Is There an Evangelical ‘Social Justice Movement’?

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Tom Ascol is one of the chief spokesmen against “social justice” among conservative evangelicals in the United States. He is one of the framers of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel and as executive director of Founders Ministries has hosted or participated in a variety of conferences, podcasts, and blogs sounding the alarm against “social justice.” Arguably, Tom has invested as much or more energy in anti-social justice efforts as anyone else. For that reason, I’ve chosen to interact with some of Tom’s ideas in an effort to answer the question posed by the title of this post: Is there an evangelical social justice movement?

I should note from the onset that Tom and I have known each other over a number of years. Our interactions, even in disagreement, have always been cordial and respectful. This is another reason I’m choosing to engage his comments directly.

So here goes . . .

Another Religion Spawned in Spiritual Warfare

If you have not kept up with Tom’s prodigious output on this subject, perhaps the most efficient way to get his viewpoint would be to watch this 16-minute speech, “Progressive Ideological Challenges to Biblical Christianity,” delivered at Sovereign Nations during CPAC. Please take the time to watch or listen. You will have the advantage of hearing Tom in his own words and emphases.

In this talk, Tom frames the problem in terms of worldliness. He maintains, “The last few years we’ve seen the ocean of the world begin to swamp the ship of the Christian church.” He sees this as having already happened in mainline denominations, with the threat now reaching evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) of which he is a part.

But the source of the problem is much deeper than worldliness in Tom’s view. He states, “The Devil has effectively enticed many churches to welcome godless ideologies into their environments. And he’s done it through the trojan horse of what is called ‘social justice.’” In his assessment, the SBC “is failing miserably in the spiritual warfare we face.”

The net effect is that these worldly ideologies are undermining Christian teaching and taking Christians hostage. Via these ideologies, attempts are being made to redefine reality and reorder the lives of Christians as well as Western civilization as a whole. Chief among these ideologies, according to Ascol, is cultural Marxism, which he sees as an adaptation of classic Marxism from an economic to a cultural view of history. Tom maintains that cultural Marxism has become the worldview of the rising generation, a worldview that misguidedly places all people in either “oppressor” or “oppressed” groups and subsequently attempts to overthrow “oppressive” groups and structures in society.

In the video, Tom also comments on the rise of the religious “nones,” that group of individuals who mark “none” in response to questions about religious affiliation in the census and other demographic surveys. For Tom, the “nones” represent the rise of a new religion rather than an absence of religion. He describes it this way:

Nones represent the rapid rise of a new religion. More and more evangelicals are confusing this new religion with a “better form of Christianity.” Christians sitting in churches are being led astray, and Christian virtues are being displaced by worldly values. Christian values are not just being removed but replaced by this new religion. So pastors must forcefully reject this new religion with all of its presuppositions and all of its critical assessments. And we cannot simply ignore it. We must expose it as an all-out assault on biblical Christianity. We must refute it by proclaiming the simplicity and fullness that is in Jesus Christ.

In email communication with Tom to be certain I understood his comments correctly, Tom explained that it is not so much that Christians are giving way to blatant unbelief as much as being influenced by this “new religion.” In his view, the same worldly ideologies that give rise to the nones also tempt Christians to view themselves in terms of their group identities and buy into the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy he thinks is harmful to justice.

He argues in the video:

The authority of God’s Word is dismissed when it contradicts the new mission of deconstructing historic Christianity. Boundaries are rejected in the name of “equality.” Orthodoxy is political correctness, so you must toe the line or be branded a heretic. In the new religion holiness is accrued by the number of victim statuses you can accrue to yourself. And if you don’t have any or don’t have many, then the only way you can pursue holiness is by becoming an ally of those who have various victim statuses. Conversion is becoming awakened to cultural Marxist categories, or in the language of the new religion becoming “woke.” Original sin is privilege, the most notable of which is white privilege.

If I have understood Tom correctly, what he opposes is a Satan-inspired worldliness that takes the form of various ideologies that have entered the church to distort and destroy historic Christianity by either replacing it with a new religion or convincing Christians to adopt worldview elements inimical to historic faith claims. He understands the threat to be present, active, and significant.

Let me say unequivocally: Wherever such a threat actually exists, I am against it too! Every pastor required to be faithful (1 Cor. 4:1-2) ought to resist such a situation with all their being. There can be no compromise with worldliness, since it is hostile to God (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17).

But the key question is: What evidence is there that such a phenomenon is happening among evangelical Christians today? Is there actually a movement afoot matching Tom’s analysis and description?

What Is the Evidence?

In the 16-minute talk mentioned above, Ascol cited three instances of “social justice” influence on evangelical Christians and the SBC. It may be helpful to consider two of those references here.

Jarvis Williams’s Book Recommendation. First, Tom mentions Jarvis Williams of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as someone introducing CRT into SBC institutions. His evidence for this claim is Jarvis recommending someone read Richard Delgado’s book on critical race theory (see Ascol’s comments beginning at the 13’ 40” mark). Here’s Tom’s comments:

Jarvis Williams, professor at SBTS, has urged every evangelical to read Delgado’s book. He did so because evangelicals tend to be decades behind on critical race discussions. Delgado openly admits CRT grows out of radical feminism, built on Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Derrida. You can’t follow Gramsci and Derrida and follow Jesus Christ.

That book recommendation is enough in Tom’s mind to associate Jarvis with a Satan-inspired incursion of worldly ideologies shifting people away from biblical truth. It’s a heavy charge—especially since it’s highly doubtful Jarvis’s intent was ever to suggest that following Gramsci and Derrida would be an appropriate way to follow Jesus.

But stop and consider Tom’s “evidence” for a minute. Does a mere book recommendation constitute evidence supporting his theory?

Jarvis is a committed scholar. What do scholars do? They read, write, and recommend books. It’s their craft, their stock and trade. And what would a good scholar do if they wished to critically engage others on a topic? They would read the works of people who differ from them, who sometimes differ dramatically. And what would a good scholar do if they wanted to encourage their audience to understand the other side’s viewpoint? They would recommend important texts illustrating the other side’s viewpoint. That’s what scholars do. But recommending a book that characterizes a viewpoint does not at all make Jarvis a proponent of that viewpoint or anything sub- or anti-biblical. Chastising a book recommendation is closer to censorship than evidence.

Nor does Jarvis’s book recommendation suggest, as Tom contends, that evangelical institutions are about to be overrun by godless pagan philosophy. Mature readers and scholars read widely. That should be true of every seminarian. It’s true of Jarvis, and he should not be branded a “social justice warrior” or accused of “smuggling in” CRT because of it.

Jarvis Williams is about as prodigious and biblically rigorous a Christian scholar as you will find. He’s a rare blend of passionate and careful, just as you would hope for a Christian scholar. If you’ve ever read or heard Jarvis, you know that an avalanche of biblical texts come your way with careful systematizing, exegesis, and application. That a man so committed to the Bible, rooting his arguments in the whole of Scripture, could be assailed as a “cultural Marxist” or someone importing “secular social justice” into SBC institutions boggles the mind.

But don’t take my word for it. Also don’t take the word of Williams’s critics. Take Jarvis’s word. Read his work or listen to his talks, which are plentifully available. If he’s going to be put forth as a representative of the secular “social justice movement” encroaching upon evangelical institutions or listed as someone influenced by secular pagan views, then you should be able to see it in his body of work. Go check the sources for yourself.

Eric Mason’s Missiology. The second example Tom used to make the claim that secular “social justice” ideas are infiltrating the church was a quotation from a section of Eric Mason’s book Woke Church. Tom comments:

Eric Mason has written a book calling for a new movement which he labels “woke church.” In his book, he advocates viewing the world and viewing the mission of the church through lenses that come from cultural Marxism, though he himself might never see it that way. He argues that the church must be busy righting the wrongs that we see in society so that we can gain access to people’s hearts. But that gets it exactly wrong according to the New Testament commission of the church. We’re to go preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples so that those who are being discipled can be the light of the world and those who know Christ can address the wrongs and impact it with truth and righteousness. (emphasis added)

Please note what’s being said here. Tom represents Eric as advocating a view of the church’s mission influenced by cultural Marxism. He qualifies by saying Mason “might never see it that way.” So why represent Mason in a way you suspect he would not accept? If Mason would not ascribe his view to cultural Marxism, would perhaps even reject cultural Marxism, do we really gain much understanding or show much charity by charging him with “cultural Marxism” anyway? It’s a misrepresentation in service to a theory that cannot be demonstrated using Mason’s published work.

But consider carefully the content Tom finds objectionable. Tom paraphrases Mason as saying the church must be busy righting wrongs to gain access to people’s hearts. Tom then contends that the actual mission of the church is to make disciples (i.e., grow the church) who then affect the world in truth and righteousness. What really is the difference between these two statements once you remove the unsubstantiated charge that Mason is influenced by cultural Marxism?

Mason says “the church,” by which he means congregations of Christian disciples, must affect the world. Tom says, we must make disciples—by which I assume he means converted, committed church members—who go on to affect the world. It’s virtually the same argument presented in slightly different terms with Tom starting a little further upstream to reference evangelism, which Mason practices and assumes. But Tom has made things sound as if Eric is making an entirely different and nefarious argument. Tom appears to represent Eric this way in order to levy a charge of “cultural Marxism,” even though he knows Eric would deny the charge.

This is not careful, charitable Christian debate. Nor is it evidence that supports the basic premise that “social justice” influences Christians and subverts biblical Christianity.

Pivotal Role

Again, I’ve chosen Tom Ascol for this post because he has played a pivotal role in the anti-social justice “side.” His comments are representative of the kinds of comments typical to that viewpoint. The wider mass of argument decrying a “social justice movement” depends on the same kind of methodology and “evidence” Tom uses here.

In my opinion, demonstrating that a “social justice movement” exists has failed utterly. That’s not surprising to me. No movement has ever existed to my knowledge. No organization or steering committee guides anything. The various persons criticized, while sometimes friends and acquaintances, have not worked together to produce a joint statement, specify any goals, or take any action—all things necessary to a “movement.”

To be honest, the anti-social justice “side” bears many more markings of a movement than anything or anyone they criticize among Christians. They have produced a statement and written a good number of posts expositing the statement. They have called others to join their cause by signing the statement. They have held conferences and meetings expounding their concerns and goals. They’ve spawned hours of podcasts and sermon series. They’ve developed their own lexicon replete with pejoratives and hashtags to mark out their perspective and the people who share it. They’ve sometimes sought to bring pressure on people and institutions. That is a movement. But it’s a movement built on conspiracy theories rather than compelling evidence.

There is no evangelical “social justice movement.” However, there does need to be a movement for justice. A movement that combines evangel and ethics, proclamation and practice, doctrine and duty. There needs to be an organized investment in teaching Christians and churches to apply what we learn to every area of life so that we more consistently and faithfully bear witness to the character and work of God in the world.

I actually think most everyone agrees with this basic need. Given that, it would be good to stop the recriminations and get on with constructively pursuing evangel and ethic, good news and good work. May the Lord give us grace to do so.

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