How Did We Get Here?

This tweet caused quite a stir.

On one "side", a Jesuit Priest arguing that it is our biblical, Christ-following duty to provide for the poor in our tax plan. On the other, a blogger and radio host seminarian, convinced fully that supporting those in poverty is a personal initiative that would be un-biblical to allow the government to impose. Both are American Christians. Both speak for large swaths of the faithful in the modern US. So how did we get to two completely different interpretations of the Gospel today? I'm glad you asked.

* SIDE NOTE: I'd feel a bit awkward if I didn't note that Erickson seems to be arguing that the government's job is not to impose a fee to support the poor, but somehow it is the government's job is to impose a fee so that the poor must support the rich. As always, opinions posted here are my own, but the facts of the history I'm about to share are true.

The Social Gospel Movement

In the early twentieth century, a movement in American Christianity called "The Social Gospel" became very popular. Historians define this movement as either the religious embodiment of early 20th century progressive politics, or as a Christian response to the new problems of modern America: urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. The movement never denied the need for the salvific work of Christ, but felt that the mounting social problems of their day required individual and collective responses to people experiencing poverty and to the systems that enabled such poverty. The movement was actually spearheaded by a Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch. For more on the enduring impact of the Social Gospel in Baptist Life today (and for the sources I'm drawing this from), see the paper I wrote on the issue (Link).

As a way of living out this socially concerned faith, Social Gospel proponents were generally in favor of the New Deal, and government intervention, paired with church programs and individual efforts, to do good in the world.

Walter Rauschenbusch

The Fundamentalist Movement

Keep in mind before we begin that in 2017, we tend to label anybody with zeal a "fundamentalist", and that it is generally a negative term. Put that away for a moment, and let's simply refer to the term by what it would have meant in early/mid 20th century America. Fundamentalists in American Christianity could be seen either as the religious version of conservative politics in the US, or as reactionaries to the Social Gospel. Their beliefs are best summed up in a strict adherence to the "five fundamentals": scriptural inerrancy, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles. Beyond a simple belief in these fundamentals, a fundamentalist would assert that if you do not hold to all five of these beliefs, you are not a Christian and cannot cooperate with them.

Fundamentalists generally did not believe Rauschenbusch's continued assurance that he believed salvation through Christ was still primary, and they generally hated his more modern Scriptural interpretation. Through institutions like Moody Bible Institute and the Niagara Bible Conference, they were able to create a perceived theological orthodoxy with rigid answers to all questions. When faced with social issues, they responded that an evangelistic Sunday School would fix far more problems than social effort (R. A. Torrey). Eventually, through a long process and with promises of power, fundamentalist faith and evangelical faith were both drawn into aligning heavily with a belief in strong capitalism and the health of the American corporation, as chronicled in Kevin Kruse's One Nation Under God.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and we see two things happening:

  1. The predominantly Northern battle between Fundamentalism and Social Christianity was over. Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations had double to triple the number of congregants compared to more socially minded mainline denominations. As a final prize, the Fundamentalists took the Southern Baptist Convention in the 80s.

  2. The "Moral Majority" was formed, giving immense political power to fundamentalists. This power, however was contingent on a Reagan-esque continued insistence on individual faith: unconcerned with a government response to the poor, but continually praising the rich. This political ideology actually fit fundamentalist theology well though, as Premillennial Dispensationalist (Rapture) Theology allows them to relegate Old Testament calls for Social Justice and Christ's own pleas in the Sermon on the Mount to the former "dispensation of the law"; meaning our only job as Christians is to either evangelize or keep to ourselves as we remain a holy remnant, waiting for God to take us out of the world.

So therefore, it makes sense that Eric Erickson believes it is his holy duty to tell the internet that Jesus only wants the poor taken care of through individual bursts of charity. All systemic changes are, in his mind, trying to reverse the plan of God to damn this world, and Christians should never support such things.

So how did we get here?

Well, it was a long path. But I simply wanted to emphasize that theology that prioritizes "freedom" over the poor has a history (just as the more progressive branch of Christianity does). Most secondary issues you and I believe do have a (fairly recent) history, and that's okay. That's wonderful. Just keep that in mind before you start teaching that every intricacy of your faith is "orthodox" or "biblical".