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God-O-Meter

The rivalry between the Social Gospel–the belief that people should work to perfect society in accordance with certain Biblical ideals, such as equality and justice–and the theology of personal salvation–which posits that people are deeply imperfect and in need of a personal transformation that could come only through accepting Jesus–dates back a century or more in American religious life. It’s still very relevant in contemporary politics, frequently as a dividing line between religious Republicans and religious Democrats.Take the 2004 election, when George Bush won record-breaking evangelical support because many were familiar with his own personal transformation (he found religion and gave up drinking at age 40) and because he stressed deeply personal morality issues like gay marriage, while John Kerry said he couldn’t impose his own morality on issues like abortion (which he said he personally opposed) on others and promoted an agenda was based on reforming society with social programs like universal health care. To some extent, that same line separates John McCain and Barack Obama this year. Take the candidates’ conflicting stances on abortion rights (Obama’s for them, McCain’s against) and universal health care (which Obama supports and McCain opposes) echoing the differences between Bush and Kerry. But what makes this election cycle different than others so far as religion goes is that the presumptive Democratic nominee is not promoting a purely Social Gospel line; He also emphasizes the tranformational power of Jesus.That’s one reason why some evangelical leaders are predicting that Obama has major potential among born again Christians, the quintessential personal salvation-focused elievers. His speech on Saturday at the African Methodist Episcopal Church convention in St. Louis (video above) provided a good example of Obama’s attempts to bridge these divergent theological tendencies.On one hand, Obama’s message had a clear Social Gospel bent:

… our faith cannot be an idle faith. It requires more of us than Sundays at church. It requires more than just our daily prayer. It must be an active faith rooted in that most fundamental of all truths: that I am my brother’s keeper, that I am my sister’s keeper. That we must live that truth not only with good words, but [with] good deeds. For so many of you, especially at this church, this kind of active faith has always been a part of who you are and how you live. The scripture tells us that God creates us for works of service.

At the same time, Obama didn’t shy away from the personal transformational power of religion:

My own life has been a journey that began decades ago on south side of Chicago when working as a community organizer with other churches, working to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. And that if I placed my trust in Jesus that he can set me on the path to eternal life.

Obama then wove the two traditions together:

When I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works. It was the newfound faith that fortified my commitment to the work I was doing in the community. It taught me that I can sit in church all I want but that I won’t be fulfilling the Lord’s will unless I’m doing the Lords work.

How much of this mixing is due to Obama’s experience in the black church, which emphasizes both the Social Gospel and the need for personal salvation? A lot of it. But how ironic is it that the black church legacy of stressing personal salvation might be Obama’s ticket to appealing to white evangelicals this fall?9

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