Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gary Dorrien: The Relevance of the Social Gospel

Society as the Subject of Redemption: The Relevance of the Social Gospel
by Gary Dorrien article link
Tikkun Magazine November/December 2009

The idea that biblical religion has a regenerative social mission is as old as the biblical message of letting justice flow like a river, pouring yourself out for the poor and vulnerable, and attending to what Jesus called the "weightier matters of the law," justice and mercy. A century ago, the Social Gospel movement put it in a novel way, calling Christians to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

It was not a coincidence that the Social Gospel, sociology, social ethics, and Social Darwinism all arose at the same time, plus the ideas of social structure, social salvation, and social justice; also corporate capitalism and the trade unions. For the Social Gospel was essentially a North American version of the movements for Christian Socialism that arose in England, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere in the late nineteenth century. It was based on a doctrine of social salvation, which was based on the emerging sociological idea of social structure, which gave rise to the idea of social justice.

The novelty of the Social Gospel was not that it possessed a social ethic or got involved in politics, though it certainly did both. The difference was its focus on structural transformations for social justice. Early Christianity had a regenerative social ethic, but the early church was a marginalized eschatological community. The medieval church had a social ethic of the common good, but it was an ethic of authority and social control. The Reformed tradition had a covenantal social ethic with transformational potential, but it was turned into an apologetic for commercial society. The Anabaptist churches had a radical-conservative social ethic of (usually pacifist) dissent, but the Anabaptists were ascetic or apocalyptic or both. Evangelical pietism had a postmillennial social ethic that fought against slavery and alcohol, but it fixated on personal conversion.

Only with the rise of Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel did Christian communities seek to restructure society in the direction of freedom and equality. Society became the subject of redemption; social justice became intrinsic to salvation. If there was such a thing as social structure, redemption had to be reconceptualized to take account of it; salvation had to be personal and social to be saving.

The leading figures of the Social Gospel were Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. For them, the Social Gospel was political without apology, with a progressive ideology, and vibrantly evangelical, in a theologically liberal fashion. Gladden stood in the movement's mainstream, advocating cooperative ownership and liberal internationalism, and he was never dangerous. He passionately opposed World War I right up to the moment that America intervened, whereupon he embraced the war to end all wars. Every Sunday morning he preached on personal religion, and every Sunday evening he preached about economics, militarism, and social religion. On the first Sunday of every year he preached a sermon on how America and the world had improved over the past year. Gladden tried to be realistic about the class struggle, but he could never say, with Rauschenbusch, that idealism was too weak and sentimental to effect any great social change.

Rauschenbusch said it in the movement's greatest work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), a book otherwise loaded with moral idealism, declaring that a great social truth can be won only when an oppressed class "makes that truth its own and fights for it." In the book's first part, Rauschenbusch described the purpose of prophetic biblical religion as the transformation of society into a divine commonwealth of freedom, equality, democracy, and community. The second part explained why the church had never carried out this mission. The third part urged that it was not too late for the church to follow Jesus.

Rauschenbusch realized that the key to the book was the second part, but he feared that the third part would get him fired from his teaching position at Rochester Seminary. It had a blazing manifesto for democratic socialism in a closing eighty-page chapter titled, "What To Do." For his second-part analysis of what happened to Christianity, he argued that every chapter of church history could be titled, "How the Kingdom of God Was Misconstrued in This Era, or Replaced by Something Else." In his telling, prophetic religion was the "beating heart" of scripture, the prophetic spirit "rose from the dead" in Jesus and the early church, and Christianity was supposed to be a prophetic religion of the divine commonwealth.

Rauschenbusch argued that the rise of corporate capitalism marked a crisis for American civilization and an opportunity to recover the ideal of a radical democratic commonwealth. If production could be organized on a cooperative basis, if distribution could be organized by principles of justice, if workers could be treated as valuable ends and not as dispensable means to a commercial end, if parasitic wealth and predatory commerce could be abolished ... his fantasy of ifs went on for a half-page. If all these things could be accomplished, it might be possible "to live a really Christian life without retiring from the world."

Christianity and the Social Crisis went through thirteen printings in five years and had a huge impact on the ecumenical movement, which founded the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, which in turn became a vehicle for the transmission of Social Gospel ideas into the church and society. Most Social Gospel leaders opposed intervening in World War I until the United States did so, whereupon they ditched their opposition to war. After the war, appalled by the vengeance of the victors, they pledged never to do it again, which made it very difficult for them to face up to the necessity of doing so in the 1930s. Reinhold Niebuhr got to be famous by imploring his Social Gospel friends to choose the lesser evil of supporting another war, this time to prevent "the triumph of an intolerable tyranny."

The Social Gospel movement had many faults and limitations. Much of it was sentimental, moralistic, idealistic, and politically naive. Most of it preached a gospel of cultural optimism and a Jesus of middle-class idealism. It spoke the language of triumphal missionary religion, sometimes baptized the Anglo-Saxon ideology of Manifest Destiny, and usually claimed that American imperialism was not really imperialism because it had good intentions. The Social Gospel helped to build colleges and universities for African Americans, but only rarely did it summon the courage to demand justice for blacks. It supported suffrage for women, but that was the extent of its feminism. It created the ecumenical movement in the United States, but it had a strongly Protestant, anti-Catholic idea of ecumenism, and Rauschenbusch was especially harsh on this topic. The Social Gospel movement took for granted that Jews, Catholics, atheists, and all others that weren't mainline Protestants had to assimilate into mainline Protestant culture. And in the 1930s it was too traumatized by its memory of World War I to face up to the moral imperative of smashing Nazi fascism.

For decades the Social Gospel was ridiculed for many of these things, beginning with Reinhold Niebuhr's frosty proto-Marxist polemic of 1932, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Two generations of seminarians learned about the Social Gospel by reading its Niebuhrian critics, not Rauschenbusch or Washington Gladden. Niebuhr taught, wrongly, that the Social Gospel had no doctrine of sin, and more justly, that it was too middle-class and idealistic to be a serious force in power politics. After Niebuhr's generation had passed, liberationists judged that the Social Gospel and Christian realism were too middle-class, white, male-dominated, nationalistic, and socially privileged to be agents of liberation.

Yet the Social Gospel, for all its faults, had a greater progressive religious legacy than any other North American movement. Christian realism inspired no hymns and built no lasting institutions. It was not even a movement, but rather, a reaction to the Social Gospel centered on one person, Reinhold Niebuhr. The Social Gospel, by contrast, was a half-century movement and an enduring perspective that paved the way for modern ecumenism, social Christianity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the field of social ethics. It had a tradition in the black churches that was the wellspring of the Civil Rights Movement through the ministries of Reverdy Ransom, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman. It had anti-imperialist, socialist, and feminist advocates in addition to its liberal reformers. It created the ecumenical and social justice ministries that remain at the heart of American social Christianity. And it espoused a vision of economic democracy that is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.

To put it in contemporary terms, the Social Gospel was a response to the first historic wave of economic globalization, the clash between a burgeoning corporate capitalism and a rising labor movement. Social Gospel leaders urged that modernity surely had a stage beyond capitalism. If modernity was a good thing, which they did not doubt, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism.

Most social gospelers spoke a "third way" language of cooperatives and community ownership, following the lead of Gladden and Richard Ely. A more radical group, following Rauschenbusch, explicitly called economic democracy "socialist" while stressing decentralized forms of socialization. A third group advocated state socialism and state planning; it included George Herron and Vida Scudder.

In the 1930s, Reinhold Niebuhr blasted all these groups for their moralism and idealism. For radical state socialists like Niebuhr, economic democracy was serious only if it meant government control of the economy. Wrongly, radicals like Niebuhr equated decentralized forms of socialization with nationalization, rejected production for profit, claimed that state planners could replicate the pricing decisions of markets, and wanted government planners to organize an economy not linked by markets. In the 1940s, after Niebuhr gave up on all of this, he made his peace with the Democratic Party establishment and became a leading figure in it.

On these issues Rauschenbusch ended up looking better than the radicals that panned him for being too idealistic. He assumed that markets cannot be abolished in a free society and that we need to get as much as we can out of worker and community ownership. Political democracy without economic democracy is an "uncashed promissory note, a form without substance," he argued. Under capitalism, the capitalist class wrote its interests into the law; under a fully realized democracy, property laws would serve the interests of the public as a whole.

Rauschenbusch's concept of economic democracy was a patchwork of socialist and reformist themes that did not always fit together. He could be sloppy in failing to distinguish among direct workers' ownership, mixed forms of cooperative ownership, and public ownership of production. He adopted Marx's labor theory of value and asserted that prices in a just society would be based entirely on services rendered.

For all of his idealistic rhetoric and unassimilated borrowings from Marx, however, Rauschenbusch wisely urged that the mix of ownership modes in a democracy must always be a matter of contextual judgment. The blueprint dogmatism of the Marxist tradition was alien to him. He did not think of economic democracy as only one thing, either economically or politically, and he argued that culturally it would have to be at least as pluralistic as political democracy already was.

A century ago the newly founded Federal Council of Churches issued a historic pronouncement called the Social Creed of the Churches. The churches could not agree on doctrine; thus there were thirty-two denominations in the Federal Council. But the Social Gospel leaders of the Federal Council reasoned that the churches should be able to agree about social justice and do something for it. So they issued a Social Creed, advocating "equal rights and complete justice for all men," the abolition of child labor, a "living wage as a minimum in every industry," social security, an equitable distribution of income and wealth, the abatement of poverty, and eight other planks focused mostly on economic justice.

A century later the National Council of Churches, representing thirty-three denominations, has a new Social Creed that is very much in line with the creeds of 1908 and 1932; I was on the team that wrote it. It calls for "full civil, political, and economic rights for women and men of all races." It demands the "abolition of forced labor, human trafficking, and the exploitation of children." It supports "employment for all, at a family-sustaining living wage, with equal pay for comparable work." It stands up for the right of workers to organize, opposes the death penalty, calls for the abatement of hunger and poverty, and endorses universal health care, social security, and progressive tax policies. It commends immigration policies that protect family unity and foster international cooperation. It stresses the necessity of adopting simpler lifestyles; living within our means; protecting the earth's environment; and investing in renewable energy. It supports equitable global trade that protects local economies, and advocates a foreign policy based on international law and multilateral diplomacy. It calls for nuclear disarmament, reductions in military spending, and the abolition of torture. And it calls for cooperation and dialogue among world religions.

Parts of the new Social Creed are virtually identical with the first one, reflecting elementary justice principles still unrealized. Other parts reflect the ecological, feminist, and multicultural concerns that distinguish our time from previous generations. Getting a statement like the new Social Creed through a large ecumenical organization is at least as difficult today as it was in the heyday of the Social Gospel, and the crisis of social justice organizing within religious communities today is acute. Twenty years ago every ecumenical denomination had stronger organizations dealing with peace and social justice issues than they do today. For all of us working in and through religious organizations on behalf of social justice causes, this is necessarily a time of retrenchment and rearguard battles. But it is also a time of bold faith and hope. Unlike the social gospelers, we have no illusions of being carried along by a tide of cultural progress. For us, history must be about struggle, not progress; or at least, as Frederick Douglass put it, "without struggle, there is no progress."

Rauschenbusch put it best. Stereotypes about him notwithstanding, he had a strong sense of personal and social structural evil, as his Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) made clear. Rauschenbusch topped off his six chapters on evil with a stunning description of the collective sum of evils that he called "the kingdom of evil." He argued that the ravages of human hatred, greed, and will to power negate any possibility of achieving a perfect democracy. Yet for all of that, he urged, we must seek to build a cooperative commonwealth. At best there is only an "approximation" of a just social order: "The kingdom of God is always but coming. But every approximation to it is worthwhile."

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University. An Episcopal priest and author of thirteen books, he has a long history of involvement in anti-imperialist and racial justice organizations.

Tikkun Magazine November/December 2009
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