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“Social issues,” Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “are moral issues writ large.” Maybe that sounds like a straightforward statement. But it holds an emphasis, enwraps a whole theology that gave rise to the split between what we now experience as two branches of Christianity: Evangelical and mainline Protestant.

Walter RauschenbuschWhile pastoring a German Baptist church in Hell’s Kitchen in New York at the turn of the last century, Walter Rauschenbusch saw poverty and desolation at every turn. That he lived in a moment kindred to ours is immediately evident in the subject headings of his most famous book Christianity and the Social Crisis: the morale of the workers, the physical decline of the people, the crumbling of political democracy, the wedge of inequality.

This book was going to print as Rauschenbusch set off for a year’s sabbatical in Germany in 1907. He returned as a best-selling celebrity, a galvanizing figure in movement that became known as the Social Gospel. Though, as his great-grandson Paul Raushenbush tells us in our show “Occupying the Gospel,” Walter never liked that catchphrase. It’s just the Gospel, he said.

Looking at the Bible with eyes fresh from the suffering he witnessed in Hell’s Kitchen, Walter Rauschenbusch saw a call for social healing, social renewal, and social justice in and between every line. The dedication page of his book contained these shortened lines from the end of The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come! Thy Will be Done on Earth!” Walter Rauschenbusch believed in a transcendent God and an afterlife, but he came to feel that Christians had focused too much on the afterlife and not enough on their responsibilities in this life.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Walter Rauschenbusch as a formative teacher in his understanding that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the…social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

I read Walter Rauschenbusch too, when I studied theology in the early 1990s. He’s still studied at all kinds of seminaries — evangelical to mainline. He is not remembered in American culture like the twentieth-century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for example. But I’m sensing some spirit, some essence, of Social Gospel theology as 21st-century Americans apply faith to social issues and crises now. And as Paul Raushenbush points out, a most interesting example of this is the way in which new generations of Evangelicals have been engaging on matters of social justice — taking on the environment, global poverty, and human trafficking. They may care as deeply about what we think of in our time as “moral values issues.” But they’re seeing a Gospel, as Walter Rauschenbusch did, that compels them to see social issues as moral issues too.

Paul Raushenbush & Sami AwadPaul Raushenbush moderates an online chat with Sami Awad for the Global Voices of Non-Violence conference. (Photo courtesy of EGM Ethnographic Media)

In connecting these dots, Paul Raushenbush is a lovely conversation partner. He grew up largely unaffected, at least overtly, by the legacy of his great-grandfather. He became a rock and roll producer in Europe after college. He flamed out. Recovery, “getting clean,” was part of his return to faith. He ministered to street youth in Seattle and San Paolo, Brazil, and worked at Riverside Church in New York, and then became a chaplain and associate dean of religious affairs at Princeton. He was there for eight years before leaving to be full-time senior editor of the Huffington Post religion section, which he helped launch in 2010.

He has many interesting things to tell about the Social Gospel, religiosity among the young in our time, and his view of modern religion from an ultra-modern online perch. None is more counterintuitive, perhaps, than the fact that he is constantly urging contributors to the religion section of the Huffington Post to “be more religion-y.” The posts that go viral are often about getting grounded in tradition — learning the basics of the Bible, for example. In his piece of the famously liberal Huffington Post universe, he welcomes conservative voices. A progressive Christian himself, he is impatient when his fellow liberal faithful are less passionate than others, less articulate in communicating the Gospel they believe in. I have a feeling, in Paul’s presence, that he doesn’t merely give voice but embodies the theological spirit of his great-grandfather, in a most intriguing way.


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2 Comments

My father was "religion-y" but my mother wasn't. I didn't realize the conflict that caused in their 60 year relationship until they moved in with me ten years ago. I have two brothers and sisters. We were "religion-y" when we grew up. During my years of higher learning at university I became like my mother. My older brother and sister and younger sister remained "religion-y". The older brother didn't visit often but on one occasion he tried to "save" our 90 year old Mom. She cried for about 2 hours after he left. She couldn't figure out what she had done wrong. When Mom calmed down she told me to tell her "religion-y" older son not to visit again.

During the 3 years that my father lived my older sister came to visit fairly often on weekends when she wasn't somewhere overseas trying to save other people. She wanted to give my father the spiritual nourishment I failed to provide. She made those weekends hell. After Dad died my sister wanted to visit Mom often enough I suggested we try to get along better to make the visits less stressful. She said, "Your unbelief is an impediment to us getting along." Mom died July 2010. My older sister remained civil to me until I told her what my plan was for Mom's ashes. We haven't communicated for nearly a year. My younger sister didn't visit because of distance. We communicated until a couple months ago. After a skype call she wrote and said she felt "moved" to tell me I was having a "Samuel" moment. In a return email I assured her she misinterpreted her movement and I haven't heard from her since.

Religion has divided the family of this man and religions have divided humanity. I know this is a "religion-y" site but I have to say it makes me so angry when, in the face of over 2000 years of evidence to the contrary, I read a person can still think the solution to our current mess is that we "be more religion-y". If only God could save us from spiritual leaders we might survive. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poems...

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