Grassroots Faith: The Lessons of The Social Gospel

Recent exchanges in Religion Dispatches between Mark Silk and Frederick Clarkson over an emerging ideological divide among religious progressives is more than just another parochial dispute over political policies and tactics. It actually accentuates a larger debate concerning the very nature of a century-old question that has yet to be fully addressed: what is the definition of religious progressivism? Religious progressives eager to flesh out the meaning of their movement ought to revisit the pioneering tradition of religious progressivism from the early 20th century: The Social Gospel.

Although largely an outgrowth of American Protestantism, the social gospel had parallels in the Catholic Church and Reform Judaism. Within Protestantism, the social gospel was an attempt to apply the teachings of Christianity, predicated largely on the ethical example of Jesus, to address the social-economic upheavals associated with industrial capitalism.

While differing on specific economic solutions, the social gospelers lobbied for adopting legislation to protect worker rights: including an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor, and the elimination of sweatshops. Closely allied to the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the social gospel was fueled by the rhetoric of liberal clergymen like Charles Sheldon, whose 1897 novel In His Steps introduced into American popular culture the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

The Social Gospel and the Future of Religious Progressivism

Current debates among religious progressives concerning the future of their cause need to take a serious look at the successes and failures of the original social gospel. On one hand, the social gospel helped foster a larger movement of public theology, critical to those today who consider themselves a part of any form of religious progressivism. Yet the original social gospel, like today’s progressives, also faced the challenge of defining its mission to the larger culture, specifically, how best to engage important political and economic interests of the time.

Rauschenbusch and Grassroots faith

As a historical movement, the social gospel embodied a struggle over the policies and tactics to be used to achieve desired political ends, a struggle that continues to be contested among religious progressives today. Yet the debate between Silk and Clarkson goes beyond questions of who gets labeled “priestly” or “prophetic.” It reflects upon a larger difficulty of the religious Left historically to build a popular base characterized by a shared ideological consensus. Of all the figures associated with the classic social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch’s example is critical—not only in terms of what progressives can gain from his theological and political ideas, but how he strove to make the social gospel a grassroots faith movement.

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