Steven Waldman

In his interview with Beliefnet and The Wall Street Journal, Rick Warren boldly challenged other evangelicals to care more about poverty. When told that evangelicals who voted for McCain listed poverty as 13th out of 14 on their set of priorities, did not hold back:

“Wow. That’s interesting. Well, that’s my whole job. I’ve got to reawaken what I call the 19th century evangelicalism.”

He argued that while evangelicals used to care about social justice, in the 20th century they’d come to care only about the soul. Meanwhile, “social gospel” Protestants cared only about the body, believing, “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. …Really, in many ways it was just Marxism in Christian clothing.”
One of the leading exponents of this philosophy was Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, author of Christianity and the Social Crisis. As it happens, his great grandson, Rev. Paul Raushenbush, moderates our Progressive Revival blog. He’s written a fascinating response to Warren:

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.

Raushenbush’s full post is worth reading.
UPDATE: Scott McNight, author of the superb blog Jesus Creed, argues that Paul mischaracterizes his great grandpapa. By the end of his career, McNight argues, Rauschenbusch was emphasizing the social far more than the personal:

Instead of trashing Warren, Paul, I’d appreciate it if you’d see that Warren represents that evangelicals themselves have come a long way. Rick Warren, my friend, is not the one to pick on. He is at least attempting to add (as did your grandfather) social justice to personal salvation.

To which Paul responded:

Anyone who has read Rauschenbusch seriously will admit that Rauschenbusch’s work was intensely personal and how the personal relates to the social desires of Jesus – we can only take him at his word after all.
I will stop trashing Warren when he stops trashing Rauschenbusch and the religous traditions that followed him and all who worked so hard for not only charity (of the warren variety) but also justice including Neibuhr, King and Gutierrez.

For what it’s worth, I think both Paul and Scott are right. Warren over-simplifies the history but the more important point is that he’s trying to argue, to both sides, that Christianity should be about personal salvation and social justice. If he succeeds in getting evangelicals to care more about poverty, that will be an enormous, historic accomplishment.

Previous Posts
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus