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Saturday, October 20, 2007

100 years of social gospel Christianity.

Alan Wolfe reviews a new collection celebrating the centennial of Walter Rauschenbusch's landmark book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, which became the bestselling expression of the "social gospel" movement in American Protestantism. Wolfe says Rauschenbusch's book and Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle were the two books "most responsible for tempering the rule of rapacious capitalism and helping Theodore Roosevelt to define a new progressive agenda." Many politically progressive Christians see the social gospel movement as a forerunner to their own attempts to combine Christian faith and progressive politics today. (Both Jim Wallis and Cornel West have contributed essays to the centennial collection, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church.)

Wolfe says one thing I'd challenge and one thing I want to amplify. He writes:

A clergyman, Rauschenbusch wrote, should "be the master of politics by creating the issues which parties will have to espouse." It is unlikely that Jerry Falwell ever read Rauschenbusch, and he certainly would have disagreed with his political views. But he would have liked that part about creating issues. In a democracy, the people choose the questions they want to discuss, and in our time more of them want the religious spirit to concern itself with abortion and homosexuality rather than race relations or a just wage. By opening the door for the one, Rauschenbusch inadvertently gave freedom of entry to the other.

Rauschenbusch didn't open that door; American Protestants already had a long history of creating grassroots political movements around particular moral or theological issues before the social gospel movement came along — forming anti-Masonic political parties and fueling the temperance and abolition movements, for example. The real difference is that Rauschenbusch focused on economic systems and helped a new kind of national liberalism emerge, which focused on using government power to restrict unjust corporate power. But it doesn't seem fair to blame him for the modern Religious Right's political approach; politicizing religious issues is a much older American phenomenon. Indeed, the political elite on the Religious Right seem more united around efforts to roll back the state's capacity to intervene in the economy than on any other particular moral issue, no matter how much they talk about abortion and homosexuality.

Wolfe also makes a distinction I want to amplify:

In his essay, Cornel West compares Rauschenbusch to such great theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth; all of these thinkers, West insists, "believed that the riches of the Christian tradition can be brought to bear on the social misery, spiritual vacuity and political hypocrisy of our day." This misses all the nuance. Barth's attack on the Nazis was based on the premise that the German church had involved itself with politics far too much, and Niebuhr, while writing broadly within the Social Gospel tradition, adhered to a form of liberalism more premised on a realistic assessment of human nature than Rauschenbusch's naïve progressivism was.

Barth and Niebuhr — born a generation later than Rauschenbusch — both saw progressive optimism crushed by World War I. They each had to account for the failures of progressivism and "Christian civilization" in ways that Rauschenbusch did not. But the contrast between progressive confidence that history unfolds in a tale of expanding justice and a tempered liberalism alert to the tragic consequences of even the best ideas is worth highlighting.

Incidentally, Niebuhr is the subject of an essay in the latest Atlantic Monthly. Paul Elie looks at the ways contemporary thinkers with widely divergent political views have tried to claim Niebuhr as their own. The article is only available online to the magazine's subscribers, but since it's the magazine's 150th anniversary issue, you'll probably buy a copy anyway.

("Mobilizing the religious left," Alan Wolfe, New York Times Book Review 10.21.07; "A man for all reasons," Paul Elie, Atlantic Monthly November 2007)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 20 October 2007 at 1:19 PM

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Bill Baar:

October 21, 2007 09:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

There are a few different Niebuhr's out there. Many could claim one as their prophet; including Billy Graham.

There's the Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society telling us moral behavior by organized groups impossible, to the Niebuhr of the Gifford Lectures as the air raid sirens went off telling us there are some moments when some groups look absolutely morally rotten.

Everyone can claim him, and that's fine. What's interesting is his contemporaries, far more popular at the time, now left unclaimed and forgotten: Albert Palmer (minister at Oak Park's 1st Cong - the Curch I attended...much later), Charles Clayton Morrison, John Haynes Holmes, Ernest Fremont Tittle, Georgia Harness, or Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Everyone is claiming Niebuhr now. These far more prominent contemporaries left unnoticed. Rarely mentioned...


October 21, 2007 03:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, I'm not convinced that the Niebuhr of "Moral Man and Immoral Society" is all that different from the Niebuhr of the Gifford Lectures ("The Nature and Destiny of Man"). His tragic worldview, often called Christian realism, acknowledged that human endeavors are fated to be flawed and to have tragic consequences — but he nevertheless saw the need for organized action and resistance to evil.

However, your neoconservatism may be blinding you to the crucial point: Niebuhr's awareness that some social forces are truly evil did not authorize any and all actions by "us" to combat them; he maintained that we must remain morally vigilant about our own choices and actions, especially when we were mobilized to resist evil. Tragically, the Bush administration and its intellectual enablers refuse to see the evil that they themselves are doing. That wouldn't surprise Niebuhr, but he'd certainly be drawing attention to the beam in our collective eye.

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