In the present-day United States, we tend to associate evangelical Christians with conservative politics. But at the turn of the twentieth century, American Christian evangelicals were at the forefront of socialism.
Historian Jacob H. Dorn examines Protestant Christian thinkers who shaped what came to be known as the Social Gospel. Much of their philosophy was in response to an emerging secular socialist movement that saw churches as apathetic to the struggles of the poor and working class. One author acknowledged secular socialists as “the midwife and nurse to the Social Gospel.”
Socialism was seen as a threat to the church because it “offered the zeal, symbols, and sense of participation in a world transforming cause often associated with Christianity itself,” notes Dorn.
In response, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor ministering to the poor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, proposed an evangelical viewpoint that strongly embraced socialist ideals.
During an 1891 trip to Germany, Rauschenbusch began formulating his view of the Kingdom of God, a concept that Jesus in the Gospels regularly refers to. Often, Jesus’s teaching is seen as referring to the afterlife, but Rauschenbusch and other Social Gospel thinkers saw it as relevant to contemporary times. Rauschenbusch promoted the idea that Christians needed to transform society to favor the poor and the oppressed.
Rauschenbusch pushed for changes that embraced practical socialist ideas such as more public ownership, support for unions, and protective labor laws. He did not, however, wholly embrace socialist movements; he criticized secular socialists for their anti-religious stance, class hatred, and what he saw as a lack of emphasis on personal morality. He saw himself largely as a mediator between the Christian church and the emerging socialist movements.
Rauschenbusch challenged Christians to look at the prophets of ancient Israel described in the Hebrew Bible as fierce supporters of the poor who condemned the rich and powerful, to see Jesus as part of that line of prophets who challenged the rich and the powerful, and to view the early Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles as socialist utopias where material needs were taken care of.
Rauschenbusch never became an overt political activist allied with any socialist group. But he was sympathetic to the goals of socialists, if not always their methods. “God had to raise up socialism because the organized Church was too blind, or too slow, to realize God’s words,” he once said.
Philosopher Christopher Lasch later noted that the Social Gospel vision—that of a church connected to radical yet peaceful social change—was later realized in the civil rights movement. African American church communities challenged oppressive social structures based upon a commitment to Christian teachings. Throughout history, Kingdom of God has proven an elastic concept, adaptable to various social movements.