It’s been a mystery to many Christians and non-Christians alike why issues such as those concerning social justice and environmental stewardship became rejected by many Evangelicals. Historically it hasn’t always been the case, but a major game changer occurred, starting in the 1980’s, which labeled such issues, even though they were biblical in nature, as being a part of the liberal agenda. I wrote about this in my book Re:Form and thought it would be helpful to provide the following excerpt which is found in Chapter One, “What was” Pg. 51
The Moral Majority – a game-changer for Evangelicals
Do you recall how revivals in the past (the examples we used were the Protestant Reformation and the Great Awakening) always came out of a season where the Church had become entangled with the political system of their day? If you go back further, the same thing was true in the days of Jesus and the Book of Acts. The Jews who first followed Jesus expected Him to become a political king rather than a spiritual one. They didn’t get it. Jesus told His followers to “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, NET). He exhorted His followers to separate their activities as believers from the secular thinking of Rome. In other words, to separate church and state.
In 1979, a group of high-profile Christian leaders led by a Baptist pastor named Jerry Falwell, gathered to discuss how they might mobilize American Evangelical believers across the country in order to influence the American political system. They were angry at what they perceived to be rapid moral decay across the nation. They were very angry about the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion and concluded the only way they could control our changing culture was through the vehicle of politics. The efforts of these men, as they linked arms with another conservative group known as the Religious Right, began influencing Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews across the country. Together, they advanced socially conservative positions on issues such as school prayer, intelligent design, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, abortion, and pornography. Their efforts swept the nation throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and changed the complexion of Evangelicalism. Christians were perceived more as right-wing Republicans than sincere promoters of the Kingdom of God. The line between church and state became blurred while the line between liberals and conservatives grew into a major dividing wall.
Two camps and one nation divided
By the mid-nineties, two camps had been clearly established and the majority of Evangelical Christians chose to pitch their tents in the conservative camp. When people take sides after drawing lines in the sand, loyalty arises among them. As they begin to identify and clarify the ideologies that unite them, they soon become defensive against any who would challenge their convictions. When the other side questions, challenges, or ridicules those beliefs, they then are quickly perceived as enemies. We may all be Americans, but now one side or the other redefines themselves as “true Americans.” As things progressed in the final years of the 20th century, America evolved into what became referred to as “one nation divided.”
The trouble with having two defined camps is that critical issues become polarizing rather than points of discussion. Some of these issues, however, are so critical to the welfare of all, they should be embraced by everyone rather than pigeonholed into one camp or the other. Two good examples are the environment and social justice.
Evangelicals push environmentalism and social justice into the liberal camp.
Creation care and social justice are two very clear biblical agendas. In Genesis 9, God established a covenant with His creation which became known as the “Noahic Covenant” or the “Covenant of the Rainbow.” It was a covenant which commissioned all of His people to become stewards of creation.
For those who read their Bible and believe it, this should have been a no-brainer when the liberal / conservative lines were drawn, but the fact is, both environmental stewardship and issues of justice were rejected by conservatives and became liberal agendas. Some might ask, how were they hijacked? The answer is simple: liberals didn’t hijack these biblical responsibilities, they took them on because conservatives had turned their backs on them.
Reviewing the ground we’ve already covered, let’s go back to the Jesus Movement and recall what was going on in the minds of these young, new, Christian believers. Two huge things happened: One, we were afraid because we saw our world entering a state of environmental crisis due to overpopulation and human entitlement. The problem seemed too big and too impossible to fix. When the Jesus Movement impacted our generation, it brought an answer and some hope to our fears; the answer was eschatology. The extreme focus on this biblical truth caused us to overlook the biblical responsibility of creation care. As our Bible teachers and preachers told us, the environment didn’t really matter because they said, “It’s all going to burn anyway.” Those who hadn’t come to Christ wrote off this cavalier attitude as being illogical nonsense. They dismissed the church as being irrelevant and continued their concern for the future welfare of the earth and its impact on humanity. They saw this as an issue of social justice because if the earth became unsustainable, it would cause extreme human suffering.
The second issue that caused conservative Christians to push back on the environment was the liberal victory of Roe vs. Wade and the legalization of abortion. If you recall our previous conversation, secular environmental groups backed Row vs. Wade as a possible means of controlling overpopulation. As a result, they were pushed by Evangelicals into the “enemy” camp of liberalism.
Concerning social justice issues in general, there were two other reasons these issues were neglected by numerous Evangelicals. The first reason was their push back on the social gospel from the early 1900s which still remained in the Evangelical DNA. The second reason was due to popular conservative voices which began speaking into the right-wing camp. Many of these conservative personalities began equating social justice with socialism. One such radio personality exhorted his listeners to leave the church they were attending if the pastor even mentioned the words “social justice.”
Angry voices and the redefining of Evangelicalism
Starting sometime in the 1980s, conservative talk radio and television commentators became the voices for the far right. Because many Evangelicals identified with the values proclaimed by these rising celebrities, they saw them as voices of truth. Some of these popular personalities professed to be people of faith and although many of the things they said supported Christian values, their anger, arrogance, and authoritarian rhetoric did not communicate the character of Jesus.
As their voices became more popular throughout Christian culture, many well-meaning pastors became fearful to say anything negative about them. In many ways, their voices overpowered the words of sincere Christian leaders who were attempting to instill the nature of Christ in their people. It became a conflict so discordant that many leaders decided to join them rather than fight, sometimes even to the point of supporting political candidates and directing voter choices.
Feeling intimidated, pastors began avoiding biblical issues altogether, such as the case with creation care. They steered clear from issues of social injustice, causing their congregations to neglect God’s many mandates to care for broken humanity. Evangelicalism was becoming redefined, especially to the unchurched world. To many outside the church, the word “Evangelical” became a nasty word as it was perceived to be a controlling, political organization rather than a lover of neighbors. We, as Christians, began losing credibility and attractiveness to those we were called to reach. Evangelicalism was no longer equated with Christ-like evangelism but rather, a right-wing political agenda.