What do liberals give up for Lent? (Part 1)

Apparently not their liberalism—a liberalism that in most cases has one foot planted in politics and the other in theology. As the politically-liberal blogosphere has followed in the footsteps of its older-media kin by granting the traditional obligatory coverage to the Easter holiday season, I’ve noticed that the positioning of these two feet has remained generally consistent with what I’ve come to expect from from the likes of Time and Newsweek down through the years, with one key difference: where the older media tried to at least feign a kind of critical “distance” from the subject of religion under the premise of journalistic objectivity, today’s bloggers do not appear so constrained. Their postmodernist impressment of Christian themes into the service of a liberal political agenda bears a striking resemblance to the nearly-identical modernist practice of 100 years ago.

Brushing with broad strokes
Now, the marriage of political and theological liberalism is not always a given. It is not universally true that those who are liberal in their political views are also liberal in their ideas about God and the Bible (assuming, of course, that we are talking about professing Christians). I have friends who are fairly conservative in their theology but liberal in their politics. But in the United States at least, such people have been the exception to the rule for quite some time. (I’m also acquainted with folk who are theologically liberal but politically conservative—an apparently larger group, but one that I do not run into in my own conservative theological circles).

So while it is not always the case that those who sit on the left side of the political aisle also sit on the left side of the pew, apparently it is usually the case, at least in our time. According to one distinguished church historian, the genesis of this phenomenon can be dated to a specific period in American history:

This association of progressive politics with liberal theology came at the same time as a deep crisis was brewing over theological issues. The result of this conjunction of theological and social crises was that twentieth-century American Protestantism began to split into two major parties, not only between conservatives and liberals in theology but correspondingly between conservatives and progressives politically. Conservative theology began to be associated with conservative politics and liberal theology with progressive politics. This development, which was gradual, has sometimes been called “the great reversal” in American evangelicalism. Until this time in American history considerable numbers of revivalist evangelicals had always been in the forefront of social and political reform efforts (antislavery, for instance), even though many other evangelicals had been socially conservative. In the twentieth century, however, evangelical participation in progressive reforms, except in some of the older crusades such as for prohibition, dwindled sharply. As theological liberals spoke more and more about the social implications of the gospel, revivalist evangelicals spoke of them correspondingly less.

[George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 30.]

The varieties of theological liberalism
The “deep crisis” to which Marsden refers that “was brewing over theological issues” was the result of an invasion of liberal theology from European academia into American churches that began in the 19th century. Much of that theology was nothing less than a wholesale abandonment of historic Christianity, in which

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

[H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, (Middletown, CT, USA: Wesleyan University Press, 1937; 1988), 193.]

But it was also a highly optimistic theology well suited for a confident age. During the 19th century, both the theological and the increasingly secularized brands of postmillennialism (which held that the Kingdom of God would come to one extent or another through the efforts of men rather than solely by the intervention of God) competed for adherents.

Because of their revised estimate of man’s nature and their tendency to interpret the entire evolutionary process as ultimately for mankind’s benefit, liberals were fervently optimistic about the destiny of the human race. Supported by the apparent success of democratic governments and the evidence of scientific and technological advances, their confidence in the future outran even that of the Enlightenment’s apostles of progress. The Kingdom of God was given a this-worldly interpretation and viewed as something men would build within the natural historical process.

[Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2nd ed., (New Haven, CT, USA and London, UK: Yale University Press, 2004), 780.]

A seemingly unbounded optimism in human potential was nourished by a steady stream of remarkable inventions, fruit from the garden of the Scientific Revolution dropping from the trees of the scientific method, as it were. Even when the offspring of the new science, the Industrial Revolution, seemed to be creating more problems than it solved, luring workers into grinding poverty in cities where they often choked on the smoke of the very factories that drew them, it simply gave liberalism’s positive thinkers a second wind.

Good News for Modernist Man
After all, the steady march of human progress had suffered setbacks before. Yes, the American Civil War had ended slavery, but it had also claimed 600,000 lives, laid waste the cities of the South, and set multitudes on a cycle of poverty that would last well into the 20th century. For those who could not reconcile the advancement of God’s Kingdom with any form of violence, whether human or divine, this should have made the final victory seem hollow, indeed.

But instead of tarnishing the liberal doctrine of inherent human goodness, from its very beginning the conflict was reinterpreted by most theological liberals as a necessary battle to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. In November 1861, after visiting Abraham Lincoln at the White House, the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) borrowed William Steffe‘s (1830-1890) campfire song melody—the one that had recently been popularized with the abolitionist lyrics, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave / His soul is marching on!”—and created the mid-19th century version of a platinum record.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

[Julia Ward Howe, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” 3rd stanza, in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1862, 10. ]

Nineteenth century theological liberals redefined the “gospel” on an ad hoc basis. For the liberals of the Civil War era, where the old Gospel had been delivered by “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21, KJV), the new gospel would be delivered through muzzles of steel. The old Gospel offered the grace of forgiveness. The new gospel offered a reward for dealing with those who opposed God’s justice. The old Gospel crushed the head of a personal Satan who had lured mankind into personal sin. The new gospel crushed the head of an impersonal, corporate Satan that had lured society into corporate sin.

In 1862 liberals could still sing “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” (eleven months before the Emancipation Proclamation!) although precisely how Christ’s death was connected to men’s holiness was left conveniently undefined. Words like “glory,” “hallelujah,” “truth,” and even “grace” were useful for supplying evocative force and the illusion of biblical support. Few if any 19th century liberals were remotely interested in any of the historic definitions of biblical terms, beginning with the definition of the Kingdom of God, which for them was exclusively concerned with justice in this world as opposed to salvation in the next—the redemption of society on Earth instead of the redemption of souls for heaven.

And now, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a new battle to be fought. America’s Gilded Age (1865-1893) had spawned a host of social evils—well, actually, it was a fairly short list, but social evils called for a Social Gospel, nevertheless, and a Social Gospel required a suitable vocabulary. The old meanings of words like “sin” and “redemption” would have to go, as one of the most visible leaders of the Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), explained:

Sin is essentially selfishness. That definition is more in harmony with the social gospel than with any individualistic type of religion. The sinful mind, then, is the unsocial and anti-social mind. To find the climax of sin we must not linger over a man who swears, or sneers at religion, or denies the mystery of the trinity, but put our hands on social groups who have turned the patrimony of a nation into the private property of a small class, or have left the peasant labourers cowed, degraded, demoralized, and without rights in the land. When we find such in history, or in present-day life, we shall know we have struck real rebellion against God on the higher levels of sin.

[Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, (New York, NY, USA: The Macmillan Company, 1917), 50.]

For Rauschenbusch, the essence of sin was not found in each individual’s disobedience to the law of God, but in the exploitation of the masses by social élites. The human evil that really mattered was not universal, but limited to a select group, and primary offenses were horizontal (man against man) rather than vertical (man against God) in nature.

But if sin is to be redefined in terms of social evils, and salvation redefined in terms of deliverance from these evils through human effort, then why did Christ die on the cross? It appears that would have to be redefined as well, or at least re-explained:

Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B.C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A.D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.

[Rauschenbusch, ibid., 247.]

The statement “Christ died for your sins” meant essentially the same thing to Rauschenbush as the title of the book Custer Died For Your Sins meant to its author, Vine Deloria, Jr. Thus the cross of Christ was by no means central to the Social Gospel. In fact, the cross of the New Testament Gospel as such did not really exist in the Social Gospel. Its imagery merely intersected with it by illustrating what supposedly was central: the need for an ongoing program leading to a great leveling and uniting of mankind, a program which for Rauschenbusch was synonymous with both the Kingdom and the Gospel.

Jesus, like all the prophets and like all his spiritually minded countrymen, lived in the hope of a great transformation of the national, social, and religious life about him. …

All these acts and sayings [of Jesus] receive their real meaning when we think of them in connection with the kingdom of God, the ideal human society to be established. Instead of a society resting on coercion, exploitation, and inequality, Jesus desired to found a society resting on love, service, and equality. … The kingdom of God is the true human society; the ethics Jesus taught the true social conduct which would create the true society. This would be Christ’s test for any custom, law, or institution: does it draw men together or divide them?

[Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, (New York, NY, USA: The Macmillan Company, 1913), 64, 70-71.]

Rauschenbusch’s books were certainly timely. During the first two decades of the 20th century, his Social Gospel rode the liberal political wave known as “progressivism” like a surfer hanging ten at Malibu. Public sentiment for theological liberalism’s social agenda had turned dramatically in its favor. “Through the election of 1916 every major presidential candidate considered himself ‘progressive'” (Marsden, ibid., 29).

But just as Rauschenbusch’s God without wrath seemed poised to bring men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross, something terrible happened.


[This article is cross-posted at reading Scripture.]


Comments

What do liberals give up for Lent? (Part 1) — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting this great article. It is extremely helpful in light of the current political and theological trends. There is no great surprise that the theology of Raushenbush continues to drive political and mainstream churches of our day. The shocking thing is that it has emerged in evangelical churches, including those where pastors have been trained at conservative, Bible believing seminaries.

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