Social Gospel--100 years Later
Within a few years of its publication in 1907, "Christianity and the Social Crisis" swept through America's Protestant churches like a nor'easter, selling more than 50,000 copies to ministers and laypeople alike. In an age of social upheaval, Walter Rauschenbusch's jeremiad was meant to rouse the church from its pietistic slumber. "If society continues to disintegrate and decay, the Church will be carried down with it," he warned. "If the Church can rally such moral forces that injustice will be overcome . . . it will itself rise to higher liberty and life."
The summons found many converts. Reflecting on the mood a few decades later, preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick gushed with nostalgia: It "struck home so poignantly," he said, that it "ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action." The era of Rauschenbusch is far from over: His "Social Gospel" message continues to inspire activists and theologians of all stripes. The question now, though, is whether its influence is a desirable thing--or a distraction of the Christian church from its deepest objectives.
Many praise the reform efforts stirred in part by Rauschenbusch's appeal: the founding of settlement houses, literacy campaigns, help for refugees, and food and health care for the destitute. Politically, Rauschenbusch's book helped along Teddy Roosevelt's progressive agenda, notably his antitrust crusades. Social-gospel activists would later hail the creation of Social Security under the New Deal.
Surely there is much in the tradition for which to be grateful. Yet even a brisk reading of Rauschenbusch's work suggests crippling weaknesses, at least from the standpoint of faith. We're told that the larger social message of Jesus' teaching--especially his concern for the poor--was sidelined by the cultural assumptions of his followers. The culprits: the doctrine of sin and the "crude and misleading" idea of a coming apocalypse. Generations of believers wrongly came to regard earthly life as a snare and turned inward for personal salvation. "Such a conception of present life and future destiny," Rauschenbusch wrote chidingly, "offered no motive for an ennobling transformation of the present life."
Distorted ideas about heaven and hell have spawned great mischief in the name of Christianity, of course. Rauschenbusch must have seen plenty of it during a decade of ministry in New York City's "Hell's Kitchen" neighborhood. Indeed, the Christianity of his youth looked unfit to cope with the "industrial crises" of his day. Nevertheless, he seemed blithely unaware of others provoked by the very conceptions of sin and salvation he so despised--men such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, John Jay, Lyman Beecher and William Booth--to champion reform efforts of all kinds.
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The centennial edition of "Christianity and the Social Crisis"--just published by HarperSanFrancisco--includes essays from various liberal and progressive admirers. Tony Campolo, a left-leaning evangelical, praises Rauschenbusch's "holistic gospel" for offering both eternal life and dramatic changes in the social order. Stanley Hauerwas calls him "an evangelist of the Kingdom of God." Jim Wallis likewise lauds Rauschenbusch's "Christian social ethic" as an "eloquent and necessary corrective" to privatized faith.
It is hard to see, though, how Rauschenbusch's theology could be called Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. It required no repentance or atonement and carried no fear of judgment or bracing hope of eternal life. He famously denied the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming--with its promise of perfect justice and enduring mercy. The result was a flattened view of the human condition. "It is not possible honestly to confess that Jesus is the Christ of culture," Niehbur wrote in "Christ and Culture" (1951), "unless one can confess much more than this."
The Christian confession of faith, by itself, offers no guarantee that either individuals or societies will be transformed. But, for believers, not even the smallest steps forward can be taken without it.
Of course, Reinhold Niebuhr (who was originally one of the Social Gospels' most active proponents) made similar criticisms. in particular, Neibuhr thought that the social gospel largely ignored the realities of human nature, and the impossibility of an earthly, man made salvation. Mr. Laconte's criticism is therefore quite valid.
Nonetheless, I think that Walter Rauschenbusch's contribution cannot not be forgotten. At the turn of the Century, the Church was too comfortably aligned with the rich and powerful, and the Social Gospel was an important reminder of the message of Jesus about our obligation to the least of these.