At the end of the first of two semesters in the interdisiplinary and team-taught honors course I am teaching in this academic year, we are considering important events, movements, and texts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The topic for seminar yesterday was broad, including Social Darwinism, workers movements, and Christian responses to social upheaval. Along with essays from Herbert Spencer and Andrew Carnegie, the students read Pope Leo XIII’s influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. The final text assigned was from the introduction to Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 book A Theology for the Social Gospel.
Rauschenbusch was one of the most important voices of the social gospel movement in the early 20th century, a movement within Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social problems, particularly issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, unclean environment, poor schools, and the dangers of war. Progressive Christians today, with their focus on many of these same issues more than a century later, are the inheritors of the spirit and energies of Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement.
Rauschenbusch’s critique of mainline Christianity in his day is directly relevant to our time. Christianity has morphed, Rauschenbusch argues, into something that Jesus would have not recognized as compatible with his teaching and life. Mainline Christianity, with its emphasis on individual sin and redemption, its focus on dogma and doctrine, as well as its energies directed toward the future rather than the present, has replaced “the religion of Jesus Christ with a theology which he never taught nor intended.”
Advocates of the social gospel often turned to the Lord’s Prayer when they advocated for applying Christian ethics to social problems. After all, we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is to be created now. “God is acting, and Christ is here now,” Rauschenbusch proclaimed. It is up to us to act on the message of Christ and help create the kingdom of God on earth.
One of Rauschenbusch’s primary points is that if Christians want to be appropriately concerned about sin, they need to focus their attention not just on the individual, but rather on the social structures that influence and create the individual. He writes that
The idea of the redemption of the social organism is nothing alien. It is simply a proper part of the Christian faith in redemption from sin and evil. Just as soon as the desire for salvation becomes strong and intelligent enough to look beyond the personal sins of the individual, and to discern how our personality in its intake and output is connected with social groups to which we belong, the problem of social redemption is before us and we can never forget it.
To illustrate, he turns to the familiar Ten Commandments text from Exodus. Traditionally, theologians have divided the Ten Commandments into two “tables,” with the first five commandments having to with our relationship with God and the second five related to our relationships with each other. Rauschenbusch suggests that in the modern age of technology, industrialization, war, and class struggle, we would do well to stop focusing so strongly on the early commandments concerning idolatry and the sabbath, turning our attention instead toward those commandments intended to provide a template for human social interactions. In our modern world, social structures and progress itself place human beings at risk in ways that the ancient Israelites could never have conceived of.
The commandments of the second table grow more important all the time. Science supplies the means of killing, finance the methods of stealing, the newspapers have learned how to bear false witness artistically to a globeful of people daily, and covetousness is the moral basis of our civilization.
These words are truer now than when they were written a century ago. To be a Christian is to be committed to the transformation of society. Now, not in some future existence. To reinforce this point, Rauschenbusch turns to the central event of the Christian faith, the Incarnation.
God is not only the spiritual representative of humanity; he is identified with it . . . Therefore, our sins against the least of our fellow-men in the last resort concern God. Therefore, when we retard the progress of mankind, we retard the revelation of the glory of God. Our universe . . . is a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us. We are on Christian ground when we insist on putting humanity into the picture.
To be a Christian is to be concerned about the ways in which existing social structures are infected with features which guarantee that poverty, racism, the rape of the environment, inequality, class conflict, and other human ills will continue to be embedded in our daily realities. To be a Christian is to be committed to changing these social structures.
In our society, of course, such talk is regularly rejected or pushed back against in the name of separation of church and state. But the social gospel is not an attempt to convert society to a certain version of religious faith. It is rather a call for people of faith to take their faith seriously enough to realize that it cannot be separated or isolated from the world in which they live their daily lives.
In an interview with Krista Tippett at the end of 2019, Serene Jones—the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City—speaks at length about the role that theology and “speaking of faith” has in the public square. She notes that “Theology is always very personal . . . if you can’t make personal sense out of that, it doesn’t have any meaning. If it doesn’t weave into the story of your life, it’s just meaningless chatter.”
But it can’t end there. If my faith, if what I believe concerning what is greater than me, has shaped my life and perspective, then my faith cannot disingenuously be left at home or in church when I venture into society.
Good theology absolutely must be public theology. What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together? . . . If you really believe this stuff about grace, if you really believe God loves everybody and the world, and forgives, ultimately, in mercy, everybody, it profoundly affects your politics . . . It’s thoroughly political, and in both the intimate and the political ways, it’s public.
Those who profess the Christian faith should distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and Political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself as the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if my Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how I engage with others and my society. Do not advocate in the name of Christianity, but advocate as the person that you have become because of your Christian faith.