New Century, Same Crisis

Walter Rauschenbusch & the Social Gospel

Nineteen hundred seven was quite a year. William James published his landmark collection Pragmatism. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Two of Antoni Gaudí’s greatest buildings, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, went up in Barcelona. And Henry Adams announced the arrival of “Twentieth-Century Multiplicity”-the original subtitle of his book The Education of Henry Adams, which he circulated among friends that year.

“Multiplicity” perfectly captured the new orientation of these works. The confident rationalism of the Victorian imagination dissolved, along with its efforts to carve human existence into fixed categories of public and private, morality and practice, art and everyday life. In their place stood a multiperspectival approach that came to define the promise of the modern for at least the next fifty years.

Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1907 manifesto of the American social gospel, Christianity and the Social Crisis, deserves comparison to these modernist classics. In the spirit of his contemporaries, Rauschenbusch tore down the wall that separated faith from the public world and called on the church to address the suffering and degradation that accompanied the rapid industrialization of the United States. Victorian Protestants’ relegation of religion to the private sphere represented nothing less, in his view, than a betrayal of Jesus’ gospel. “Whoever uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus,” he wrote. Personal salvation had to be joined to social salvation in a direct assault on the concentrated power of corporate capitalism. “It is either a revival of social religion or the deluge.”

The publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis made its author-a German-American pastor raised as an evangelical Baptist-the nation’s foremost advocate of a Protestantism that saw religion and social ethics as inseparable and summoned the faithful to confront the human costs of unrestrained market forces. Rauschenbusch’s social gospel went on to inspire thousands of Progressive-era reformers, Norman Thomas Socialists, pacifists, and civil-rights activists. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for three generations of radicals and reformers when he called Rauschenbusch’s classic “a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking.”

A century after its appearance, Paul Raushenbush-a great-grandson of both Walter Rauschenbusch and Louis Brandeis-has edited a new edition titled Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century (HarperOne), which intersperses the original text with commentaries by Tony Campolo, Joan Chittister, James A. Forbes Jr., Stanley Hauerwas, Phyllis Trible, Jim Wallis, and Cornel West that assess the work’s value for our own time. The book ends with a somber epilogue by Rauschenbusch’s grandson, the late philosopher Richard Rorty, who dissented from his fellow contributors’ hopeful view of an ascendant Christian Left. “The likelihood that religion will play a significant role in the struggle for justice seems smaller now than at any time since Christianity and the Social Crisis was published.” Regardless of how one views that prospect, there is no question that Paul Raushenbush intends this new edition as more than a tribute to his ancestor’s legacy. Christianity and the Social Crisis remains a powerful statement of the social promise of prophetic Christianity, and its republication in this form is a forceful intervention in contemporary debates in American religion and politics. The book is an indispensable resource for our own age of crisis.

Raushenbush understands that his great-grandfather’s vision was profoundly religious and counsels today’s readers to take seriously the evangelical impulse that drove his life’s work. That reminder is especially welcome at a time when sloganeering and therapeutic uplift clutter services in many liberal churches. “It is time to reclaim both the evangelical and social element in Rauschenbusch’s original work and put the power of the gospel back into the social gospel.”

What Walter Rauschenbusch offered his Christian readers was a revisionist account of their history and theology. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, Christianity and the Social Crisis “is best read as a sermon seeking to convict Christians of our sins as well as call us to the redeeming work of the kingdom of God.” Rauschenbusch championed the uncompromising stance of prophetic Judaism, Jesus’ refusal of caste and custom, and the communal democracy of the early Christian church as the core of faith. Those traditions lost their force, according to Rauschenbusch, with the ascendancy of ceremonialism, priestly hierarchy, and an otherworldly orientation that easily accommodated secular authority. Even worse, in his view, was the individualistic gospel of personal salvation that followed on centuries of empire and political oppression. By the end of the nineteenth century, a narrow religious individualism had left the faithful shorn of spiritual and communal support as they faced the onslaught of an industrializing economy. Rauschenbusch urged a return to the example of an early Christian counterculture that refused the claims of the powerful and held that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Rauschenbusch’s book revived the proud tradition of the American jeremiad to confront readers with the unsettling, indeed shocking gospel of Jesus and his early followers. A middle-class church grown lazy and comfortable, indifferent to social evil as it called upon individual sinners to repent, stood condemned by the very creed it professed to uphold. Even as he underscored that “Jesus was not a social reformer of the modern type”-that Jesus’ greatest lesson for his followers was “how to live a religious life”-Rauschenbusch believed Jesus’ teachings were a desperately needed corrective to modern complacency. “Jesus was not a child of this world,” he wrote. “He nourished within his soul the ideal of a common life so radically different from the present that it involved a reversal of values, a revolutionary displacement of existing relations.”

In confronting the social crisis of his time, Rauschenbusch once again called for this revolutionary displacement. Eleven years of ministering to an immigrant church in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood left him grimly aware of the toll that exploitation, unemployment, unsanitary housing, and alcoholism took on working-class people. Godless capitalism was an abomination, in his view, manifesting itself everywhere from the miseries of the sweatshop and tenement to the atrocities Western powers inflicted on Africans. He denounced “fictions of capitalism” that seem unchanged a century later: “that the poor are poor through their own fault...that the immigrants are the cause of corruption in our city politics...that we cannot compete with foreign countries unless our working class will descend to the wages paid abroad.” Although he wasn’t a Marxist, he could pose the alternatives facing the church in terms as stark as those of any socialist militant: “If we serve mammon, we cannot serve the Christ.”

Rauschenbusch’s socialism, like that of his contemporary Eugene Debs, was less orthodox than it might initially appear. His critique of industrial capitalism was indebted to the radicalism of populist thinkers like Henry George, who defended an economy of small producers against land speculation and monopolies. For Rauschenbusch, as for Debs and George, the collapse of that economy endangered the rough egalitarianism and sturdy character traits necessary to democratic citizenship. What especially appalled Rauschenbusch about corporate capitalism was its degradation of work and denial of a common moral identity. “Man is treated as a thing to produce more things,” he complained, while a consumer ethic substituted envy and resentment for solidarity and fellow feeling. “The ostentation of the overfull purses of the predatory rich lures all society into the worship of false gods.”

The problem that Rauschenbusch faced was how to imagine a social life conducive to the virtues he associated with a producer culture when the economic underpinnings of that culture were disappearing. Here his program was as ambiguous as that of many Progressive-era intellectuals. Rauschenbusch believed there was no turning back to the economy of artisans, small farmers, and shopkeepers, whose demise he lamented. He looked instead to “communistic” institutions such as the school, parks, and publicly owned utilities as “centers of communal life” (what Jim Wallis, in his commentary, calls a “commons”) and sites for cross-class dialogue. Beyond that, he encouraged ministers and other professionals to “contribute scientific information and trained intelligence” to the labor movement. “The modern socialist movement is really the first intelligent, concerted, and continuous effort to reshape society in accordance with the laws of social development.”

In arguing for an expansive welfare state guided by the social sciences, Rauschenbusch ran the risk of endorsing a new caste as remote from face-to-face community as was the ecclesiastical church he denounced for betraying the promise of early Christianity. Moreover, Rauschenbusch’s endorsement of modern industry threatened the very culture of civic democracy he and George had sought to protect. Socialism, Rauschenbusch wrote admiringly, “has no idea of reverting to the simple methods of the old handicrafts, but heartily accepts the power machinery, the great factory, the division of labor, the organization of the men in the great regiments of workers, as established facts in modern life, and as the most efficient method of producing wealth.” Such “essential achievements of industrial organization” were only “halfway stages toward a vaster and a far juster social system,” which would presumably arrive with the public ownership of monopolies. But in accepting the ideology of efficient, large-scale production, Rauschenbusch had given up the store, in more ways than one. His effort to resurrect solidarity on a “scientific” basis begged the question of how satisfying work and democratic citizenship were to survive in an age of factories and distant bureaucracy.

Rauschenbusch’s book embodied the political contradictions and confusions of so many other Progressive programs, but one aspect of the modern liberal tradition it did not share was the shallow optimism that many conservative and neo-orthodox theologians have long associated with the social gospel. Reinhold Niebuhr, to his great discredit, never engaged Rauschenbusch’s work directly, but his caricature of the social gospel as sentimental and soft on sin led later liberal “realists” to dismiss Christianity and the Social Gospel out of hand as a well-meaning relic that had nothing to offer a world shattered by class conflict, totalitarian dictatorships, and world war. In the realists’ view, a tough-minded Christian ethics began with a repudiation of what they assumed Rauschenbusch stood for-sweet appeals to men’s better angels, sappy calls for peace, love, and understanding. Perhaps they never bothered to open the book. Reinhold’s brother H. Richard Niebuhr knew better. As he wrote in The Kingdom of God in America, “the revolutionary element remained pronounced” in Rauschenbusch; “the reign of Christ required conversion and the coming kingdom was crisis, judgment as well as promise.”

Contrary to Tony Campolo’s assertion that Rauschenbusch “fails to grasp the radical sinfulness of the human race,” the author of Christianity and the Social Crisis was no sentimentalist about the prospects for eliminating evil and love of self. Where he disagreed with many of his fellow believers was in viewing our fallen state in social as well as personal terms. Sin was embedded in institutional arrangements, not just in individual motivations and actions, and a capitalist economy had made self-interest a way of life so powerful as to threaten whatever capacity we broken souls had for selflessness and love. A faithful life demanded of sinners both personal and social repentance.

Christianity and the Social Crisis in fact anticipated much of the argument of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 Moral Man and Immoral Society in its delicate balance of prophetic hope and political realism. No less than Niebuhr, Rauschenbusch understood that idealism alone would never overcome class exploitation. The clash of organized forces, that is to say politics, was indispensable. “This is a war of conflicting interest which is not likely to be fought out in love and tenderness.” The tension between religion and political struggle grew directly from Rauschenbusch’s appreciation of the inevitable distance between social hope and human limitation. One had to live with the knowledge that “the kingdom of God is always but coming” even as one strove for its realization. “We shall never have a perfect social life, yet we must seek it with faith.”

Rauschenbusch, then, was not a naive utopian, but were his views compatible with those religious liberals and leftists seek to advance today? Many of the contemporary commentators in this new edition fault Rauschenbusch for his assumptions about gender and race, including the interest in eugenics he shared with many “scientific” reformers of his day. Phyllis Trible correctly notes how Rauschenbusch “disparages Judaism by claiming that true prophecy survived [only] in Christianity,” while Campolo and Hauerwas offer penetrating criticisms of his failure to appreciate the church as an institution that, at its best, stands against the claims of this world. Oddly, none of the contributors mentions how easily Rauschenbusch’s critique of church hierarchy passed over into anti-Catholicism, which biographer Christopher H. Evans sees as a recurrent theme in his work. For the most part, though, the authors assembled here are effusive in their praise. “Let us in our time receive the baton of courageous social wisdom from Walter Rauschenbusch,” writes Rev. James A. Forbes, formerly of Riverside Church, long a center for social-gospel Protestantism.

Such responses fail to register the profound differences between Rauschenbusch’s positions and the usual terms of political discourse today. Those who wish to mobilize his legacy in the service of a new Christian Left will have to do more than simply update his politics to incorporate the causes they embrace or purge his thinking of eugenics and other troubling features. A deeper engagement with what seems strange or foreign in his work is required, and with it a serious reconsideration of much of the modern liberal tradition. As with the best prophetic criticism, it may be the very elements of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel that don’t fit our times that are most useful to them.

Rauschenbusch’s ideas cut against the grain of contemporary political thinking in their combination of cultural conservatism and political radicalism. Evans writes in his biography that Rauschenbusch sought to defend “the traditional standards of social and moral decorum embodied by the ethos of late nineteenth-century Victorian Protestantism,” especially its idealized view of the family home as a realm of love and mutuality overseen by women. “Christianizing the social order”-the title of the sequel to Christianity and the Social Crisis-meant making society safe for the Protestant family, which in turn required political mobilization against the competitive individualism that threatened the ethos of personal responsibility and mutual aid he found in the home. Rauschenbusch was not a socialist in spite of his cultural traditionalism but because of it.

This is a position certain to discomfit many of the people trying to rebuild a left-leaning movement in the churches or help secular liberals understand “God talk.” It is fruitless to speculate how Rauschenbusch would view those efforts or intervene in current debates. There are echoes of Rauschenbusch’s radical traditionalism and the producer ideology that characterized his most acute social criticism in the agrarian populism of Wendell Berry and in the “seamless garment” and distributist currents in Catholic social thought, but these traditions barely resonate in our dominant political discourse. Progressives have largely felt free to ignore such unorthodox views, and there is a danger that Rauschenbusch’s unique perspective on culture and politics will be missed as well if he is simply dusted off and made respectable for liberalism in its current form. At the very least, liberals who take exception to the cultural conservatism that fueled Rauschenbusch’s radicalism need to explain how a libertarian position on cultural issues can coexist with social solidarity, or where the moral resources he found in the home might be nurtured today. The Evangelicals who have turned away from the Republican Party because of the catastrophe in Iraq and the GOP’s environmental policies will not be satisfied by evasiveness on this score. Nor will people of other faiths and many nonbelievers who are as anxious as Rauschenbusch was a century ago about the triumph of market imperatives over other loyalties.

“After Rauschenbusch,” Hauerwas concludes, “there is no gospel that is not ‘the social gospel.’” Exactly so, but reading this classic work a hundred years on is a reminder of just how complex his ideas about “the social” and “the gospel” actually were, how much they still threaten the complacent of all ideological stripes, and how difficult it would be to get them a full hearing today. Rauschenbusch’s affronts to twenty-first-century sensibilities cannot be wished away in order to make him a palatable figure for our time. Rather, we need to attend closely to the challenge they pose to familiar slogans and platforms, particularly the ones we hold most dear.

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About the Author

Casey Nelson Blake is a professor of history and American studies at Columbia University. Blake and Christopher Phelps conducted interviews with Christopher Lasch for the March 1994 issue of the Journal of American History.

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