Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (2): Dorrien on the Social Gospel

Perhaps no one thinker has applied more creative thought and energy into retrieving the legacy of the Social Gospel movement for today than the historical theologian and social ethicist Gary Dorrien. (Dorrien, who serves as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University, has also written a fine study of Karl Barth's theology in historical context, which would be of interest to many DET readers.)

While beginning to research the Social Gospel Movement (SGM) recently, I ran across this very helpful overview and critique by Dorrien that ran in Tikkun several years ago. I want to use it as a background and an entree into my look at Rauschenbusch's doctrine of social sin in a series of posts.


Dorrien proposes we view the SGM as the North American branch of an international movement toward socio-political concerns and renewal within Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, which included religious socialist movements in England and Continental Europe. Change was the byword in the heady decades leading up to World War I -- the era that birthed the labor movement, modern empirical sociology and the ecumenical movement. What distinguished the SGM from earlier experiments in Christian ethics and political engagement -- e.g., the pacifism of the early church or the Anabaptists, the covenantal commonwealths of Puritan New England and the social agitations of the Wesleyans -- was its emphasis on "structural transformations for social justice." Dorrien writes:
Only with the rise of Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel did Christian communities seek to restructure society in the direction of freedom and equality. Society became the subject of redemption; social justice became intrinsic to salvation. If there was such a thing as social structure, redemption had to be reconceptualized to take account of it; salvation had to be personal and social to be saving.
The most significant manifesto for the movement was Rauschenbusch's seminal work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), wherein the Baptist pastor and historical theologian sought to link "prophetic biblical religion" directly to modern movements for freedom, democracy and equality. Rauschenbusch caught flack for an often Marx-tinged appeal for a social and economic democracy informed by liberal Protestant theology. Dorrien writes:
Rauschenbusch argued that the rise of corporate capitalism marked a crisis for American civilization and an opportunity to recover the ideal of a radical democratic commonwealth. If production could be organized on a cooperative basis, if distribution could be organized by principles of justice, if workers could be treated as valuable ends and not as dispensable means to a commercial end, if parasitic wealth and predatory commerce could be abolished.
For anyone interested in Christian social ethics and political theology, the shadow of Reinhold Niebuhr's blistering critique looms large over the SGM and makes it difficult for this seminal movement to get a fresh hearing today. Indeed, Dorrien acknowledges many weaknesses in the SGM, including its over-weening optimism, its middle class ideologies, its romantic idealism, its cultural imperialism, its moral scrupulosity and its anti-Catholic bias. I plan to examine some critiques of SG theology in a later post.

Still, if there is an aspect of the SGM, as Dorrien interprets it, that seems prescient and prophetic for our struggles today, I think it is the sustained attention the movement gave to issues of economic equality and the threats of an unfettered, international capitalist juggernaut. In that respect, the concerns of the SGM dovetail with those of some contemporary religious movements -- liberation theologies, Christian anarchism and (my special concern) theologians who interpret the "principalities and powers" of the New Testament within a socio-political context. As Dorrien writes:
To put it in contemporary terms, the Social Gospel was a response to the first historic wave of economic globalization, the clash between a burgeoning corporate capitalism and a rising labor movement. Social Gospel leaders urged that modernity surely had a stage beyond capitalism. If modernity was a good thing, which they did not doubt, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism.
Rauschenbusch, who advocated for "economic democracy" as a realization of American political ideals, was not afraid to embrace socialist ideas and he borrowed heavily from Marx. He did not believe it was possible to completely abolish markets and private property, though; his programmatic proposals to economic justice were more ad hoc than those of classic Marxism and he rejected the idea of a completely state-planned economy.

Though such a praxis proves to be messy and contingent in our increasingly complex contexts, it is grounded in theological commitments. Rauschenbusch shows a profound awareness of the intractable character of human sinfulness, the interest-blinded and corrupted hearts of individuals as well as oppressive social structures. More importantly, perhaps, he recognizes that the Kingdom of God is a realm of ideal justice that is always coming but is never fully realized in this world. This eschatological reservation, as Dorrien lifts it up, invites me to reevaluate my previous stereotype of Rauschenbusch as a straightforwardly postmillenial idealist.

The forgoing is apropos of our look at the hamartiology (doctrine of sin) outlined in the Theology for the Social Gospel:
Rauschenbusch topped off his six chapters on evil with a stunning description of the collective sum of evils that he called "the kingdom of evil." He argued that the ravages of human hatred, greed, and will to power negate any possibility of achieving a perfect democracy. Yet for all of that, he urged, we must seek to build a cooperative commonwealth.

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Comments

"In that respect, the concerns of the SGM dovetail with those of some contemporary religious movements -- liberation theologies, Christian anarchism and (my special concern) theologians who interpret the "principalities and powers" of the New Testament within a socio-political context."

I periodically get very curious about the origins of liberation theologies. It seems to me that there are a number of German antecedents, but I've never seen a thick account of how all these influences came together and spawned Latin American or Black liberation theology (e.g.). Do you know of any such treatments? If not, might you be induced to write a book-length study on the subject?
I might, perhaps, depending upon what counts as an "inducement." ;) Seriously, though, those are great questions. I'm not really sure what's out there in terms of a genetic-historical account looking at roots and fruits of liberation theologies, with an overarching analysis of the German contribution. One thing that does come to mind and might be helpful is something a little older, a constructive work -- Rebecca Chopp's Praxis of Suffering -- do you know it? -- which looks at Metz, Moltmann, Gutierrez and Bonino. (I see that W&S has reprinted it.)

Clodovis Boff's Theology and Praxis is constructive and methodological too, and my recollection is that it's very dense, but maybe it would help. It's been so long, frankly, it's kind of a blur.

I did stumble across a find at a book sale just yesterday -- an early book by Ruether called The Radical Kingdom (1970) -- for just a quarter! (DET readers should note that the price tag is in no way indicative of Prof. Ruether's significance. There was a lot of high quality academic stuff at this sale for nickels and dimes -- for example, C.S. Lewis' Allegory of Love in hardback, also 25 cents.) It's about the relationship between secular and religious messianisms. (She talks about your guy, Gollwitzer, and a few other German names come up too.) I don't know anything about this book, but I look forward to digging into it and maybe reporting back any interesting stuff.

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