Setting off waves of debate in recent weeks, conservative radio host Glenn Beck advised his listeners on March 2 to leave their churches if they found signs of commitment to "social justice" or "economic justice." Beck called such language "code words" and "a perversion of the gospel," and he linked it to totalitarian regimes. Christians across the political spectrum called Beck out on his misreading of the gospel and of the American religious landscape. Beck's grasp of history was just as shaky, but he did not catch as much flak on this point. A better sense of recent American religious history helps to explain both the appeal of Beck's rhetoric in certain circles and its fallacy.

The "social" half of Beck's key phrase entered religious discourse around the beginning of the 20th century, with the Social Gospel movement. A response to the suffering, displacement, and dramatic inequity of wealth brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the Social Gospel advocated a shift toward more holistic salvation. One of the theological architects of the movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, spent part of his early career as a pastor in the squalid Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, and he came away convinced that human problems ranged much farther than the need for individual conversion. His books included Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), an exhortation for Christians to move beyond sedate, Victorian piety and embody Christ's message in a desperately needy world.

The Social Gospel met resistance on many fronts. The movement's leaders drew heavily on new academic disciplines like psychology and sociology, at times privileging these scientific insights over Scripture. The movement also flirted with Marxism, as, for example, in Washington Gladden's book Christianity and Socialism (1905). Many American Christians were not prepared to exchange their image of Jesus as gentle and nurturing—the characteristics most emphasized by late 19th-century art and literature—for the image of Jesus as a social reformer, even a revolutionary.

The Social Gospel caught hold in many seminaries and denominational hierarchies, particularly in the sector of American Protestantism that would later be called the mainline, but more conservative Protestants generally spurned or ignored it. As the fundamentalist-liberal controversy boiled over in the 1920s, emphasis on the Bible and on individual salvation, the hallmarks of fundamentalism, became divorced from social concerns. The separation was not complete, as fundamentalists engaged the world through all kinds of missionary and outreach efforts, while liberals continued to read the Bible and love Jesus, but intense skepticism regarding the other side's motives was mutual. Certain terms, book titles, and institutional affiliations did become "code words" in this charged atmosphere, as caricature often replaced dialogue.

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The "justice" half of Beck's formulation came later, with the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Earlier Social Gospel advocates opposed injustice, but they were less likely to seek judicial solutions to broad social problems than were civil rights activists. As the famous photographs of fire hoses turned on unarmed protesters attest, civil rights met much fiercer resistance than the Social Gospel, frequently (though by no means exclusively) from the same fundamentalist-evangelical wing of American Protestantism that fought the earlier movement. These Protestants by and large did not see affirmative action, school busing, and related efforts as justice, but rather as unwarranted federal encroachment into private lives.

And so, if the phrase "social justice" communicates a combination of the Marxist follies of the Social Gospel and the identity politics of civil rights, conservatives, as Beck assumes, are going to run the other way. But this is not what the phrase means to very many people. In recent decades, evangelicals have taken up many Social Gospel and civil rights impulses, both domestically and abroad. Evangelicals have confronted urban crises and weighed in on public policy. They have shown concern for underprivileged members of society and sought to increase diversity in their churches and schools.

The thing is, evangelicals tend to call these impulses by other names, obscuring their connections to liberal crusades. Instead of the Social Gospel, evangelicals speak of redeeming culture. Instead of civil rights, evangelicals talk about "the least of these." Conservative Protestants have not adopted either the Social Gospel or civil rights wholesale by any stretch, but there is enough overlap in concern (if not necessarily in proposed solutions) that "social justice" is hardly anathema.

Beck is decades out of date in his characterization of conservative Protestant thinking. In 1973, a document titled "The Chicago Declaration" launched Evangelicals for Social Action and the evangelical left more generally. A few years later, in 1977, a more conservative group of evangelicals issued "The Chicago Call," a very different document that nonetheless also showed deep concern for social issues. It included a "Call to Holistic Salvation," stating the following:

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Wherever the church has been faithful to its calling, it has proclaimed personal salvation; it has been a channel of God's healing to those in physical and emotional need; it has sought justice for the oppressed and disinherited; and it has been a good steward of the natural world.
As evangelicals we acknowledge our frequent failure to reflect this holistic view of salvation. We therefore call the church to participate fully in God's saving activity through work and prayer, and to strive for justice and liberation for the oppressed, looking forward to the culmination of salvation in the new heaven and new earth to come.

Evangelicals figured out how to pursue evangelism and social justice years ago. Hopefully Beck will get the memo.

Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Waynesburg University in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. She regularly contributes to the Christian History blog.