“Historically evangelicals and mainline protestants were all in one group. Along about the beginning of the 20th century there were some protestant theologians who started using the term social gospel. What they meant by that was you don’t really need to care about Jesus’ personal salvation any more. You don’t really have to care about redemption, the cross, repentance. All we need to do is redeem the social structures of society and if we make those social structures better then the world will be a better place. In many ways it was just Marxism in Christian clothing. If we redeem society, then man would automatically get better. It didn’t deal with the heart. So they said we don’t need this personal religion stuff” – Rick Warren, The Beliefnet Interview
There Rick Warren goes again proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. His condemnation of the social gospel in his latest interview with Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman repeats another interview he gave a few years ago. Warren apparently read an essay on the evils of the social gospel when he was young and has been mislead and misleading people about it ever since. My guess is that his shrill denunciations come out of a fear that his new found interest in social issues might cause some in the evangelical world to brand him as a social gospler. He has cause to worry. There is deep suspicion of this kind of activity (by that I mean helping the poor and working with AIDS) among evangelicals and Warren has to be careful to shore up his Jesus credentials lest he be tarnished by those who questions his Christian commitments.
Bashing the social gospel is common among old school evangelicals. Author, pastor and Progressive Revival blogger Brian McLaren told me his own own experience: “Like a lot of people from Evangelical backgrounds, in my childhood and youth I was taught that the “social gospel” was nothing but evil. I heard it a thousand times in sermons…Now, of course, I think this kind of anti-justice, privatized-gospel propaganda is evil!”
But of course now Brian Mclaren is also now persona non-grata among the Warren evangelical school. I was part of organizing a conference last summer called Envsion which featured leaders in the new Evangelical movement such as Shane Claiborn, Rich Cizik, Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren. Kay Warren was supposed to be our keynote on the first night but backed out because she wouldn’t share a state with Brian for fear of being tarnished by association with his theology and practice.
One of those “theologians” Rick Warren targets is my great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch. Just to clarify – Rauschenbusch wasn’t a theologian – he was a pastor Warren would do well to learn a bit more about his life, writing and prayers. While he will still have theological disagreements, my hope is that he would at least appreciate the impulse behind his thought and belief and perhaps see a parallel with his own religious evolution.
Rauschenbusch served a church of the working poor in a hells kitchen New York at the turn of the last century. He began with a fairly conservative belief system that only concentrated on the saving of individual souls. Through the people of his congregation Rauschenbusch saw the suffering of his flock at the hands of a ruthless economic system. Rauschenbusch later said that during this time he had buried too many babies who had died needlessly just because they were poor. “How little children died – oh, the children’s funerals! They gripped my heart.” Rauchenbusch turned back to the bible to see what it said about the poverty aflicting his congregation. The social gospel was the attempt of conscientious Christians to respond to the incredible social inequity of the time.
Warren is right – there was a split among protestants 100 years ago. The Evangelical School did nothing about the suffering of the world preferring to concentrate on the afterlife and “salvation” that came from abandonment of the world in favor of a promised future in heaven. In the meantime the social gospel went on to develop institutions such as the YMCA, the Salvation Army and the National Council of Churches; spearheaded interfaith understanding, and lobbied for social change that reflected Jesus’ desire for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Important child labor protection laws, the new deal, the great society and the civil rights movement are products of the social gospel. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “In the early 50’s I read Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking.” Not a bad heritage – if only Warren would admit it. Mainline protestants have been involved in AIDS work since the 80”s and poverty for the last century. It’s nice to see Warren’s recent interest.
In my own work I have been generous to the evangelical spirit, and in fact I agree with Warren that the liberal church has lost some of the personal relevance of the Gospel. But that was never the intention of the original social Gospel, as Rauschenbusch himself said – “A perfect religious hope must include both: eternal life for the individual; the kingdom of God for humanity.” Rauschenbusch conceived of his work on the social aspects of the Gospel as an addition, not a substitution. My honest feeling is that Rick Warren owes a great deal to Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel if he were only Christian enough to admit it.
Instead of trashing Rauschenbusch, the social Gospel, mainline protestants and worrying so much about defending Christian orthodoxy of belief, I invite Warren to seek collaboration with those of us who are also concerned with the suffering of the world’s vulnerable and are dedicated to doing God’s will on earth as in heaven.