The Social Gospel … a Distraction?

Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote a piece on Friday acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the publication of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis. In keeping with the tone of discourse from the EPPC, his comments come from a conservative Christian (shall we say, “Religious Right”) viewpoint — not one that I particularly share.

His first two paragraphs are:

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.

I don’t recall when I first read Rauschenbusch, but I do remember that I read A Theology for the Social Gospel before reading Christianity and the Social Crisis. It must have been about 20 years ago that I read them both (and, I admit, I haven’t opened them again since); it was when I was still toying with the idea of entering ordained ministry. I do know that his writing had a profound influence on me and played a role in my decision to leave the practice of law and enter the priesthood. If I had been of a mind to make this a more academic pursuit and get a Ph.D. (also something I toyed with), I might have done something on relationship between Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement and the later “liberation theology” movement of the late 20th Century. But working on a Ph.D. was less attractive than parish ministry, so that bit of social theological research will have to be left to someone else.

Loconte concludes his essay with a less than ringing endorsement (in fact, I’m sure it’s intended to be a denunciation) of Rauschenbusch:

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.

I disagree with Loconte that Rauschenbusch’s and the other Social Gospelers’ theology cannot be called Christian “in any meaningful sense” … but I’ve decided not to contest that assertion vigorously here. I leave that consideration to our readers.

Why?

Because in about six hours I will be headed for the airport to board a plane on the first leg of a journey to Ireland for 18 days of what I hope will not be a “distraction” from the “deepest objectives” of the Christian church, but will be a distraction from its day to day operation. In other words, I am going on holiday!  (By the way, what exactly are the “deepest objectives” of the Christian church?  In my humble opinion those would be justice, freedom, human dignity — the sorts of things Jesus talked about when he mentioned, and not in an offhand way, the poor, the outcast, the naked, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and all those other distracting people.  Apparently Mr. Loconte doesn’t see it that way … but as I said, I’ll leave that consideration to our readers.)

I will, as time and technological availability allow, make entries to Bread and Wine, and perhaps post a photo or two of the Irish countryside. But other than that, and save for my own personal devotions and attending Sunday worship in a couple parishes of the Church of Ireland, no church activities for “yours truly” until June!

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