Last month San Francisco residents commemorated the centennial of one of the biggest disasters in American history, the 1906 earthquake. The centennial of another disaster is coming up next year, and it won't get nearly as much publicity, but it should: In 1907 Walter Rauschenbusch published his major book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. It promoted a theological earthquake called the social gospel, a doctrine that placed the emphasis on liberal social change rather than evangelism.
Evangelicals these days tend to be harsh on Rauschenbusch, but I'd like to give him one cheer. Born in 1861, he was 25 when he became the pastor of a church in the New York slum realistically known as "Hell's Kitchen." For a dozen years he directly witnessed life and death amid dire poverty; the effect on him was enormous. He later wrote, "Oh, the children's funerals! they gripped my heart. That was one of the things I always went away thinking about-why did the children have to die?"
So Rauschenbusch knew the poor and cared about them. He was different from secular intellectual leaders then known as Social Darwinists who argued in the abstract that children should die so that society would thrive by having only the fittest survive. Late 19th-century Social Darwinists accused Christians of having a "maudlin impulse to prolong the lives of the unfit." Social Darwinist leader Herbert Spencer wrote that "the unfit must be eliminated as nature intended, for the principle of natural selection must not be violated by the artificial preservation of those least able to take care of themselves."
For Christians, that was obviously an unsatisfactory answer: God creates all people in His image, so our goal is not to purge some but to point all to the gospel. Give Rauschenbusch credit for caring, and don't blame him too much for coming to the conclusion that capitalism was the culprit. There were many uncompassionate captains of industry, and their worship of mammon rather than God led many ministers, along with authors such as William Dean Howells, to form the Society of Christian Socialists.
Some opponents of Social Darwinism developed a theology out of their economic views. Professor Richard Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, wrote in his influential book, Social Aspects of Christianity, that higher taxes on the middle class and the affluent-"coercive philanthropy"-would "establish among us true cities of God." Anglican Bishop William Freemantle's The World as the Subject of Redemption praised socialist approaches as "the fullest service rendered on earth to God, the nearest thing as yet within our reach to the kingdom of heaven."
Rauschenbusch absorbed such ideas and became a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, where his father had taught before him. There he melded his experiences and Christian socialist ideology and came out with the social gospel. He did not invent the doctrine but he publicized it effectively; Christianity and the Social Crisis was the bestselling religious book three years in a row. Liberal New York preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick said the book "ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action."
The new era had a definite political kick. In his bestseller, Rauschenbusch wrote, "Socialism is coming to be the very life-breath of the intelligent working-class." He contrasted that with market systems: "Competitive commerce exalts selfishness . . . competition has proved itself suicidal to economic welfare. Christian men have a stouter reason for turning against it; because it slays human character and denies human brotherhood."
We should not be harsh with Rauschenbusch because we have learned a lot over the past century, a century filled with disdain for competitive commerce and autocrats who rode that disdain to political power. We've seen that socialism reduces the role of the economically powerful only by letting the politically powerful become dictators. We've seen the dangers of emphasizing winner-take-all politics rather than markets that allow thousands of individual decisions.
We've also seen the tendency of market competition to mitigate extreme selfishness by forcing us to think of others-for sellers within a competitive capitalist environment make money only by providing goods and services that others will voluntarily purchase. And, most important of all, we've seen how governments that remove economic freedom usually take away religious liberty as well.