LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) — One Southern Baptist leader said Glenn Beck's advice to leave churches that preach "social justice" was stated poorly but basically on target, while another said the statement was so broad that it would include asking people to leave Southern Baptist churches.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a blog commentary March 15 that the Fox News personality's controversial comments "lacked nuance, fair consideration and context" that left them open to easy rebuke by the many verses in the Bible that condemn injustice.
But Mohler added there is something to Beck's assertion that some clergy use terms like "social justice" and "economic justice" as "code words."
"Regrettably, there is no shortage of preachers who have traded the gospel for a platform of political and economic change, most often packaged as a call for social justice," Mohler said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said on his weekly radio program March 13 that if taken literally, Beck would be asking people to leave Southern Baptist churches. That is because the denomination's official faith statement, the Baptist Faith & Message, includes an article titled "The Christian and Social Order" that challenges Southern Baptists "to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society."
Land said one example of churches influencing social justice was enacting of civil rights laws in the 1960s. "Dr. King was about social justice, and thank God he was," Land said. As a social conservative, Land said for him stopping abortion is an issue of social justice.
"This is not painting with a broad brush," Land said of Beck's comments. "This is painting with a paint bomb."
Land conceded that some liberal Christians use the term for political reasons. During debate over welfare reform, Land said Jim Wallis — a politically progressive evangelical leader who has urged Christians to boycott Beck's program because of his remarks — was "running through the halls of Congress with his hair on fire" claiming that changing the system would hurt the poor.
"We're going to have disagreements about the best way to bring about social justice," Land said. "Are you going to redistribute fish or are you going to teach people how to fish? Are you going to focus on free-market capitalism as a way of expanding the base of wealth?"
Mohler traced roots of the agenda criticized by Beck to a movement that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century called the Social Gospel. Its primary theologian, a Baptist minister named Walter Rauschenbusch, Mohler said, called for replacing an "old evangelism" concerned with salvation from sin through faith in Christ with a "new evangelism" correcting social ills and injustice, in effect partially bringing the Kingdom of God to reign on earth.
"The last century has seen many churches and denominations embrace the Social Gospel in some form, trading the gospel of Christ for a liberal vision of social change, revolution, economic liberation, and, yes, social justice," Mohler wrote. "Liberal Protestantism has largely embraced this agenda as its central message."
"The urgency for any faithful Christian is this," Mohler said. "Flee any church that for any reason or in any form has abandoned the gospel of Christ for any other gospel."
Miguel De La Torre, an ordained Baptist minister who teaches ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said in a column published March 15 on EthicsDaily.com that Beck's viewpoint is the product of a dominant religious culture that focuses on personal piety like praying or trusting Jesus instead of reaching out to the poor and marginalized.
"What Beck will one day sadly discover is that no one enters heaven without a letter of recommendation from the 'least of these,'" De La Torre said.
De La Torre said advocating a Christianity that goes beyond feeding the hungry to ask why they are hungry "is to invite hostility from those privileged by the status quo."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.