Progressives Look Forward

05/25/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

Paul Raushenbush has dropped two "c's" from his famed Christian-theologian-minister great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch's name, but he reflects the ancestor's tradition, captures some of his spirit, and looks to the future in that spirit.

Never heard of P.R. or W.R., with or without "c's?" Follow the link (see "Sources" below) and you will find that Paul, our contemporary, is an author and Huffington Post's Executive Religion Editor.

His great-grandfather was the most noted progenitor of the Social Gospel movement, which flourished 1.5 centuries ago. Sightings links the two because we've appreciated an edited version of P.R.'s commencement address at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School on May 16.

The headline for P.R.'s recent blog post is bold: "It's a Great Time To Be Graduating from a Mainline, Progressive, Christian, Divinity School." To quote the voices one almost hears: "Hunh?"

P.R. can cite his ancestor or graduates of the seminary which, thanks to mergers, includes spiritually profound alumni like the African-American preacher and mystic Howard Thurman and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., both graduates during generations when "mainline, progressive, Christian" (M-P-C) divinity schools were in favor. Under the newsmakers' spotlight they are, as Raushenbush knows, less so today.

So what is going on here? Someone in the media world offering compensation to the neglected? (Remember when "equal time" reigned in major media outlets?) Or offering consolation to losers, as M-P-Cs, headlined in bold, above, are often seen to be?

Is the Commencement speaker doing what many have to do: startle and surprise those graduates who should look up from their cellphones to listen? Perhaps he is just drumming up trade for Huffington Post? Can he be so "out of it" that he does not know how foreign his topic might seem to be?

None of the above. It's Raushenbush's job to cover the spectrum of religious news and phenomena. He knows that M-P-C fortunes don't stand a chance when it comes to getting attention in the face of not-yet-declining mega-churches, colorful hip-hop post-"gospel" music people at worship, or -- the Commencement speaker well knows and mentions -- the still-on-the-scene Christian Far Right, which, attached to some political forces, cannot not be noticed by bloggers and media folk in general. So we pay attention.

Raushenbush tells the stories -- one-line each -- of many goings on which sustain the impulses of "great-grandpa's" involvement in, definition of, and advocacy of what came to be called "the Social Gospel." W.R. preached great sermons, prayed and published eloquent prayers, and "got his hands dirty" in a parish of poor immigrants on Manhattan's West Side before he entered academe at Rochester Theological Seminary (now "Colgate Rochester Crozer") which he never allowed to be ivied or ivory-towered.

That Rochester graduate of 1886 worked with and promoted a Gospel which, its critics saw and said, was too tied to some superficial motifs or too optimistic, as progressives were often said to be, to have the whole theological and ministerial field to himself but, battered by the "downs" of World War I, he stayed with his themes.

P.R. does not by any means claim that the heirs of the Social Gospel in the "progressive" line have monopolies or inside tracks or social gospels to themselves. He knows that contemporary Catholicism, African-American and other " -- American," and, note well, contemporary and emergent evangelical voices and fronts share the mandates and mission that Rauschenbusch and Raushenbush advance.

Maybe P.R. is right then: it is "a great time..." or it could or can be. Go forth, graduates!


Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. "It's A Great Time To Be Graduating From A Mainline, Progressive, Christian, Divinity School." Huffington Post, May 18, 2015, Religion Blog.

Gotobed, Julian. "Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)." Entry in The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology. Edited by Wesley Wildman.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. In The Library of Theological Ethics Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1917.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. "Families, friends delight in CRCDS 2015 Commencement Exercises." Press Room, May 18, 2015.

To read the complete text of Rev. Raushenbush's May 16, 2015 commencement address at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, see:

Image: Paul Raushenbush interviewed on CNN in 2014; Screenshot of YouTube video.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at