Christianity Without SalvationJOSEPH LOCONTE
Within a few years of its publication in 1907, Christianity and the Social Crisis swept through America's Protestant churches like a nor'easter, selling more than 50,000 copies to ministers and laypeople alike.
The summons found many converts. Reflecting on the mood a few decades later, preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick gushed with nostalgia: It "struck home so poignantly," he said, that it "ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action." The era of Rauschenbusch is far from over: His "Social Gospel" message continues to inspire activists and theologians of all stripes. The question now, though, is whether its influence is a desirable thing — or a distraction of the Christian church from its deepest objectives.
Many praise the reform efforts stirred in part by Rauschenbusch's appeal: the founding of settlement houses, literacy campaigns, help for refugees, and food and health care for the destitute. Politically, Rauschenbusch's book helped along Teddy Roosevelt's progressive agenda, notably his antitrust crusades. Social-gospel activists would later hail the creation of Social Security under the New Deal.
Surely there is much in the tradition for which to be grateful. Yet even a brisk reading of Rauschenbusch's work suggests crippling weaknesses, at least from the standpoint of faith. We're told that the larger social message of Jesus' teaching — especially his concern for the poor — was sidelined by the cultural assumptions of his followers. The culprits: the doctrine of sin and the "crude and misleading" idea of a coming apocalypse. Generations of believers wrongly came to regard earthly life as a snare and turned inward for personal salvation. "Such a conception of present life and future destiny," Rauschenbusch wrote chidingly, "offered no motive for an ennobling transformation of the present life."
Distorted ideas about heaven and hell have spawned great mischief in the name of Christianity, of course. Rauschenbusch must have seen plenty of it during a decade of ministry in New York City's "Hell's Kitchen" neighborhood. Indeed, the Christianity of his youth looked unfit to cope with the "industrial crises" of his day. Nevertheless, he seemed blithely unaware of others provoked by the very conceptions of sin and salvation he so despised — men such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, John Jay, Lyman Beecher and William Booth — to champion reform efforts of all kinds.
Rauschenbusch's clever narrative of a faith held hostage was itself a captive of its cultural setting. It's no accident that phrases such as the "laws of social development," "scientific comprehension of society" and the "evolution of social institutions" litter his text. He presents not so much the teachings of Jesus, Paul and the Apostles as the dogmas of Darwin, Marx and Herbert Spencer. Richard Niebuhr called this "cultural Christianity," i.e., re-imagining the gospel according to secular nostrums about the march of human progress.
As such, Rauschenbusch's gospel had little need of a Savior. It merely displaced the problem of evil — the supreme tragedy of the human soul in rebellion against God — with the challenge of social iniquities. The Kingdom of Heaven would come soon enough, if only we put our hands to the plow.
Perhaps this earth-bound emphasis explains the social gospel's naïve embrace of morally dubious causes, including eugenics and abortion. We underwrite modern social programs with similar illusions about human nature. Thus drug "maintenance" programs, to take but one example, leave the scourge of addiction largely untouched because they do not address its moral and spiritual causes.
It is hard to see, though, how Rauschenbusch's theology could be called Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. It required no repentance or atonement and carried no fear of judgment or bracing hope of eternal life. He famously denied the doctrine of Christ's Second Coming — with its promise of perfect justice and enduring mercy. The result was a flattened view of the human condition. "It is not possible honestly to confess that Jesus is the Christ of culture," Niehbur wrote in Christ and Culture (1951), "unless one can confess much more than this."The Christian confession of faith, by itself, offers no guarantee that either individuals or societies will be transformed. But, for believers, not even the smallest steps forward can be taken without it.
Joseph Loconte. "Christianity Without Salvation." The Wall Street Journal (May 11, 2007).
Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Joseph Loconte.
Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal
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