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Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Rise, Fall, and Revival of the Social Gospel?

Bill Stuntz observes that the standing of Christians in academia might be linked to the political rather than theological views of Christians – especially Fundamentalist Christians. Stuntz also notes that the political valence of Christianity might be changing: “American evangelicals have changed our emphasis over the past decade or so: hang around evangelical churches, and you’ll hear a lot more talk about poverty and disease than in the past, and a lot less talk about the culture’s moral failings.”

Stuntz's observation suggest that the “social gospel” may be on the rise again, after a half-century of relative desuetude. The “social gospel” is the shorthand for the belief that Biblical injunctions to love one’s neighbor as oneself, help the sojourner because you, too, were sojourners in Egypt, etc., require Christians to volunteer and lobby for programs to aid the poor. But the ascendance of the social gospel – if it is indeed again in the ascendant – raises two interesting questions. First, why might the social gospel be on the mend today? Second, does the social gospel presage a realignment in American politics?

Egalitarianism is deeply rooted in English Protestantism, dating back at least to the English Civil War, when “Levelers,” “Diggers,” and “Ranters” invoked Biblical verses decrying the rich to support various egalitarian programs, from the enfranchising of the landless (one Leveler position at the Putney Debates), greater charity by rich Christians (See, e.g., William Walwyn, The Power of Love (1643)), and cultivation of common land by the poor (Gerrard Winstanley’s experiment on St. George’s Hill, Surrey in 1649). The egalitarian emphasis followed from the extreme anti-formalism of Puritan Protestantism: Denouncing formalities of ceremony and doctrine as Papist, the anti-formalists called for practical Christianity that any person, however uneducated, could understand. Money – and its redistribution – turned out to be a universal language that protestant radicals could embrace. One might say that, the more hostile to doctrinal formality the sect, the more likely that the sect would embrace some form of primitive communism attributed to the Apostles or to Adam and Eve.. (And there were a lot of odd sects in the 1640s and 1650s – everything from nudist Adamites and communist Anabaptists to purely millinerian Muggletonians and semi-communal Brownists).

This sort of egalitarian protestantism continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in one form or another as a sort of antinomian rebellion against elite authority. The phrase “what would Jesus do?” began its life (as far as I know) as the title of Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? – but Sheldon’s novel was a call for Christian socialism, not a call for (say) sexual abstinence. Of course, William .Jennings Bryan made Christian imagery (the “cross of gold”) a centerpiece of his 1896 campaign attempting unsuccessfully to forge an alliance between farmers and workers.

So why did the social gospel fall into steep decline after World War II? The conventional story that I have always been told is Anti-Communism: Evangelical Christians associated egalitarianism with the New Deal’s WWII alliance with the atheistic USSR. The atheism of the Soviet Union generally discredited the egalitarian program among Christians with a strongly Biblical bent. For the first time, Biblically oriented Christians made a political alliance with libertarian-oriented business interests.

This alliance, however, is not a natural one. During the 19th century, for instance, pro-business Republicans could only uneasily maintain an alliance with Evangelical Christians (mostly by supporting Prohibition and anti-Mormon/anti-polygamy planks in state party platforms). (The Taft-Roosevelt split could be understood as one of several ruptures in the Christian-Business alliance: The Bull Moosers were social gospel Christians, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers!” at their convention; Taft was a skeptic of the social purity movement, vetoing the Webb-Kenyon prohibition bill).

Could that Cold War alliance be breaking up? Anti-communism is, of course, no longer a major issue of American foreign policy. What reason, then, do evangelicals have to maintain their adherence to libertarian economic programs? Against such allegiance, think of the various social issues in which evangelicals are invested – for instance, aid to Darfur, teen pregnancy, school vouchers. Think of the demographic groups with interests in such programs – for instance, Hispanics and low-income African-Americans. The latter tend to be socially conservative, often belonging to churches with which white evangelicals could easily make an alliance on cultural issues. The former issues are in tension with libertarianism: A fully funded voucher program, for instance, could cost a fortune.

In short, is it possible that, in the long term , the evangelicals could be pried away from the chamber of commerce, returning to the days of Teddy Roosevelt and W.J. Bryan, when churches and business cordially disliked each other?

Posted by Rick Hills on June 22, 2008 at 12:12 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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This is a fascinating post, which raises many interesting issues. I'll just weigh in on two. First, on the history, my understanding is that evangelicals and the Social Gospelers parted ways well before WWII, principally on theological grounds (Social Gospelers were modernists, and evangelicals more traditionally orthodox). Prohibition was one of the last major social issues they joined forces on. By about 1925, the year of the Scopes trial and Bryan's death, evangelicals increasingly disengaged from cultural issues. (I talk abt this a bit in the beginning of a forthcoming article, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=929850).

Second, I think and hope you (and Bill) are right about the potential political implications of the increasing interest of evangelicals in social issues. When young evangelicals spend a year or two in ministries focusing on the poor in Africa and elsewhere, as many now do, it can't help but affect the way the look at poverty and social issues when they return to the U.S. Recent evangelical hostility to social initiatives may be a bit sticky, but it does seem to be changing. We may even see evidence of this in this year's election.

Posted by: David Skeel | Jun 23, 2008 9:37:22 PM

Oops: Mistake noted and corrected.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 22, 2008 3:25:16 PM

Actually, the post is written by Bill Stuntz; it was posted for Bill by David Skeel

Posted by: rkv | Jun 22, 2008 12:25:21 PM

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