It isn’t hard these days to find examples of people making the claim that Christianity is, to one degree or another, responsible for racism, discrimination, and inequality in the United States. One common way this claim is made is to assert that Christianity in North America is inextricably and irredeemably linked to the history of colonialism as a form of white supremacist ideology. There’s no question as to whether there is a relationship between the spread of Christianity and the colonial ambitions of European monarchies, but the claim that the two are so related as to make them essentially the same thing is false.
First, there is the simple issue of making a logical error by assuming without evidence that the desire on the part of some monarchs to colonize places like North America and the desire on the part of the Church to take the gospel into those same places means both entities desired the same things. They did not. The monarchs who sponsored and supported colonization were motivated primarily by two things: First and foremost was the extraction and economic exploitation of natural resources. Second, was the desire to outcompete rival nations for control over those resources. Of course, history teaches us that the Church is not above such temporal concerns. The relationship that developed between the colonies and the Church was complex. At times, the Church illegitimately supported colonial practices–like slavery–which were antithetical to the gospel. At other times, the Church vehemently opposed those same practices. Even when it came down to the American Revolution, there were religious arguments on both sides that, at times, split denominations. This fact alone should give anyone pause before making claims about Christianity that implies some kind of monolithic, intractable link between it and some other ideological position. This is bolstered by the fact that, despite the theological arguments in support of slavery–which relied on selective, poor exegesis–it still remains that the most influential and ardent abolitionists in both the United States and Great Britain were Christians who argued from a Christian perspective.
The scholar Daniel Dreisbach has published an extensive body of scholarship that documents how the Bible and its language provided a common source for making public arguments in the early periods of American history. While some use his research to argue for the claim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” the real import of his work is more subtle. It essentially boils down to the fact that, due to the ubiquitous and universal influence of the Bible and biblical imagery in early American history, making biblical arguments for public policy was both a necessary and effective rhetorical tool. Whether one was for or against slavery, or the Revolution, or anything else, one needed to draw on biblical themes in order to communicate with a biblically literate audience. In the rest of this post, I’m going to try to reverse that order. That is that I’m going to try to use biblical themes in order to communicate with a biblically illiterate audience, one that–sadly–includes many professing Christians [see my prior post].
Given the contemporary flair for making bold claims about Christianity’s necessary relationship with every conceivable form of injustice present in the modern United States, there’s no doubt that many who read the title of this post would immediately reject its premise–that the gospel can or ought to be one’s basic political presupposition. My counterclaim to this assertion is that if one is a Christian then it must be their basic political presupposition. Furthermore, if one wishes to live in a free and open society, the gospel is a necessary presupposition.
In Romans 3-5, Paul makes an argument that can be summarized as: “The gospel is God’s justice fully revealed.” What made this a controversial claim then and now is the role that God’s Law is to play in salvation and how one chooses to define justice. As an ethical and political concept, justice is typically defined as ensuring that people get what they deserve or, as it is classically expressed, rendering to each that which is due. When someone commits an act of evil, then justice demands that they be punished and, when applicable, pay reparations. When someone does what is good or honorable, then they are rewarded and honored. This view of justice requires a necessary presupposition: that the standard by which justice is determined is universal, common, and known or, at the very least, knowable. In order to punish evil and reward good, one must have reference to a standard of what constitutes good and evil. In Paul’s letter, this is his primary point–that God’s standards of good and evil are common and universally applicable.
The background to Paul’s argument is a dispute between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians who had recently returned to Rome after having lived in exile for several years. The returning Jewish Christians accused the Gentiles of having abandoned God’s Law by not observing various Jewish customs. The Gentile response to this accusation was that the Law was not applicable to them because they weren’t Jewish. Paul’s argument rejected both of these claims. His point was that the Law applied to everyone equally, regardless of how anyone chose to view it or put it into practice. What was important, in Paul’s view, was the equal application of the Law. In his words, he wanted to drive home the point that “both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin” and therefore in violation of the Law (Rom 3:9-11). This was true not because of how any single Christian viewed the Law but because of the Law itself. To illustrate this point clearly–and to illustrate how the gospel could be God’s justice fully revealed–Paul makes the point that God’s Law was universally applicable to the point that God applied it to himself.
In Romans 5:12-21, Paul explains how Jesus himself was subject to the rewards and punishments of the Law. In other words, Jesus died because he–God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity–was subject to the same Law as every other human. I’ll say it again: God’s Law was universally applicable to the point that God applied it to himself. God’s willingness to show mercy and forgiveness on whomever he wishes is justified by the fact that he subjects himself to the same standard of justice as he expects from his creatures. I’m paraphrasing when I put it that way, but that is the fundamental justification for why and how God can forgive human beings. Obedience to the Law is not contained in exacting fulfillment of its every requirement, nor is it contained in declaring it is no longer applicable. Rather, obedience to the Law is contained in recognizing it as a universal standard by which to determine justice.
Returning to the case of people who accuse Christianity of being inescapably linked to injustice, I reject this claim for the reasons Paul gives in Romans 3-5. Because slavery and its claimed embeddedness in structural institutions of discrimination is the most popular way of expressing it today, I will respond to this form of the argument. The chattel slavery of the North American colonies and the early United States was evil and remains evil. That it was allowed to exist at all was in spite of, not because of, the Christian influence on the United States. Yes, people may have adopted Christian language to justify and defend it, but they did not employ Christianity in its defense–because they couldn’t. Slavery in all its forms rejects the gospel as the most basic presupposition. It does this by assuming that laws do not have to apply to everyone equally. The gospel is the message that everyone is equally guilty before a righteous and just God whose righteousness and justice extends his mercy and forgiveness to all. If there is no universal standard of right and wrong that applies to everyone equally, then there can be no gospel because no gospel would be necessary.
What makes this all the more ironic is the fact that those who make these claims about Christianity’s relationship to injustice propose a form of justice that rejects a universally applicable standard of justice. Social justice–and its derivatives–is premised on the idea that justice is not and should not be universally applicable but, instead, applied arbitrarily and ad hoc according to shifting standards of good and evil. Under such a system of justice, there can be no such thing as a free society. Even more problematically, the shifting standards of justice are to be applied to groups on an unequal basis as determined by leaders who are themselves not held accountable to the same standard. Rather than following the example of God, who subjected his own Son to the standards of the Law, these leaders follow the example of pagan deities who acted capriciously based on fluctuating emotions, fashions, and political expedience.
Stated another way, those who attempt to justify the modern concepts of social justice by referring to slavery and colonialism are in fact employing the same anti-gospel presuppositions as the ills they claim to rectify. Slavery and the colonial exploitation of natural resources was predicated on the idea that some groups of people were not subject to the same laws or limitations as others. On one hand, slaves were not believed to benefit from the protection of laws. On the other hand, those who enslaved them were. Today, we’re being asked to believe that applying these same standards of inequity will somehow rectify the vestigial remnants of those same standards. To believe this is to deny common sense, logic, and the gospel.
There’s more, of course, that could be said on these subjects, but time and space do not allow for it here in this post. That being the case, I’ll close with one final observation.
Many today, even within the Church, would have a visible meltdown in response to the suggestion that our laws, institutions, and notions of justice must rest on the gospel as a basic political presupposition. To say that, they claim, is to invite theocratic totalitarianism. In response, I can only present the truth as it is revealed in Scripture. Without the gospel as a basic political presupposition, we are already well into the development of a form of theocratic totalitarianism. That our reigning elites reject the Bible and the gospel as the foundation of truth does not render their ideologies un-theological. They are quite theological in that they present a story of sin, redemption, and restoration that is counter to the one presented in the Bible. That these elites are well along down the path of totalitarianism is evidenced by their intolerance for opposing views, their frantic and desperate struggles to maintain ideological control in the main intellectual centers like schools and universities, and their bold, open, and bald use of media and big tech to silence opponents.
The gospel is my basic political presupposition because I believe human flourishing takes place in free and open societies where justice is determined by universally applicable laws that rest on timeless, eternal, and knowable standards of good and evil. I choose the gospel because I choose liberty, and I choose liberty because I believe the gospel.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1