Why No Social Gospel?

Much of 20th century Christianity has emerged out of the Social Gospel movements. The Social Gospel movements see Christianity primarily about the alleviation of suffering for the poor and oppressed. These movements became increasingly influential in the Great Depression. They also formed the backbone to the American Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Latin American liberation theologies in the 1980’s. Today, much of mainline Christianity has moved in this direction. For these groups, Christianity is a gospel of social justice, and the cause of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the social outcasts.

Notable exceptions to this trend are Evangelical movements who took up issues like abortion, gender roles, and homosexuality as the basis of their social engagement. While there are voices in the evangelical movement, such as Rick Warren, who call for a recentering on social gospel values, these voices are still a minority. Evangelical movements seemed to reject the social-gospel movements of mainline Protestantism because they tended to liberalize the church with regard to race, gender roles, and homosexuality. Threatened by these trends in the social gospel, these groups sought to preserve traditional ground by combating these movements not only ecclesiastically, but politically.

Arguably, 19th century Zion Mormonism was rooted in a Social Gospel, as is the Book of Mormon. Both the founding texts and practices of Mormonism relied heavily on a concern for social equality, concern for the poor, and other social justice issues. One might argue that when Mormonism’s social experiments in Zion-building failed, that they abandoned social justice issues. However, this argument doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the shared social values with anti-social gospel movements in the latter-half of the twentieth century, like Evangelicals. Is the Mormon rejection of the social gospel simply another manifestation of attempts to assimilate with the Christian Right? This doesn’t seem sufficient either. Any ideas?

27 Replies to “Why No Social Gospel?”

  1. I always thought it was rooted in resistance to assimilation with the mainstream. On eof those “in the world but not of the world” things. That we mirrored born-agains on a few issues seems more incidental rather than instrumental to me.

  2. I once heard Dallin H. Oaks respond to the query of why the Church doesn’t do more of X, Y, or Z social gospel-type programs, or why it doesn’t emphasize environmental protection or… pick your pet cause.

    His response was that the LDS Church is primarily concerned with carrying out the functions ONLY it can carry out. Namely, those that require Priesthood administration. There are countless other organizations that do humanitarian aid, or literacy campaigns, or any other number of worthy causes. But there is only one Church, and only one Priesthood. Thus, we prioritize missionary work and temple work – the two things that cannot be done without the LDS Church. Even if that means neglecting other important things.

  3. I vote for assimilation. We have placed nationalism and particularly a republican form of it over a social gospel. We are good on issues like abortion but economic and war issues we tend to ignore our past and our doctrine.

  4. We are not interested in doing anything that will disturb the capitalist order. To fight against poverty and inequality would in some way our capitalist order. To do so would undermine our effort to have everyone except us as mainstream (sigh).

    My impression is that Mormons in general have very little sense of what social justice entails, let alone what it requires. We are happy being Glen Beck watching Republican zombies. I have discussed this elsewhere at FPR.

    While I am not a Marxist, I do think that his critique of religion might apply here.

  5. I’m with Elder Oaks on this one. Any organization is going to have limited resources (people, time, money), so they need to decide priorities. For the church, it makes sense that resources need to be directed to bringing people to Christ, which means there are not the resources to do all the other (admittedly good) things. However, to say the church has to do everything is absurd. We are to bring about much righteousness (and this could be expanded to all good things [“good” being sometimes subjective, which is fine]) of our own volition. Why rely on the church to spurn us to action? Why expect the church to do it all or direct you to do it? Feel strongly about something? Do something about it!

  6. It is interesting to note that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has reinvented its image as the Community of Christ, which places a lot of emphasis on the social gospel. While the worldwide CofChrist uses biblical reasoning for this emphasis, many long-time members in Ohio and Missouri continue to use the Book of Mormon and revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants as their reasoning and justification for it.

  7. TT,

    I wish we had some decent data on the amounts and allocation of fast offerings. I think it is likely, or at least very possible, that the average LDS congregation of 150 – 200 people contributes more each month to the direct care of the poor than other congregatations of comparable size, although we can’t know for sure. I used to be the financial clerk, and my middle class ward averaged about $6,000/month in fast offering contributions. We used about $4,000/month locally and sent the rest to SLC. Multiply that by the three other wards in the building and it comes to some serious $$$.

    Chris H.,

    Serious? You think your fellow members are zombies? Hey, maybe that’s the problem. Or, maybe it is the simple lack of charity that leads people to characterize those they disagree with as zombies.

  8. Two reasons, it seems to me. 1)The early social gospel movement (exemplified by Walter Rauschenbusch) combined a redefinition of salvation in social terms with a decidedly evangelical bent – it talked a lot about being saved, regenerated, etc, and how these would naturally lead to a more cohesive social order. None of this really appealed to Mormons. 2)Most advocates of the later social gospel – the 1920s and 1930s – were also quite liberal, theologically speaking, and had stopped talking about social efforts in the redemptive language that Rauschenbusch used. Thus, for both these reasons conservative Christians (Mormons included) began to develop the Oaks argument – that such programs went hand in hand with a watered down Christianity and were tangential to traditionally personal, evangelical Christianity. This, I think, is why many conservative Christians were suspicious of Martin Luther King, who hailed back to Rauschenbusch in some sense, but who was assumed to be a political radical and thus not *really* Christian by some.

  9. #2 Seth: Do you have a reference for that Oaks comment? I like it.

    Religion today(I am speaking mostly about America)seems calculated to suit the interested of its listeners. I recently finished a book called The Paradox of Choice wherein the author contends that the more options we have the less satisfied we are with the outcome of decisions (among other things.) He talked about the consumer religion, where people seek religion to be validated, and feel comfort. He found that people generally stuck with the religion of their youth, but that some seekers today treated the religion choice much like they treated choosing a health care provider. They would weigh the benefits and seek what fulfills them the most.

  10. I’ve never heard of the concept of a social gospel.

    Our church does a lot to serve and care for others, though, which is that different?

    I called church headquarters once and spoke to a counselor in the Relief Society Presidency after my son committed suicide and tried to convince them to incorporate this topic into their lesson manuals.

    I was, as you know I can be, adamant as she resisted my suggestion.

    Finally, I made some point so profound that it could not possibly ignored (also typical that I’ve completely forgotten what it was) and her response was: “Sister, you’re right, this is an important topic and you make a good suggestion, but that’s not the purpose of the church. The purpose of the church is to bring souls to Christ.”

    She was right. Although we do a lot in the sociological areas. Or try to.

  11. It’s hard to take serious the idea we lack a social gospel component given that Pres. Hinkley has missionaries do one day a week charity work. (One can debate how effective the work is for many missionaries – but they are supposed to do it) Most wards do service projects. The main constant never ending emphasis at Church is on Home Teaching which is essentially an aspect of the social gospel. There are regular talks on fast offerings and tithing and a yearly meeting with your bishop asking if you are contributing. 10% of all your money goes into what is arguably a very effective social distribution that jointly builds buildings around the world, helps pay for missionaries and arguably does a lot of social work. Then most wards also have regular charity work for things like soup kitchens and so forth. We have the Eagle Scout program for youth and regular youth charity programs. There are regular social programs for the ward in terms of activities for adults and youth.

    Could the Church do more? Of course. But speaking for myself I already spend a heck of a lot of time and money dealing with the social gospel.

  12. To add on to Matt B. in #8:
    Back in the 50s & 60s there was this national concern about communism and alot of churches in the US adopted the idea of a “social gospel” which had some of our GAs a little concerned. I remember reading a national publication from the Presbyterian Church that compared Jesus to Che. I think the co-opting of the term by that side of the political spectrum has something to do with why we don’t hear it used in our routine Church life today. I think we do a lot of “social gospel” type things, but in our own way. But, we also have the other perspective, as demonstrated by what Pres. ETB said: “The world would take men out of the slums; the Gospel of Christ takes the slums out of men.”

  13. Several things, TT. First, much of emergent evangelicalism is given over to the social gospel. Also, though not sold out completely to the social gospel, huge segments of conservative Christianity are striving to be more compassionate to both financially poor and destitute (read World magazine). And last of all, to your end question, I perhaps think that many LDS believe that repentance is more of a solution to sin problems than the social gospel.

  14. TT,

    I think this critique is inconclusive without a hard definition of which “social gospel” you are talking about. In your post you refer to the cause of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, homosexuals, women, social outcasts, the unborn or women who want to have an abortion (can’t tell), and so on.

    The biggest division by far on all of these issues is whether it is the responsibility of the government or of private organizations (like say…churches) to remedy the ills of society. The Church doesn’t promote the sort of Christian welfare statism that other denominations campaign for, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t heavily involved in all these areas on a private (i.e. non-totalitarian) basis.

  15. Mark IV (Comment 7),

    I am not in the business of defending other Mormons. The Gospel is true. The people are not so much.

    As for me lacking charity, that might explain why I think that you are a self-righteous jerk.

  16. Chris H.:

    You know what, I often AM self-righteous. And people who purport to love me tell that me I am sometimes a jerk. So, maybe you’re right.

    Just to clarify – I wasn’t asking you to defend other Mormons. I was just objecting to your characterization of them as zombies.

  17. Mark IV,

    Hey, I was venting some steam unrelated to the blogging world. If you are a jerk you are in good company, because I obviously am one.

    As someone on the left, I am often frustrated that my fellow church members are so comfortable with the material world around them. I wish they would get as energetic about genocide and poverty as they do homosexuality, something which seems so trivial to me.

    Thanks for your patience. While the word zombie sums up how I feel, it is not nice. It is also not productive for democratic deliberation.

  18. Clark-
    I don’t think most of the things you mentioned the church doing would fit under the historical definition of the social gospel. As TT mentioned, the social gospel is about alleviating the suffering of the poor and oppressed. It is really about serving what Christ called “the least of these.” The least of these are those that are hungry, crazy, homeless, in prison, ect. Basically the people we often find “icky.”

    The church really does not engage in many social gospel practices. Much of what we spend our time doing is serving each other. While there are always a few “least of these” in our wards, most are fairly well off and certainly not oppressed. Home teaching and helping middle class families move is hardly reaching out to the downtrodden. Nor would holding basketball night and other activities for normal, well-adjusted youth qualify.

    It is true that wards do service projects from time to time. But in my experience they have often been along the lines of buying school supplies for poor children. Or collecting winter coats for them. You say that some wards sponsor soup kitchens, but I have never heard of one doing that. Most of our projects do not involved us going to where the poor live or having personal encounters with them. They rarely if ever ask us to leave our comfort zones.

    Finally, donating money is certainly commendable. But again, this doesn’t really fall under the purview of the social gospel either. The social gospel is more about personally trying to serve and aid the least of these. Not opening a wallet to do so.

    Were the church to be a social gospel church we would be staffing literacy and education programs in prisons and schools, running homeless and battered women shelters, feeding the homeless, and supporting programs and legislation that helps the poor.

    Yet while I do not think the things you mentioned are “social gospel” things, I do think they are effective in making another point. The Mormon church requires so much in way of programs and projects that help develop our youth and ourselves, and involve serving each other, that we really don’t have time to be a social gospel church. And this may be fine. But I just don’t think we can claim the social gospel label. At least as it is normally defined.

  19. Kate,

    You failed to mention fast offerings, the Church welfare program, the welfare activity of bishops, priesthood quorums, and Relief Society, Deseret Industries, LDS Social Services, the Church humanitarian program, welfare missionaries, and so on.

    Those activities are certainly more visible in Utah, in some international areas, and in wards that are predominantly lower middle class. The Church is a major sponsor of the primary Salt Lake City homeless shelter. My last singles ward prepared and served food there at least once a year. There are many other wards doing the same thing.

    There are also church units for local jails, prisons, hospitals, and retirement centers. My last stake operates a branch for those incarcerated at the Davis County Jail, as well as a branch for a local nursing home. I attended services at a downtown hospital recently as well.

    According to http://www.lds.org, humanitarian cash contributions since 1985 total some $205 million, and the value of additional material donations since the same date is estimated at $705 million. There are currently 3,552 welfare service missionaries, including humanitarian service missionaries.

    No one should knock the service provided by home and visiting teachers, especially to the disadvantaged and the infirm either.

  20. Well, let’s see…over the past 20 years, the Church has provided close to $1 billion in humanitarian goods, services, and donations worldwide.

    Is that not social enough for you? 🙂 ..bruce..

  21. Kate, I don’t see how tithing and fast offerings aren’t doing that. The Presiding Bishopric is all about the programs you mentioned. And, in Utah, they work very closely with the United Way. (The Presiding Bishop even did a series of United Way commercials a year or two ago to encourage people to do charity work beyond tithing and fast offerings) Likewise as others mentioned most of the charity programs around Utah are done by Mormons. I tried to do charity work at the homeless shelter and food kitchen. There was a pretty big waiting list to be able to serve and there was no shortage of food. (This isn’t always the case – but all the left over food from the cafeterias at BYU came to the kitchen)

    Likewise the Church has hardly been stingy in helping out during crises and so forth. Could we do more? Probably. But it’s not like we’re not doing anything.

    As someone else mentioned I suspect a big thing is the how of how we do it. I think many (most?) Mormons tend to be wary of more socialist approaches which they (rightly or wrongly) perceive as merely rewarding being poor. The emphasis is on self-help and self-improvement. Once again I think we could have a very good debate about how well implemented that is. And, especially with the mentally ill, I think one can debate how much people can self help. But that is I think a separate issue from the social gospel. If one equates the social gospel with a particular view of how to help then I think that incorrect.

    As for hometeaching not being for the downtrodden, I’m not sure I buy that. Everyone is downtrodden at some time. The social gospel can not and should not be purely about the “obvious” people in need. We can’t neglect them but they aren’t the only people in need.

    I’d also dispute your claim about money and the social gospel. Most people are time strapped due to various needs. (Dealing with little kids especially) We can help when we are able but often what we are able to do is monetary. And, speaking from having worked with various charities, they need money. I’ve had a lot of friends doing charity work in 3rd world countries and it is often difficult to even serve. A lot of the charities are resource starved except for volunteers from rich countries. They need more money and not necessarily more people. (Especially since often the successful charities are ones teaching people to do things themselves – a lot of places don’t want outsiders doing things for them – they want help to do it themselves) There are exceptions of course. A lot of places can use doctors but how many of us are doctors?

  22. As someone on the left, I am often frustrated that my fellow church members are so comfortable with the material world around them. I wish they would get as energetic about genocide and poverty as they do homosexuality, something which seems so trivial to me.

    I think most do. It’s not like most Mormons dwell incessantly about gay marriage or even think about it that much. I think though that most feel they can do more about gay marriage in America than they can about genocide or other such conflicts in Africa. Especially after seeing our “success” in Iraq. I think there is a real question about how much we can successfully do and how much we can actually change.

    The ultimate question, as someone brought up, is whether we are to just ease the suffering of people without changing behavior (the typical welfare state model) or whether or emphasis should be on personal responsibility and changing behavior. I think you can see this in say the welfare reform under Clinton. Now undeniably more people will suffer in this approach. However more people probably have behavior changed as well.

    If we define the social gospel as merely relieving suffering without dealing with responsibility then undeniably the typical Mormon view isn’t what you guys are talking about. But that, to me, really just raises the issue of what we mean by the social gospel and whether it is correct. Certainly there are cases to be made on both sides with the debate in King Benjamin’s speech about not judging the beggar being key.

  23. Mark and Clark-

    I am absolutely not disputing that the monetary gifts members donate and the church distributes are not enormously charitable and useful. And as you both point out, the church administrates many programs that would fit under the social gospel label like welfare and disaster relief. I would say though, that much of what you noted seems to happen in Utah. In the states I have lived in wards do not interact personally with the poor.

    I am simply arguing that we are not a social gospel church under the traditional definition of social gospel. The many charitable things we do are wonderful. But traditionally, social gospel churches made alleviating the suffering of the least of these their CENTRAL focus. Our focus, as has been pointed out in other comments, is salvation-our salvation, that of our neighbors, that of our families, and that of the dead. That is our focus and what we spend the majority of our energy on. We are oriented towards preparing for the eternities. A social gospel church believes the gospel is primarily about liberating the oppressed, bringing about the kingdom in the here and now. And as Clark points out, this vision of the kingdom is often tinged with socialistic philosophy. I agree Clark that we have a more self-help focus. And this is for the best I believe. So I’m not disputing that we don’t have our own form and definition of “social gospel. I am just saying we’re not a social gospel church in the traditional mold.

  24. Kate, back in Nova Scotia a lot of the soup kitchen is done by the ward there. (Or was when my parents still lived there) When there was that aircraft crash about 10 years ago the food supplied to the rescuers was done by the local wards. How various wards contribute will vary by ward to ward. Some wards simply live the gospel better than others. And, correspondingly, some wards have low tithing payments, low attendance, and poor home teaching.

    If someone makes alleviating the suffering of the poor their central mission (like say the Salvation Army) that’s fine. I’m not sure that’s the scriptural injunction given our spiritual needs. But certainly charity should be very importance for us.

    Certainly you’re right that the way the term applies tends to be more narrowly focused to folks who do more welfare missions as their primary aim. It seems the Church’s main emphasis is on raising a family. (Which I think it correct, mind you, and certainly not exclusive from helping the poor. But there is a different emphasis.)

  25. I attended a regional training meeting last week regarding the church welfare program. I was amazed to learn how much the church does under the umbrella of the social gospel. Of course, I would like this effort to grow and expand…and am trying to do my little part to grow the social gospel.

    Perhaps it is some members (more so than the church) who have aligned themselves with an anti-social gospel?

    I don’t have the answer, but I do think the social work done by the church deserves its due “props.”

    #2, any references for the statements by Elder Oaks? Interesting.

    #14 I concur that this post needs a definition for “social gospel.”

    Thanks for the post. Good stuff to ponder.

  26. If the church were to mount an effort to seek after the “Least of These” as Kate called them, the expense would be enormous. This is why the church encourages volunteer donations of time and substance to organizations that are already in place or on a personal level.

    In the area we live in, a local Catholic church provides for the “Least of These” through an “Outreach” program. The stakes in the area, along with other churches and groups, supports this Catholic Outreach program with donations of food at Thanksgiving and other times throughout the year on a personal level and in pre-scheduled assignments in which each ward has volunteers that participate in donating time assisting in the soup kitchen by preparing and serving food to the “Least of These”. I personally have assisted in taking truck loads, several truck loads of food each year to the Catholic Outreach program, spent time in their soup kitchen and provided donations of clean, usable clothing.

    My wife and I are empty nesters and have a spare bedroom and bath in our home. Our Bishop is the Transient Bishop this year. We told him that we have a spare bedroom and bath for any transient members passing through the area. With our Bishop’s help we have come up with some very strict guidelines and a specified period of time that we will provide for members passing through who are among the “Least of These”. They must participate in Family Home Evening, Scripture Study, and Family Prayer as well as attend church each Sunday. We give them room and board, no charge, so they can take care of more pressing matters within the specified time period. So far the longest has been 4 weeks. We will on occasion drive them where they need to go if they are without transportation or means to pay for transportation and occasionally pay for whatever simple needs they might have. We will not subsidize cigarettes or alcohol period, and tend to be very intolerant of these. So far, have had some very choice experiences and some not so choice.

    I see a lot of chatter here about what is and what isn’t “Social Gospel”. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of faith, of charity, of action, but I doubt if there is a lot of this happening. I’m not saying that you should open your home to some less fortunate person. What I am saying is, extend your hand and yes, open your pocket book on occasion. Above all, don’t give cash. Put a person up in a motel for a night or 2, something you would be comfortable staying in. Buy them a meal or 2, a coat, an umbrella, shoes. The simple things mean the most. Where much is given, much is expected. “Sacrifice brings forth the blessing of Heaven” People will remember what you did far longer than what you said.

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