The Social Gospel Paradox

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Presbyterian Church 2014

I’m close to finishing Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, the subtitle of which (“The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America”) provides a valuable frame with which to close out this month’s discussion of what next for the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with Jews and Israel.

Works I’ve read (and urged others to read) over the last several years, such as the writing of Spotts and Poupko, look at the post-war era as the beginning of the end for the Mainline Protestant churches.  If you recall, this was a period when Mainliners like the Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians joined in Ecumenical communion, putting aside doctrinal differences to create a joint front against growing competition from Evangelicalism and secular modernity.

While such a decision seemed perfectly reasonable and natural then (and still seems rational today), eliminating the differences between Methodist and Presbyterian gave people very few reasons to associate themselves with either church.  And so began a death spiral for Mainline Protestantism which Bottum identifies as the most important undiscussed contribution to changes in American society during the 20th century.

But the author also sees the post-war ecumenical era (and subsequent collapse of Mainline membership) as the result of decisions made much earlier, decisions that grew out of the challenges every church faced in the 19th and 20th centuries as modernism, rationalism and science began to dominate societies that once defined themselves as “Christendom.”

Mainline Protestantism managed to uniquely hold its own in the US until the 20th century due to its unusual nature of being both part of the establishment (given that, until quite recently, nearly every leader and intellectual in the nation was a member of this or that Mainline church) yet outside that establishment (since separation of Church and State and the diversity of Mainline substrates meant no particular church was ever in a position to dominate the secular political order).

From this position of insider/outsider, the churches fostered patriotism among their members while also giving their religious institutions an outsider’s platform to critique society.  Ironically, it was during a period when the churches still prioritized ministry (i.e., delivering the message of Christ within the context of specific doctrine) over politics that they were the most politically effective (think about church leadership in the fight against slavery).

The turning point for Bottum, however, was Walter Rauschenbusch’s introduction of the Social Gospel at the start of the 20th century.

Written during an age of tremendous political, economic and social upheaval, it’s no surprise that religious thinkers and writers were identifying Christ’s suffering with the suffering of the world’s marginalized and dispossessed (as defined in 20th century terms of class, race and the futility of war). But Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel approached this challenge in a way that would have long-term (and largely unintended) consequence.  For his new Gospel identified six evils that form “the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived had suffered.”

These six social sins include:

  • Bigotry
  • Arrogance of power
  • Corruption of justice for personal gain
  • Mob madness and violence
  • Militarism
  • Class contempt

But if you look at how the Social Gospel defines these sins (as evils that have lived with us since the beginning of time), they begin to look less like human failings (the original notion of sin) and more like metaphysical forces that transcend humanity, much like God or (more appropriate in this case) Satan.

Which meant that for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough.  Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins.  In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ.  And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm.  For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

But everything you have been reading about the Presbyterian Church over the last month points out a more depressing irony that only those outside the realm of true believers will recognize.  For if you look at those six social sins listed above, you will pretty much see a list that perfectly describes Israel’s ruthless and relentless foes.  And yet these foes, through skillful deployment of corruption, class hatred, mob violence, et al, have managed to force themselves to the top of the agenda of the descendants of Rauschenbusch, meaning the BDSbyterians (and those who follow them) have thrown away God in order to embrace (rather than fight against) a very devil that makes up the remnant of their belief system.

Series Navigation<< Ballad of the BDSbyterians

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.