Setting off waves of debate in recent weeks, conservative radio host Glenn Beck advised his listeners on March 2 to leave their churches if they found signs of commitment to "social justice" or "economic justice." Beck called such language "code words" and "a perversion of the gospel," and he linked it to totalitarian regimes. Christians across the political spectrum called Beck out on his misreading of the gospel and of the American religious landscape. Beck's grasp of history was just as shaky, but he did not catch as much flak on this point. A better sense of recent American religious history helps to explain both the appeal of Beck's rhetoric in certain circles and its fallacy.

The "social" half of Beck's key phrase entered religious discourse around the beginning of the 20th century, with the Social Gospel movement. A response to the suffering, displacement, and dramatic inequity of wealth brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the Social Gospel advocated a shift toward more holistic salvation. One of the theological architects of the movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, spent part of his early career as a pastor in the squalid Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, and he came away convinced that human problems ranged much farther than the need for individual conversion. His books included Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), an exhortation for Christians to move beyond sedate, Victorian piety and embody Christ's message in a desperately needy world.

The Social Gospel met resistance on many fronts. The movement's leaders drew heavily on new academic disciplines like psychology and sociology, at times privileging these scientific ...

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