Whither the Social Gospel?

By Heath Carter

For the last several years I've been doing a lot of thinking about the role working people played in the rise of social Christianities. These last several months I've been wondering whether the Social Gospel - which I argue was in no small part "Union Made" - has since been un-made.

Ever since late 2011 Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, who has positioned himself as the choice of Christian voters and who has more-or-less been baptized as such by pundits like Michael Gerson - see here and here - has been running around the country saying things like this: "There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be." You can hear that recent speech in Detroit here. Or, if you prefer, listen to him discuss the matter with Wolf Blitzer. (Note: those who share Mr. Santorum's concern need not lose any sleep these days - the US outstrips nearly every other developed nation on the income inequality front).

Commentators on the left have been predictably outraged. A couple of weeks ago, in the New York Times, Charles Blow issued a salvo against "Santorum's Gospel of Inequality." Blow assailed Santorum's statement regarding income inequality in Detroit as "tone-deaf," particularly in light of that city's notorious economic struggles. What Blow did not do was question whether Santorum's views are, in fact, commensurate with the Christian gospel or, perhaps somewhat more tangibly, the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Stunningly, in fact, virtually no public figures have done this. There is the occasional blogger and cartoonist. The mainline Christian Century remarked, mildly, that "as a putative standard-bearer for Catholic social teaching, he leaves a lot to be desired," but even so went on to strike positive notes about the possibility of a Santorum candidacy. In the immediate wake of the Iowa caucuses the Huffington Post published the most robust, Catholic critique of Santorum that I've come across to date. But still today this piece stands as something of an outlier.

Amidst all the talk of contraception and religious freedom - including Janine's excellent piece from earlier today - I'm interested in hearing how Mr. Santorum reconciles his views on income inequality with, say, Rerum Novarum, an 1891 papal encyclical which speaks directly to these questions. The document is decidedly anti-socialist. Yet at the same time it declares:

"the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen's earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing"

and this:

"there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice."

and this:

"The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government."

I wonder whether, at any point in the many months of campaigning ahead, any notable Christian leader in this country will confront Santorum with quotations such as these. Until then, I'll be left wondering, whither the Social Gospel?


Janine Giordano at: March 2, 2012 at 7:43 AM said...

I doubt Rick Santorum knows anything about Rerum Novarum! But Heath, thank you so much for all these great links and thoughts on Santorum's philosophy.

My take is that Santorum derives his love for income inequality from the other part of Rerum Novarum-- where the Pope says that private property is part of the "natural rights of mankind." Moreover, he says that the problem with socialism is that it sets people up to seek and glorify wealth rather than God.

In sustaining this Enlightenment "natural rights to property" component within modern Catholicism, the Pope made way for people like Santorum to build their theology on the idea that property is to be protected and cherished and loved. The Pope was trying to do the opposite, but--in my estimation at least--his message was too muddled to make clear that materialism to him was the sin at hand. Moreover, most of the Catholic priests in this country interpreted Rerum Novarum to mean that socialism is bad and unions were okay---and missed most of the philosophical underpinnings.

I think Santorum is a product of the late twentieth century Religious Right, and can probably trace his theological/religious inheritance more to Protestants of the 30s-50s than to Catholics.

Heath at: March 2, 2012 at 4:30 PM said...


Thanks very much for your comment.

It is undoubtedly true that Rerum Novarum is anti-socialist and pro-private property, and also that those provisions were emphasized by the hierarchy here in the US.

At the same time, the encyclicals on labor/socialism bring also a hard critique of capitalism. In addition to the aforementioned quotations, Rerum Novarum indicts the wage system, declaring, "Is it just that the fruit of a man's own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor."

I'm not sure where one would begin to reconcile a statement like this with Santorum's views on income inequality. I think you're probably right that he's not steeped in historic Catholic social teaching.

Anonymous at: March 4, 2012 at 6:30 PM said...

Social Gospel liberalism for the most part died between WWI and WWII. It was taken over In America by fundamentalism, pentecostalism, neo-orthodoxy and theological realism. I doubt Rick knows anything about any of these Protestant movements in the 1920s.

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