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The Social Gospel Tradition
W.S. Merwin, photo by Robin Holland
Comment
July 3, 2009

In his conversation with Cornel West, Gary Dorrien and Serene Jones, Bill Moyers asks if the Social Gospel has anything to offer American society today: "What do you think the Social Gospel would say today about the structure of the economy as it has been incarnated in Wall Street and the financial and banking industry?" But what was the Social Gospel movement?

Observing America in the late 19th century, British writer G.K. Chesterton called the United States "a nation with the soul of a church." At that time, liberal Christians within the Protestant church began tackling social reform in what has become known as "social Christianity," or sometimes "Christian socialism," which was later adapted into the more moderate "Social Gospel."

The movement was a response to the rapid urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration of the late 1800s. Protestant clergymen became interested in securing social justice for the poor, partly as an attempt to expand the appeal of the Protestant church in cities, where the Roman Catholic church was especially popular among the large immigrant population. Traditionally, the Social Gospel has focused on issues as varied as poverty, unemployment, civil rights, pollution, drug addiction, political corruption, and gun control.

The READER'S COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY mentions three leaders of the Social Gospel movement: Washington Gladden, who "sympathized with workers and urged them to seek unity in Christianity," William Dwight Porter Bliss, who worked with the Knights of Labor and Socialist party, and Walter Rauschenbusch, a New York City Baptist minister who "called for a democratic cooperative society to be achieved by nonviolent means."

In his book CHRISTIANITY AND THE SOCIAL CRISIS, Rauschenbusch wrote of the Social Gospel:

Will the twentieth century mark for the future historian the real adolescence of humanity, the great emancipation from barbarism and from the paralysis of injustice, and the beginning of a progress in the intellectual, social, and moral life of mankind to which all past history has no parallel?

It will depend almost wholly on the moral forces which the Christian nations can bring to the fighting line against wrong, and the fighting energy of those moral forces will again depend on the degree to which they are inspired by religious faith and enthusiasm.

The Social Gospel rejected the conservative individualistic social ethic, instead developing a distinctively optimistic rationale as a result of "the theological liberalism that emerged out of attempts to reconcile the Christian faith with evolutionary thought, historical-critical analysis of the Bible, philosophical idealism, and the study of other world religions."

The core of Christian progressivism was "work in this world to establish a Kingdom of God with social justice for all." The results of the movement were mixed. Although it helped liberalize organized religion and inspired many political and social reformers to look at reform in moral terms, the Social Gospel failed to win over many urban immigrants, and offered few long-term solutions to urban problems.

However, the work of the progressive social reformers was not in vain. Organized social concern and many of the reforms it inspired have remained intact through the twentieth century and continue today, evident both in current social welfare programs. The spirit and mission of the Riverside Church in Manhattan can be linked to the tradition of the Social Gospel, often said to be one of the most powerful religious movements in American history.

Critics of the Social Gospel, such as Frederick Nymeyer, publisher and principal author of PROGRESSIVE CALVINISM, point to the fact that it has never yet been successful at effecting social change. Writing in 1971, Nymeyer expressed his opinion in SOCIAL ACTION, HUNDRED NINETEEN:

The Social Gospel may be the most crucial of all problems besetting Christian churches at this time, for when a Christian's ethical certitudes are revealed to be defective, as it always turns out to be in the Social Gospel, then he ends up abandoning confidence in valid, Biblical faith. In practice what happens is that when Social Gospel action fails to produce valid results, the person promoting such programs does not abandon the Social Gospel and return to the true Gospel, but plunges deeper into further Social Gospel actions with progressively more frustrating results.

The Social Gospel era may have fallen out of favor, but its underpinnings remain influential. In an article — "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" — Gary Dorrien argues that the Social Gospel was a form of liberal Christianity that developed to tackle the problems of a particular era and that it's core liberal theology remains influential to this day: "The essential idea of liberal theology did not change in the twentieth century from that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but just as liberals of the social gospel era dealt with problems and social forces unimagined by their forerunners, so did late-twentieth century liberals confront issues that were distinctive to their time and which altered the meaning of liberalism."

Also This Week:

FAITH & SOCIAL JUSTICE
Bill Moyers talks to Cornel West, Serene Jones, and Gary Dorrien for a fresh take on what our core ethics and values as a society say about America's politics, policy, and the challenges of balancing capitalism and democracy.

AMERICAN HISTORY LESSONS
Reflections on the legacy of the Social Gospel movement.

> Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)

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