Rauschenbusch Today: The Legacy of a Loving Prophet

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 25, 1989, p. 75. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The thought of Walter Rauschenbusch in the light of the new biography by Paul Minus.

Modern American Protestantism has not, for the most part, focused on the lives of the saints. The psychic energy of contemporary pastors, theologians and church leaders has more often centered on the kerygmatic Word as it encounters "the problem of history," on struggles against the idolatries of fascism and Stalinism abroad and racism, classism and sexism at home, or on the development of the professional skills of ministry.

But what has been ignored at the front door has entered by the side. Both psychohistory and narrative theology have evoked a rebirth of what our grandparents called "testimony" -- the stories of personal pilgrimage. People do need models; we like to tell our own tales; and we like to get the scoop on everyone else.

Some of this is little more than pious gossip, and is pernicious. When it becomes the primary focus of attention, faith is endangered: We slide easily into the conviction that theology is basically a reflection of a quest for identity, or is poetry projected onto the cosmos rather than a fundamental claim about what is true or just or holy -- just what the greatest skeptics about religion have claimed for several centuries.

The best preachers and teachers do not talk too much about the self and do not concentrate on personal experience alone. They know that psychobabble can easily become a substitute for good news, and that temptations to avoid theological insight and social responsibility in favor of self-preoccupation are all too frequent.

Nevertheless, the current burst of interest in biography may be a corrective for lopsidedness in other directions. For Christians, the divine revelation, the historic redefinition of meaning, the cosmopolitan insight -- all those things that are deeper and wider than the self and. that can reshape the self -- have, finally, also to come to fruition in the life of persons. Even the long-expected idea of the messianic kingdom had to have a particular personal locus to be fully compelling. A testament with all the discursive writings of Paul, John and the pastorals but without the Gospels would be incomplete.

Biographical interest can be seen in the continuing fascination with the lives of modern martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the way some feminist and Third World thinkers use stories to evoke fresh modes of reflection. Consider, for example, how often Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is used in seminary teaching, or how C. S. Song, Kosuke Koyama and Lamin Sanneh draw on personal cross-cultural encounters to bring new perceptions to scriptural and theological themes. The pervasiveness of this emphasis can now be seen even in Christian social ethics, the field born out of the Social Gospel movement and one which in the name of prophetic spirit and social analysis has been critical of Protestantism’s tendency to focus on personal piety.

A refreshing effort to reflect on the intimate connection of prophecy, piety and social insight is Paul Minus’s biography of the father of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer (Macmillan, 1988, 243 pp., $19.95) As much as any other single figure, Rauschenbusch brought 19th-century pietism into the 20th-century world of cities, factories, immigrants, clashing classes and subcultures, and problems of housing, transportation and employment. For many, the path that led from the historic patterns of Protestant pietism to ecumenically engaged, socially involved and intellectually critical evangelicalism, and away from constrictive fundamentalism, forked at Rauschenbusch.

No one can read him deeply, or read about him, without thinking that they know him personally. Everyone is inclined to call him, as did his friends, "Rauschy." Yet, like John the Baptist, he always points beyond himself to something greater. Perhaps that is why many of those indebted to him do not take him as their final master.

The outline of his story is simply rehearsed. His father was a German Lutheran pastor who immigrated to this country and converted to the Baptist faith and the democratic polity as a young man. Born in 1861, Walter Rauschenbusch imbibed from his family a profound personal piety, a love of learning, a sympathy for the oppressed and a sense of mission. His studies both in the United States and in Germany cultivated his many gifts and reinforced his sense of having been called to a great task for God. It also gave him an abiding love of both German and American cultures.

He became a pastor in a German Baptist church in a raw section of New York City. In the course of a very successful ministry -- informed by piety (he wrote wonderful prayers) , pastoral experience (he cared for his flock) and learning (he regularly wrote reviews and articles for journals) -- he became increasingly critical of the economic system of the late 19th century. That system seemed to undercut the democratic gains that were being made in law, politics, education ‘and family life; it tended rather toward a new feudalism, dominated by robber barons and served by a new class of. industrial peasants.

The prophetic emphases in his thought developed roughly during the same time he discovered his love for Pauline Rother, who later became his wife, the mother of his children and a beloved companion in hard work and tender play. Previously unpublished quotations from letters between the two reveal how intense their spiritual and physical intimacy was, and how they discovered qualities of marriage that were not present in their parents’.

Such matters are significant in part because they reveal to a contemporary generation that a prophetic spirit and a passion for social justice need not be born out of suspicion, alienation or victimization. They can be, and they have been, born of an amplitude of love, in which case righteous anger can be directed against manipulators of distrust and hate, and not against those who are not "like us."

With a number of fellow pastors who became lifelong friends, Rauschenbusch studied, read, talked, debated and plumbed the new social theories of the day, especially those of the non-Marxist socialists whom John C. Cort has recently traced in Christian Socialism (Orbis, 1988) The pastors wove these theories together with biblical themes to form "‘Christian Sociology," a hermeneutic of social history that allowed them to see the power of God’s kingdom being actualized through the democratization of the economic system (see James T. Johnson, editor, The Bible in American Law, Politics and Rhetoric [Scholars Press, 1985]) They pledged themselves to new efforts to make the spirit of Christianity the core of social renewal at a time when agricultural-village life was breaking down and urban-cosmopolitan patterns were not yet fully formed.

When Rauschenbusch became ill and lost some of his hearing, he accepted an invitation to become a professor on the German faculty, and later the English faculty, of what became Colgate Rochester Divinity School. From that position he became one of the most famous speakers on Christianity and social problems of his day, as well as a beloved teacher and honored author of several books. Until his death in 1918, in the midst of what was for him a tragic war between Germany and America, he helped develop one of the most important theological-ethical positions of modern Protestantism.

Minus’s work and its subject matter are sure to be compared with Richard Fox’s recent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, the neoorthodox proponent of Christian realism, and with the autobiography of James Luther Adams, a "liberal" with certain affinities to contemporary liberation thought, now under preparation with the help of Linda Barns. These three figures are arguably among the most influential Protestant social ethicists of 20th-century America, and in any case offer a representative spectrum of opinion.

Minus clearly has a different agenda from Fox’s. In Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Pantheon, 1985) , Fox is interested in which of his teachers, Robert McAfee Brown or Michael Novak, is closer to their teacher’s (Niebuhr’ s) legacy, and in how Niebuhr’ s Christian realism might influence the future of civilization. Sadly, Fox seems to lose interest in the issue along the way, perhaps because Novak seems to have the best case and Fox does not want him to. He ends up not liking Niebuhr very much and not quite caring about the fate of Christian realism. Nevertheless, his work confirms that Niebuhr stands on Rauschenbusch’s shoulders and surpasses him. Rauschy’s Theology for the Social Gospel is simply no match for Reinie’s Nature and Destiny of Man.

Minus’s concern is for recovering and recasting a creative link between populist theology and active social witness. He ends up liking Rauschenbusch very much, so much that he has to guard against hyperbole. Still, he appears to be less concerned than Rauschenbusch was with the more expansiye questions of how faith and doctrine shape civilizations and how doctrines might shape human destiny. The wider scope of history and the role of ecclesiology in it are not in his immediate horizon. This Methodist biographer is, in this respect, more Baptist than his subject.

Nevertheless, we can see that Rauschenbusch had a better sense of how grass-roots social institutions work than did Niebuhr. Furthermore, like the two-volume Adams autobiography (volume one is nearly done) , Rauschenbusch’s biography is studded with stories of people from every level of society. Workers and seminarians always came to hear both men speak; but they were also friends of those who did not work with their hands -- like John D. Rockefeller, in Rauschenbusch’s case.

Rauschenbusch remained more self-consciously rooted in Scripture than did Adams, however, and he maintained closer ties to church circles than to academic ones. While the two share a pronounced sense of the importance of the Holy Spirit, just below the surface, of Rauschenbusch’s thought is a trinitarian framework and a preference for an organic society over a voluntaristic one. In comparing Rauschenbusch to Adams, the differences between a religious liberalism (Adams left the Baptists to become a Unitarian Universalist) and a progressive evangelicalism become clear; indeed, we can see how conservative Rauschenbusch really was.

A bigger difference remains in the telling of the individual story. In the Minus biography, characters do not always come alive; points are sometimes only summarized in a quotable aphorism. Of course, Adams is a constitutional raconteur. He teaches by parable, which he seems to be able to connect to systematic thought -- whether it be in the philosophical-theological traditions of Whitehead and Tillich or the sociohistprical traditions of Troeltsch and Weber. Those who use Minus’s book to teach the next generation how Rauschenbusch brought many in a previous generation, most of a denomination and much of ecumenical Protestantism to embrace "Social Christianity" may ,want to translate his material into that kind of revealing art Which simultaneously embraces evocative parable and systematic clarification. The deeper promise of Minus’s effort would then be fulfilled.

What does Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel mean for today and tomorrow? Is it the American form of liberation theology, belatedly discovered by Latin American Catholics, Third World Protestants and others who had not previously been led beyond their distinctive forms of pietism by historicism and sociology? Or is it a blip on the screen of history, born of the Progressive era among minorities in a strange land, institutionalized in the New Deal, and now left in the dust by the neoconservative revolution?

If by "liberation" people mean that Christian thought and life are to be socially engaged, committed to those forms of systemic change necessary for the greater actualization of social justice, and open to the dynamic movements of the Spirit among the people, then there is little doubt: the Social Gospel is America’s indigenous form of liberation theology. It forms base communities, it overcomes resignation with greatness of soul, it ministers to those with greatest need, it empowers the voiceless. Indeed, the more one reads of Rauschenbusch, the more one sees of the Social Gospel in Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Dorothy Day.

But if by liberation theology one means other things, then differences emerge. If one means, for instance, an epistemological privilege of the oppressed, in the sense that the poor, the suffering and the dispossessed have some intuitive knowledge of God, righteousness and social reality not available to others; if one means that victims know best how to overcome their condition and build new institutions; and if one means that knowledge based on "experience" makes academic excellence unnecessary, then liberation thought and the Social Gospel diverge.

The reason for working among the dispossessed, and the reason for training teachers, preachers and missionaries to do so, while insisting on the highest standards, and the reason for fighting to get disadvantaged people access to educational and leadership resources is to equip them with epistemological possibilities not already available to them.

A similar distinction would have to be made if one means by liberation what Dorothy Sölle, for instance, means when she writes that "Political Theology is a theological hermeneutic which, in distinction from a theology that interprets reality from an onotlogical or existentialist point of view, holds open an horizon of interpretation in which politics is understood as the comprehensive and decisive sphere in which Christian truth should become praxis" (Political Theology [Fortress Press, 1974], p. 59). The legacy of the Social Gospel might challenge the notion that theology has the capacity to transcend ontological and existential questions; but it would certainly repudiate the social presuppositions of Sölle’s statement. Her view, it would say, reflects a heritage rooted in religious establishment, even if today it wants to establish a radical theology instead of a conservative one.

Rauschenbusch, like most in the Social Gospel movement, believed in the free church. He thought that Christ not only taught us how society works if we read the Scriptures deeply enough, but that Christ demanded of his followers a social theory of politics, not a political theory of society. That is, Rauschenbusch would have denied that politics, or for that matter a political economy that put production and distribution in the hands of the state, could be "the comprehensive and decisive sphere for Christian truth or praxis" without bringing tyranny with it.

Indeed, he would say that both theology and sociology require us to recognize that the church is the more decisive, and society the more comprehensive, category of the common life. Society is also more shaped by the church than modern -- thinkers -- including a number of church leaders, when they think about such questions -- acknowledge. Thus, church and society are the chief areas of Christian concern; politics and political economics are, and must be, their servants, else they will follow Mammon entirely, trailing along, often generations behind; only appearing to be innovators., That is why the church can and must speak about "social salvation," and do so wisely. On this point, Adams and Niebuhr would join with Rauschenbusch.

What most separates contemporary theology and ethics from Rauschenbusch is his emphasis on the kingdom of God. He was one of the last great American leaders to take the kingdom of God as his governing symbol. H. Richard Niebuhr taught us in The Kingdom of God in America that the triune themes of the sovereignty of God over the whole world, the reign of Christ in the heart and the expectation of a Coming Kingdom in and beyond time were all embedded in the term "kingdom of God," and that these themes were decisive in the way Christian theology and ethics provided -- with differing accents in different periods -- a spiritual and moral rudder for American civilization, from its founding through the industrial era.

Such themes have faded. Few speak of the kingdom of God that way today. If, for the sake of biography and narrative, or for reasons of liberation or political solidarity, we leave this symbol behind, we must ask what the organizing principles of our public theology will be in the 21st century. What will become the inner guidance system for this superpower in a postindustrial era?

Those who leave the legacy of the Social Gospel behind must be sure they have something better to put in its place. Many worse options, and few better ones, stand in the wings of history.