Orthodoxy and the Social Gospel

“Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9-10

Many high school students in my generation shared the experience of having to read selections from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. The book describes the tragic story of Lithuanian immigrants working under harrowing conditions in Chicago’s meat processing industry. Sinclair hoped it would serve as a sort of tract for socialism—the book even ends with the protagonist having an “altar call” experience at a political meeting, becoming a socialist, and then spreading the good news to his mother-in-law. 

However, most of us who had to read it in high school—and most people in Sinclair’s time—just remember how the conditions of the factories grossed them out. As Sinclair put it in one interview: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Indeed, The Jungle inspired the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act in the same year as its publication, but socialism has remained elusive.

That said, the era was an age of social reforms, often supported not only by socialist activists like Sinclair but concerned Christians, even pastors and theologians, seeking to spread what came to be termed the “social gospel.” The Jungle serves as a window into the social problem these Christian activists sought to remedy in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

To cite just one example, the novel begins with a poor but joyous Lithuanian wedding reception. The first glimpse of the factory worker’s plight comes in the image of a couple, Jadvyga and Mikolas, swaying on the dance floor. “This is the fifth year, now, that Jadvyga has been engaged to Mikolas, and her heart is sick,” Sinclair writes. Why? Mikolas’s father is an alcoholic, and there is no other man to support his large family. Struggling to provide and save for his and Jadvyga’s wedding, he labors on piecework as a “beef-boner,” which Sinclair tells us “is a dangerous trade.” He continues, 

Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a bone…. Twice now; within the last three years, Mikolas has been lying at home with blood poisoning—once for three months and once for nearly seven. The last time, too, he lost his job, and that meant six weeks more of standing at the doors of the packing houses…. There are learned people who can tell you out of the statistics that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these people have never looked into a beef-boner’s hands.

While the immediate response came in the form of food safety legislation, the social gospel represents a longstanding movement that speaks to deeper wells of compassion in “the public’s heart” than Sinclair perceived.

In contrast to my previous essays on Roman Catholic, Neo-Calvinist, and Lutheran social thought, the social gospel reflects American religious pluralism, transcending denominational boundaries and even the poles of “conservative” and “liberal” theology. That said, I will here focus on the two arguably most well-known figures of the movement: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Both were theological liberals in their time, but Gladden was a Congregationalist and Rauschenbusch a Baptist.

In his work as a pastor, Gladden became familiar with the rising movement of organized labor, which he actively supported. Yet his perspective offers an admirable balance too often missing in narratives of the time: “I knew these employers, many of them, to be men of humane and generous purposes; I knew many of the workingmen, and was in entire sympathy with their condition; and I witnessed with sorrow and alarm the widening of the breach between these classes….” He believed that all social relations should be governed by “the law of Christ” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), which he took to imply both service to others and self-care. He also sought to ground his economic ethics in economic science, favoring the historical school.

Seeing the growing enmity between employers and factory workers, Gladden asked the question, “Is It Peace or War?” in an 1886 speech. He noted how the incomes of many professions had increased during the Industrial Revolution, including clergy, doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and artists. “A large share of the national income falls into the hands of such persons,” he admitted. Welfare was on the rise, but not equally so. The industrial workers’ wages did not evince a proportional increase, and their working conditions required improvement. He argued that, to the extent employers had colluded to influence legislation in their favor, employees were more than justified in organizing for their interests as well. However, he warned, “Surely the world is not enriched by warfare; it is impoverished, rather.” Continued conflict would undermine the interests of both capital and labor. Like St. Paul, he argued for “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31), i.e., love.

For Gladden this meant shorter work days, profit sharing, nationalization of utilities, ending child labor, and the use of arbitrage instead of boycotts by organized labor. One may disagree with his practical recommendations, but the simple biblical basis of love for one’s neighbor and Gladden’s balanced, non-polemical application is admirable. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that he lacked theological sophistication. The same cannot be said for his younger contemporary Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch witnessed the workers’ struggle during his time as a pastor in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. And like Gladden his social interests were broad—he opposed racial injustice and supported Prohibition, as did Gladden. Rauschenbusch was also a committed pacifist and opposed all violence and war. His economic perspective was likely more Georgist and socialist than Gladden’s, and generally less economically-informed, but his theological vision was far more expansive. Indeed, in his 1917 book A Theology for the Social Gospel, he sought to provide a unifying theology for the movement.

Despite his liberalism, Rauschenbusch really did try to offer a theology that would unite a wide variety of perspectives, including theological “conservatives” (from a Protestant point of view). It is fair to say that he didn’t succeed in that ecumenical goal, but he did inspire many during and after his time, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr.

For Rauschenbusch, the social gospel found its biblical justification in the Kingdom of God, central to Jesus’s preaching but, he believed, too often sidelined in Church history. One need not share his assessment to agree that neglect of social ministry and confusion concerning God’s kingdom are potential dangers for all Christians in every age. Nevertheless, his work is profoundly marked by his time and context. 

At its best, his understanding of the Kingdom is akin to the Roman Catholic principle of solidarity—he argued that the world needs salvation not only from individual sin but sinful social structures, and to that end he sought to recast classic Christian doctrines, such as sin, eschatology, and atonement with an eye toward addressing the social problems of his day. All people have a familial bond under God as “our Father,” and Christians have a responsibility in the present to embody the prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

At his worst, Rauschenbusch seems to simply equate the Kingdom of God, salvation, and social justice with a naïve form of direct democracy: “The fundamental step of repentance and conversion for professions and organizations is to give up monopoly power and the incomes derived from legalized extortion, and to come under the law of service, content with a fair income for honest work.” These are fair points as far as they go, but he continues: “The corresponding step in the case of governments and political oligarchies, both in monarchies and in capitalistic semi-democracies, is to submit to real democracy. Therewith they step out of the Kingdom of Evil into the Kingdom of God.” 

Now, I’m a supporter of democracy, but there are good and bad forms of it. American “capitalistic semi-democrac[y]” has arguably succeeded despite a multitude of failures. The First French Republic, which by contrast lacked the United States’ system of checks and balances, resulted in the Reign of Terror and ended just sixteen years later with the despotic First Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Furthermore, many monarchies and aristocracies across the world have successfully added democratic elements and embraced modern political liberty. Even where an earthly good, however, I’m uncomfortable with so flatly equating democracy and the Kingdom of God. 

Despite Rauschenbusch’s protests to the contrary, his version of the social gospel comes off as too utopian today. We Orthodox would do well to temper our own aspirations with the caution of Abba Poemen, one of the desert fathers: “If a man makes a new heaven and a new earth, he still cannot be safe from temptation.” 

In his defense, Rauschenbusch only advocated for continued progress, not static perfection, which is actually quite Orthodox. St. Gregory of Nyssa even defined spiritual perfection as a process of perpetual progress. But when applied to society, where our work directly and indirectly affects the lives of others, we ought to be wary of unintended consequences. 

No element of the social gospel movement more clearly illustrates this than the many, like Gladden and Rauschenbusch, who supported Prohibition. The goal was noble: reduce drunkenness and alcoholism, in turn decreasing domestic abuse and broken families. While there may have been minor successes in that regard, the resulting black market for alcohol and outbreak of organized crime far outweighed any benefits. There are limits to the state’s power to improve the social order that many failed to see.

Nevertheless, Rauschenbusch’s goal of providing a theology for the social gospel, and the broader movement’s humanitarian work, are commendable. Could we Orthodox provide a better theology for the social gospel today? If so, on what basis? Having sampled various approaches of other traditions to modern Christian social thought, I intend in future essays to explore the many and rich resources in Holy Tradition for engaging with modern economies and economics for that end today.