The Social Gospel Movement & Too Tall Paul

May 2, 2010

Mark Steyn was attempting to wake us all up about a year ago when he wrote;

Most Americans don’t yet grasp the scale of the Obama project. The naysayers complain, Oh, it’s another Jimmy Carter, or It’s the new New Deal, or It’s LBJ’s Great Society applied to health care. You should be so lucky. It’s all those multiplied a gazillionfold and nuclearized — or Europeanized, which is less dramatic but ultimately more lethal. (National Review 2009.03.23)

The personally invasive changes of Barak Obama’s administration have caused many to forecast a socialist overhaul in our executive and legislative branches. That may be true.

I think the most frustrating element of all this fervor is the feeling that those of us who know better were too busy pampering ourselves to notice that hurting people were seeking radical change. Morning after morning, we watched perky financial advisers on Fox and Friends tell us if we just cut back on five dollar caramel macchiatos from Starbuck’s we could make up for some of the hit we took on our 401K.The single mother of two, serving us at Starbuck’s needed real change. Please don’t assume I think she got meaningful assistance or sustainable reform from this regime. My only goal with this diversion is to re-frame your thinking enough to be objective about how we end up creating environments where destructive social and political change appears credible to the majority.

Let this next quote sink in for a minute or two,

The highest expression of love is the free surrender of what is truly our own, life, property, and rights. A much lower but perhaps more decisive expression of love is the surrender of any opportunity to exploit men. No social group or organization can claim to be clearly within the Kingdom of God which drains others for its own ease, and resists the effort to abate this fundamental evil.

This excerpt from A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch could be quickly tied to the current administration’s political realities. Except for the fact that this particular book is considered the confession of the Social Gospel Movement and was written in 1922. Another quote from the book reflected upon a significant legislative change from the end on the nineteenth century. “This involves the redemption of society from private property in the natural resources of the earth, and from any condition in industry which makes monopoly profits possible.”

The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890. Teddy Roosevelt put teeth in the act when he took over the U.S. Presidency in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley. He launched a series of lawsuits against what were deemed offensive business combinations. Such giants as J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust  and James B. Duke’s tobacco trust were targets of the government’s attorneys. Is this bringing on an overwhelming sense of deja vu?

The Social Gospel Movement marked a dramatic shift in Christian philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century. Not unlike the political shift we are experiencing today. The North had won the civil war, freed slaves, and began reconstruction. The new “negros” were poor immigrants from Europe coming to America for a perceived opportunity of a success that seemed inconceivable in their homeland. The industrialized Northeast churned through this hopefuls and their children. There is certainly no argument regarding the abuses they endured. Many of the labor laws and regulations in place today remain as a result of the attempt to legislate a minimum standard of ethics in the workplace. The minimum wage has its roots in these reforms. Northern Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans, began to unite over these social injustices as well.

In this socially conscious environment a real Christian would not and could not tolerate this evil. Moreover any true Christian must make it their mission to end these heinous oppressions. To that end prominent Christians began to work through the political engine to accomplish social reform. Inevitably that resulted in some deterioration of the separation of Church and State; an acceptable concession at the time. The Scriptural basis for the movement is anchored in the Beatitudes.

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)

There are also obvious ties to deistic patriotism. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (U.S. Declaration of Independence).” The real philosophical shift here is from an emphasis on individual sin and personal evangelism to a battle over societal sin and cultural reform. One of the observations of the Social Gospel Movement was that other churches had become too Pauline, and they were not preaching enough Jesus, or discipling toward Christlikeness regarding social justice.

My interest in this topic was generated in the Church History class I’m taking to wrap up my undergraduate degree in a couple weeks. Then I will have time to share with you my personal wrestling with the question generated by the liberal protestants of the Social Gospel Movement. Is there such a thing as too much Paul and not enough Jesus? If anyone has created a “Too Tall Paul” in his ministry and approach to discipleship it is me. I regularly elevate and illuminate the Pauline epistles. I know the “Emerging/Emergent/Simple/Organic” church exists because of the “Country Club” congregations of the last fifty years. I believe the church has a role in social justice. Am I missing something? Is there such a thing as a “too Tall Paul?” Please sound off.