Will 'Social Justice' Kill American Religion?

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted March 04, 2019

There’s little doubt that modern American society has ills that need to be addressed. But is the push for “social justice” by some congregations harming the very institutions it seeks to help?

Joel Kotkin, author of eight books and the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, believes this is the case. In a provocative essay for the online Jewish publication Tablet Magazine, Kotkin detailed a litany of causes embraced by various Jewish, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant communities—almost none of which align with specific faith strictures or goals.

Such efforts may offer a warm-hearted feeling to participants, but it’s not what people go to worship hoping to find, he said.

‘The Most Serious Decline’

“However satisfying to its practitioners, the emphasis on social justice is clearly not attracting more worshippers,” Kotkin wrote. “Almost all the religious institutions most committed to this course are also in the most serious decline, most notably mainstream Protestants but also, Catholics and Reform and Conservative Jews.”

The numbers—and Kotkin gathered many—are surprising. Three million Roman Catholics in America left their church between 2007 and 2014, he reported. There are 6.5 former Catholics for every new convert to the community. Eighty percent of youths in the Reform Judaism movement have left by the time they graduate high school. Between 1965 and 2015, more than 200 synagogues affiliated with the Conservative Judaism branch of the faith had closed or dropped their affiliation.

Nor does the future look much brighter, Kotkin said: “American millennials are leaving religious institutions at a rate four times that of their counterparts three decades ago; almost 40 percent of people 18 to 29 are not unaffiliated.”

This doesn’t mean that those who aren’t connected to a congregation are suddenly atheists: two-thirds of the unchurched, Kotkin said, believe “in God or a universal spirit.” They just don’t want to go to a house of worship to define that. “Virtue signaling” may make a local cleric popular in certain political circles, but it’s not drawing in new members.

Works Without Faith?

It’s not that religious organizations aren’t commanded to perform good works in a community—or that they’re not commended for doing so. But if a congregation is known more for its soup kitchen than for proclaiming a faith-based message relevant to the personal lives of those around them, then there’s little to differentiate it from the Junior League or the Rotary Club.

Public service is good, but, to invert James 2:26, works without faith is dead too—or at least mortally wounded.

The shift in focus from tenets of the faith to social justice activism may have a significant role in this decline. One observer of the decline of mainline churches, Marshall Toplansky, told Kotkin these groups need to observe what many evangelical Christians, as well as Mormons, are involved in: “providing services for families and their local communities.”

According to Toplansky, “many mainstream churches ‘have overlooked the value of building grassroots relationships with their donors,’ who sometimes do not share the progressive ideology of the clerical class. Without engaging the faithful and addressing their needs, he noted, ‘people stop identifying with their local institution and stop participating in the local activities that defined them to begin with.’”

Perhaps it is a balanced program of spiritual instruction and exhortation, along with community services, that is most desired by people today. Some observers say it is the “felt” needs of congregants—and potential members—that come into play here. Catholic layman Anthony Lemus declared that his church’s future would be found in “remaining true to its principles while refashioning its message to serve its adherents’ worldly, as well as spiritual, needs,” according to Kotkin’s reporting.

Jesus’ miracles of healing and feeding multitudes are sometimes cited as examples of social activism—a protest against oppressors and a “ruling class” that cared little about the everyday person. But while Jesus railed against a religious establishment that “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23), he also declared (Mark 1:15) that people must “[r]epent, and believe in the gospel.” The Jesus who cared for the disadvantaged also commanded them to get right with God.

Is there a proper balance between religious faith and political (or social justice) activism? Pastor Doug says, yes, there should be, which he explains during a Bible Answers Live program.

The challenge of faith communities becoming distracted from their primary purpose—leading people to Christ—is real, and it may not end anytime soon. In “The Dangers of a Diluted Gospel,” Pastor Doug discusses the risks and offers a useful remedy.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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