[I was checking to see which of my old posts had drawn the most hits, and this one was among the highest. I had no idea. In fact, I'm not sure I remember writing it, and it's way longer than most of my material. And it goes into areas that most theology doesn't.]
As stated in the Wikipedia,
In the late 19th century, many Americans were disgusted by the poverty level and the low quality of living in the slums. The social gospel movement provided a religious rationale for action to address those concerns. Activists in the Social Gospel movement hoped that by public health measures as well as enforced schooling so the poor could develop talents and skills, the quality of their moral lives would begin to improve. Important concerns of the Social Gospel movement were labor reforms, such as abolishing child labor and regulating the hours of work by mothers. By 1920 they were crusading against the 12-hour day for men at U.S. Steel. Many reformers inspired by the movement opened settlement houses, most notably Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams. They helped the poor and immigrants improve their lives. Settlement houses offered services such as daycare, education, and health care to needy people in slum neighborhoods. The YMCA was created originally to help rural youth adjust to the city without losing their religion, but by the 1890s became a powerful instrument of the Social Gospel. Nearly all the denominations (including Catholics) engaged in foreign missions, which often had a social gospel component in terms especially of medical uplift. The Black denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church (AMEZ) had active programs in support of the Social Gospel. Both evangelical (“pietistic”) and liturgical (“high church”) elements supported the Social Gospel, although only the pietists were active in promoting Prohibition.
In the United States prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. During the New Deal of the 1930s Social Gospel themes could be seen in the work of Harry Hopkins, Will Alexander and Mary McLeod Bethune, who added a new concern with African Americans. After 1940, the movement withered … .
At the same time, men such as Horatio Alger and Russell H. Conwell preached the gospel of wealth: Christian values and hard work will lead to wealth, which the Christian holds in trust to serve others. Andrew Carnegie, who became one of the richest men in the world through making steel, taught and practiced this, giving his fortune away to many good causes. He wrote,“The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”
The Social Gospel largely died out during the Great Depression because it succeeded so thoroughly that the federal and state governments took over its agenda. Laws were passed banning child labor, women’s suffrage was granted, Prohibition was passed, mandatory, free public education became a right, and the Fair Labor Standard Act set a minimum wage and required overtime pay after a 40-hour work week.
The elements not taken over by the government, such as foreign missions, continued on.
In the 19th Century, almost all schools were private schools, and education was far from universal. The churches had been providing schooling, but massive immigration and population shifts overwhelmed church resources, causing them to look to the government to take on the massive task of educating all children. The Social Gospel advocates argued that free, compulsory, public education would make better citizens and eliminate poverty and so eliminate crime. By the turn of the century, most states had been persuaded to provide mandatory, free elementary school.
During the 20th Century, public education was expanded to age 16. According to one source,
From 1900 to 1996 the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from about 6 percent to about 85 percent.
Now, the goals of the Social Gospel movement to provide a free education for all children was laudable, but the Christians did not get what they’d bargained for.Some states actually tried to ban private schools, forcing all children into public schools, leading to the 1925 Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, holding that states could not prevent children from attending private schools at their own expense. Just so, in the 1960′s, the Supreme Court banned compulsory prayer in public schools, leading to the complete secularization of public schools.
The original goal of education — going all the way back to Sunday schools in England — was to teach literacy and the Bible. But once education was taken over by the government, schools were designed to teach literacy and good citizenship — and most certainly not the Bible. The Christian community has been resisting this change ever since, but it’s quite unrealistic to expect the state to pay for religious instruction.
Rather, we now have a system that allows religious instruction in church and at home but not in public schools. However, parents generally don’t provide religious instruction at home, and church-based instruction is often very poor. You see, by the time our children are mature enough to really understand the scriptures — in high school — our youth programs often find it easier to entertain the kids or teach at a 4th grade level. The problem is far more in the homes than in the churches. We’ve not taught parents how to be Christian parents for children who attend public schools.
There are two conflicting approaches to the Social Gospel in modern American evangelical Christianity. First, there are those who see Christianity as purely a private concern. We go to church on Sundays, we have the correct doctrine, we study Bible at home and at church, and Christianity is between us and God. If there are problems in society, the cure is evangelism, and we should seek to evangelize our neighbors. Therefore, if workers are being abused, we just need to persuade the bosses to become Christians.
This view severely compartmentalizes our Christianity — so that Christianity doesn’t apply in the public sphere. When we vote, we vote out of self-interest, not love for our enemies and our neighbors.
The other approach is that if we truly love our neighbors, such as abused workers, we should use the power of government to compel fair treatment of workers. If workers are being underpaid or forced to work in dangerous conditions, the solution is a minimum wage law or OSHA.
However, for most of the 20th Century, those taking this view also compartmentalized their Christianity. The goal was to alleviate poverty and crime, but not to change hearts and bring people to Jesus. The concern was for the needy was real enough, but it was expressed in entirely secular terms. Indeed, Christians of this persuasion could work perfectly well with atheists and other non-Christians to achieve their goals.
And we see this split in American Christianity quite plainly. White, evangelical churches fit in the first camp. They tend to vote Republican, they favor free markets, and they oppose government intervention. However, they are serious about evangelism and believe that Christianity requires a true rebirth. They distrust big government and public schools because they don’t see much Christian about either.
Mainline churches, such as the United Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) (not the independent Christian Churches), fall in the second camp. They tend to vote Democrat, they favor government solutions, and they are very weak regarding evangelism and missions. Indeed, these churches can be quite accepting of theological liberalism (even the denial of the incarnation), because the agenda is much more about humanistic solutions rather than being reborn.
You see, the Social Gospel began as an entirely appropriate Christian response to serious problems, but as it got in bed with government, government became the savior. Thus, these churches correctly understand the importance of loving their neighbors, but they tend to see the goal as eliminating financial poverty to the exclusion of spiritual poverty.
On the other hand, the evangelical community tends to deeply see the importance of alleviating spiritual poverty but often has very little concern regarding financial poverty. Indeed, there is often very little difference between the Democratic Party and the mainline denominations, but then there is often very little difference between the Republican Party and evangelical and many fundamentalist denominations. I mean, go to any predominantly white Church of Christ, and you’ll find a building full of Republicans, with any Democrats present keeping quiet about their political views.
This division in American thought traces back at least to the Third Great Awakening, following the Civil War. On the one hand, there were great revivalists converting people by the thousands by promising a personal relationship with Jesus. On the other hand, there were established churches working hard to relieve genuinely tragic social conditions. And both movements had great success — but they were separate movements.
The Social Gospel movement dramatically improved the qualify of life of many people, but it failed to win souls — indeed, by preferring humanistic, governmental solutions, it had the ironic effect of teaching that man and man’s government is the solution to man’s problems.
The revivalistic, Fundamentalist movement helped many denominations escaped the faithlessness coming from liberalism, but often denied that the church has any role in society, focusing almost exclusively on the individual’s relationship with Jesus. And, ironically, this over-focusing on individuality allowed the churches to develop a certain selfishness. In the 1950s, some Churches of Christ actually taught that it’s sin to help non-Christians, even the unbaptized children of Christians!
Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Darwinism became the intellectual rage of the age, and many scholars adapting Darwin’s thought to other fields. In particular, Social Darwinism was taught by many, in two different forms.
In economics, it was argued that the freer the markets, the better the markets. Survival of the fittest justified laissez faire governmental policies, which did indeed lead to increased prosperity. However, it also led to abuses, such as child labor, 12-hour work days, and extraordinarily dangerous working conditions.
In sociology, it led to eugenics. As described in the Wikipedia,
The modern field and term were first formulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1883, drawing on the recent work of his half-cousin Charles Darwin. From its inception eugenics was supported by prominent people, including Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Winston Churchill, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb. Its most infamous proponent and practitioner was however Adolf Hitler who praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf, and emulated Eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States.
[Christian writer] G. K. Chesterton was an early critic of the philosophy of eugenics, expressing this opinion in his book, Eugenics and Other Evils. Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities, and received funding from many sources. Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenicists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States. … The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany, and when proponents of eugenics among scientists and thinkers prompted a backlash in the public.
Now, the modern Republican Party is heir to economic Social Darwinism, as evidenced by the attitudes of the Bush II administration toward anti-trust enforcement, environmental regulation, and the financial industry. It was the Bush II administration that reduced the capital requirements for finance firms such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, which is part of what caused their bankruptcies and helped trigger the current recession. (I’m very much in favor of free markets, but no so free that our key financial institutions can so over-borrow that they destroy the economy.)
But the modern Democratic Party is heir to the eugenics movement, in its support of abortion on demand, and the efforts of many within that party to use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions. Of course, some favor abortion not because of eugenics but rather to have the freedom to avoid the consequences of irresponsible sex — hardly a Christian perspective either.
The Fourth Great Awakening
Some argue that we are in the midst of a Fourth Great Awakening. That may be true. It’s certainly not true that there have been huge increases in the number of American Christians in the last few decades. Most denominations are in numerical decline, and have been since the late 1960s. Some, such as Southern Baptists, grew rapidly for a while but are now in decline. However, there is a dramatic rethinking of what it means to be a Christian and the church of Christ. And it’s a much-needed rethinking.
The key is to get away from Adam Smith and Charles Darwin and return to Jesus of Nazareth. That means we find our values and solutions in Holy Writ rather than the platform of either political party. And that means the church doesn’t form coalitions with evil, such as the pro-choice lobby or the grossly-irresponsible deregulation lobby. We have no business being a special interest group within either party.
You see, both parties are coalitions, and both parties include groups that are very anti-Christian in their worldviews. These groups carry enough political clout to push their parties in very unhealthy directions. Hence, we have the choice of being unconcerned with the environment (Republicans as a party) or pushing for some genuinely extreme positions (Democrats as a party). Where’s the middle ground? Well, we don’t even go looking for a middle ground because we’ve allowed our values to be defined by the Karl Roves and James Carvilles rather than Jesus Christ. We just assume that we must pick one or the other. But we don’t have to pick either one.
As American Christians look to find a truer, less secular, less compartmentalized, less compromised way of being God’s people, we have to realize that both parties are smart and want to push the church to become a part of their coalitions. The first step, therefore, is to leave both parties and therefore to leave behind the desire for secular power, being content with God’s power.
“My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9)
And this means we’ll sometimes agree with one party or the other, and often disagree with both. We can be passionate about the environment without worshipping the environment. We can be passionate about raising the poor out of poverty while insisting that we must also let Jesus lift them out of spiritual poverty. We can be passionate about free education while insisting that children who don’t know Jesus aren’t really educated. We can be passionate about free enterprise while insisting the enterprise should not be free to oppress the weak.
We can look for solutions entirely outside the government or in coordination with the government, so long as we never ever see the government as the solution. Jesus is the answer, and there is no other.
The Fourth Great Awakening, if there is to be one, will come from combining the best of both elements of the Third Great Awakening — a revivalistic fervor for Jesus combined with a desire to help both spiritual and material needs, and seeing the government as a necessary element of the solution, but not the solution. We must never again allow Christ’s church to be a puppet of the politicians or compromise God’s principles in order to have secular power. Rather, we must combine the best of both elements of the Third Great Awakening, see Christianity as about individual salvation into a corporate church given a mission to the world that meets both spiritual and physical needs — serving both the poor (Luke 6:20) and the poor in spirit (Matt 5:3).