Krista's Journal: Connecting the Dots of the Social Gospel Movement with Changes Afoot Today

November 17, 2011

"Social issues," Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, "are moral issues writ large." Maybe that sounds like a straightforward statement. But it holds an emphasis, enwraps a whole theology that gave rise to the split between what we now experience as two branches of Christianity: Evangelical and mainline Protestant.

While pastoring a German Baptist church in Hell's Kitchen in New York at the turn of the last century, Walter Rauschenbusch saw poverty and desolation at every turn. That he lived in a moment kindred to ours is immediately evident in the subject headings of his most famous book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, The Morale of the Workers, The Physical Decline of the People, The Crumbling of Political Democracy, and The Wedge of Inequality. This book was going to print as Rauschenbusch set off for a year's sabbatical in Germany in 1907. He returned as a best-selling celebrity, a galvanizing figure in movement that became known as the "Social Gospel." Though as his great-grandson Paul tells us in this show, Walter never liked that catchphrase. It's just the Gospel, he said.

Looking at the Bible with eyes fresh from the suffering of Hell's Kitchen, Walter Rauschenbusch saw a call for social healing, social renewal, and social justice in and between every line. The dedication page of his book contained these shortened lines from the end of The Lord's Prayer: "Thy Kingdom Come! Thy Will be Done on Earth!" Walter Rauschenbusch believed in a transcendent God and an afterlife, but he came to feel that Christians had focused too much on the afterlife and not enough on their responsibilities in this life.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Walter Rauschenbusch as a formative teacher in his understanding that "any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the… social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial."

I read Walter Rauschenbusch too, when I studied theology in the early 1990s. He's still studied at all kinds of seminaries — evangelical to mainline. He is not remembered in American culture like the twentieth-century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. But I'm sensing some spirit, some essence, of Social Gospel theology as 21st-century Americans apply faith to social issues and crises now. And as Paul Raushenbush points out, a most interesting example of this is the way in which new generations of Evangelicals have been engaging on matters of social justice — taking on the environment, global poverty, and human trafficking. They may care as deeply about what we think of in our time as "moral values issues." But they're seeing a Gospel, as Walter Rauschenbusch did, that compels them to see social issues as moral issues too.

In connecting these dots, Paul Raushenbush is a lovely conversation partner. He grew up largely unaffected, at least overtly, by the legacy of his great-grandfather. He became a rock and roll producer in Europe after college. He flamed out. Recovery, "getting clean," was part of his return to faith. He ministered to street youth in Seattle and San Paolo, Brazil, and worked at Riverside Church in New York, and then became a chaplain and associate dean of religious affairs at Princeton. He was there for eight years before leaving to be full-time senior editor of the Huffington Post religion section, which he helped launch in 2010.

He has many interesting things to tell about the Social Gospel, religiosity among the young in our time, and his view of modern religion from an ultra-modern online perch. None is more counterintuitive, perhaps, than the fact that he is constantly urging contributors to the Huffington Post religion section to "be more religion-y." The posts that go viral are often about getting grounded in tradition — learning the basics of the Bible, for example. In his piece of the famously liberal Huffington Post universe, he welcomes conservative voices. A progressive Christian himself, he is impatient when his fellow liberal faithful are less passionate than others, less articulate in communicating the Gospel they believe in. I have a feeling, in Paul's presence, that he doesn't merely give voice but embodies the theological spirit of his great-grandfather, in a most intriguing way.

Recommended Reading

Image of Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church
Author: Walter Rauschenbusch
Publisher: HarperOne (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 400 pages

This re-release of Rauschenbush's classic text is accompanied by reflections from a spectrum of influential contemporary Christians — from Evangelical social activist Tony Campolo to the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister.

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is the senior religion editor for the Huffington Post and editor of the 100th anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch's book, Christianity and the Social Crisis — In the 21st Century.