Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview

Chapter 6 The Road to Religion

The Social Gospel and Socialism

Pre-World War I American radicalism was eclectic and seldom doctrinaire. The European ideologies it imported, such as Freudianism and Marxism, it modified, often beyond recognition. The new radicals hoped to devise a left- wing philosophy that would meet their personal needs while responding to the peculiarities of American society. Hence Freud could be invoked to champion free love, Marx to buttress the family, and syndicalism to explain the Industrial Workers of the World in a veritable orgy of misinterpretation. No longer a matter of exegesis, ideology became the product of desire. Instead of shaping action to the dictates of doctrine, American radicals approached ideology as pragmatists who would employ practical results as a measure of value.

As a result, it is not surprising that many American socialists took the unorthodox position of embracing Christianity while rejecting its institutional embodiment, the church. Their departure from the Marxist view that all religion was simply an opiate to repress workers may be partly explained by the desire to attract the middle class, including churchgoers, to the Socialist party. But it also sprang from an equally powerful desire to tap religion as a vital source in American life.

In fact, American Christianity seemed to thrive on the problems that plagued the United States in the years following 1898. The church responded to urbanization, poverty, and social unrest by engaging in a wide variety of reform efforts. Its new commitments brought the church practical rewards: "Its membership increased by approximately sixteen million between 1900 and 1914, an advance which can be explained by its willingness to face squarely the problems of the new day."1Walter Rauschenbusch, a German- American Baptist who occupied the chair of church history at Colgate- Rochester Seminary, became the leading exponent of the Social Gospel in the United States. Rauschenbusch argued that fundamental moral, economic, and social reform, involving the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a

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