NPJ Book Review: Christianity and the Social Crisis by Walter Rauschenbusch

Christianity and the Social Crisis by Walter Rauschenbusch (1907)

I purchased the first edition of this work decades ago. I was familiar with the Social Gospel in the 1960s and 70s and used the book for a paper I wrote in graduate school.

My question upon rereading in 2021: how long will the dignity of religious belief – intellectually, culturally, socially or even morally remain relevant? Politically, it’s part of the playbook of politicians and true believers regardless of the truth of their belief. 

 Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason observed – My own mind is my own church” and went on to say that man must be faithful to himself. “Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

The US Constitution, its amendments and Declaration of Independence do not cite Christianity or any other religion as the mainstay belief of its citizens. In effect, its implication is freedom not to believe and is suggestive to the idea of collaboration not competition. Thomas Paine was quick to point it out. (See: Paine’s Age of Reason, Rights of Man, The Crisis and Thomas Paine by A.J. Ayer) as were others such as Thomas Jefferson.

This brings me to Rauschenbusch. During the early 1900s there was a growing intellectual and social progressivism to confront the growing social crisis – corporate abuse, slave labor conditions, poverty, and sense of hopelessness spread across America. Rauschenbusch understood it. He would write in this work, “Freedom too, is a holy word. The right of labor is one of the fundamental rights of man. But the cry of the right to work, in our country has been raised mainly by employers on behalf of those who were willing to help them in breaking down the resistance of organized labor.”

Rauschenbusch, in his introduction states: “Western Civilization is passing through a social revolution unparalleled in history for scope and power.”  He speaks of the economic and political dislocation and separation of America’s citizens with each other. 

Throughout his work he addresses the fact that history is never antiquated but that it’s living through each person in their lives in the present moment. In effect our existence is the culmination of our history whether good or ill.  Though chronologically dated his work brings alive the thrust of Christianity to foster love as perceived in the life of Jesus and his words and actions. That is, to cherish each other and do good, to collaborate with each other as capitalism unharnessed leads to blood lust competition, deceit, distrust, and inhumanity. 

 Rauschenbusch knew the capitalism was to serve human greed.  It was a period in history when the country was attempting to balance business with the unsavory aspects of capitalism. e.g., trusts and monopiles had been under fire earlier in the decade by President Roosevelt.

But was any variation on the theme of capitalism reliable for the sake of social justice? Rauschenbusch had thoughts on the matter. 

Central to Rauschenbusch’s theology and intellectual thought was social justice. He saw the life of Jesus as his compass, and his own life was an opportunity to bring about the necessary change to the human condition and the crisis confronting civilization.

Actions based on love, compassion for one fellows and social justice move beyond the label of “socialism” which was/is used to politically deride for the sake of political manipulation. Rauschenbusch understood the need for selflessness.  His thinking was heretical.

This is a classic work on social justice and a view of socialism within a Christian perspective in the early 1900s when the Social Gospel meant survival for those living on one meal a day or a ten-year old child working in factory for a few pennies a week or a woman who was considered unequal to a man. The list is lengthy and shameful. The Gospels were not about financial wealth building but rather about the spiritual wellness of the human soul and human dignity.

This seminal work is imperfect, and that’s positive, dated yet relevant, the theology of social justice is quite appealing. He makes a very good case for human compassion through the social enterprise. There is much written about Rauschenbusch the man and his theology, this work offers insights as to his optimism and hope for humankind.  (Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by Rauschenbusch’s theology)