Civil Religion, part nine
Wealth, the Social Gospel, and Holy War
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
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In the United States, after the Civil War and through the early decades of the twentieth century, Protestant Christianity found itself developing into three primary streams of belief and practice: evangelicals, fundamentalists, and liberals (or modernists). John Fea describes these basic groups and the sometimes surprising ways they sought to promote a more “Christian” America.
Evangelicals in those days, for example, often took the lead with regard to social concerns. It might surprise some today to learn that, in addition to such moral issues as temperance and Sabbath reform, evangelicals were leading advocates of labor reforms such as the eight-hour workday, arbitration to decide labor disputes, equitable apprenticeship laws, and settlers’ rights vs. corporations such as the railroads. They even backed establishing the bureau of labor statistics.
But it is Fea’s discussion of “liberal” Protestant Christianity in this period that I found most intriguing.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists were not the only Protestants in America between the Civil War and the 1920s. Liberal Protestants were much more open to adapting their faith to the spirit of the age. They would engage in “battle royal” with the fundamentalists for control of Protestant denominations, but in the process they never abandoned their ardent belief that the United States was a Christian nation and needed to be defended as such. Indeed, the rhetoric that liberal Protestants used to defend Christian America was considerably stronger than that employed by the fundamentalists. (p. 35)
Liberal Christianity was criticized as “modernist” theology for their approach in which they applied modern methods of reason and scientific inquiry to the Bible and theological matters. They saw the Bible more as a witness to God than the revealed Word of God. They used methods of historical criticism with regard to the biblical texts in order to develop theories about how the Bible came to be and to separate the historical background from scripture’s “myths.” A chief example of this was the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory about various sources behind the Pentateuch that led scholars to deny the Mosaic authorship of these books. Furthermore, liberals were enchanted with modern scientific progress and accepted evolution over the creations accounts in the Bible. They denied the Virgin Birth and doubted scriptural reports of the miraculous.
This type of faith fit well with the American notion of progress. As Fea puts it: “Ultimately, they tied their theological wagons to the train of progress. Society was advancing toward the kingdom of God and Christians needed to play a part in its coming.” The liberals were condemned by evangelicals and fundamentalists for their overly optimistic view of human nature, their dismissal of original sin, and their faith in the advancement of knowledge, reason, and human cooperation to bring about worldwide transformation of this world into God’s Kingdom.
Some of these liberals put their emphasis on the great economic blessings God had given to the people of the U.S. Preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and William Lawrence, for example, emphasized that the opportunities available to make and accumulate wealth in this land were favorable to the nation’s progress in virtue and morality. They encouraged the spirit of capitalist progress as a means to moral and spiritual revival. As Lawrence put it, prosperity would lead to a national character that would be “sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike.”
Another emphasis within liberal Christianity was on Jesus’ social teachings. Also called “the social gospel,” one of the strongest proponents of this teaching, Washington Gladden (who wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”), described his vision of this gospel for transforming the nation:
Every department of human life—the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations—will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (p. 37)
Some accused Gladden of being a theocrat — something rarely said of “liberals” or “progressive” Christians today!
But perhaps the most surprising feature of liberal Christianity during this era was their support for the U.S. at war.
Though there were many pacifists in their ranks, the majority of liberal Protestants at the turn of the twentieth century saw war as a means of securing a peaceful world—the kind of world that would spread God-inspired democracy and precipitate the second coming of Christ.
For example, Lyman Abbott, Henry Ward Beecher’s successor at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, believed believed that the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War was a harbinger of the kingdom of God. It demonstrated the nation’s compassion and care for the suffering and oppressed of Cuba and the Philippines. 34 Abbott offered a spiritualized version of American imperialism not unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.”
While evangelical clergy eased into their support for World War I, Protestant liberals understood it as a “war for righteousness.” It pitted the forces of God, in the form of the United States of America and its commitment to democracy and social justice, against the forces of evil, as embodied in the religious tribalism and antidemocratic tendencies of Germany. Progressive ministers led their churches in patriotic hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They described the war as “redemptive” and did not hesitate in portraying it as a holy war designed to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.
Historian Richard Gamble has described the liberal Protestant response to World War I as nothing short of messianic in nature. (p. 38-39)
The great spokesperson for this liberal Christian “messianic” vision was President Woodrow Wilson, an elder in his liberal Presbyterian church. John Fea describes Wilson’s combination of faith and country:
As president of the United States, Wilson blended Christianity and patriotism. Both taught people how to sacrifice their lives for something larger than themselves. There was little difference in Wilson’s mind between the United States of America and the kingdom of God. This kind of religious idealism naturally found its way into Wilson’s foreign policy. (p. 39)
Urged on by groups of liberal ministers and leaders, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, Wilson, who had originally campaigned on a peace platform, changed his mind and the U.S. went to war. For progressive Christians in the early 20th century, World War I was a holy war for the Christian faith.