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Converation about Walter Rauschenbusch


David Evans is a brilliant emerging theologian, African American, currently working with the Mennonite Central Committee and soon to begin PhD work in American religious history. He and I had lunch recently and talked about Walter and the social gospel, Anabaptism, civil religion, and other topics. He sent me this reflection after our most recent lunch which I thought was worth sharing. He gave me permission to post it here. If you’d like to email him for further dialogue, his email is . – Brian

I really appreciate the perspective you bring to the table when talking about the problem with contemporary evangelical theology- namely that the totality of it is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. In my view, your emphasis on the kingdom is right on. I think this is one of the reasons I was attracted to Anabaptism. Something seemed incomplete about the gospel I had heard, the one about Jesus and me. What about everyone else? What about everything else? Had God created the whole world and everything in it only to love and care for me and possibly some of my friends? I digress…

The point is that I found in Anabaptism a Kingdom ethic that made much more sense to me. One writer, Robert Friedman, put it this way, “Is the Gospel to be understood through Paul or is Paul to be understood through the Gospel?” I think that what he was trying to say is the same point you were making, substitutionary atonement (along with other doctrines of atonement) is one major component of the larger vision of the Kingdom. In other words, if you “seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness all these things will be added as well.”

This is why I love Walter Rauschenbusch. He seemed to really understand what was at stake. The vision he articulated in his Theology of the Social Gospel was on target because he saw the division that had taken place with regard to social and personal faith. He attempted to dispel the myth that the two were opposed to each other.

I think your interpretation of what went wrong was perhaps the first compromise of American Evangelicalism, though I would say that it happened long before Rauschenbusch. Mark Noll chronicles the problem of civil religion in America’s God. Though Christendom was over, North American Christians could not conceive of a Christian church that did not exist to further the goals of the state. Countless books have been written on this theme, Christian America by Robert Handy is the classic text. I contend that the spirit of evangelicalism is compromised when it capitulates to the goals of the state (what else would an Anabaptist say).

All of the evangelical heroes that I hold dear had the same problem; they were nationalistic evangelicals. Donald Dayton’s book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage tells the story of evangelicals who could not be Christians without seeking after social justice. Charles Finney and the post-millenialists are the greatest example of this. Here we have a group of nineteenth century Christians who put their lives on the line to abolish slavery even to the point where Finney would not extend the Lord’s Supper to slave holders. The problem with this (in my view) is that they were not as interested in freeing slaves as they were in cleansing the Promised Land they called America. All of their hopes were not based in the sovereign love and compassion of God. Their hopes were too mixed up with love of country.

The legacy of God’s promises to Israel being reinvented as God’s promises for the “New World” go back to the Puritans and have been called upon in every period of American History. War history makes this point most obvious when one notes that every war, revolutionary, civil, even the “war on terror” has been described with apocalyptic language straight out of the book of Revelation.
Given all of this I knew that what you were saying was true but it didn’t go far enough for me to explain why the Social Gospel did not become an evangelical or fundamentalist doctrine. If you consider the civil religion that goes with fundamentalism, unless I misunderstand what you mean by civil religion, fundamentalists are neck deep in it. I only need to recall Billy Sunday who wrapped himself in the American flag as he preached his version of “the Good News.” While the fundamentalists removed themselves from mainstream culture for a time after the scopes-monkey trial, they never really gave up on the vision of a Christian America. All of the new Religious Right/Moral Majority politic is not all that new.

I think that today’s liberal and fundamentalist civil religion ought to be likened to the days of Christendom when few people could envision a church that was not fully integrated with the state. The difference here is that instead of a feud between the church and the state where one is jockeying for authority over the other (though it could easily be argued that that is the situation we are now in), the church simply wants the ability to bless what the nation decides to do. No one really wants to see anything like the Pope as president. What the church fears most is being called unpatriotic. Nationalism and church life go together and the church wants the opportunity to baptize the state. Noll makes the case that this is what makes American church life and politics unique in all the Western world.

Before I go any further, I should say a word about what I mean by the words fundamentalism and liberalism. First of all, I don’t believe that the words are antithetical to one another. I see them, rather, as two sides of the same coin. The coin, as you have identified in the work that you do, is modernism. Along with many other things that Decartes and Kant introduced to the world were dueling epistemologies, deduction on one hand and induction on the other. What holds them together is their foundation in the authority and promise of reason. Fundamentalism is an American Christian ideology based upon deductive reason and liberalism is a American Christian ideology based upon inductive reason.

Secondly, the belief that they are antithetical to one another ought to be edited to say that they are opposed to each other. And the reason for their opposition is that they accept the same set of values and principles upon which to debate and argue. Again, reason is the main culprit. Without final commitment to reason there would be little to fuel the fire between the two. The discipline of biblical interpretation makes this most clear. While fundamentalist maintain that the Bible is the plenary inspired inerrant word of God, liberals claim that it is a history book that must succumb to every test other history books are subjected to. On the surface it appears that they are in very separate camps on how to understand the Bible. Practically, however, fundamentalist and liberal Bible scholars utilize the exact same methodology for interpretation. The reader goes collects Greek and Hebrew Texts, dictionaries, lexicons, commentaries and historical books. Then the reader finds a room all alone with every intention to find the authors true intent of the specific passage. After a few hours the interpreter will emerge from the room convinced of what the passage means and will go on to explain why it is so. Both fundamentalist and liberal approach the scripture anthropocentrically, individualistically, and committed to the scientific-rational worldview of the post-enlightenment period called modernity. It is this example that exposes the most serious problem with modernity, the scientific-rational world-view has no place for the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, I use the terms fundamentalist and liberal rather than conservative and liberal because of the political confusion caused by such associations. Fundamentalism is a theological idea. Much of its meaning has been lost today by media that uses the term to identify any religious group that is intolerant of other belief systems. Christian historians, however, can pin-point the birth of Christian Fundamentalism, not as intolerance but as a Pietist response to a perceived theological crisis. That crisis came in the form of liberalism which can be best understood through its creator, Friedrich Schliermacher. Though liberalism would move in multiple directions from Schliermacher, the spirit of it remained true to the title of Schliermacher’s most famous work Speeches on Religion to the Cultured Among its Despisers. In this work Schliermacher’s task was to articulate Christianity utilizing the values of romanticism that ruled his day. In so doing, he set the stage for many who would come after him to explain Christianity according to the prevalent world-views of their day. Nineteenth century American liberalism sought to be a mediating presence between the kind of rationalism that led to atheism and the kind of Christian orthodoxy the rationalist objected to.

In the twentieth century when scientific discoveries were ruling academic discourse liberalism sought to make sense of Christianity in light of these findings. Some theological experimentation was necessary to do so. It is here that liberalism is most clearly seen in direct opposition to the spirit of evangelicalism in that it utilized post-enlightenment optimism to explain away the need for atonement. Liberals believed that human nature was not stained with sin. The result is that liberalism is wide open to the modern belief in human progress and subordination of Christianity to the scientific worldview.

For many people, the word liberal is useful for describing both political and theological affiliations. This explains why European-Americans are often confused when interacting with many African-American Christians, 58% of whom self-identify as “born-again,” because they are often politically liberal and theologically conservative. In European-American circles one can almost be certain that conservative theology leads to conservative politics and likewise liberal theology leads to liberal politics. By mere observation in European-American churches one would surmise that the two are synonymous (with a few exceptions) because in most cases European-American churches who are bent towards conservative theology are also bent towards conservative politics. From here we can pick up where we left off earlier in the story.
Some, mostly reformed evangelicals, were frightened by the prospects of liberalism. They felt that their faith was under attack by people who were denying miracles, dismissing dogma as myth and subjecting the scriptures to unholy tests. By the time this all came to a head Princeton scholars had joined with J.N. Darby to articulate the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy buttressed by Pre-millenial dispensationalism. Behind this bulwark, the Bible was safe from scientific attack. The funny thing is that, Charles Hodge, gave away his bias towards the validity of scientific research when he said, “if geologists finally prove that [the earth] has existed for myriads of ages, it will be found that the first chapter of Genesis is in full accord with the facts, and that the last results of science are embodied on the first page of the Bible.” His issue was that the research was not valid science, a point still made by a few today.

Between the years 1910-1914 the pamphlets called The Fundamentals were mailed to churches all over the United States. Up to this point evangelicals were uncertain about which direction to move. Earlier in the history of evangelicalism choices like this did not have to be made. Certainly there were issues of concern like slavery and temperance of which an evangelical could find experiential protestants on both sides. But the fundamentalists-liberal debate appeared to cut to the core of what it meant to be a Christian- even whether or not being a Christian was possible.

Harry Emerson Fosdick thought that being a scientific modern and being a Christian were definitely possible. In a famous sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, Fosdick claimed for himself and many others the title of evangelical. Most of America would have understood themselves as such. However, Fosdick attacked every possible evangelical value except ecumenism. Beginning with the Bible he made the case that many things written there were not historically accurate and that it sometimes contradicted itself. He called for openness to other religions and the idea that Christianity is simply one among many. Fosdick railed against the idea that the atonement had anything to do with what was necessary to believe for salvation. His major point was that no one should be removed from the evangelical family for learning and accepting scientific facts. Instead, he called for tolerance on both sides.

Most historians, Christian and otherwise, would not identify Fosdick as an evangelical. He was obviously a Christian but the values of experience with God, the Bible as a source for daily life, and sanctification or holy living were far from Fosdick’s lists of important Christian virtues. Evangelicalism was at a crucial juncture. It seemed as though it would have to identify with either fundamentalism or liberalism. After the Scopes Monkey Trial a split took place and there were very few evangelicals left.

I think it is fair to say that most of those who wanted to continue to claim an evangelical identity went with the fundamentalists. Evangelicalism with fundamentalist tendencies loses its true spirit and becomes dogmatic dry faith, something we can attest to today. Those who went with the liberals remained evangelicals in their generation, but did not pass on their experiential faith to the next.

All of this is to say, when Fosdick claimed the Social Gospel whatever synthesis between personal and social faith Rauschenbusch had made was overshadowed by Fosdick’s call to liberalism. The major liberal leaders who came after Fosdick had no experience of conversions. And the little knowledge they had of such things was tainted by repugnant fundamentalism. They rejected it.
I must conclude by saying that this story is mostly about White Evangelicals. For the most part African-American evangelicals were not a part of these modern debates. Evangelicalism in its most historically true form persevered in the African-American subculture. This was how you could have a Dr. King who was a theological liberal, but still held on to an evangelical faith experience he received from the Beloved Community.

All of this is to say that the Social Gospel was never fully received. It was subsumed under the canopy of liberalism and lost to the evangelical world. The dual proclamation that the Kingdom is personal and social fell on ears that could not hear a call for personal faith. Perhaps the liberals were not impressed with the fundamentalists dispensationalism that forbid them from engaging in social justice. Pre-millenialist dispensationalism dulled the social impulses of D.L. Moody who said, “God told me, ‘Moody this ship is a wrecked vessel, save all you can.’” The social gospel was forbidden by his eschatology because the world had to get worse before Jesus would return and there was nothing Moody could do but preach the gospel of personal salvation and let the wrecked vessel of this world sink in the ocean.

In any event these incidents created a false dichotomy between individual salvation and social salvation that will not be rectified without deliberate attempts to do so. Any over emphasis of one will be to the detriment of the other. This is simply due to the fact that the last seventy years has made the two into polarities. You will find no divide with Jesus or anywhere else in the Bible. Ever since evangelicalism allowed the split to occur White evangelicalism has failed to recover. We have had momentary resurgences like in the 70s, but nothing like the moral force that was alive with Charles Finney who combined conversion and discipleship with anti-slavery and temperance. I don’t think we should go back to those days, for as you said, and I agree, we need a post-colonial articulation of the gospel one that is not captive to civil society. It must be done and I agree with you that many people from outside of the mainstream Western society are our greatest hope.