At the beginning of the 20th century, America underwent a seismic shift in the way the country's economy was organized. The new corporate industrial system was generating immense wealth for the fortunate few and severe deprivation for the resulting social casualties. Thanks to the actions of people of conscience, including Christians who embraced the Social Gospel, a wide range of progressive measures were enacted that addressed the system's most serious flaws. In the process, they helped create a globally admired American way of life that endured until recently.
Many leaders of the Progressive movement explicitly linked their commitment to social reform to their Bible's teachings about a society's responsibilities to its least-favored members. For example, Robert Hunter, author of "Why We Fail As Christians," wondered "how Christians, in a society of their own making, can observe without pain or protest, poverty, slums, child labor, low wages, long hours and all the known evils of industrial life?" The motives that impelled wealthy Christians, like Hunter and many others, to act upon their religious faith in social reform terms were strongly influenced by the Social Gospel movement. The most influential leaders of that movement were Walter Rauschenbusch and George D. Herron.
Rauschenbusch was pastor of a Baptist Church in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, ministering to poor immigrant families. Exposure to the desperate conditions under which his parishioners were living galvanized his wish to do more than provide charity and spiritual comfort. He became a leader of the Social Gospel movement and energetically promoted its social reform agenda. His most influential books were "Christianity and the Social Crisis," "The Social Principles of Jesus" and "A Theology for the Social Gospel."
Herron was a charismatic preacher who gained national attention with his sermon, "The Message of Jesus to Men of Wealth." A collection of his addresses, titled "The New Redemption: A Call to the Church to Reconstruct Society According to the Gospel of Christ," established his place as a central figure, with Rauschenbusch, in the Social Gospel movement. Their writings and political activism legitimized radical social reform efforts by their fellow-Christians.
Despite the brief period when the Social Gospel movement had its greatest impact, the changes that it helped generate were remarkable. In partnership with the labor unions and other progressives, it secured such benefits for working people and their families as a living wage, safe workplaces, workers' compensation for injuries, widows' pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and a ban on child labor. The role of the Social Gospel movement in achieving these reforms has been largely forgotten. However, the moral force that it brought to the struggle had an enormous impact. They were angry about what Jesus would be angry about -- preventable poverty, greed, failing to love one's neighbor as oneself. They took seriously the implications of such admonitions as "I was hungry and you fed me not; I was naked and you clothed me not."
They understood that simply ministering to those few needy people who came to their attention by providing food, clothing and temporary shelter -- while necessary and admirable -- was insufficient in the face of widespread deprivation. With as many as 20 million Americans living in the direst poverty, in the midst of the unprecedented wealth of the Gilded Age, as Robert Hunter had documented in "Poverty" in 1904, new types of social programs were clearly needed. The social casualties caused by the new economic model not only had to be alleviated but also prevented.
So, where are today's followers of the Social Gospel? If they are around, they have maintained a low profile and are certainly not having the type of impact that their predecessors did. In the public policy arena, they have been replaced by the extreme Christian right-wing which is obsessed with obliterating women's medical and reproductive rights, denying equal treatment for gays, demonizing scientific findings, and otherwise attempting to impose their fundamentalist beliefs on everyone else. Led by cynical and hypocritical religious and political leaders, the faithful are more intent on fighting evolution than fighting poverty.
Max Blumenthal's recent book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party," provides a penetrating expose of the hypocrisy of the Christian far-right and the ethically and morally challenged Republican leaders who are embraced, provided they remain in lock-step with the goal of turning America into a fundamentalist Christian society of the most extreme kind. Blumenthal documents the decades-long machinations of the religious empire centered on Focus on the Family, founded and run by the intolerant James Dobson who demands absolute obedience from all Republican Party office-holders and candidates. It is sad, as Blumenthal's countless examples illustrate, to see the extent to which a truly unholy alliance of big money interests, right-wing Christian fundamentalists and cynical politicians has seriously damaged a once honorable party.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that non-believers know more about religion than Catholics or evangelical Protestants. Maybe that is the problem. They have not been reading their Bible or only reading it selectively. They may need to revisit it and, if they do, they will find "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography," by the distinguished Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, an invaluable study guide. It documents clearly that Jesus was invariably on the side of the poor and oppressed and relentlessly opposed to the moneychangers and Pharisees. He was a revolutionary and certainly bore no resemblance to today's self-appointed "culture warriors."
Who among today's leaders of the Church might take the lead in advocating needed societal change, as Rauschenbusch and Herron did during America's first encounter with unfettered corporate power and greed, complicit politicians, and a growing and unsustainable gap between the wealthy few and everyone else? Is there any possibility of a 21st century version of the Social Gospel movement emerging anytime soon?