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 year.
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 others.
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 change that."
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 justice.
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 it.
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 her church.
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 hand-in-hand.
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 Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).