12 March 2010

The Social Gospel and its Enemy

For more than a century, Christian churches in America have been divided over the concept of the "social gospel." That division has come back into public awareness after Glenn Beck reportedly advised listeners to quit churches that preached "social justice." Beck's argument, as summarized in news reports, is that such churches are little better than fronts for Communism. The man has an instinct for controversy, for now the news media are full of reports of social-gospel churches denouncing Beck and social-gospel ministers challenging him to debates.

One hundred years ago, the social gospel was the popular trend in many religious circles. A generation of clerics criticized their churches for catering too readily to the interests of the wealthy and powerful in centuries past. They reminded their congregations of Jesus's ministry to the poor and warned against focusing exclusively on moral teaching without fulfilling the church's historic role of caring for society's casualties. They met resistance from moralists who worried that the social gospel concerned itself with material matters at the expense of essential doctrine and personal morality. The majority of social-gospelers, however, would most likely have fit comfortably with the "moral majority" of the late 20th century, if not for that group's preference for entrepreneurial conservatism at home and bellicosity abroad.

Christians deserve some credit when they develop social consciousness, but Beck, despite his provocative extremism, raises old and fair questions that should make us question how useful the social gospel can be for secular progress. As far as I can tell, Beck does not dispute that Jesus preached charity for the poor. No Christian does. The controversy arises when charity is equated with "social justice." When Beck hears that term, apparently, he infers some kind of coercion, whether in the mild form of taxation or to the extreme of confiscation of wealth by the state. Critics of the social gospel emphasize that Jesus only ever recommended voluntary giving. They imply that the giving loses its virtue when it's involuntary, which suggests that some Christians give less for the benefit to the poor than for the merit they expect to earn. In any event, the critics have a point. Jesus was no Robin Hood. We have no record of him taking whatever wealth the moneychangers left behind after he scourged them out of the Temple and giving it to the poor. He only coerces giving on a moral level. There is no mandate from Jesus's own teaching for a state apparatus for the redistribution of wealth. While the Apostles allegedly practised a form of communal living, they never agitated to our knowledge for the Roman Empire to practice social justice. Instead, the church became a charitable organization unto itself and in that capacity, arguably, won most of its converts in ancient times.

My point is that if Christians try to make the argument for social justice too dependent on the example and teaching of Jesus, they could find themselves losing the argument, just as many historians now concede that the Bible vindicated slaveholders more than it mandated abolition. Since Jesus was not that concerned with the state, except to pay his taxes, he can only be of limited help to those who want to use democracy to advance the equality upon which democracy ultimately depends. He may be more useful, however, when it comes to confronting self-professed Christians with the contradictions of their entrepreneurial conservatism. For while Jesus never sketched out a model of state-organized wealth redistribution, he never fell for the old argument that people need to get wealthy in order to give to the poor. He seemed to believe that some people's wealth had something to do with other people's poverty. Why else would he say that it would be tougher for the rich to reach heaven than it would be for a camel to fit through a needle's eye? Nor had he any use for the "Protestant work ethic" or anything like it, believing instead that God would provide for everyone the way he apparently provided for the rest of nature's creatures. That's not necessarily a good example for the 21st century, but it's a good fact to put in the face of any so-called Christian who's actually an idolator -- a worshipper of The Market or Mammon itself.

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