Loconte recently wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal that claims that it “is hard to see….how Rauschenbusch's theology could be called Christian in any meaningful sense of the term.”
First, a little background from a modest paper I wrote on Rauschenbusch while in seminary:
By the turn of the last century a new theology emerged within the United States called the social gospel. Walter Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants and a Baptist, was the major proponent of this new theology. The social gospel sought to address issues of sin and salvation within the context of the Industrial Revolution and the great poverty it spawned in urban centers. The social gospel asked Christians and their churches to become advocates for the “least of these” in a society that had abandoned the poor. Rauschenbusch’s theology was optimistic. He saw human progress as an event always moving forward with the great potential for improvement of the human condition. The social gospel became the dominant theology within American churches until the optimism it expressed collapsed under the weight of two world wars and a growing sense among Christians that human progress was not always a forward event. Despite its shortcoming the Social Gospel remains one of the most important theological movements of the modern era and even today continues to impact the work of mainline Christian churches. There is much that we can learn from this theology and incorporate into the lives of our modern churches.
One of Rauschenbusch’s major works was the 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis. As Loconte points out, the book has been republished to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this important contribution to theology. Loconte, like most writers for the WJS, is a right-wing ideologue. He has been associated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and The Heritage Foundation, both arch conservative think tanks.
Here is part of what he wrote about Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel:
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.
The centennial edition of "Christianity and the Social Crisis"--just published by HarperSanFrancisco--includes essays from various liberal and progressive admirers. Tony Campolo, a left-leaning evangelical, praises Rauschenbusch's "holistic gospel" for offering both eternal life and dramatic changes in the social order. Stanley Hauerwas calls him "an evangelist of the Kingdom of God." Jim Wallis likewise lauds Rauschenbusch's "Christian social ethic" as an "eloquent and necessary corrective" to privatized faith.
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..
Loconte’s own analysis is simplistic, filled with errors, and written from the perspective of one whose organizations are often unconcerned with the plight of the "least of these." It is hardly justifiable to suggest Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel cannot be called Christian. Rather then argue point by point let me simply reprint here what I wrote in 2004 and let those interested enough in the debate draw their own conclusions about the meaning and what I believe to be the positive impact of the Social Gospel.
(Please note that as a follower of Jesus I only believe in non-violent duels - perhaps over coffee and presided over by a moderator.)