Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College,
… And Christianity, by the lips of all its teachers, ought with all its emphasis to say to society: "Your present industrial system, which fosters these enormous inequalities, which permits a few to heap up most of the gains… needs important changes to make it the instrument of righteousness."
I take this as my thesis: Christianity is primarily concerned with this world, and it is the mission of Christianity to bring to pass here a kingdom of righteousness and to rescue from the evil one and redeem all our social relations.
… The mission of the Church is to redeem the world, and to make peace with it only on its unconditional surrender to Christ. Richard T. Ely, 1889
… Church and State are alike but partial organizations of humanity for special ends. Together they serve what is greater than either: humanity. Their common aim is to transform humanity into the
Walter Rauschenbusch, 1907
Meliorist reform in
Religion has been "instrumented" for the purpose of social reform and reconstruction. The pressure of organized religion has been brought to bear increasingly upon governments to use their political power to reconstruct society. Churches and churchmen have supported the unionization of labor, the forced redistribution of wealth, coerced integration, and a host of particular programs for rebuilding society along the lines of the socialist vision. The task here is to describe summarily how this transformation of religion came about, to tell how social concern developed among some clergymen, how a new theology was constructed to justify social reconstruction, and how the organized churches were drawn into this effort. In short, it is the story of how many in the churches and many religious institutions came under the sway of and became subservient to reformist ideology. To turn it around, it is the story of how the moral zeal of religion was brought to bear upon social reconstruction, advancing by emotion things that could hardly have been advanced by reason.
It is the story, in the main, of the social gospel movement. But before telling it, some explanation of the nature of what was involved in it is in order. There is a tension created by the Christian revelation. On this point, all students of the life and teachings of Christ may agree. Believers have ever found themselves and their ways insufficient when held up beside the account of these as found in the Bible. Men are not as they should be. They are, in the traditional language, condemned, lost, tried, found wanting, and convicted. As the Apostle Paul, the foremost interpreter of the meaning of the revelation, said: "For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." There is, then, a gulf between what men are and what they should be.
Nowhere does this gulf stand out in relief more clearly than in the Sermon on the Mount. Since this message was frequently central in the thought of the preachers of the social gospel, it will be helpful to quote a few passages to demonstrate its character.
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one force you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.¹
There is much more of a similar character, but the above passages may serve as examples. There could hardly be a more vivid contrast between what men ordinarily accept as sufficient for virtuous and just behavior and what is required by Christianity. This gap, nay, this yawning gulf, between what men are and what they should be has produced great tensions in those who would be Christians. Some men have attempted by extraordinary moral heroism to bridge the gulf. In early times, there were hermits who went apart from the world, denied the demands of the flesh, persecuted their own bodies, and in this way attempted to live spiritually at the expense, to some extent, of the physical. Still others went into monasteries and nunneries to escape somewhat the baleful lure of the world and the flesh. Throughout the ages, there have been those who have tried to attain to perfection by way of self-abnegation in one form or another.
A Higher Moral Code
Fundamentally, though, Christians have usually agreed that Jesus Christ bridged the gulf between man and God with his Sacrifice, that what is impossible for man can be accomplished, and has been, by the Grace of God. A way was provided for the resolution of the tension, though this is not supposed to have relieved those who are Christians from the acceptance of the norms for behavior revealed in Scriptures and from ordering their lives according to them.
It must be made clear that the norms proclaimed by Jesus are a Revelation. They are not such as men might discover by studying the nature of the universe, the nature of man, and the nature of society. This is no natural morality. Men do not naturally go an extra mile when they have been compelled to go one. Indeed, they naturally resist compulsion in the first place. They do not naturally add their cloaks to the penalty when they have been sued for their coats. It is difficult to imagine anything less natural than to turn the other cheek when one has been struck. Nor is there an order in the universe that automatically and of necessity rewards these norms of behavior. Those who prosper in this world do not always give to beggars and lend to those who would borrow from them. On the contrary, those who prosper have ordinarily managed their affairs much more circumspectly and less generously. It is not economical to run one’s affairs according to these norms.
It does not appear that social order could be maintained without resisting evil. All orderly societies, so far as I know, have rested on some rough approximation of justice as consisting of an eye for an eye. This would appear to be the natural mode of dispensing justice. It is not clear how social order could be maintained except in this way. In the nature of things, society cannot dispense justice by awarding freezers to those who have stolen refrigerators. The assault upon property would not only be legalized but rewarded as well. It is so unlikely as to be impossible for anyone to arrive at such norms for behavior by a natural study and the use of human reason. Thus, these norms constitute a Revelation.
Guides for Human Action That Are Beyond Man’s Laws
Several points need to be made clear about the character of the content of the Revelation. First, there is no implied condemnation of natural law, the natural order, or positive law. Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew ) that this was no part of his intention. He said, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them." Nor in what followed did he condemn the laws as they had been handed down and established. For example, he said (Matthew -28): "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." This was not a call for social reconstruction. There was, in the saying, no claim that the law against adultery was not as it should have been. Certainly, no one could logically interpret the passage to say that it would be all right now to commit adultery. His commandments are more than, not instead of.
Jesus was revealing the norms in terms of which actions may be virtuous, not in human terms but in God’s. There is no virtue, he was saying, in obedience to the law. Any sensible person would do this to avoid the penalties attached to it. (The same would go for natural law or conformity to the order in the universe.) Men do conceive of such actions as virtuous quite often, but this is from their perspective as men and limitations as men.
Second, these commandments can only apply to individuals and voluntary groups. They have to do with actions that are virtuous. They are virtuous because they are not compelled, because there are no earthly or natural sanctions for them, because no earthly rewards nor penalties necessarily attend them, because they are freely done. If these norms were made a part of the order that men or natural law enforce, they would lose their virtuous character. Then even the Gentiles (that is, non-Christians) would usually obey them, for it would be expedient to do so.
Third, these norms are of such character that they cannot effectively be made a part of the order of positive law in society. Attempts to do so can only produce disorder and chaos. To see this, one need only imagine a law requiring that if someone seeks your coat you must give him your cloak also. The penalty for not doing so might appropriately be a fine of 10,000 dollars or ten years in prison, or both. Can there be laws against lustful glances, compelling the turning of the other cheek, requiring that one love his enemies, and so forth? If not, these norms cannot be made a part of the social order.
The Social Gospel
The Revelation is of another realm than that of natural law, of an order in the universe, or of positive law. It is a revelation of God, of the realm of the spirit, of the arena of love, of that which is unbounded by expediency or the narrow and limited views of men while they sojourn on earth. It does not condemn nor deny the efficacy of the order that is established for men on this earth. It does not bid them erect an order that is in keeping with the Revelation. Instead, it proclaims the norms in terms of which human behavior stands condemned, in terms of which man stands in need of Grace, in terms of which individuals may gauge their acts.
Debasing the Spiritual
The social gospel inverts the Gospel. It turns Divine norms into norms for human society. It turns the condemnation of individuals into a condemnation of the social order and converts the impetus of Christianity into pressure for social reconstruction and revolution. The holy tension between what a man is and what he should be is transformed into a temporal tension between the present society and the one that should exist.
The social gospel movement was, and is, a headlong flight from reality. In the first place, it was a flight in that it used the impetus of religion to buttress the general flight involved in melioristic reform efforts. Secondly, it was a flight from the religious base upon which it rested. To be more specific, it transformed the highest spiritual goals into a quest for material improvement.
The central doctrine of the social gospellers has been that the Kingdom is to come on earth. One of their favorite scriptural quotations has been the one commanding Christians to seek first the
In the third place, theirs is a flight from the higher morality upon which their admonitions are based. Their call for social reconstruction is in considerable part a call for the use of governmental power to produce their ends. Insofar as they succeeded, they would remove the moral character from the acts that they approve. They would make it compulsory to do what otherwise might be done willingly. If it is a requirement of law that the cloak be given as well, no virtue would attach to the giving of the cloak. Even the "Gentiles" would do it, for it would be expedient to do so.
Moreover, the reconstruction of society in terms of the Revelation, if it could be done, would remove the opportunity for performing moral acts. Only those who have property may give generously of it; only those who have money may lend it to all would-be borrowers; only those who have choice as to the disposal of their time and energies may go the second mile. The social planning, the assault upon property, the confiscation of savings involved in the social reconstruction advocated by the social gospellers would remove the opportunity for acts of charity. Indeed, if "social justice," as many of them have defined it, prevailed, there would be no occasion for charity. More succinctly, there would be no morality. Life would be reduced to expedient calculations in terms of rewards and punishments established by positive law.
Fourthly, they have been using the religious motif to advance the politicalizing of all life. It is not necessary to imagine the consequences, in this case. They are already occurring. Religion is being driven out of public affairs, by court decision, even as the power of government is being used to achieve ends which are proclaimed as religious and moral. To see this, one need only recall the school prayer decisions and the integration decisions of the courts. However illogical this may appear, to those who do not wear ideological blinders, it follows logically from the use of governmental power to achieve supposedly spiritual ends. When this is done, the political modes are advanced at the expense of religious ones, and independent religion cannot survive the politicalizing of life. Compulsion can only be advanced at the expense of independence, and religious activities cannot be exempted from this rule.
How, then, could so many ministers and religious leaders have been drawn into the social gospel movement? How could so many church organizations have been drawn into the effort? How could so many churchgoers have come to believe that it is the business of the church to support and advance governmental ameliorative programs? In a general way, these questions have already been answered in earlier articles. The breakdown of philosophy, the spread of irrationalism, the loss of a firm grip upon physical and metaphysical reality, the development of utopian notions, the vision of man’s being able to create conditions to his liking set the stage for the flight in religion.
One point needs to be made emphatically: The social gospel never has been an intellectually respectable doctrine, any more than has the generality of meliorist and revolutionary ideas. Its proponents did not proceed by a careful analysis of Scriptures. They were under the sway of a philosophical monism which bent them toward the confusion of all things. The spiritual and the material, the moral and the legal, the eternal and the temporal were fused in such a way as to obliterate all necessary distinctions.2 Their theology has always been vague, their grasp of economics exceedingly insecure, and their understanding of politics virtually nonexistent.
The social gospel movement got underway in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The big names in its development were Washington Gladden, Richard T. Ely, W. D. P. Bliss, George D. Herron, and Walter Rauschenbusch. These shared with and drew from the ideas of such men as Henry George, Edward Bellamy, and Henry Demarest Lloyd, who are not so closely identified with the movement in religion. But there were many others who participated in and contributed to this development in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the preface to what has become the standard work on the movement, the author points out that "many have assumed that social Christianity was the accomplishment of a handful of clergymen who at the opening of the twentieth century challenged religious conservatism by the proclamation of the social content of their faith. Study of an extensive and varied literature indicates, however, not only that the social gospel originated in the early years of the gilded age but also that its prophets were legion and their message an integral part of the broad sweep of social and humanitarian efforts…."3
The spreaders of the social gospel were not careful thinkers. Generally, they had picked up a variety of socialist, progressivist, and meliorist assumptions, accepting them as valid without subjecting them to analysis or test against Scripture or economic and political reality.
Overcoming Poverty Through Compulsory Redistribution
To challenge the philosophical soundness of the social gospel is not to question the sincerity of its preachers. There is no reason to doubt that many of them were passionately devoted to their cause, that they were absolutely convinced of the rightness of what they said, and that they meant well quite often. They saw suffering and hardship and believed that those who attributed it to an unjust order were correct. They saw or read of hunger and disease and thought that this was related to institutional arrangements. There was poverty in the midst of a land in which some had great wealth. They assumed that the remedy for this lay in some sort of redistribution. Their concern for others made them particularly susceptible to utopian visions and socialist dreams.
The social gospellers captured the hearts of men by their descriptions of suffering and hardship. Washington Gladden accepted Henry George’s thesis that poverty was increasing as industrial progress took place. Note his characterization of conditions among those in the depths of poverty:
… Below these still, there is another large class of the really poor, of those whose earnings are small, whose life is comfortless, who have nothing laid by, who are often coming to want…. This class of the very poor—those who are just on the borders of pauperism or fairly over the borders—is rapidly growing. Wealth is increasing very fast; poverty, even pauperism, is increasing still more rapidly.4
Walter Rauschenbusch introduced the element of pathos in his descriptions:
The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want….
While a workman is in his prime, he is always in danger of losing his job. When he gets older, he is almost certain to lose it. The pace is so rapid that only supple limbs can keep up. Once out of a job, it is hard for an elderly man to get another. Men shave clean to conceal gray hairs.5
Not only were conditions bad, according to social gospellers, but they were getting worse. A somber tone of impending crisis characterizes much of their writings. Gladden declared:
Such, then, is the state of industrial society at the present time. The hundreds of thousands of unemployed laborers, vainly asking for work; the rapid increase of pauperism…; the sudden and alarming growth of the more violent types of socialism, are ominous signs of the times.°
Rauschenbusch pointed out that while there had been hardship involved in the development of industry in
But there is nothing in the nature of our country that will permanently exempt us from the social misery created by the industrial revolution elsewhere…. The influences which formerly protected us and gave us a certain immunity from social misery are losing their force. We are now running the rapids faster than any other nation. We do everything more strenuously and recklessly than others…. If we are once headed toward a social catastrophe, we shall get there ahead of schedule time?
Driving Toward Socialism
The preachers of the social gospel attributed the cause of suffering and hardship to the existing order. The crisis was approaching because of the hardening of the lines of the order. The existing social order was so made up and bent by those who benefited from it that it would bring
The tendency of wages to sink to starvation point, the tendency of the workmen’s share of the national wealth to grow constantly smaller, the tendency of commercial crises and depressions to become more frequent and disastrous…—all these are, as I believe, the natural issues of an industrial system whose sole motive power is self-interest, and whose sole regulative principle is competition.8
George D. Herron was less restrained but saying essentially the same thing in his indictment:
The inevitable result of the system of wages and competition will be to increase social inequalities; to increase the wealth of the few and the poverty of many…. The present industrial system could not exist were it not for the fact that great multitudes of the unemployed have been brought to this country systematically and purposely, for the sake of reducing wages and producing a state of poverty.9
As Herron said elsewhere, "The economic system denies the right of the sincerest and most sympathetic to keep their hands out of the blood of their brothers."¹º
Rauschenbusch’s indictment was no less severe:
If it were proposed to invent some social system in which covetousness would be deliberately fostered and intensified in human nature, what system could be devised which would excell our own for this purpose? Competitive commerce exalts selfishness to the dignity of a moral principle. It pits men against one another in a gladiatorial game in which there is no mercy and in which ninety per cent of the combatants finally strew the arena.¹¹
The Anticapitalistic Mentality
The villain of the piece, depending upon the inner urge of the moment, was capitalism, private property (they differed as to the extent of the condemnation of this), the profit motive, competition, monopoly, and all of the assorted demons of socialist analysis. The anticapitalistic mentality, as Ludwig von Mises has called it, flowered luxuriantly among the social gospellers. It is difficult to recognize the businessman in the following allusions, or illusions, of Edward A. Ross, a sociologist with a religious emphasis:
Today the sacrifice of life incidental to quick success rarely calls for the actual spilling of blood. How decent are the pale slayings of the quack, the adulterer, and the purveyor of polluted water, compared with the red slayings of the vulgar bandit or assassin! Even if there is blood-letting, the long range, tentacular nature of modern homicide eliminates all personal collision. What an abyss between the knife-play of brawlers and the law-defying neglect to fence dangerous machinery in a mill, or to furnish cars with safety couplers!¹2
Yet the difference between businessmen and common criminals, we gather, is in the magnitude of the offense of the former.
One other indictment of capitalists will serve to illustrate the character of these generally. Rauschenbusch said:
When men of vigorous character and intellectual ability obey the laws of Capitalism, and strive for the prizes it holds out to them, they win power and great wealth, but they are placed in an essentially false relation to their fellow-men, the Christian virtues of their family stock are undermined, their natural powers of leadership are crippled, and the greater their success in amassing wealth under capitalistic methods, the greater is the tragedy of their lives from a Christian point of view.¹3
The "New Theology"
The condemnation and rejection of the existing order was, of course, prelude to the calling for a new order. Advocates of the social gospel were all bent upon social reconstruction, in one degree or another. Some were avowed socialists, some unavowed, and others were to appearances less radical in their aims. But they appealed to Christianity as the justification for making over or modifying the social order. The theory was not particularly complicated. Most of the early proponents of the social gospel held that society is an organism. Individual men are products, more or less, of the environment. In order to save men, then, it is necessary to redeem the society by reconstructing it along Christian lines. When this work of reconstruction had been accomplished, the Kingdom would have come. Those who were engaged in the task of rebuilding society were working for the coming of the Kingdom. Existing society was criticized from the scriptural vantage point of strictures such as those found in the Sermon on the Mount. The new order would incorporate these into the social structure.
There should be no doubt that this bringing of the Kingdom, as they understood it, involved radical social reconstruction for the preachers of the social gospel. Walter Rauschenbusch has usually been accorded the position of theologian of the social gospel. In his book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he declared:
Since love is the supreme law of Christ, the
The above passage gives the flavor of the bombast, but the tangle of gratuitous assumptions and accusations may obscure the message. He has stated the aim somewhat more succinctly elsewhere. The vision which he would see fulfilled has "the purpose and hope of founding on earth the Reign of God among men. Faith in the
The Reign of Love—by Force
Reign of love there might be, according to the vision, but it was to be preceded by a reign of men. The advocates of the social gospel were also advocates of greatly increased governmental activity. Even Washington Gladden, who expressed some doubts as to the coercive route to moral redemption, favored an extended and extensive role for government. He observed:
The limits of governmental interference are likely to be greatly enlarged in the immediate future…. It may become the duty of the state to reform its taxation, so that its burdens shall rest less heavily upon the lower classes; to repress monopolies of all sorts; to prevent and punish gambling; to regulate or control the railroads and telegraphs; to limit the ownership of land; to modify the laws of inheritance; and possibly to levy a progressive income tax…¹6
Those who came somewhat later, however, had no qualms about using the power of the state to usher in the Kingdom.¹” Richard T. Ely declared that it is "as truly a religious work to pass good laws, as it is to preach sermons; as holy a work to lead a crusade against filth, vice, and disease in slums of cities, and to seek the abolition of the disgraceful tenement-houses of American cities, as it is to send missionaries to the heathen."¹8 He approved of what he called coercive philanthropy. "Coercive philanthropy is philanthropy of governments, either local, state, or national. The exercise of philanthropy is coming to an increasing extent to be regarded as the duty of government."¹9 George D. Herron called for the thoroughgoing use of the state for religious purposes.
Government has a right to existence and authority for no other end than that for which God sent his only begotten Son into the world. It is the vocation of the states, as the social organ, to so control property, so administer the production and distribution of economic goods, as to give to every man the fruit of his labor, and protect the laborer from the irresponsible tyranny of the passion of wealth.²º
Rauschenbusch declared that "embodying a moral conviction in law is the last stage of moral propaganda. Laws do not create moral convictions; they merely recognize and enforce them."²º¹ In practice, of course, devotees of the social gospel have usually supported the whole panorama of reform programs.
Church Movements for Political Action
However strange these doctrines may seem, there is good reason for exploring them. They have had a tremendous impact upon
For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life….
For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.
For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised….
For the abatement of poverty.24
Many changes were being wrought under the religious impetus. Rauschenbusch pointed out that the "Young Men’s Christian Association used to stand for religious individualism. The mere mention of ‘sociology’ once excited ridicule. Today the association has developed a splendid machinery for constructive social service…."²º5 The missionary effort was being changed by the new ideas. The emphasis was beginning to shift toward social service, medical missionaries, and so forth. In due time, more and more ministers came under the sway of the social gospel, and church organizations began to wield their influence both for general and for particular social reforms.
Beneath the Sugar Coating
Of course, as these ideas were adopted by the old established churches, they were usually given more ambiguous wording and less radical formulation. After all, many of the founders and advocates of the social gospel were socialists. George D. Herron was dedicated to what has been called Christian socialism. Anyone conversant with socialist doctrines will be able to discover them in more or less pure form in Rauschenbusch’s work. There is a definite gradualist slant to the writings of Gladden. The "respectable" churches did not accept such doctrines in the blunter formulations of them. Yet to the extent, and it has been considerable, that the churches, their ministers and spokesmen, have adopted these doctrines and advocated the programs based on them, to that extent have they been drawn into the effort to bring about socialism in America. For these doctrines depend for their justification upon the rhetoric of socialism; they are meaningful within the intellectual framework of socialist doctrines; the particular programs have long been devices for gradually moving toward socialism.
Men’s hearts have been captured by the inversion of the Gospel, and they have been drawn into the orbit of reformism by doctrines ideologically derived from socialism but phrased in the language of religious concern. This was another step in the domestication of socialism in
The next article in this series will have to do with
"Remaking the Minds of Men."
1 Matthew 5: 38-48, RSV.
2 See, for example, the discussion of this in James Dombrowski, The Early Days of Christian Socialism in
3 Charles H.
Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Macmillan, 1907), pp. 235-36.
6 Gladden, op. cit., p. 161.
7 Rauschenbusch, op. cit., p. 219.
8 Gladden, op. cit., pp. 69-70.
9 Quoted in Dombrowski, op. cit., pp. 187-88.
10 George D. Herron, Between Caesar and Jesus (New York: Crowell, 1899), pp. 24-25.
¹1 Rauschenbusch, op. cit., p. 265.
12 Ray A. Billington, et. al., eds., The Making of American Democracy, II (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962, rev. ed.), 35-36.
14 Quoted in Gerald N. Grob and Robert N. Beck, eds., American Ideas, II (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 217.
15 Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order, p. 324.
16. Gladden, op. cit., pp. 100-01.
17 Several decades later, Reinhold Niebuhr argued that collectives may act immorally to attain "social justice," since they are by nature immoral. See Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Sc