History of Social Justice and Its Relation to American Christianity

November 15, 2018

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, we are all reformers. Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy fixing problems and attempting to make our lives better in some way. Many also seek to broaden this impetus for reform to include communities, regions, and even whole societies. Christianity certainly lends itself to reform with its emphasis on sanctification and continually working to become more like Christ. My own Christian tradition literally calls itself “Reformed” and emphasizes this continual sense of sin, grace, repentance, and change. Reform is at the core of social justice. But the key underlying issue in reform and social justice is the role of the state. What is the best way to change behavior? Is it to change an individual’s mind or habits? Or is it to regulate behavior through laws that punish or encourage certain behaviors? Historically, American reforms took the form of social control; and other times, reform grew from a genuine desire to better society and to make it a reflection of heaven on earth.

Colonial Americans worked to reform the English system to work better to their advantage, but they also worked to reform the native peoples to reflect English and Christian ideas of civilization. In many respects, reforms stemmed from personal and ultimately selfish interests. However, many of the colonial era Quakers understood that their faith called them to reject much of the government’s role and focus on the ways to live in peace and harmony with their brothers and sisters. A Quaker by the name of John Woolman came to believe that slavery was morally objectionable and worked tirelessly to free slaves and to talk about abolition to other slave owners—even those who did not own slaves but benefitted from their exploited labors. Though the push for abolition did not become a more national conversation for another almost 100 years, people like Woolman demonstrate that not all reformers worked for personal gain.

In the early republic, Americans worked to reform their society and optimism dominated. The Second Great Awakening, spearheaded by Charles Finney and his sensational frontier tent revivals, encouraged Americans to view sin as a choice. If sin was a choice, then the idea of perfection was possible—for an individual and even for society. The Second Great Awakening spawned hundreds of reform societies, many of them dominated by women who saw their Christian faith as the impetus for reforming American society to make it perfect and ready for Christ’s second coming. Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, missionary societies, Bible tract societies, prison reform, and temperance were some of the most popular reform societies in America’s early republic. Some worked to change individual minds and others worked to change legislation. In the temperance movement, for example, some attempted to pass laws that banned alcohol sales or production and even consumption. Others spent their time at taverns, encouraging the patrons to sign individual pledges to resist alcohol consumption and commit their lives to God.

The Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th century and early 20th century reflected deep concerns about American society. The industrial revolution, mass urbanization, and massive influxes of immigrants fundamentally altered the United States and pushed Americans to think about American society in new ways. According to Richard Hofstadter, author of the influential book The Age of Reform, the Populists were the displaced elite of the idealized and virtuous farmers who used morality to appeal to agrarian myth. They used this myth to reform the system and encourage the government to preserve the agrarian economic system instead of an urban, immigrant industrialized vision of the United States. While there is not one lone narrative of the Progressive Era, the key ideas included government intervention, the end of the laissez faire economic system, a critical change to direct continuity within the New Deal era, and a push for civil rights. The Progressive Era also saw the rise of a professional “expert bureaucracy” and enormous growth of administrative government. With this, the public role of women increased by promoting public sentiments of social reform and enacting key changes in the relationship between Americans and their government. In addition, the expectation of Americans had changed in that they needed to lobby, form interest groups, and be concerned about everyone in society. While reform and the push for the government to enact those reforms remained central, social justice continued its quiet but persistent voice. People like Ida B. Wells-Barnett sued railroad companies for segregating seating and petitioned the people and government to end the practices of lynching African Americans. Many Christians saw their reforms of child labor laws or safe working conditions as an outgrowth of their faith tradition, but they now focused their attention on getting governmental laws and regulations to uphold their reforms.

But this era of progressive reform in the early 20th century failed to prevent or stop the Great Depression. New Deal liberalism reflected the “lessons” of the Great Depression and recognized that the government must play a key role in the economy. The era of New Deal liberalism in the late 1930s and 1940s also oversaw the shift from a producer-focused economy to a consumer-focused economy. Although the consumer-based system did not work especially well with high unemployment, the production during World War II and its aftermath helped businesses to shift to consumer goods. New Deal liberalism, according to historian Alan Brinkley, was not as interested in moral progressive ideas because it feared the divisiveness of cultural battles but did engage social welfare and how to distribute it while being rooted in embedded concepts of “the deserving poor.” The “deserving poor” were defined as able workers and assumed to be a male head of a family. Suzanne Mettler’s Dividing Citizens traces the continuity between New Deal liberalism and Progressive policies of social welfare programs, which contained embedded notions of gender. Mettler argues the New Deal divided citizenry into two groups: the white males as the national citizens with rights, and women and minorities as state citizens, administered with discretion and variability. As a result, gender inequality was institutionalized into the social welfare and governmental system. In many respects, Americans and Christian Americans began to see the government’s role as one of ensuring justice.

Patricia Sullivan’s Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era connects New Deal liberalism with the Civil Rights movement. Sullivan argues that the changing role of the relationship between the federal government, the Democratic Party, and the South during the 1930s and 40s created a new generation of black and white southerners who saw the possibilities of the New Deal and united to re-align the South. In addition, Sullivan claims that the lack of enforcement of racial policies by FDR gave African Americans an issue to form around, as the economic crisis of the 1930s allowed space for political grassroots movements linked to the New Deal as the Southern Progressive networks, fostering optimism for social justice.

As New Deal liberalism felt the threat of conservatives calling for tougher stances against the threats of communism because a degree of individual liberties were sacrificed at the expense of “safety.” But despite the overriding fears related to communism, the importance of social welfare failed to disappear in the aftermath of World War II. Mary Dudziak’s scholarship Cold War, Civil Rights illustrates the extent to which the U.S. government recognized the importance of pursuing social justice for all its citizens, namely African Americans, as they emerged on a global stage as the supposed bastions of democracy in the battle for the hearts and minds of countries around the world. Dudziak illuminates the tacit pursuit of civil rights in the U.S. even during the Cold War as the U.S. stood to gain from promoting equality at home. She argues civil rights reform was partially a product of the Cold War. Penny M. Von Eshchen, in her book Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War picks up a similar thread and outlines the ways the U.S. government and state department sponsored jazz musicians to specifically tour in countries the U.S. government desire to politically, economically, and commercially influence, thus touting a nonrestrictive capitalist example of free expression, high art, and the United States’ racial tolerance.

In the 50s, 60s,and 70s, Americans shift from focusing on social reform to focusing on civil rights and the expansion of civil liberties and individual freedoms for everyone, including women, African Americans, and other ethnic and minority groups. A rights-based liberalism runs into problems with the Cold War fears of communism, but finds its traction especially in the Civil Rights Movement, second wave feminism, the Chicano and American Indian movements, and the flowering of the New Left. But for some American Christians, the push for social justice became far more about fairness through government regulation, and many Christians resisted and pushed back against ideas of justice that they saw as secular and counter to their religious beliefs.

The practice of personal reform and social reform is nothing new. The emphasis on social justice today typically assumes a strong role of the government in creating or fairly enforcing justice. But the question remains: what is the most effective way to enact reforms and social justice? Is it through laws and regulations or through changing individual hearts and minds?

About the Author
  • Rebecca Koerselman serves as Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern College.  She holds a doctorate in United States history with an emphasis on gender and religion from Michigan State University.

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  1. Dr. Koerselman,
    Thank you for the summative historical account of regarding the notion of “reforming”. Appreciate you taking the time to speak about this important topic. A good reminder that as Christians we have numerous opportunities to engage the spheres that interest us and reclaim them.

  2. Thank you for the article and the question that you ask. I think we need both but I think we need to go ahead with the political decisions even if people’s minds don’t adjust. After all we are talking about justice. This involves real people. A war was fought over slavery. Should we have waited to change things until everyone agreed? I am a pacifist but do wobble when I see the need to fight for justice.