15 February 2012

The Social Gospel debate renewed

For more than a century, American Christians have debated the viability of a so-called "social gospel." The division over this concept arguably anticipates the eventual left-right division of the body politic in general. As Cal Thomas explains in a recent column, the social gospel is "largely a creation of 20th-century Protestants who believed in applying “Christian principles” to rectify society’s problems." Specifically, social gospelers believe that Christians have an imperative duty to improve the material as well as the spiritual condition of the poor. The most radical among them argue that material aid is a prerequisite for spiritual redemption. Opponents of the social gospel insist on the priority of spiritual salvation. Thomas summarizes their critique:

 Deeds quickly supplanted faith, evolving into a “works salvation” theology, which says if you do enough good works, God will be pleased and let you into Heaven when you die. This contradicts biblical teaching that it is by faith and not works that one is saved from judgment (Ephesians 2:8-9). Some verses teach works as an extension of faith, revealing its depth and seriousness, but they equally teach that works without faith in Jesus is not enough. This is traditional Christian theology.

Thomas finds this newly relevant following the President's talk at the last National Prayer Breakfast. He believes that Obama misinterpreted Luke 12:48 -- "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much more will be asked." In Thomas's reading, or that of his pastor, it is God only who will make these demands, not "the people" or the state. To a certain extent, God may be presumed to demand the same thing the state or the people might, that the needy be taken care of. On how they're taken care of, God and man, or church and state, may differ. Thomas believes they should.

 True charity has a purpose beyond the satisfaction of physical needs. Its objective is to change hearts so that whatever is making someone poor will help them become less so. Meeting physical needs is the primary work of the church and individuals, not government, which changes no heart and does a poor job of making people self-sustaining. Government should be a last resort, not a first resource.

It may be true that Jesus never recommended dependence upon the state, but it may also be true that he disparaged the very idea of individual independence that underlies adversarial relations with the state. In his mind, probably, everyone was equally dependent upon God and thus equally responsible for fulfilling any divine mandate for justice. Apart from believing in spiritual salvation on the individual level, Jesus most likely did not espouse an "every man for himself" social philosophy. While some believers may say that he performed miracles only to demonstrate his power and prove his divinity, it could be argued that there'd be no point to his feeding the hungry or healing the sick if only the afterlife mattered to him. My own position on poverty and social responsibility has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, but it's important to remember that the "Christian right" doesn't speak for all Christians on social issues, and that the laissez-faire individualism endorsed by the American Christian right except on sexual matters is not the default Christian position. Cal Thomas presumes that, as a spokesman for a certain kind of Christian tradition, he knows what Jesus meant better than millions of other Christians. The fact that people can't agree on his meaning after 2,000 years probably reflects poorly on Jesus, but if some people understand him to demand a more humane and equitable society, who is anyone to correct them?


Anonymous said...

His entire argument is baseless, because his faith does not sustain the government, nor does the charity of the christian religion. This government owes nothing to religion and is not beholden to the teachings or demands of any religion nor the whining and supplication of it's believers.

This government is "of the people, by the people, for the people". ALL the people, not just members of a specific church, creed or religion.

Samuel Wilson said...

His argument might have a base if he could prove that pro-government Christians can find no support for their views in the Bible, but if those Christians have any sense of citizenship they won't need to rely exclusively on the Bible to justify the welfare state. In any event, right-wingers like Thomas haven't managed in more than a century to convince many Christians that the "social gospel" is wrong.