Over the last few years, several prominent atheists have been reaching some surprising conclusions about the insurgent social justice movement in America. In a New York Times interview about his book, “Woke Racism,” University of Columbia professor John McWhorter argues, “An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”

Journalist Helen Lewis likewise penned a 2020 Atlantic essay entitled, “How Social Justice Became a New Religion.” In her accompanying BBC documentary, “The Church of Social Justice,” she refers to the religious overtones of the “culture wars” — suggesting that on both the left and right, we now find “unquestionable doctrines, charismatic preachers, blasphemy and heresy — and the promise of salvation.”

McWhorter and Lewis are both quick to reassure readers that they mean no insult by comparing social justice to a religion — a qualification needed since they and many other compatriots see religion so dismally. It’s precisely that bias of so many secular observers that limits what we’ve come to believe could be the biggest benefit of seeing social justice as religion: the rich precedent of interfaith peacemaking and dialogue.   

Beyond social justice coercion

Popular fear of social justice movements is, at least in part, connected to a widespread presumption that social justice reflects not just another belief system, but a reality that cannot be questioned.  

What if that presumption could change? And what if more people could be persuaded to see social justice conviction as one of the various options of belief systems available today? 

That’s exactly where we see an interfaith precedent as offering a better way. Rather than feeling implicit fear and pressure to go along with an instance of social justice ideology, people who disagree could have a model for essentially saying, “I can appreciate and respect this element of what you’re doing — but I don’t share your larger belief system.” 

That’s what a Jew says to his Islamic friend. And what various Christians say to each other with different backgrounds. Couldn’t we also say it in reference to the emerging sociopolitical ideologies today? 

If so, this might go a long way to reducing tensions and opening new avenues of peace — reducing the pressure to engage this ideology as a representation of objective reality.  

Despite the fact that this belief system has many of the trademark elements of religion, this is how social justice is spoken of in colleges and corporations alike — not as a distinctive view for consideration, but as an ethical imperative based on reality. No wonder there’s an intensity of conflict around this ideology, compared with other competing philosophical differences we’ve learned to negotiate.  

We believe the advantages of treating social justice ideology as a newfound participant in interfaith relationships are considerable enough that many others — save perhaps the most ardent activists — could be persuaded. Consider the following five tangible benefits:   

1. Vibrant conversations about differences

In place of bitter contests between hostile parties, adopting this framework could foster almost overnight more productive exchanges. In our view, the number of rich questions to be explored together are significant. As we’ve been exploring recently at Public Square Magazine, these include interesting dialogue around whether to frame the core problem facing society as “Iniquity or Inequity” and whether to see the primary solution to societal ails as “Soul Change or Systemic Change.” 

2. Respectful language to help children understand

Tom Stringham has written about how such a shift in language could help Christian parents explain to their children how to make sense of social justice symbolism, such as a Pride pin. As he puts it, the message comes down to: “We have our religion, and other people have theirs. We don’t agree about everything, and that’s OK.”

Rather than constantly bad-mouthing social justice within conservative communities, this would invite another level of respect, much like we aspire toward in our commentaries about other faith communities.

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3. Curiosity about common ground

Once the playing field is leveled, we can also initiate new conversations about interesting overlaps and common grounds. For instance, how Christians likewise see racism as a “sin” — and ways they can work together to correct systemic inequities, without compromising values or doctrine. 

Amidst this fresh conversation about what social justice looks like to different faiths, believers may consider approaches to social justice that can help nurture covenantal commitments and Christian faith.  

4. An open contest of persuasion

Rather than a hidden wrestle over who’s going to pressure who to comply, such a framework brings out into the light competing views in a more open contest of persuasion.  

Among other benefits, this would stop the “accidental conversions” that appear to be happening across various Christian communities — wherein congregants don’t realize they’ve adopted an entirely new ideological framework — only to be newly disgruntled with their former faith. 

As Stringham says, “You can find the truth that exists in other religions, but you can only honestly adhere to one religion at a time.”

Because it’s presented as an objective reality, once again, social justice teachings end up being embraced by many without realizing they stem from completely different philosophical priors that conflict fundamentally with their former faith. This would help bring those differences out into the open.  

5. Freedom to disagree and live differently

A final benefit would be an enriched conversation about how to appropriately treat and regard dissenters to social justice convictions. Journalist Helen Lewis, herself a lapsed Catholic, has suggested that social justice might have things to learn from the Christian impulse toward grace and forgiveness in this regard. 

After highlighting the importance of “offer(ing) the possibility of redemption,” Lewis added, “I think what we have now with social-justice movements is a range of sins, but we don’t yet have a good idea of what the mechanism is for confessing, repenting, and being absolved.”

This would be of particular benefit to families, in helping to potentially heal the strained feelings that often accompany conversion to this new faith.

And here again, recognizing this as the interfaith relationship it is becomes so helpful. It would be silly and absurd in our modern society to think of trying to forcibly convert or control believers of another faith to our own. Why couldn’t we reach a similar consensus when it comes to social justice ideology? 

It may just be possible. As we wrote earlier, this framework allows us to answer many of the questions that create social conflict today:

Should the government be able to use its power to shut down institutions where this faith is practiced, such as has recently occurred in Florida? Should the symbols of this religion be displayed in public schools? Must other religions agree to the tenets of this faith in order to continue to function? 

Likely resistance

We are not so naive as to imagine this framework would be met without resistance. It’s partly because of its framing as an unquestioned truth (and one independent of religion) that social justice ideology holds so much cultural power. And a great many adherents hope for the further normalization and social ascension of their belief system — and would be understandably disappointed at being painted as just one part of our religious mosaic. 

But history suggests this is one productive path to create sustained social peace — and a robust peacemaking alternative to the “war on woke.” The resistance to the idea could be considerable. But with the growing expectation of our culture war escalating over the years ahead, shouldn’t we want to try every peacemaking option on the table?  

Let’s see what it could mean to regard social justice ideology as a distinct belief system that invites both trust and adoration in unique directions — welcoming this at the table of interfaith dialogue and relationships.   

As creative peacemaking goes, it’s worth a shot! 

Jacob Hess is the former editor of Public Square Magazine and writes at Publish Peace on Substack. C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University.