When it comes to faith and politics, young evangelicals are
getting a lot of attention these days.
Several recent polls and a slew of new books suggest
social-justice concerns are prompting evangelicals under the age of
30 to move left politically. As part of the largest religious group
in the United States, their political allegiances are under
particular scrutiny, especially during a cliffhanger election
Experts also are noting among younger evangelicals a desire for
less institutional and more personal forms of faith. As author
George Barna notes, they're searching for "unique, highly
personalized church experiences" that "render people's spiritual
lives more exciting," "novel," "personal" and "worthwhile" than
what they experience in conventional church settings.
If these experts are correct, then it seems the average
evangelical Christian somewhere in her 20s -- let's call her Eva --
is looking for a religious community that emphasizes personal faith
and a political movement that emphasizes social justice.
But if the latter leads her to support big-government social
programs, Eva may end up at cross-purposes, seeking the personal
for herself while suggesting the impersonal as a solution for
If she's typical of her generation, Eva may not detect an
inconsistency between her preference for the personal when it comes
to faith and an embrace of policies that grow the welfare state
when it comes to politics.
"Church is about private faith, and politics is about justice,"
she likely would say. "If people are trapped in poverty, that's a
matter of justice, and it's the government's responsibility to
Eva's understanding here reflects the modern tendency to divorce
faith and politics into two separate spheres: one private, the
other public; one concerning love, the other concerning
But justice is not the call of government alone.
Families pursue justice when they teach their children to take
turns playing with a toy. Teachers pursue justice when they grade
papers fairly. Employers pursue justice by offering appropriate
compensation to their employees. Church congregations do the same
by serving the "orphan and widow."
If justice is something that all individuals and institutions
are called to seek in their day-to-day relationships and spheres of
activity, then government has its appropriate role in justice, too:
making public judgments in view of justice. Government's role is to
enact and enforce laws that allow all members of society to fulfill
their moral obligations to one another.
It is dangerous to view government as the single institution
responsible for actually bringing about just relationships or
fulfilling our moral obligations. Those tasks lie with us all.
Rather, a well-ordered government publicly expresses society's
understanding of justice and judges actions that harm or threaten
So Eva's desire to pursue social justice is laudable, but
supporting the expansion of government programs is not necessarily
the best way to express her concern. One of the most strategic and
practical places Eva could turn in seeking justice for the poor is
Historically, local churches in America have served not only as
resources for personal faith, but also as communities that embody
justice for those in need. Evangelical leader John Stott urges
congregations to understand service to the poor as one important
way in which personal faith takes form; the two go
Eva's concern for social justice should give her pause in
turning over responsibility for the least of these to the
government. If large numbers of young Evas in America are persuaded
to define social justice almost exclusively as a government
concern, do they not actually risk shrinking its meaning and the
significance it should hold in other social spheres?
In America, we should promote "justice for all" without reducing
that idea to what individuals receive from government. We should
also promote justice as a calling and responsibility for all
institutions that make up the fabric of American life, each in
their own appropriate way -- justice from all, you might say.
Evas may call upon the church to offer more personal forms of
faith. But they should also call upon it to provide opportunities
for serving the needy, a critical step in pursuing justice.
Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon fellow in Religion and
a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).