Obama: Social Gospel? I say Not Really

Obama: Social Gospel? I say Not Really October 23, 2012

John Blake, one of CNN.com Belief Blog’s fine writers, has a lengthy study about President Obama’s faith. Two of his main points: Obama’s faith doesn’t fit the profile of many Americans’ view of what a Christian is — which is a way of saying the President’s faith is not evangelical. Second point: his faith is the Social Gospel.

Yes, and No.

To begin with, I find it exasperating that once again the commentators and locators of Obama’s faith are lilly-white Americans: Jim Wallis and Diana Butler Bass. Both of whom, intelligent as they are, want to locate Obama’s faith in the social justice tradition. Fine, I say, Yes, the President fits there.

But there’s a major issue. White elites are the ones who articulated the Social Gospel, most famously Walter Rauschenbusch but not limited to him. That Social Gospel was fixed deeply in the psyche and ministries of much of the mainline denominations so much that one can say culture and church meshed to where difference is not always detectable. Mainline faith in the USA is the religion of the privileged. The Social Gospel is a kind of white social justice Christianity.

African American “social gospel” types are not simply the Social Gospel type. Why did we not have an interview with someone like Brian Blount, a clear, forceful African American liberation theologian? Or James Cone? It is my view that “Social Gospel” does not do justice to President Obama’s faith.

His influences derived from the ministry of Jeremiah Wright, who besides bringing his own agendas to the table, represents a strong liberation strain of the social gospel side of Christianity. A theology done from the oppressed and for the oppressed is not the same as a theology done from the position of power and privilege. President Obama’s faith is an African American liberation kind of social gospel. There’s a difference and it is worth the nuance.

Social gospelers tend to look at structures of power and their systemic injustices; African American liberation theologies “do theology” through the experience of slavery, oppression, and systemic violence. There is undoubtedly substantive overlap, but they come from two different places.

Location is everything.

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