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Protesting Classes through Protestant Glasses: Class, Labor, and the Social Gospel in the United States

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Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)

Abstract

One way to consider the relationship between religion and class in the United States today is through an interpretation of select Protestant social gospel responses to conflicts between labor and capital from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. This chapter will explore the social gospel’s nuanced engagement with class, through the perspective of Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch as representative figures, to show how it was actually more attuned to class issues than many of its critics and even well-wishers suspect.1 The discussion to follow is not whether class mattered but how it mattered for them—especially with respect to members of the working class, the permissible range of their activity and the legitimacy of their agency. The social gospel has long been criticized for being idealistic, moralistic, and unable to address edgy questions of class. The question is whether Protestants (and other legatees of this tradition) are rendered unable to think about structures of economic inequality through the lens of class.

Keywords

Social Order Common Good Social Ethic Class Division Catholic Social Teaching 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Many view Washington Gladden as the prophet or the “father” of the social gospel. See Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 35.Google Scholar
  2. Also, see Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (Maiden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 61.Google Scholar
  3. Also, see Jacob Henry Dorn, Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966, 1967). As for Rauschenbusch, Christopher H. Evans argues that he moved the social gospel “to the center of American Protestant identity.”Google Scholar
  4. See Christopher H. Evans, The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), xxiv.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Frank Mason North, “The Church and Modern Industry,” ed. Elias B. Sanford, Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America: Report of the First Meeting of the Federal Council, Philadelphia, 1908 (New York: Revell Press, 1909), 227–228.Google Scholar
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    Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union, The Epic Story of Labor in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 289–290.Google Scholar
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    Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles: 1877–1934 (New York: Pathfinder, 1936), 121–122.Google Scholar
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    Louis Adamic, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (Oakland: AK Press, 2008). This edition includes a foreword by Jon Bekken (former general secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World) who argues that the book is “an important document in the historiography of the labor movement … and was the first popular general history of the American labor movement—a distinction it retained for more than twenty years,” 1.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Herbert F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Octagon Books, 1963, reprint of the original 1949 text) structures part IV of his book to describe three types of “social Christianity”—conservative, progressive (the Social Gospel) and radical social Christianity including Christian socialists such as Vida D. Scudder, William Dwight Porter Bliss of the Society of Christian Socialists, and George Herron. Ralph E. Luker extends the social gospel beyond white Protestant clergy in The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Ldealism, Realism, & Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 187.Google Scholar
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    Shailer Mathews, “Social Gospel,” A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics, ed. Shailer Mathews and Gerald Birney Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 416. The resort to this definition self-consciously stands in a long tradition of attempts to summarize the social gospel on the basis of Mathews’ insight ranging from C. H. Hopkins (1940) to Christopher H. Evans and Susan Hill Lindley (2001) even as Evans and Lindley appropriately point to the limitations of Mathews’ definition.Google Scholar
  16. The very issue of the definition of the social gospel and who gets included or excluded is the concern of Susan Hill Lindley in her essay “Deciding Who Counts: Toward a Revised Definition of the Social Gospel” in Christopher H. Evans, ed., The Social Gospel Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Paul A. Carter, The Decline and Revival of the Social Gospel: Social and Political Liberalism in American Protestant Churches, 1920–1940 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954), 220–231.Google Scholar
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    Ronald C. White, Jr., and C. Howard Hopkins, eds., The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976), xi.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    Tim Suttle, An Evangelical Social Gospel? Finding God’s Story in the Midst of Extremes (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).Google Scholar
  20. 29.
    Washington Gladden, Working People and Their Employers (Boston: Lockwood, Brooks, 1876), 39.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Washington Gladden, Applied Christianity: Moral Aspects of Social Questions (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894), 32.Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    Washington Gladden, Tools and the Man: Property and Industry under the Christian Law (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893), 179.Google Scholar
  23. 43.
    Washington Gladden, The Labor Question (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1911), 4–5.Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (Waco: Baylor University Press, 1912, 2010), 311.Google Scholar
  25. Also, see Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1907, 1991), 219–220, 231.Google Scholar
  26. 51.
    Walter Rauchenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1917, 1978), 131.Google Scholar
  27. 52.
    See Evans, The Kingdom Is Always but Coming, 80–81, 137. This description of Hell’s Kitchen is drawn from Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 991.Google Scholar
  28. 65.
    Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1932, 1960), xx.Google Scholar
  29. For this revisionist interpretation of Rauschenbusch relative to Niebuhr’s criticism of the social gospel, I am indebted to multiple reminders from Evans, The Kingdom Is Always but Coming, 301, as well as Gary Dorrien, The Making of Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, & Modernity 1900–1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2003), 105.Google Scholar
  30. Also, see Gary Dorrien, Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 18–19;Google Scholar
  31. Cornel West, “Can These Dry Bones Live?” in Paul Raushenbush, ed., Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 234.Google Scholar
  32. 74.
    E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1963), 8–9.Google Scholar
  33. 77.
    Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Octagon Books, 1963), 235.Google Scholar
  34. 82.
    Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Walker C. Smith, and William E. Trautman, Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s, ed. Salvatore Salerno (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1997).Google Scholar
  35. 86.
    For a sophisticated account of Roman Catholic notions of the common good, see Brian Stiltner, Religion and the Common Good: Catholic Contributions to Building Community in a Liberal Society (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).Google Scholar
  36. For a more popular account see Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley, A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).Google Scholar
  37. Recent liberal Protestant contributions include Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011)Google Scholar
  38. and Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.Google Scholar
  39. Evangelical Protestant contributions include Charles Gutenson, Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011)Google Scholar
  40. and Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  41. Also, see the last chapter of Gary Dorrien’s book on Barack Obama’s administration, The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).Google Scholar

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© Joerg Rieger 2013

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