Why No Social Gospel?

Why No Social Gospel? January 17, 2008

Much of 20th century Christianity has emerged out of the Social Gospel movements. The Social Gospel movements see Christianity primarily about the alleviation of suffering for the poor and oppressed. These movements became increasingly influential in the Great Depression. They also formed the backbone to the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Latin American liberation theologies in the 1980’s. Today, much of mainline Christianity has moved in this direction. For these groups, Christianity is a gospel of social justice, and the cause of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the social outcasts.

Notable exceptions to this trend are Evangelical movements who took up issues like abortion, gender roles, and homosexuality as the basis of their social engagement. While there are voices in the evangelical movement, such as Rick Warren, who call for a recentering on social gospel values, these voices are still a minority. Evangelical movements seemed to reject the social-gospel movements of mainline Protestantism because they tended to liberalize the church with regard to race, gender roles, and homosexuality. Threatened by these trends in the social gospel, these groups sought to preserve traditional ground by combating these movements not only ecclesiastically, but politically.

Arguably, 19th century Zion Mormonism was rooted in a Social Gospel, as is the Book of Mormon. Both the founding texts and practices of Mormonism relied heavily on a concern for social equality, concern for the poor, and other social justice issues. One might argue that when Mormonism’s social experiments in Zion-building failed, that they abandoned social justice issues. However, this argument doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the shared social values with anti-social gospel movements in the latter-half of the twentieth century, like Evangelicals. Is the Mormon rejection of the social gospel simply another manifestation of attempts to assimilate with the Christian Right? This doesn’t seem sufficient either. Any ideas?

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