To most American voters in 1972, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was way too liberal on many issues—and he was beaten badly by incumbent Richard Nixon. But to many fellow Methodists he was also a churchgoing humanitarian who in the 1960s directed the new Food for Peace Program and a forward-looking politician informed by the Social Gospel.
One hundred years ago this summer, a fundamentalist Christian stood before the convention of a major political party and offered an impromptu resolution. He ended his impassioned speech by quoting words of Jesus. The speech was not what you might expect.
The goals of the Social Gospel movement, the ideas of men such as G. Stanley Hall and Theodore Roosevelt, Christians' attitudes toward World War I, the development of institutions such as the Federal Council of Churches, the Boy Scouts and the Young Men's Christian Association—these are the sorts of topics Clifford Putney covers.
While I was writing this review, I came across a statement from the managing editor of Christianity Today, who wrote that his magazine offers "independent journalism about an important niche of American Christianity." He went on to say, "We are the 'new mainline,' a principal voice of Protestant Christianity in America."
In the first issue of the magazine named the Christian Century, in January 1900, the editors said that their special interest was in “the application of Christian principles to character and social problems.” They also spoke of their hope to make the kingdom of God “a divine reality in human society.” This, of course, was what we know today as the “social gospel”—the attempt to move beyond individual piety to address broad social problems. What relevance does that social gospel vision have today?
The current meltdown is just a bigger version of the dot-com bust of the 1990s, with the usual lessons about financial bubbles. But this crisis is harder to swallow, because it starts with people who were just trying to buy a house, who usually had no understanding of predatory lending or derivatives schemes. It was a mystery how the banks did it, but you trusted that they knew what they were doing. Your bank resold the mortgage to an aggregator who bunched it up with thousands of other subprime mortgages, chopped the package into small pieces, and sold them as corporate bonds to parties looking for extra yield. Your mortgage payments paid for the interest on the bonds.
In the 1880s Walter Rauschenbusch was a Baptist pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City, where he served a poor, hurting, immigrant congregation and where he converted to the social gospel. His searing encounter with urban poverty, especially the funerals that he performed for children, drove him to political activism and a social-progressive understanding of Christianity.
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