Cultural Marxism in The Church: Menace or Myth?

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In a recent interview with The Gospel Coalition, Michael Haykin, professor of History and Biblical Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, mocked the concerns many have about Marxist ideology seeping into the Church through so-called “social justice” issues:

What about the charge that some evangelicals’ emphasis on social justice reveals them to be a species of Marxism? I personally find that a ludicrous statement and tantamount to fear-mongering in a cultural climate for which socialism is an ever-present bugbear.”

This is a rather audacious statement which misrepresents the current situation in a number of important ways.  

However, before addressing Haykin’s misrepresentations, I would like to point out that even Haykin doesn’t go so far as to claim that the concept of Cultural Marxism, itself, is merely a right-wing conspiracy theory, as many others have done. Haykin acknowledges what many concerned Christians have pointed out: that Cultural Marxism is a legitimate ideological variation on Marxist theory, rooted in the Frankfurt School.

Variant Strains, Same Virus

This is an important acknowledgement because it draws attention to a fact it is indeed possible to have variants, or “species,” of Marxism which are not, themselves, full-blown Marxism. This may seem obvious, but it is one of those obvious facts which many evangelicals have been laboring to ignore. Teachers who spend their entire careers tracing out variants of ideological (i.e. doctrinal) stands and influence over the centuries of theological thought suddenly find themselves incapable of considering the possibility that any idea which is not directly attributable to Marx, himself, could be considered Marxist in nature.

Much of this attitude is buttressed by the notion that the only real evil of Marxism is its atheism—a notion which Haykin seems to agree with throughout the interview. Thus, if someone is not an atheist, the logic goes, he can’t possibly be a Marxist of any variety. But there are a number of serious errors in Marxist thought besides the atheism, and it is perfectly possible for a sincere theist (say, for instance, an famous evangelical preacher from the Big Apple) to buy into those errors and then preach them with a “Christian” twist.


Social Justice & “The Poisoned Well” of Marxism

Of course, this is exactly what many fear is going on under the guise of so-called “social justice.” Haykin dismisses that fear as “ludicrous,” but he doesn’t explain why he thinks it’s ludicrous. Is Haykin—or The Gospel Coalition, for that matter—unaware of the many reasons people link social justice with Marxist ideology? Surely not. So why don’t they engage those reasons in order to explain why they think the feared connection is ludicrous? I could cite many scholars for them to engage, but as Divine sovereignty would have it, I can simply cite Haykin’s boss, Dr. Al Mohler, who said just last week that social justice comes from the poisoned well of Marxist thought:

“If you take the whole social justice issue and realize the poisoned well that comes from, which is basically the reduction of everything to structural issues; a more traditionally Marxist argument, with variant forms which aren’t so explicitly Marxist…”1

Even Dr. Mohler, who has been relatively silent on this current controversy, takes for granted that social justice is very much rooted in Marxist ideology. Does Haykin think that Mohler’s claim is “ludicrous”? Does The Gospel Coalition think Mohler is engaging in “fear-mongering” for drawing such a connection? Or do they reserve such scornful opinions for the hoi polloi?

The Neglected Dangers of Marxist Thought

Regardless of how they might react to it, Dr. Mohler’s statement mentions one of the major problems of Marxist thought (apart from its atheism): the tendency to reduce everything to structural issues. Of course, this is linked to atheistic—or at least naturalistic—thought, since such reduction implies a negation of human agency (and thus of the human soul), but one need not be an atheist to adopt and espouse it. (There is such a thing as cognitive dissonance).

Under this structural reductionism, individual human agency is diminished for the sake of emphasizing collectivistic structural causes for all of life’s problems and successes. You are not ultimately a product of your own choices, but of the community in which you grew up. Your success is not attributable to you so much as to the community. “You didn’t build that.” Likewise, any suffering or misfortune you may run into is not attributable to any bad choices you might have made, or bad habits you might have formed. It’s caused, rather, by oppressive societal structures. If Haykin thinks that such trends are not characteristic of what is currently being preached as “social justice,” then I would submit that he is not paying very close attention.

But the structural reductionism mentioned by Mohler isn’t the only grave error of Marxist thought which is being embraced by many Christians. The other grave error is the Marxist theory of justice which preaches “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” The need-based theory of justice captured in that Marxist slogan is at the heart of what is currently being preached as “social justice” in the economic realm—both in and out of the Church. It teaches that rightful (or just) ownership is not determined by merit, but by needs. Thus, the failure to give to those in need is counted as an injustice, as “robbery,” to quote Tim Keller.2

As I’ve argued here and here, this theory of justice completely undermines the justice of God in the gospel, who most emphatically claims not to owe us anything (besides Hell), despite our being in desperate need. It turns the God of Scripture into the greatest perpetrator of injustice in the universe. So it should not be surprising that some Christians might chafe at this theory of justice being preached by prominent Christian teachers as “social justice.”

Who’s Being Ludicrous?

That’s at least two serious errors of Marxist thought, which are currently being peddled by Christians under the auspices of “social justice,” and which are grave threats to the Christian worldview. And yet Haykin thinks it is “ludicrous” for Christians to be afraid of potential Marxist influence in the contemporary emphasis on “social justice.” I think it’s Haykin’s ignorance of this connection that is ludicrous. He knows what Marxism is. And unless he’s been burying his head in the sand, he knows what is being preached as social justice. (If he has been burying his head in the sand on this topic, then he has no business commenting on it).

The only thing I find more audacious than his supposed failure to see the connection between social justice and Marxist thought is his suggestion that the fear of socialism is nothing more than a paranoid hangover from a bygone era. Has he heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or Bernie Sanders? What about a country called “Venezuela”? For Haykin—and by proxy, The Gospel Coalition—to suggest that socialism is not something for contemporary Americans to be the least bit concerned about is such a slap in the face to anyone who has two ears and two eyes today that it’s difficult to believe this interview actually happened—let alone, that it was published.


1) Transcript from Shepherd Conference Q&A Panel Livestream on March 6th, 2019.

2) Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, p.17.


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