Wrestling With Rauschenbusch
Evangelicals may be returning to their 19th-century roots in activism, but they still struggle with the “father of the Social Gospel.”
By Paul O'Donnell
One hundred years ago, while on sabbatical in Germany, Walter Rauschenbusch wrote and published his book, "Christianity and the Social Crisis." Upon his return, the theologian, Baptist minister and professor of church history at the Rochester Theological Seminary discovered that, in his absence, he had become "the most prominent public intellectual of the young 20th century," as Stephen G. Carter puts it in the just-published centenary edition of the book. Rauschenbusch was ushered off on a national speaking tour. For three years "Christianity and the Social Crisis" sold more copies than any other religious text but the Bible. Its publication, said the great liberal pastor Harry Fosdick, "ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action."
Yet ask ten mainstream Christians today who Rauschenbusch was and you'll get an average of seven shrugs. Changing that ratio is clearly the intent of the centenary re-issue, re-titled Christianity and the Social Crisis of the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church and furnished with companion essays by well-known faith-based types like Carter, Rev. Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas, and an afterword by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, who was Rauschenbusch's grandson. The editor of the book, Rauschenbusch's great-grandson, is Paul Raushenbush, a chaplain at Princeton University. Full disclosure: I was his editor at Beliefnet some years ago and we remain friends. Coincidentally, the book arrives at a time when the elder Rauschenbusch needs all the friends he can find.
For some years now, American evangelicals—Rauschenbusch's historical nemeses--are looking to revive a tradition of social activism that largely evaporated in the decades after "Christianity and the Social Crisis" appeared. Not long ago, Rick Warren, the mega-church pastor and author of mega-bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life," told a roomful of Washington journalists, "The first trend you need to be aware of is the return of the evangelical movement to its 19th-century roots" in what Warren calls "compassionate activism."
Warren himself has spent the last three years traveling back and forth to Africa, where he's been helping raise awareness and lower occurrence of AIDS. He's met with Bono on African debt. Others in the evangelical camp are attempting to awaken their fellow believers to the threat of global warming, and want to extend the evangelical agenda to helping drug addicts. To a Rauschenbuschian, this may look like the evangelicals are bent on completing his work. In fact, however, they miss no chance to make it clear that their efforts should not be confused with his.
It's easy to see why. "Christianity and the Social Crisis" is a plea to the Christian nation to take up the cause of the working poor, whose desperation Rauschenbusch had seen first hand as a pastor in Hell's Kitchen, on Manhattan's West Side. Rauschenbusch saw his former parishioners as we tend to see them now—as hapless victims of the Capitalist Age. This idea collided with the prevailing Christian approach to helping the poor, which basically amounted to urging them to lead clean, thrifty, and sober lives. Rauschenbusch argued that being virtuous was no longer sufficient. On a listing ship, Rauschenbusch says, personal strength may allow some to cling to the deck. "But if the deck kept on tilting at a steeper angle," he writes, "more still would go." We all had to right the ship—establish the kingdom of equality, economic fairness, and mutual aid that he believed Jesus preached--or eventually we'd all go overboard.
Evangelicals believe Rauschenbusch got things backward, putting social justice above heavenly justice. By locating temptation in society, he disarranged the evangelical view of sin as an individual failing and of salvation by personal conversion. By placing Jesus securely in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who, he says urged the community to take responsibility for itself, Rauschenbusch seemed to deny Christ's divinity. By stressing the redemption of a society based on Jesus's ethics, evangelicals charged, Rauschenbusch rejected the mystical redemption of the cross. Putting the kingdom of heaven at the service of the poor, one commentator has said, seemed to "make God a means to an end."
For most of the last century, Rauschenbusch's version of Christianity prevailed. Almost immediately, "Christianity and the Social Crisis" changed how Christians performed social work; his followers provided support for progressive politics and, later, the New Deal. Martin Luther King Jr. named Rauschenbusch as a role model. Church-led efforts—from divestment in South Africa to the homeless movement—bear his mark. Recent studies show the most successful mainline churches are those that devote themselves to community support. If we don't know the “Social Gospel" by name, it is because its aims are nearly identical with what we think of as mainstream American Christianity. "After Rauschenbusch," Stanley Hauerwas writes in his contribution, "there is no Gospel that is not ‘The Social Gospel.'"
Against the Social Gospel's advance, even into their strongholds in the South and Midwest, the evangelicals retreated, not only from their 19th century social agenda, but from the political and social life of the nation. In thumbnail histories of the 20th century, the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial banished the evangelical faithful to the desert. But the success of the Social Gospel did as much to send them into the long exile from public life that ended with their alliance with the Republican Party in the 1970s and '80s.
Conservative Christians' mistrust of Rauschenbusch is still fresh. Last May in the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Loconte blasted "Christianity and the Social Crisis" in a piece posing as a review of the centenary edition, calling Rauschenbusch's work "a distraction of the Christian church from its deepest objectives." In announcing evangelicals' re-engagement with the world to the Beltway journalists, Rick Warren was careful to sever any ties to Rauschenbusch, who, he alleged, "basically said we don't need this stuff about Jesus anymore; we don't need the cross; we don't need salvation; we don't need atonement; we just need to redeem the social structures of society and if we do that people will automatically get better. This is basically Marxism in a Christian form." Purpose-driven Warren is probably smarter than his unsubtle observations suggest, realizing perhaps that his own base won't support his social justice efforts if they think Rauschenbusch's thought is behind them.
Even the evangelicals who agreed to write companion essays for the re-issue are careful to temper their praise for Rauschenbusch with cautions about his theories of atonement. In fact, few of them lend Rauschenbusch their unadulterated support. The afterward by Richard Rorty, a fellow traveler of liberal Christianity but an atheist, is a wistful acknowledgment that the events of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust and the mechanistic tyranny of the Soviets, made the inhumane evils of turn-of-the-century Hell's Kitchen seem innocent, and undercut Rauschenbusch's belief in the essential goodness of humanity.
Rauschenbusch, it seems, is still his own best mouthpiece. His inescapably real reporting and utterly pragmatic solutions to poverty seem to anticipate George Orwell, and his rational sympathy for the poor in "Road to Wigan Pier." Like Orwell, Rauschenbusch indicts our snobbery in assuming that we would fare better if faced with the same challenges. His fascination with Jesus as a specifically Jewish mind even lines up with some evangelical thinking today. His anecdotes about failed health-care systems and the immigrant experience could be culled from our own politicians' stump speeches.
Indeed, if Rauschenbusch stepped off that boat from Germany today, he would feel right at home in our America. The Christian world is still split between mainliners comfortably ensconced in material society and evangelicals stressing personal piety as if Christianity were under dire threat. The distance between the top and bottom of the economic strata still troubles us as it did him. And though some may despise the theology behind his vision, and others may call him politically naïve, religious leaders of good conscience are listening to his alarm.
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Paul O’Donnell, a former editor at Newsweek and Beliefnet.com, has written on religion for The New Republic, Science and Spirit, Science & Theology News and is a contributor to Beliefnet’s "Idol Chatter" blog. His last piece for SoMA was How Great Thou Aren't.
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