The Corner

Obama & The Social Gospel

While I am grateful for all the sleuthing about Obama’s ties to Black Liberation Theology and I think it’s all relevant and interesting, it seems to me that something is missing from all of this analysis. While Obama may have deep roots in BLT, he doesn’t actually talk about it much. He does, however, talk a great deal about the Social Gospel. Indeed, when he was asked to explain his attraction to Wright Obama said,”Rev. Wright’s sermons spoke directly to the Social Gospel, and I found that very attractive.” Note the direction of the causal arrows.

Now, I don’t know enough about Obama’s beliefs to know if he actually knows what the real Social Gospel movement was, or even if he really has that in mind when he uses the term. He may use the phrase Social Gospel the same way he (and so many others) uses the word “progressive,” i.e. in near total ignorance or indifference to its actual historical connotations. For example, when Obama held a rally at the University of Wisconsin, Madison he proclaimed “where better to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the Progressive movement was born?” Obama seemed not to know or to care that the University of Wisconsin Progressives were almost all racists and eugenicists who might have thought — at minimum — that his parents should have been barred from having children.

So perhaps he doesn’t know what the Social Gospel movement is either. But, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, then he does know. And if he does, then I think he should explain that. Obviously, I’m no fan of the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era (it was far more theocratic and “Christianist” than pretty much anything we’ve heard from the Christian Right in the last forty years). But it should be noted that the collectivist impulses Stan and others are cataloging so thoroughly in BLT are also central to the Social Gospel (and Hillary’s roots in, and commitment to, the Social Gospel are equal to, if not richer and deeper, than Obama’s).

In other words, Obama’s rhetoric of collective redemption through government action is not as exotic as all of this emphasis on BLT would suggest. The Social Gospelers were almost indistinguishable from the mainstream progressives. In fact, it’s almost (but not entirely) misleading to talk about the two movements as if they were distinct. Most of the leading progressives were social gospelers and pretty much all of the social gospelers were progressives. For example, nearly 50% of the board of the American Economic Association, were ministers. And the Institute for Christian Sociology was founded by leading progressive economists. The Social Gospel journal Dawn, founded in 1890, was intended “to show that the aim of socialism is embraced in the aims of Christianity and to awaken members of Christian churches to the fact that the teachings of Jesus Christ lead directly to some specific form or forms of socialism,” according to William G. McLoughlin, the acclaimed historian of America’s “Great Awakenings.” Both the planners and the preachers shared in the belief that the state was the means by which society would be redeemed collectively. Members of the Institute for Christian Sociology were sworn to deliver God’s “kingdom as the complete ideal of human society to be realized on earth.” Obama himself has promised that we can create a “kingdom here on earth.” And, of course, he considers himself a committed progressive.

Again, I don’t know enough about BLT, though I’ve been reading a bunch, but from what I’ve seen from Stan and others, I’m wondering whether Black Liberation Theology is in part a holdout of the older Social Gospel tradition, a surviving remnant from the Progressive era. Much is made of the BLT rhetoric about blacks being chosen people and the like. But that rhetoric was commonplace among Progressives (and German [Aryan] Christian movement, as Spengler notes here and I allude to in LF).

Anyway, I guess the point is that the politicized Christian rhetoric, or Christianized political rhetoric isn’t unique to this obscure black church in Chicago or even to the work of black theologians generally. Rather, it is much more central to the progressive tradition generally. As Joe Knippenberg and other’s have argued Obama’s Christianity is the Christianity of Jim Wallis and others who think God is a welfare state liberal. And while I can understand why many on the right would want to paint Obama as “out there,” I’m not as convinced that that’s the case. Indeed, I think the more lasting and serious threat comes from an impulse that’s much closer to home, as it were.

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