Seductive Social Gospel

Article excerpt

America remains religious, but it might have been otherwise. In the late nineteenth century, Americans whose fathers and grandfathers had been earnest Congregationalists or Presbyterians were beginning to fall away. They were uninterested in Calvinism's fine doctrinal distinctions and resentful of the Calvinist emphasis on total depravity and the high decrees of divine election.

This alienation from classical Reformed theology and practice could easily have led to the secularization of America one hundred years ago. But Protestantism reinvented itself. Horace Bushnell wrote books that shifted the focus of faith away from doctrine and toward sentiments and feelings. Against the traditional forms of Calvinism that interpreted Christ's saving death in terms of the debt of sin and its payment--which is to say, the doctrine of penal substitution--he argued that Christ's example of selfless love provides a decisive moral influence that causes in us a renewal and transformation.

The Social Gospel movement seems very different, focusing on "the social question" rather than sentiments and feelings. But like liberal Protestant theology more generally, it became so influential in the early twentieth century because it directed attention away from traditional doctrine. A concern for justice replaced theologies of justification.

Walter Rauschenbusch, the most prominent spokesman for the Social Gospel, provided in his programmatic book Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) the most explicit rationale for this shift. Nineteenth-century historical critics had sifted through the Bible, separating out what they designated the most ancient and therefore authentic witness from later accretions and distortions. Rauschenbusch used this scholarship to make his case for a social gospel.

He argued that the early prophets--Amos in particular-reflected the original genius of Israelite religion, which was concerned with ethical conduct and social justice, preaching a "primitive democracy." However, already in Old Testament times, this original message was corrupted by Jewish preoccupations with ritual and purity. Ezekiel shifts away from ethics and to an "ecclesiastical attitude" preoccupied with "ceremonial correctness."

The historical Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch argued, which meant the ethical action and social justice emphasized by the earliest prophets. However, corruption intruded again. The Jewish writers of the New Testament introduced the "ecclesiastical attitude" and other distortions that led to what Rauschenbusch calls "ascetic Christianity," a religious attitude that thinks in terms of heaven, divine intervention, and personal salvation rather than social justice.

Rauschenbusch's story of the true meaning of Christianity is archetypically Protestant: The original purity of faith was lost and obscured by later corruptions, only to be discovered anew in our age. The distinct twist--which is what made the Social Gospel so effective in preserving the influence of mainline Protestantism--was that Rauschenbusch implicated older forms of Protestantism in this history of corruption. Thus, Protestants who insist on confessional standards reflect an "ecclesiastical attitude" concerned about mere "ceremonial correctness."

The effect of this critique was to reassure those whose faith was wavering. …