Molly Worthen: What would Jesus do about inequality?

(Jan Buchczik | The New York Times)

Chapel Hill, N.C. • One Saturday morning this fall, I walked into Chapel Hill Bible Church, an unpretentious complex of brick buildings near the highway. Inside, a conference space bustled with 50 people sitting at round tables. The crowd skewed millennial, mostly (but not entirely) white. I sat next to a hip-looking bearded man wearing a hoodie, who told me he was a nurse at a local hospital. My other tablemates included a cyber security expert, a doctoral student in speech pathology and an occupational therapist working in public schools.

They had come to talk about how they integrate religious faith with what they do for a living: how the lessons and community of Sunday worship can become “a church for Monday,” in the phrase of the conference organizer, Made to Flourish, a Christian ministry based in Overland Park, Kans., which works with churches in all 50 states. The people at my table already knew one another through a local Christian program called Triangle Fellows, which calls itself “an immersive discipleship and leadership development program for young professionals.”

In today’s evangelicalism, this is where the theological action is: the faith and work movement, the intersection of Christianity with the demands of the workplace and the broader economy — in a society that is one of the world’s wealthiest, yet persistently inhumane. In politics, responses to the American economy’s moral crisis usually split along the lines of the culture war. President Trump, still the darling of white evangelical voters, has hardly wavered from the Christian Right’s tradition of faith in a lightly regulated market and weak social safety nets.

The evangelical faith and work movement used to be merely another trumpet for this peculiarly American political gospel. But in recent years the movement has become much more ideologically diverse — and far more interesting. Participants are moving beyond the idolatry of the free market to a conversation about economic justice that doesn’t align so neatly with culture war clichés or party platforms.

Conservative evangelicals have long treated the workplace as a sphere for evangelism, where a good Christian prints Bible verses on corporate stationery, shares the gospel with colleagues and admires Jesus as a marketing genius with a knack for parables about investment banking — who is not just the Son of God but “the founder of modern business,” as the Christian writer Bruce Barton put it in his best-selling 1925 book “The Man Nobody Knows.” Some Christian-run companies have fused Christianity with free market fundamentalism and declared “religious freedom” to deny employees insurance coverage for birth control. Many have deployed company chaplains and prayer sessions to manage disgruntled workers.

This early chapter of the faith and work movement was a predictable iteration of the Christian Right. But it took its basic cue from Martin Luther’s simple claim that all Christians do the work of God — and in God’s eyes, their labors are just as holy as the duties of a priest. “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest,” he wrote in 1520 (don’t confuse “faith and work” with salvation through good works, which Luther saw as the great heresy of the Roman Catholic Church).

Today, a different cast of evangelicals — who are more likely to be pastors, academics and small-scale entrepreneurs than titans of the business establishment — are leading the faith and work movement in new directions, because they take more seriously all the ways the Bible challenges the exploitations of our new Gilded Age. They have built a network of businesses, ministries, media organizations, conference programs, websites and more than a dozen research centers in every region of the country that focus on how Christians can turn the workplace into “a sign and foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom,” according to the “Guiding Principles” of the Denver Institute for Faith and Work.

Christian fellowship programs and start-up accelerators seek to create a new generation of religious entrepreneurs — often with the help of Christian venture capital funds like Sovereign’s Capital and Eventide, which invest only in businesses whose ends and means are consistent with Christian values (however the funds define them). The evangelical marketplace is saturated with new books on the subject, like “Practicing the King’s Economy” and “Called to Create,” as well as podcasts like “Faith-Driven Entrepreneur.”

Many of these initiatives are not focused on explicit evangelism, and venture into politically heterodox territory. Luke Bobo is the director of strategic partnerships for Made to Flourish. He told me that he is well aware that the evangelical faith and work movement still skews white and white-collar (although black churches have their own long tradition of applying the Bible to questions of economic justice), and ministries like his need to confront racial iniquity. “My banner, my mantra, what I live for, is preaching to churches that have assets and resources to help identify systemic issues. For example, redlining still happens,” he said, referring to the mortgage industry practice of denying home loans to borrowers who seek to buy in a neighborhood deemed a poor financial risk, a policy that disproportionately affects black home buyers. (The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned redlining on the basis of a neighborhood’s racial composition, but researchers argue that it persists.)

Made to Flourish has helped bring a poverty-simulation program, called the Cost of Poverty Experience, to conservative churches. “When white folks go through this experience, they get a small taste of the life of someone who’s earning minimum wage or lower,” Mr. Bobo told me. The goal is not necessarily to push for expanded Medicaid or any other specific policy change. Like many people I spoke to in the faith and work movement, Mr. Bobo hastened to add that he is “not advocating government overreach.”

But just because these Christians aren’t rallying for Bernie Sanders doesn’t mean their aims are superficial: They are theological, and pre-political. In many cases, they are challenging what the sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have called the “white evangelical tool kit,” which traditionally credits poverty or wealth to an individual’s “effort and personal responsibility” while ignoring the economic and social structures that constrain free choice.

“We’re simply asking, let’s find ways to level the playing field,” Mr. Bobo said. “Can we, as a community of believers, work toward the flourishing of all people — and what does that mean? It means giving kids of all stripes access to affordable health care, quality education, affordable, livable housing and all those amenities that are basic to the flourishing of human beings.”

“Flourishing”: the word pops up constantly in the faith and work movement. It has a complicated legacy in the history of philosophy, going back to Aristotle’s concept of “eudaemonia,” or living well and virtuously, which Thomas Aquinas adapted to mean an imperfect, worldly beatitude that helps guide our moral action. In Catholic circles, economic conservatives and progressives both use the term. It can bless the excesses of the free market — or it can provide theological cover for Christians who want to challenge the economic platform of the Christian Right.

A cynic might wonder if conservative evangelicals have adopted the same marketing tactic as the Koch brothers and their conservative fund-raising network, who since about 2014 have rebranded their advocacy of deregulation and radical free market economics as simply the promotion of human well-being. The Koch Foundation’s “Well-Being Initiative” cast laissez-faire economics, not as an abettor of climate change and plutocracy, but as “the path to happiness” for all, as Jane Mayer put it in her 2016 book “Dark Money.”

I’m not ready to be cynical about the faith and work movement. I have spoken to too many younger evangelicals who have come of age in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and are showing signs of disillusionment with traditional white evangelical politics — because the Christian Right has fallen well short of St. Paul’s command to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need” and because it glorifies a profit-obsessed rat race that sucks even the winners dry. Dave Blanchard, one of the founders of Praxis Labs, an organization that supports Christian entrepreneurs, told me that “The line of taking Milton Friedman for everything he has to offer is falling out of favor. We’re in a time when we’re interrogating capitalism — a reformation project that shouldn’t be confused with socialist approaches.”

The Praxis website says it fosters “redemptive entrepreneurship.” I wondered how that mission differed from the feel-good secular communitarianism of companies like Whole Foods, whose statement of “core values” promises that “customer satisfaction, Team Member happiness and financial health continue to flourish together.” Or is it a Christian version of Google’s corporate command, “Don’t be evil?” (That smug motto won’t cut much ice with the 50 state attorneys general now investigating Google for suspected antitrust violations.)

The aim to simply avoid evil “should be the entry point, but it isn’t very aspirational,” Mr. Blanchard said. “It doesn’t ask the entrepreneur, who is mostly coming from a position of agency and power, to go beyond ethics and think actively about how their venture is an opportunity to help everyone else in the world.” His organization has supported more than 150 businesses and nonprofits, which have generated 5,100 jobs in 43 countries and annual revenue over $303 million.

Jessica Nam Kim first thought of starting her own business in the late 1990s, while she was an undergraduate at Brown. She won a student business competition and raised a million dollars during her senior year to start a baked goods company. She currently runs a start-up called ianacare, which connects family caregivers with resources and support networks. She had a fellowship at Praxis in 2013, and said the program helped her figure out what makes “redemptive entrepreneurship” different.

“A lot of things are broken in social entrepreneurship. If you’re not empowering the people you’re saving to be self-sustaining, then you have a savior complex that’s not sustainable. We take it a step further when we call it redemptive,” she told me. When she first created ianacare, she faced the temptation to “create a product that would disempower caregivers, making them fully dependent on the solution.” She added: “We said no — we have to create a sustainable structure that would empower them. We have a free mobile app to mobilize practical help from friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and churches. Through this coordination we hope to lift that burden.”

Ms. Nam Kim does not shy away from the political context of her industry. “With policy, we talk to the Paid Leave organization” — which aims to win paid family leave for all Americans — “every quarter. Their main focus is lobbying, and there’s only so much you can do at smaller companies. We need to collaborate, to see how we can partner to make our voices louder in Washington,” she said. The fact that Ms. Nam Kim is a business owner — not an activist — makes it easier to start conversations about policy ideas that are controversial in conservative Christian circles. “There is so much baggage, if you’re under the political umbrella,” she told me. (Paid family leave happens to be Ivanka Trump’s pet cause, and one area in which conservative evangelicals may be growing more open to government intervention.)

If this new evangelical approach to faith and work has a headquarters, it is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, founded by Tim Keller, its longtime pastor. In 2002, the church — one of America’s most influential congregations — hired Katherine Alsdorf to found the church’s Center for Faith and Work, one of the first of its kind in the United States.

Ms. Alsdorf, a former executive in the tech industry, had watched secular businesses embrace mindfulness practices and other efforts to promote employee well-being. She worried that Christians trailed behind the cultural curve. “The people in my company would go away for a spirituality weekend and come back refreshed, but there was very little of that offered in the Christian world,” she said. Nor did conservative Christians always grapple with ethical questions in a sophisticated way. “We might be helping the poor in some group we were involved in at church, but not thinking about how our HR policies or workplace practices might be contributing to problems that caused the need for mercy ministry on the other end.”

Redeemer’s center offers a range of fellowships, courses and conferences. Mr. Keller’s 2012 book, “Every Good Endeavor,” has become a touchstone of the movement. It’s not a coincidence that he is also one of the few prominent evangelical leaders who dissent from white evangelical support for Donald Trump. He laments the way that the Christian Right has monopolized the “evangelical” label, betraying “a far larger evangelicalism, both here and around the world, which is not politically aligned,” Mr. Keller wrote in 2017.

The faith and work movement has become a forum for this kind of iconoclasm. In an important new book called “In Search of the Common Good,” the Christian writer Jake Meador upholds a traditional evangelical perspective in many ways — he is anti-abortion, for example — but he challenges conservative orthodoxies on topics ranging from single-payer health care to climate change. He dethrones Milton Friedman in favor of the Baptist communitarian and environmental activist Wendell Berry. Mr. Meador’s book is a lament for the alienated modern worker: “When efficiency and profitability become the only thing, they pervert everything they touch,” he writes.

Such theology is not neatly red or blue and holds special appeal for younger Christians. Polls suggest that younger evangelicals are more progressive than their parents’ generation on many issues, including the need for more government services and stricter environmental regulation. The traditional Christian Right no longer gives them tools to manage the “ways our economy impoverishes us spiritually,” Mr. Meador wrote.

Spiritual impoverishment: This is the dimension of American life in 2019 that the Christians I spoke to captured so well, which the language of faith can help even nonbelievers articulate. The faith and work movement will not transform conservative evangelicalism overnight — nor do its supporters necessarily seek to. But their conversations are sowing important seeds. Some will fall among thorns or rocks, but some will land in good soil and grow.

Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a New York Times contributing opinion writer.