults.
At the same time the Christian community became active in a number of socially focused causes. The first important social issue embraced by evangelical Christians was Abolitionism. Most people do not realize that the first anti-slavery movement centered in the evangelicals of the slave-holding South. John Wesley the founder of the Methodist, after a visit to the US South, became an ardent anti-slavery advocate. In 1787 He wrote:
"Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you."
The Methodist actively sought to help black Americans, North and South, free and enslaved. It is not surprising that by the early 1800's a very large portion of Methodists in the US were black. Even now the African Methodist Episcopal Church thrives in black communities all over America. And guess what? Neither they nor the United Methodists are part of the current right-wing political movement that has engulfed American Christianity. As late as 1844 slave holders could not hold church leadership positions anywhere in the US. It was the demands to change that rule came the southern Methodist Denomination. The same kind of issues divided the Baptist. The pro-slavery Baptist succeeded from the American Baptist to create the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Methodist who remained true to the teachings of Jesus formed the Wesleyan Church and were active in the underground railroad. To the credit of the vast majority of American Methodist, they stood firm on their commitment that universal brotherly love was the hallmark of Christianity. In time the Methodism regained its unity and firmly embraced their commitment to social justice. Sadly, the Baptist never did and eventually the Southern Baptist Convention eclipsed the American Baptists and became the nation's largest Christian domination. In all these years, the SBC has never given more than lip service to Christian universal love.
In New England and the Mid-West, the Christian community united behind the cause of opposing slavery. After the Civil War, northern Christian groups spent a great deal of time and money assisting the newly freed slaves. Sadly they were detested by the white Christians and opposition to any effort at social justice became ingrained in Southern Christianity.
Beyond assisting the newly freed slaves, Northern Christian groups took on a number of social issues. Causes such as opposing child labor were often spearheaded by Christian activists. Edgar Gardner Murphy, a Christian minister in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s fought both child labor and the mistreatment of African-Americans. At roughly the same time, William Jennings Bryan built a very strong populist coalition of religious Christians, farmers and laborers. At the turn of the 20th century, it was seen as axiomatic that big business was the enemy of the common people, and that Christianity always supported the poor and oppressed. Thus, highly religious people (particularly rural Christians) naturally supported economic policies to promote economic justice. Though it was true that the Republican Party had been the party of Lincoln and emancipation, by the end of the century, it had become the party of the establishment and of big business.
Race again became the primary fault line between liberal and conservative Christianity in the 1950's. When school desegregation became an issue outside of the Deep South, the liberal mainstream churches found themselves at odds with their racist members. Sadly rather than repent of their sin, it was easier to change churches. The Southern Baptist and other conservative protestant churches saw rapid growth in the newly formed "white flight" suburbs all across the nation.
Despite the growth of conservative churches, the American Baptist and the Methodist (United and AME) were forefront in the civil rights era. Both groups became demonized by the rapidly growing anti-social justice churches. However, it was not until the late 1970's that liberal Christianity and their devotion to social justice moved from the center stage to the periphery. The Moral Majority and their brand of blending political conservatism with Christianity moved to become the main stream of American religious life.
To achieve real political power this right-wing movement needed allies. First they found it in their age-old enemy the Catholic Church. By the simple expedient of adopting the Catholic position on abortion they gained clout in the North as well as money and political experience. National Right to Life was 100% owned and operated by the Catholic Church, and as part of the marriage between the Protestant right and the Catholic right, the Catholics essentially handed over National Right to Life to the Protestants.
The other new ally of the political Christian right was big business. Despite the fact that pro-business, anti-labor, anti-regulation and anti-progressive taxation policies had been opposed by evangelicals for a century, the benefits of changing positions simply outweighed other questions. It did not matter that for generations the case had been made that these policies only led to the exploitation of the poor and were therefore not to be supported by Christians. But the new right-wing Christian coalition had no interest in social justice. This movement was driven by Southern Christian leaders and the memory of people opposing their "way of life" in the name of Jesus was a very recent memory. They simply declared that liberalism was the same as godless communism and tossed the teachings of Jesus out as smacking of Marx.
And thus, American Christianity turned its back on the core teachings of Jesus regarding love for our neighbors welfare is the whole point of true religion. All this led to the vast majority of American evangelicals to embrace a man who openly denigrates virtually everything Jesus taught. The rise of Donald Trump as a modern prophet now seems almost inevitable. He and his ideology embrace fully the gospel of selfishness and reject the core of Christianity. They have created a false righteousness that ignores everything except opposing homosexuals civil rights and seeking to criminalize abortion (as opposed to actually reducing the need for abortions). It is significant that in seeking to punish these “sinners” they somehow make themselves better. The only thing they lacked was a new prophet that embraced their new gospel and priority set to focus their new religion.
This week with Donald Trump leaving the White House, American Christianity has an opportunity to reflect on their rejection of the teachings of Jesus and …well…repent. Turn away from the Gospels of Ayn Rand, Milton Freedman, George Wallace and Donald Trump and back to the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John; for until they reject those false ideologies, they will never “Come to Jesus.”