Recently, the Web lit up with responses to Glenn Beck’s most recent controversial statements. This time, he urged people to leave their churches if their churches promoted “social justice.” Here’s the statement that launched a thousand responses from all over the religious/political/ideological spectrum:
I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place.
We all know that subtlety, nuance, and context are not Beck’s strong suit. He’s all about the diatribe, and he’s equally loved and hated for it. However, those responding to Beck are often little better. As I waded through the responses, it felt like the general tone of most of them was “Glenn Beck is an idiot” and left it at that.
Which is why I appreciated Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.’s “Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Limits of Public Discourse” so much. Mohler — who is currently the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — begins with some criticism of Beck’s statements.
At first glance, Beck’s statements are hard to defend. How can justice, social or private, be anything other than a biblical mandate? A quick look at the Bible will reveal that justice is, above all, an attribute of God himself. God is perfectly just, and the Bible is filled with God’s condemnation of injustice in any form. The prophets thundered God’s denunciation of social injustice and the call for God’s people to live justly, to uphold justice, and to refrain from any perversion of justice.
To assert that a call for social justice is reason for faithful Christians to flee their churches is nonsense, given the Bible’s overwhelming affirmation that justice is one of God’s own foremost concerns.
Mohler then goes on to define and explore the history of social justice within the context of American Christianity. In other words, he brings some nuance and historical context to the conversation that was sorely lacking in both Beck’s statement and many of the responses.
The immediate roots of this phenomenon go back to the mid-nineteenth century, when figures like Washington Gladden, a Columbus, Ohio pastor, promoted what they called a new “social gospel.” Gladden was morally offended by the idea of a God who would offer his own Son as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinful humanity and, as one of the founders of liberal theology in America, offered the social gospel as an alternative message, complete with a political agenda. It was not social reform that made the social gospel liberal, it was its theological message. As Gary Dorrien, the preeminent historian of liberal theology, asserts, the distinctive mark of the social gospel was “its theology of social salvation.”
Even more famously, the social gospel would be identified with Walter Rauschenbusch, a liberal figure of the early twentieth century. Rauschenbusch made his arguments most classically in his books, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). In a 1904 essay, “The New Evangelism,” Rauschenbusch called for a departure from “the old evangelism” which was all about salvation from sin through faith in Christ, and for the embrace of a “new evangelism” which was about salvation from social ills and injustice in order to realize, at least partially, the Kingdom of God on earth. He called for Christian missions to be redirected in order to “Christianize international politics.”
He follows that with some great words of wisdom for Christians regarding social reform platforms and movements:
As an evangelical Christian, my concern is the primacy of the Gospel of Christ — the Gospel that reveals the power of God in the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church’s main message must be that Gospel. The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted Gospel churches. Our task is to follow Christ’s command and the example of the apostles.
There is more to that story, however. The church is not to adopt a social reform platform as its message, but the faithful church, wherever it is found, is itself a social reform movement precisely because it is populated by redeemed sinners who are called to faithfulness in following Christ. The Gospel is not a message of social salvation, but it does have social implications.
Finally, Mohler closes with both a excoriation and a word of caution:
Glenn Beck’s statements about social justice demonstrate the limits of our public discourse. The issues raised by his comments and the resultant controversy are worthy of our most careful thinking and most earnest struggle. Yet, the media, including Mr. Beck, will have moved on to any number of other flash points before the ink has dried on this kerfuffle. Serious-minded Christians cannot move on from this issue so quickly.
All in all, a thoughtful, well-reasoned article that is respectful to Beck while being critical of his shallow announcements and that also fills in some of the context that Beck left out or ignored — context that is sorely needed when dealing with a hot button issue such as this one.