Over at SoMA, Paul O’Donnell revisits Social Gospel creator Walter Rauschenbusch on the 100th anniversary of his famed book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. The book has been re-issued with new essays by Jim Wallis, Stephen Carter, and others.
Rauschenbusch’s book was one of the most influential religious books of the 20th Century. It simultaneously fed and nurtured private and public efforts to care for the poor and caused more conservative Christians to split off into fundamentalism because they felt Rauschenbusch and other Social Gospel advocates were putting their emphasis on the wrong world and on the wrong things. Specifically, that Christian focus should be on the redeeming work of Jesus for sins and not on social works. [Note – this is a grand oversimplification but I didn’t want this entry to be 249 pages.]
All that may be changing as O’Donnell notes:
For some years now, American evangelicals—Rauschenbusch’s historical nemeses–are looking to revive a tradition of social activism that largely evaporated in the decades after “Christianity and the Social Crisis” appeared. Not long ago, Rick Warren, the mega-church pastor and author of mega-bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life,” told a roomful of Washington journalists, “The first trend you need to be aware of is the return of the evangelical movement to its 19th-century roots” in what Warren calls “compassionate activism.”
This is not to say that you will see Rick Warren or other evangelicals racing to embrace Raschenbusch. His name is still toxic to evangelicals.
But what we are seeing in Warren’s work and the work of other evangelicals who are turning aside from partisan politics and turning towards hands-on help of the poor is the reunification of the whole Christian message – that Jesus didn’t just come to offer eternal life (though he did do that) but that Jesus came to transform those who followed him so that caring for the poor and the sick is part of his prayer that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”