Christianity and the State
Individuality means tyranny
While Woodrow Wilson “evolved”, a great deal was happening in Progressive circles; there were many voices from various points of view. In all of the noise, something fascinating began to take place, Christianity became as one with Progressive socialism. In time, Woodrow Wilson would personify the union of the two.
Of course not all Christians would have anything to do with such things, but a movement began to take place, a movement that came to be called the “Social Gospel Movement”. The driving force behind the Social Gospel was that society’s many problems needed Christian solutions that were applications of Christian “laws” to social circumstances. Problems such as poverty, alcoholism, child labor, employee rights and crime ran counter to the teachings of Scripture, and the leaders of the Social Gospel believed that the only way to correct these social problems was by the imposition of the “Christian ethic” on the State, and the State imposing it on the population.
In the early days of the Progressive Era, this was a popular and well received idea.
Walter Rauschenbusch put it this way:
“New forms of association must be created. Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life.”
Rauschenbusch and the other leaders of the Social Gospel believed that the State was the right arm of God and the means by which the Nation and the world would be redeemed. 1 You might guess at this point that there was more involved theologically in this, and there was: The Social Gospel, in its early days, was based upon a Postmillennial understanding of the New Testament, which holds that before Christ can return to the earth in the Second Coming, the world first needed to become purified and uncorrupted by sin, and that their Social Gospel, with the State as its right arm would eventually usher in Christ’s return.
To be quite fair to the early Social Gospel, this was also the view of several of the framers of the Constitution back in 1787, although they sought a radically different path to accomplishing it.
Many people, especially in the middle class, found this new view of things frightening, and did not go along with it. This group Included such well-known preachers as Dwight Moody who believed that the Gospel was about receiving salvation for the soul, rather than a basis for State control of everyday life. With that, the battle lines were drawn.
The Social Gospel Progressives began early in an effort to separate children from their families ideologically, expanding greatly public schools and supporting compulsory education, which on the surface seems great; we needed to educate our young of course, but there was a more sinister side to it, for children were then taken into something completely new: Kindergarten. Many people objected to this, and as time went more and more people began to notice that what many children were learning in school was at sharp odds with what their parents believed in many areas of life. As we all know, these issues are still controversial in the early 21st century. Woodrow Wilson himself would comment on the nature of education as president of Princeton University: “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life… [but] to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”
As our story continues in upcoming episodes, we will see a great deal more about how the Social Gospel became an important part of early Progressivism, and how it was later purged. To wrap up this episode, I am going to put a number of links in this post for those who are interested in finding out more about the early Social Gospel Movement and its leaders. Please note that these are Wikipedia links, and Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information. In reading these articles, I think they are more than fair, but the more important resource than the articles themselves, is the links they contain at the end, which lead to some very good online sources, for your further review.
1 Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: Abingdon Press, 1917.