New Century, Same Crisis: Walter Rauschenbusch & the Social Gospel

By Blake, Casey Nelson | Commonweal, October 26, 2007 | Go to article overview

New Century, Same Crisis: Walter Rauschenbusch & the Social Gospel


Blake, Casey Nelson, Commonweal


Nineteen hundred seven was quite a year. William James published his landmark collection Pragmatism. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Two of Antoni Gaudi's greatest buildings, Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, went up in Barcelona. And Henry Adams announced the arrival of "Twentieth-Century Multiplicity"--the original subtitle of his book The Education of Henry Adams, which he circulated among friends that year.

"Multiplicity" perfectly captured the new orientation of these works. The confident rationalism of the Victorian imagination dissolved, along with its efforts to carve human existence into fixed categories of public and private, morality and practice, art and everyday life. In their place stood a multi-perspectival approach that came to define the promise of the modern for at least the next fifty years.

Walter Rauschenbusch's 1907 manifesto of the American social gospel, Christianity and the Social Crisis, deserves comparison to these modernist classics. In the spirit of his contemporaries, Rauschenbusch tore down the wall that separated faith from the public world and called on the church to address the suffering and degradation that accompanied the rapid industrialization of the United States. Victorian Protestants' relegation of religion to the private sphere represented nothing less, in his view, than a betrayal of Jesus' gospel. "Whoever uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus," he wrote. Personal salvation had to be joined to social salvation in a direct assault on the concentrated power of corporate capitalism. "It is either a revival of social religion or the deluge."

The publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis made its author--a German-American pastor raised as an evangelical Baptist--the nation's foremost advocate of a Protestantism that saw religion and social ethics as inseparable and summoned the faithful to confront the human costs of unrestrained market forces. Rauschenbusch's social gospel went on to inspire thousands of Progressive-era reformers, Norman Thomas Socialists, pacifists, and civil-rights activists. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for three generations of radicals and reformers when he called Rauschenbusch's classic "a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking."

A century after its appearance, Paul Raushenbush--a great-grandson of both Walter Rauschenbusch and Louis Brandeis--has edited a new edition titled Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century (HarperOne), which intersperses the original text with commentaries by Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, James A. Forbes Jr., Stanley Hauerwas, Phyllis Trible, Jim Wallis, and Cornel West that assess the work's value for our own time. The book ends with a somber epilogue by Rauschenbusch's grandson, the late philosopher Richard Rorty, who dissented from his fellow contributors' hopeful view of an ascendant Christian Left. "The likelihood that religion will play a significant role in the struggle for justice seems smaller now than at any time since Christianity and the Social Crisis was published." Regardless of how one views that prospect, there is no question that Paul Raushenbush intends this new edition as more than a tribute to his ancestor's legacy. Christianity and the Social Crisis remains a powerful statement of the social promise of prophetic Christianity, and its republication in this form is a forceful intervention in contemporary debates in American religion and politics. The book is an indispensable resource for our own age of crisis.

Raushenbush understands that his great-grandfather's vision was profoundly religious and counsels today's readers to take seriously the evangelical impulse that drove his life's work. That reminder is especially welcome at a time when sloganeering and therapeutic uplift clutter services in many liberal churches. "It is time to reclaim both the evangelical and social element in Rauschenbusch's original work and put the power of the gospel back into the social gospel. …

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