While an undergraduate at Wheaton College, I once spotted a bumper sticker that pointed out: “Poverty, homelessness, and healthcare are moral issues too.” It kinda blew my mind. At the time, I, like many young evangelicals, thought that the really important moral issues were all sex-related: homosexuality, extramarital sex, and abortion.
That was 10 years ago, and I don’t imagine that many Christians today would be so taken aback by that bumper sticker’s sentiment. Which is great. Large numbers of evangelicals are now passionate about poverty, AIDS, violence, and human trafficking. The work of folks like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis has paid off in important ways. Few would deny that poverty is an issue that the Church should address, because the biblical witness is unmistakable and unavoidable.
And yet, if you bring up “social justice” during coffee hour in the church foyer, you’re still likely to evoke some strong and opposed feelings.
How could social justice possibly become a source of division? I think it’s because US Evangelicals have very different ideas about how to pursue justice, and because we tend to caricature—even to malign and defame—those who disagree with us.
In the US, the polarization over social justice is especially pronounced because the two “sides” are separated in significant degree by a pair of factors: age and political party.
“New Evangelicals” (to use Marcia Pally’s term) warm to Democratic social policies (even if many aren’t ready to join the Democratic Party); their new leaders (people like Shane Claiborne and Francis Chan) appeal more strongly to those under the age of 35 than to those with a maturing IRA. Conversely, the parents of those “New Evangelicals” tend to remain staunchly Republican. In what may be a reflection of the characteristic vices of US two-party dynamics, neither evangelical group has proven terribly adept at appreciating the merits of the other’s perspective.
Various factors have contributed to the polarity, of which I’ll highlight three: spending habits, views of government, and views of the business sector.
Spending habits: Younger, left-wing evangelicals are keen to advocate for social justice, sometimes stridently so. We buy Fair Trade, we wear TOMS Shoes, and are generally adept at consuming precisely those commodities that demonstrate (even broadcast) our social awareness. But for all this well-intentioned enthusiasm for justice, older and right-wing evangelicals have reason to arch their eyebrows at our other spending habits. Those of us in our 20s and early 30s have marinated in consumerism for so long that we can be rather short on thrift. We’re much more likely to purchase a coffee, a smoothie, or an MP3 on impulse than are people my parents’ age; the coffee that we buy is much more likely to cost $4 than $1.50. We make less money, but revamp our wardrobes more often. We tend to give less to our churches, and are more likely to criticize our church’s spending habits. So we might do well to appreciate how our consumerism—even the consumerism that masquerades as activism—can inflect our rhetoric about justice and generosity, causing it to ring hollow in the ears of an older and thriftier generation that gives a good deal more money than we do.
Views of government: the evangelical left often equates the instantiation of justice with liberal social policy and well-directed government spending. While affirming the place of charitable giving to the poor and to para-church organizations, the evangelical left tends to be much more optimistic about the efficacy of government interventions. Perhaps the younger generation has heard more about the structural factors operative in the perpetuation of social inequality, and are thus more prone to want to address structural problems through the greatest agent of structural implementation and maintenance: the government.
The evangelical right, by contrast, tend to be suspicious of government programs. “Big Government” (a moniker with obvious Orwellian overtones) is thought self-evidently sinister. The evangelical right is seldom sanguine about the efficacy o of government programs aimed at poverty reduction, considering the Church and other philanthropists in the private sector as better able to effect positive change. To their credit, the evangelical right gives more than other Christian groups in the US (though obviously not all that giving goes to poverty relief and strategic development).
Views of the business sector: If “Big Government” is the bête noire of the right, “Big Corporations” are the villains of the evangelical left. A steady diet of investigative journalism has filled us with awareness of the abuses of which transnational corporations are capable. Still, left-leaning evangelicals are probably guilty of downplaying the need for good business and entrepreneurialism in the Majority World. It’s easy to malign capitalism and corporations when you’ve grown up in the US, where there is a robust economy, where we’ve not encountered the lag in productivity caused by bribery and corruption, where we’ve never lacked access to loans and consumer credit. The ease of the middle-class life in the US owes an incalculable amount to the hard-working and honest businessman. And insofar as reasonable financial security conduces to social-awareness, a strong market economy is also a key contributor to our ability to be concerned about and to respond to injustices. The barista in California can sponsor a bunch of children in Malawi; the coffee-grower in Nicaragua probably can’t.
The Christian pursuit of justice and mercy will likely be best served if our ecclesial and private generosity is coupled with the pursuit of progress through both government and business. (It’s awfully hard for businesses to help lift countries out of extreme poverty when governments are either corrupt or inept. Try building a successful restaurant or hotel without reliable access to water and electricity. Conversely, all the government spending in the world won’t jump-start an economy devoid of savvy entrepreneurs.) Both the evangelical right and left realize that power corrupts, whether the potent entity in question be a government or a corporation. Perhaps neither side sufficiently countenances the need to engage in the onerous, nitty-gritty work of helping power be less corrupt.
Very few evangelicals today will write off the place of social justice among Christian moral concerns. Nonetheless, we will make more rapid progress in the practices of justice and mercy if those on the evangelical right and left learn to value each other’s point of view.
We have to oppose the tendencies of older conservatives to dismiss the younger liberals as naïve or foolish, as well as those of the younger to denigrate the older as recalcitrant or sold-out. Are these caricatures ever partially true? Sure, in some cases. Is there more to the story than this lampoonery reflects? Absolutely. If occasionally naïve, young liberals are also hopeful and idealistic; if occasionally stuck in a rut, the older conservatives are also prudent and experienced. Hope and prudence are both Christian virtues.
By way of post-script, allow me to suggest that today’s need for respect and mutual appreciation between the evangelical left and right is mirrored by a need for respect and mutual appreciation between the theological professionals (who speak at great length about social justice) and the professionals in politics and finance (who are often the targets of our most-strident critiques). Today we are confronted with new questions about globalization, macroeconomic policy, and finance; we theologians and ethicists aren’t capable of answering these questions on our own. Gone are the days in which people’s knowledge of economics was so limited that that Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria could hold forth on a wide range of economic, mercantilist, and consumer behaviors. We theologians and ethicists may be able to help define the goals of wealth and justice, but we probably can’t say how to realize those goals. We need to learn from businessmen and economists in order to appreciate the apparently intractable realities of the world’s financial machinery. Christian businessmen, economists, and financiers can do much to help the Church confront 21st-century social challenges. But if they don’t feel respected by us—or, worse, if they feel villainized or caricatured—you can bet that they will write us off.
After all, turn-about is fair play.
 As with any generalization, exceptions abound—there are certainly lots of young Christian Republicans and some middle-aged evangelical Democrats—but I don’t think this robs the generalization of its illuminatory power.