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Austin Cline

Social Darwinism & American Evangelicalism (Book Notes: The Church Enslaved)

By February 26, 2006

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An important aspect of conservative evangelicalism today is a strident opposition to evolution and Darwin's theories about the development of life. This opposition is frequently defended by reference to alleged ills caused by evolutionary theory - with "Social Darwinism" often topping the list. It is curious, then, that evangelical churches have imbibed so deeply from Social Darwinian premises. The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation

In The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation, Tony Campolo and Michael Battle write:

[A] heightened sense of individualism, nurtured by latent social Darwinist ideology, has produced among Evangelicals an attitude that whatever is right and wrong in people’s lives is due to personal responsibility.

On one hand, such an ideology ignores the impact of social forces that hinder certain people from ever succeeding; and on the other hand, such an ideology creates the illusion that those who do succeed owe their success to their superior character traits.

It is easy to see how this kind of thinking can support a racist attitude that views the plight of black people as the result of their particular inadequacies — the modern racism category of blaming the victim... Those who think this way love to point out individual African Americans who have succeeded by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and cite them as examples of what every black person should be able to do. Such an ideology pervades Evangelical churches, and it needs to be studied, critiqued, and challenged.

It should be noted that Social Darwinism is certainly not the only factor here. The attitudes described above owe a great deal to Calvinism and Calvinist arguments about how the one’s social successes are merely reflections of divine favor while social failures are signs of divine disfavor. This, in turn, is simply an extension of age-old beliefs about how the gods intervene in people’s lives to help those they like and harm those they don’t like.

Nevertheless, the role of Social Darwinism here shouldn’t be ignored or underestimated. It is incredibly ironic that evangelicals who see themselves as combatting the effects of Social Darwinism in America may, in fact, themselves by a significant source of Social Darwinian influence in modern America. It would seem to be incompatible with Christianity to act like people deserve everything that happens to them, yet that’s precisely what so many Christians appear to believe.


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