An Old Gospel For A New Century


| 12/4/2007 3:32:52 PM


Tags: Social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, Evangelical Christianity, Economic populism,

Walter RauschenbuschThe early 1900s was a time of crisis in America. Large-scale industrialization buried the poor in poverty while elevating a lucky few to new heights of monocle-wearing decadence. A cult of individualism meant that people cared more about buying pretty things than they cared about the community. The stale scent of religious hypocrisy hung in the air: Some people were just going through the motions of religion, while others believed they should let a sinful world burn.

Enter , a firebrand of the social gospel movement. Rauschenbusch encouraged Christians to get out into their communities and help people, instead of just sitting around in smug assurance of their own salvation. His message inspired a new breed of Christian activists who changed the face of American politics, Casey Nelson Blake writes for Commonweal, in a review of a new edition of Rauschenbusch’s groundbreaking book Christianity and the Social Crisis.

Many of Rauschenbusch’s ideas aren’t defined by 21st Century political terminology. On one hand, he championed a socialist reform of capitalism. He wanted to build a large welfare state guided by expert social scientists to temper capitalism’s excesses. On the other hand, he also wanted to preserve the traditional, protestant family. Blake writes that the parts of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel that don’t fit into our modern political spectrum are the parts that are most helpful to us.

Here’s a key quote from the article:

At the very least, liberals who take exception to the cultural conservatism that fueled Rauschenbusch’s radicalism need to explain how a libertarian position on cultural issues can coexist with social solidarity, or where the moral resources he found in the home might be nurtured today. The Evangelicals who have turned away from the Republican Party because of the catastrophe in Iraq and the GOP’s environmental policies will not be satisfied by evasiveness on this score. Nor will people of other faiths and many nonbelievers who are as anxious as Rauschenbusch was a century ago about the triumph of market imperatives over other loyalties.

Religion has become a wedge in American politics today. A return to Rauschenbusch’s social gospel won’t immediately solve that, magically closing the gap between religious conservatives and liberals. Rauschenbusch’s hybrid conservative and progressive politics do, however, offer a third way between the typical atheist-left versus religious-right dichotomy. This may seem like a optimistic, but Rauschenbusch lived in the age of robber-barons like William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie. Forty years later, Americans had had Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Today, Americans live in a time of Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch. Perhaps a collation between evangelical Christians and social liberals could give rampant capitalism a run for its money. In forty years, people may know better. —Brendan Mackie

Tomas Pollard
12/12/2007 2:25:15 AM

Rauschenbusch does seen to have something to offer for both sides. Surely, the religious right is not the same it used to be. It has had to ignore a lot of suffering caused by the growth of world capitalism while calling the consequences of that suffering the result of the victim's sin. Among the wealthy religious conservatives, this finger-pointing is the worst. Their problem with Rauschenbusch and similar ideas is that they point out that our system can leave the poor with very few choices, while the rich should share their wealth without belly-aching like they do all the time. Some evangelicals, like Rich Warren's wife who has mounted a large campaign for the AIDS orphans in Africa and many more who are supporting national health care plans because they simply make sense, really do understand how the capitalist system can cause problems that call for invention and adaptation. It would be more interesting to hear what these evangelicals would say about Rauschenbusch's ideas. They may find them quite familiar.


Steve Thorngate_6
12/5/2007 7:19:06 PM

Interesting observation that Rauschenbusch's politics don't fit into today's dichotomies. But by the terms of his own time, he was simply a liberal. So, while I think you're right that WR's ideas could theoretically do much to work toward a culture war truce/anti-greed coalition/whatever, I don't think this will actually happen. In the church, he's generally remembered in his historical context--as an aggressive liberalizer (like it or not) of not only the church's politics but also its theology. So, while he's admired on the Christian left, even politically moderate evangelicals tend to keep their distance. Rauschenbusch's signature phrase "social gospel" even has a negative connotation in many evangelical circles. http://stevethorngate.blogspot.com


Steve Thorngate_5
12/5/2007 7:19:05 PM

Interesting observation that Rauschenbusch's politics don't fit into today's dichotomies. But by the terms of his own time, he was simply a liberal. So, while I think you're right that WR's ideas could theoretically do much to work toward a culture war truce/anti-greed coalition/whatever, I don't think this will actually happen. In the church, he's generally remembered in his historical context--as an aggressive liberalizer (like it or not) of not only the church's politics but also its theology. So, while he's admired on the Christian left, even politically moderate evangelicals tend to keep their distance. Rauschenbusch's signature phrase "social gospel" even has a negative connotation in many evangelical circles. http://stevethorngate.blogspot.com