Flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Social Gospel Movement was a Protestant intellectual phenomenon headed by clergymen who sought to reconcile Christianity with a progressive social agenda; who saw the state as the instrument by which God could intervene in human affairs and promote the collectivism supposedly advocated by Jesus. This collectivism, said exponents of the Social Gospel, held the keys to the eradication of all manner of societal ills – inequality, alcoholism, crime, racism, poverty, ignorance, exploitation, and violence.
Whereas conservative theologians saw redemption and reconciliation strictly as matters between each individual and God, progressives in the Social Gospel Movement held that redemption could only be achieved collectively, by means of unified, social and political activism. They maintained, moreover, that the Second Coming of Christ could not occur until humankind had eliminated all social evils by means of such activism. One notable mouthpiece of the Social Gospel was the Baptist minister and theologian Walter Rauschenbush, who said: “Individualism means tyranny.”
Father Charles Coughlin, a star of the early radio age, was perhaps the most famous progressive theologian whose views grew out of the Social Gospel Movement. From 1926-29, his radio program dealt almost exclusively with religious and moral topics. But after the stock market crash of 1929, Coughlin immersed himself in politics and grew into the most successful political commentator of the era. “Capitalism is doomed and is not worth trying to save,” he said. Condemning laissez faire economics, he warned that the U.S. economy would not right itself without government intervention, and he identified “international bankers” as the villains behind the recent economic collapse.
A passionate supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Coughlin depicted the New Deal as “Christ’s Deal.” American voters, Coughlin said, could choose either “Roosevelt or Ruin” at the polls in 1932. Coughlin’s progressive ideals were manifest explicitly in his calls for “a just and living annual wage” for all people, “a conscription of wealth” by the federal government and its agencies, and the “nationalizing [of] those public necessities which by their very nature are too important to be held in the control of private individuals.” Maintaining that “the chief concern of government” should be “be for the poor,” Coughlin pronounced it the “government’s duty” to limit the “profits acquired by any industry.”
– Sources: A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel Flynn; Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg.
The Social Gospel and the Progressive Era
Bradley W. Bateman