100 Years of “The Social Gospel”

At WSJ, Joseph Loconte reflects on the centennial of the publication of The Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch.

… [E]ven a brisk reading of Rauschenbusch’s work suggests crippling weaknesses, at least from the standpoint of faith. We’re told that the larger social message of Jesus’ teaching–especially his concern for the poor–was sidelined by the cultural assumptions of his followers. The culprits: the doctrine of sin and the “crude and misleading” idea of a coming apocalypse. Generations of believers wrongly came to regard earthly life as a snare and turned inward for personal salvation. “Such a conception of present life and future destiny,” Rauschenbusch wrote chidingly, “offered no motive for an ennobling transformation of the present life.”

Distorted ideas about heaven and hell have spawned great mischief in the name of Christianity, of course. … Nevertheless, he seemed blithely unaware of others provoked by the very conceptions of sin and salvation he so despised–men such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, John Jay, Lyman Beecher and William Booth–to champion reform efforts of all kinds.

Rauschenbusch’s clever narrative of a faith held hostage was itself a captive of its cultural setting. It’s no accident that phrases such as the “laws of social development,” “scientific comprehension of society” and the “evolution of social institutions” litter his text. He presents not so much the teachings of Jesus, Paul and the Apostles as the dogmas of Darwin, Marx and Herbert Spencer. Richard Niebuhr called this “cultural Christianity,” i.e., re-imagining the gospel according to secular nostrums about the march of human progress.