Grassroots Faith: The Lessons of The Social Gospel

Recent exchanges in Religion Dispatches between Mark Silk and Frederick Clarkson over an emerging ideological divide among religious progressives is more than just another parochial dispute over political policies and tactics. It actually accentuates a larger debate concerning the very nature of a century-old question that has yet to be fully addressed: what is the definition of religious progressivism? Religious progressives eager to flesh out the meaning of their movement ought to revisit the pioneering tradition of religious progressivism from the early 20th century: The Social Gospel.

Although largely an outgrowth of American Protestantism, the social gospel had parallels in the Catholic Church and Reform Judaism. Within Protestantism, the social gospel was an attempt to apply the teachings of Christianity, predicated largely on the ethical example of Jesus, to address the social-economic upheavals associated with industrial capitalism.

While differing on specific economic solutions, the social gospelers lobbied for adopting legislation to protect worker rights: including an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of sweatshops. Closely allied to the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the social gospel was fueled by the rhetoric of liberal clergymen like Charles Sheldon, whose 1897 novel In His Steps introduced into American popular culture the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

The Social Gospel and the Future of Religious Progressivism

Current debates among religious progressives concerning the future of their cause need to take a serious look at the successes and failures of the original social gospel. On one hand, the social gospel helped foster a larger movement of public theology, critical to those today who consider themselves a part of any form of religious progressivism. Yet the original social gospel, like today’s progressives, also faced the challenge of defining its mission to the larger culture, specifically, how best to engage important political and economic interests of the time.

This engagement led the movement to raise a number of questions about its mission. For example, was the social gospel’s primary objective to cast a wide ideological net to create a broad coalition of secular and religious leaders, or was it to identify itself with specific economic and political policies? Common historical wisdom holds that the social gospel broke apart at the end of World War I, a victim of both a naïve liberal theology and an emerging postwar religious apathy. However, it is more accurate to assert that the original progressive suppositions of the social gospel—predicated on the hope that religious leaders would stir the consciences of the nation’s business and political leaders to action—could no longer hold up against the desire of movement leaders to advocate for more radical policies of social-economic change.

Jesus and Marx

Like many religious leaders today, identified by the labels “Left” and “Right,” one of the cherished goals of the original “progressive” social gospel was a desire for its leaders to sit at the table of political power. Some of the heirs of the social gospel after World War I continued this earlier heritage (witnessed by the close connection forged between the mid-20th century Protestant ecumenical movement and several influential political leaders). For others, however, these political alliances (i.e., progressivism) were seen as betrayals of cherished political and theological ideals. Harry F. Ward (Reinhold Niebuhr’s longtime colleague on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, New York), embodied this ‘take no prisoners’ style of social gospel radicalism, believing steadfastly that the ultimate goal of religion was not fidelity to an earlier progressivism (his version of “priestly” religion), but a thoroughgoing political radicalism that would transform American social structures to their core. For radicals like Ward, Charles Sheldon’s question, “Would Would Jesus Do?” led to a belief that Jesus would have cast his lot with Marxism.

Rauschenbusch and Grassroots faith

As a historical movement, the social gospel embodied a struggle over the policies and tactics to be used to achieve desired political ends, a struggle that continues to be contested among religious progressives today. Yet the debate between Silk and Clarkson goes beyond questions of who gets labeled “priestly” or “prophetic.” It reflects upon a larger difficulty of the religious Left historically to build a popular base characterized by a shared ideological consensus. Of all the figures associated with the classic social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch’s example is critical—not only in terms of what progressives can gain from his theological and political ideas, but how he strove to make the social gospel a grassroots faith movement.

Repeatedly, Rauschenbusch warned his social gospel allies that politics on its own was a poor substitute for religious conviction. “We do not want to substitute social activities for religion,” he noted in 1912. “If the church comes to lean on social preachings and doings as a crutch because its religion has become paralytic, may the Lord have mercy on us all!” Rauschenbusch took great pride in the fact that most of the major American denominations of his era (what we now call the mainline) adopted a variety of social justice resolutions, and that many social gospel leaders were gaining the attention of the era’s major political leaders. However, he worried that the theological and political commitments of the social gospel were not penetrating the fabric of American congregational life.

One hundred years later, I’m not convinced that many religious progressives have learned that it takes more than an ability to gain an audience with national political elites to spawn a movement; it requires the concerted effort to build a following. Numerous religious surveys continue to point toward demographics that not only show the continued appeal of conservative evangelical churches, but also reveal that Rauschenbusch’s ideal of a socially active congregation has been elusive (especially a congregation devoted to a liberal-progressive politics).

I don’t doubt that there are exceptions to this pattern. However, I think contemporary religious progressives need to look carefully, as Rauschenbusch did, at how the specific aspects of their religious traditions promote what he and his contemporaries referred to as “the social awakening.”

It could be argued that both the “progressive” and the “radical” wings of the social gospel failed to crystallize into enduring grassroots movements of political change. Also, it could be argued that late 20th-century incantations of Protestant evangelicalism succeeded far more than the social gospelers did in making their religious convictions a public force in American politics. By the same token, when one looks at the number of visionary leaders influenced by social gospelers like Walter Rauschenbusch—such as Martin Luther King Jr.—it would be a gross injustice to the movement’s legacy to say that it failed. Rauschenbusch’s vision was of a faith-based movement that required not just a political but a spiritual response. My hope is that religious progressives who seek to build upon the social gospel’s legacy will stay focused on that spiritual heritage. Defining what makes religious progressives religious progressives might prove more vital to their future cause than current ideological food fights between “priests” and “prophets.”

Rauschenbusch concluded his classic book Christianity and the Social Crisis with the assertion that “the kingdom of God is always but coming”—a reminder that sometimes the certainty of our convictions need to yield to the circumstances of our existence that work against the achievement of a just world. Social movements, whether religious or secular, need their irenic voices that value the importance of compromise, as they also need the voices of uncompromising radicals. However, there is a reason why many progressives today still honor the legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch.

As religious progressives strive to define their movement, they might want to ponder why this is the case.