Arguably, through the 18th and 19th centuries, most Americans did not expect to achieve an earthly utopia through political or concerted social action. The pursuit of “happiness” of the Declaration of Indpendence was assumed to be relative. Even the Deists who founded the American Republic had some idea of an other-worldly heaven. Most Americans assigned their utopian hopes to the life after death.
It is not difficult to find calls for the church to be “prophetic” especially toward the end of “social justice.” Of course we should favor social justice since nature and Scripture (e.g., Rom 13:1–7) both teach us that it is the function of the civil magistrate to enforce just laws. By implication, it is the duty of citizens in civil society to seek justice as far as lies within them. Yet we have yet to define “social justice.” It is evident in current discussions in the USA that there is not a shared definition nor is there a shared vision of how to achieve and maintain it.
How We Got Here
One of the underlying reasons for these differences is eschatology. Arguably, through the 18th and 19th centuries, most Americans did not expect to achieve an earthly utopia through political or concerted social action. The pursuit of “happiness” of the Declaration of Indpendence was assumed to be relative. Even the Deists who founded the American Republic had some idea of an other-worldly heaven. Most Americans assigned their utopian hopes to the life after death. The higher critical (i.e., theologically liberal) movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries undermined among social elites confidence in the Scriptures and in historic Christianity. In the 1920s and 30s orthodox Christianity was exiled to the margins of society. Witness the denominational splits and the leftward theological and social movement of the “Mainline” Christian denominations.
For most people, however, on the ground, those discussions were postponed by the need to survive the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, with the onset of the Cold War, the process of the marginalization of historic Christianity continued thereby creating a vacuum. If what the church had said about heaven was no longer true what then? The Liberals had long been using Christian vocabulary but redefining its terms. The Scriptures were re-interpreted, selectively, in figurative terms. Heaven became a fixture of speech. Remarkably, even as the post-Christian West was winning the Cold War and even as the great Marxist enterprise in the Soviet Union collapsed (1989) versions of Marxism were capturing the hearts and minds of university students across the West. The remarkable prosperity of the post-Christian 80s did not satisfy the soul yet heaven no longer seemed credible. By the 90s many young people in the West had concluded that it was necessary, in the words of Eric Voeglin, to “immanentize the eschaton,” i.e., to bring a kind of heaven to earth.
Like the Liberal project in the early 20th century, that project too was postponed by war. Though the West had largely given up on old-fashioned religion, a significant number of Islamist Muslims had rekindled the ancient vision of a world dominated by an Islamic caliphate and they launched a remarkably effective sneak attack upon American civilians, plunging great sections of the world into what has become a long-running “War On Terror” since 2001.
As that war has begun to wind down, with the draw down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, young people have turned again to the quest for “social justice,” fueled by Marxist categories and rhetoric. They inherited these categories but without the education to critique them. While the West was defeating Marxism across the globe and Soviet bloc nations were celebrating their deliverance from their Marxist overlords (who had murdered tens of millions of them) American children were learning their history from Howard Zinn and taking it as gospel truth.