Evangelicals Justice Conference Mimics Liberal Protestantism
Thousands of young Evangelical Christians are set to descend upon Chicago June 3–4 to champion issues related to social justice at the annual Justice Conference, a project of World Relief, a Christian aid agency associated with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).* But lately, this ostensibly evangelical conference seems to be a repackaged version of liberal Mainline Protestantism for hipsters.
Over the last several years, organizers for the Justice Conference have carefully avoided addressing relevant cultural and social issues, such as the persecution of Christians abroad, religious freedom, sanctity of unborn life, sexual ethics or support of Israel. Instead, speakers cover topics including racism, gun control, neo-pacifism, Liberation theology and denouncing American patriotism as bigoted idolatry.
Sounds like the outline of a sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, doesn’t it?
Keep in mind, the Justice Conference is not marketed towards progressive Christians. It’s geared towards young Evangelicals from faithful NAE member denominations with big hearts for the poor and the marginalized. So it’s odd that many of the conference’s keynote speakers and topics don’t reflect their target audience’s theological backgrounds.
This year, keynote speakers include Rev. Traci Blackmon, a top official from the emphatically non-Evangelical, ultra liberal United Church of Christ (UCC). The UCC is a Mainline Protestant denomination notorious for deviating away from traditional Christian teaching. For example, the UCC was the first denomination to affirm unorthodox sexual ethics.
The UCC is also in serious decline. My Institute on Religion and Democracy colleague Jeff Walton reports the UCC is in such dire financial and membership straits they have slashed staff since 2000 and an “internal report predicting an 80 percent decline in membership by 2045.”
Clearly, the UCC’s aggressive liberal theology and politics are destroying the denomination. Evangelicals would be wise to avoid the UCC’s mistakes rather than follow its lead.
But listening to the voices of liberal non-Evangelical leaders is exactly what Justice Conference organizers want. Moody Radio talk show host Julie Roys quoted Stephan Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief, explaining the intention is to “bring out the broader voice of justice and let people decide what’s true, what’s right.”
That’s why in 2015, Bauman said the Justice Conference invited keynote speaker Dr. Cornel West, honored member of the Democratic Socialists of America and professor at Union Theological Seminary, another emphatically non-Evangelical institution.
In his disjointed address, West accused the Church of having a “white supremacy” problem, among other evils. “White supremacy, or male supremacy, or it could even be welfare inequality, or losing sight of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, or the poor, or the elderly, or the orphaned, or the one fatherless or the motherless,” listed off West to his young Evangelical audience. “How are you going to confront this darkness?”
West’s remarks received the loudest applause out of all the event’s speakers. That includes the white female panelist who yelled, “Reparations!” from onstage.
Young organizers and participants probably think they’ve discovered a new compassion-minded worldview as they listen to speakers like West who espouse Liberation theology. That’s okay, according to the Justice Conferences’ Executive Producer Mark Reddy. “Liberation theology aligns more with the disenfranchised, the powerless, so I think that’s a positive thing,” said Reddy. “I think Jesus did that.”
What young Justice Conference goers don’t know is that Liberation theology and Social Gospel proponents within Mainline denominations found themselves supporting totalitarian dictatorships that committed abhorrent human rights violations. IRD President Mark Tooley has observed, “[IRD] was founded in 1981 in the midst of the Cold War to challenge primarily Mainline Protestant support for Marxist revolution globally under the aegis of Liberation Theology.”
Tooley can tell you better than anyone exactly how Liberation Theology and Social Gospel Christians provided “moral and financial backing for Marxist insurgencies like the FMLN in El Salvador, Marxist regimes like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua,” and ignored “human rights abuses and persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain in favor of collaboration with the Soviet Union and its proxies.”
I don’t think Jesus would do that.
“It was a long road for the Mainline Protestants,” wrote Tooley. “But that road began with theological compromises early in the 20th century or before, when the Bible and Christian tradition were reinterpreted into metaphors, and the redemption story for lost souls was replaced by social reform under the banner of the Social Gospel.”
Jesus most certainly calls on His followers to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the sick, and oppressed. I too want to see racial reconciliation, hungry bellies fed, orphans adopted, widows provided financial aid and the friendless loved. These are neither liberal nor conservative issues. They are Christian responsibilities.
The temptation, however, is to address social injustices through a divisive secular lens rather than a Gospel-centered lens. Justice Conference speakers must acknowledge human depravity is at the center of social injustice. No government regime or political utopia on earth can ever fully extinguish inequality and injustice because they cannot extinguish sin. Only the blood of Jesus can do that. The leftward drift of the Justice Conference will do little to aid the marginalized if organizers prioritize politics over the Gospel.
Repentance. Forgiveness. Redemption. These topics also need mention when we dialogue about social justice. If not, then we Evangelicals will follow in the declining trajectory of liberal Mainlines. Society has nicknamed them the “Sidelines” for a reason.
*Updated to note World Relief’s role in the conference.