Wall Street Opinion Journal | Joseph Loconte | May 11, 2007
The legacy of the “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.”
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