Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel: A Hopeful Theology for the Twenty-First Century Economy

By Nelson, Janet R. | Cross Currents, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel: A Hopeful Theology for the Twenty-First Century Economy


Nelson, Janet R., Cross Currents


  If production could be organized on a basis of cooperative
  fraternity; if distribution could at least approximately be
  determined by justice; if all men could be conscious that their labor
  contributed to the welfare of all and that their personal well-being
  was dependent on the prosperity of the Commonwealth; if predatory
  business and parasitic wealth ceased and all men lived only by their
  labor; if the luxury of unearned wealth no longer made us feverish
  with covetousness and a simpler life became the fashion; if our time
  and strength were not used up either in getting a bare living or in
  amassing unusable wealth and we had more leisure for the higher
  pursuits of the mind and the soul--then there might be a chance to
  live such a life of gentleness and brotherly kindness and tranquility
  of heart as Jesus desired for men. (1)
            --Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianity and the Social Crisis

  The book by Walter Rauschenbusch which shook the religious world of
  our nation, Christianity and the Social Crisis, appeared just a
  half-century ago. So much has happened in that half-century both to
  the world and to us as a nation, that it is not altogether surprising
  that a book which meant so much to American religious life and to the
  older among us personally should be so obviously dated. (2)
           --Niebuhr, Reinhold, "Walter Rauschenbusch in Historical
                                                       Perspective"

When Walter Rauschenbusch presented his path-breaking vision of a Christianized economic order in Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, the book galvanized the reading public, going through thirteen printings in seven years and selling more than 50,000 copies. (3) Writing in 1957, Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned mid-twentieth-century Christian theologian, in effect dismissed the message of Rauschenbusch's work as dated. Rauschenbusch's views were certainly bound by the cultural, political, religious, and economic context of the early years of the twentieth century, but contrary to Niebuhr's contention, the timeliness of Rauschenbusch's insights are undeniably striking today, one hundred years after their publication. His outrage at the social and economic injustices of his day, his unrelenting critique of the capitalistic economic system that had produced so much human suffering and his urgent call for the democratization of that system could not be more relevant to our own times at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

There is some irony here for Reinhold Niebuhr himself is currently attracting considerable attention after having been in eclipse for several decades. Much of this attention is due to President Barack Obama's professed admiration for Niebuhr. In an interview with David Brooks, Obama responded enthusiastically to Brooks' question regarding the work of Niebuhr, stating "I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers." Brooks quoted Obama that he took away from Niebuhr "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism." (4)

Niebuhr's worldview is a much-needed and bracing corrective to the eight years of Bush administration hubris that their policies at home and abroad were unquestionable reflections of the goodness of the American way of life. Niebuhr argued in his many works, including his best known. Moral Man and Immoral Society, (5) that humans are inherently self-interested and that power, even when used to advance the good, is inevitably corrupted by self-interest. Politics is always about power and the best we can strive for is a tenuous and imperfect balance of powers. In reaction to what he perceived to be the idealism of the Social Gospel movement of which Rauschenbusch was a leading proponent, Niebuhr developed the theological position of Christian realism--realism because it was grounded in Niebuhr's appreciation of the limits of the goodness of human nature and even more so, his awareness of the evil always present in human social and political institutions. …

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