Just as in the US, Australia is becoming polarised between right and left. Some Christians, though, want to be both faithful and support social justice. Indeed, they feel commanded to pursue both. And they still believe they can. The Washington-based group called Sojourners has long bridged this divide.
Sojourners is a progressive monthly magazine and daily online publication of the American Christian social justice organisation whose executive director, Adam Taylor, spoke to Eternity on a recent visit to Australia.
Before joining Sojourners, Taylor led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group and served as Vice President of Advocacy at World Vision US. He is also an ordained Baptist minister.
We asked him if he came here to stop talking about President Donald Trump under whose leadership America’s political polarities have moved even further apart.
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“I actually did an event with Tim Costello last night at a church with pastors and a lot of the questions revolved around Trump and what’s happening the United States, what’s happening with the church, so in some ways there’s no escaping him,” Taylor says.
“In many ways – although I think Trumpism or Trump is the manifestation of a lot of things that have gone wrong in American life and politics – the polarisation in our country has gotten much worse and the control of social media/the role of media pushing people toward the extremes as citizens have definitely contributed to the current situation.”
“Social justice is as ingrained in Jesus’s ministry and mission as it was with the biblical prophets.” – Adam Taylor
Eternity wonders if that means there are two boxes in America – one marked evangelical Christian and the other marked social justice Christian?
“Sojourners over its history has really tried to push against that idea. We really try to take ‘evangelical’ back to the root of the word, which is the evangel – the good news,” says Taylor.
“If we’re going to follow the good news and pay attention to the first sermon that Jesus preached, where he said ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the good news to the poor,’ then social justice is as ingrained in Jesus’s ministry and mission as it was with the biblical prophets.
“I think there’s been a growing movement, particularly among younger evangelical Christians, to embrace both charity and justice. But I think there’s also an old guard who identifies more as a religious Right, that in many respects have kind of sold out their faith for support for this current administration. And I would even argue they have made a Faustian bargain with President Trump.”
“There’s many evangelicals that … don’t see a conflict between being committed to social justice and being evangelical.”
In Taylor’s view, that Faustian bargain may have helped to empty churches: “There are a lot of young Christians that are leaving the church, including evangelical churches. This has been a trend that’s been happening over the last couple of decades, but it has accelerated. And I think it’s in part because evangelicalism has become a kind of political brand that is wedded to the Republican Party.
“I think, though, there’s many evangelicals that don’t have a conflict or don’t see a conflict between being committed to social justice and being evangelical.”
Taylor believes the media have contributed to a myth that evangelicals supported Trump overwhelmingly, by focusing on how white evangelicals voted. He points out that Asian, African-American and Latino evangelicals voted the other way by almost the same percentage, which gives evangelicals a much more politically diverse voice.
The Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College and LifeWay Research found that only 9 per cent of black evangelicals, 41 per cent of Hispanic evangelicals and 48 per cent of evangelicals of other ethnicities voted for Trump. Put them together with the 77 per cent of white evangelicals who did support Trump, and and the overall figure of evangelicals’ support for Trump comes down to 58 per cent.
“They basically tried to discern what was their role in responding to the current state of our politics.” – Adam Taylor.
Sojourners took part in a “reclaiming Jesus” campaign this year that drew together a diverse group of Christians. President and Founder of Sojourners Jim Wallis joined forces with Bishop Michael Curry, the leader of the US Episcopalians who found new fame when he preached at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May.
“They had been talking to each other about the state of US politics and were anguished about what was happening, so they brought together a group of church elders – a very diverse group of men, women, black, white … and they basically tried to discern what was their role in responding to the current state of our politics,” says Taylor.
The line-up included the well-known black evangelical and social activist, John Perkins. But pressed by Eternity about more conservative evangelicals – such as Southern Baptists – not being on the Reclaim Jesus statement, Taylor points to conservative Christians who have taken a critical view of Trump.
“There’s a lot of Christians including Russell Moore who’s the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptists who’s been quite critical of Trump at times. Now, he’s in a tough position because a lot of the members of the Southern Baptists may like Trump, but there are some examples of conservative Christians being willing to speak out against Trump. You know, the Catholic Church has been pretty critical in many ways, particularly around the separation of children from their families and around immigration issues.”
Taylor points out the sad origins of the politically conservative Christian movement in the US. “Unfortunately, when you look at the history of the religious Right, it was founded as a movement to try to protect schools and universities from having to desegregate their campuses, including Bob Jones University, so there were some pretty racist underpinnings to that movement.”
So what are the key issues for Christians who seek to promote social justice and take the Bible seriously?
Race: “A kind of kingdom-like vision that is very much aligned with Dr [Martin Luther] King’s vision of a beloved community, which to me is still the best representation of what America could and should be, rather than this kind of reactive vision of a country that is divided by race and ideology.”
Climate change: “It really is an existential crisis facing our world. It is one of the key issues that I think Christian leadership could be a real game-changer around. If you really use a biblical perspective – that we are called to be stewards of creation, and that you know the science is overwhelmingly clear and convincing that climate change is happening and it’s human induced, and that the consequences are going to be the most severe for the poorest – you can sway many of them to come around the issue of climate change.”
Extreme poverty: “We’ve made incredible progress around the world in lifting a billion people out of poverty over the last but we still have close to a billion people that are in the quicksand of poverty, living on a dollar ninety a day.”
Refugees: “There’s a lot of consternation right now about what’s happening in our border and Trump has been able to exploit that issue, trying to stoke fear among many about this caravan of Central Americans that are marching across Mexico seeking asylum.”
Just as Taylor tells Christians that they do not need to choose between social justice and evangelical Christianity – they can do both – he told a Canberra workshop that we don’t have to choose between justice movements that seek liberation struggles (such as the Che Jesus of the revolutionary priests in Central America), or community organising (such as Barack Obama’s hero, Saul Alinsky, in Chicago).
“We follow a very radical and revolutionary Saviour. Jesus may not have been political in the way that we understand politics today, but he was very radical and revolutionary. He directly challenged political structures and authorities.”
In his book Mobilizing Hope, Taylor integrates justice work into his Christianity.
“Justice represents a critical and indispensable focus of Jesus’ message and ministry, but it should never be mistaken as the totality of his ministry. God wants an intimate and personal relationship with each and every one of us… We must remember that because of Christ’s victory on the cross, we have an eschatological hope that strengthens and empowers us in the midst of whatever existential challenges we might face.”