The Tricky Business of Drawing a New Morality Map

Art Remillard

President-elect Obama’s decision to have Pastor Rick Warren deliver the inaugural invocation has drawn criticism from gay rights groups, who object to Warren’s support of California’s gay marriage ban. I’m not surprised that the Saddleback pastor opposes gay marriage. But his recent comments on the social gospel did catch me off guard. In an interview with Beliefnet (where—not to add fuel to the fire—he said that divorce is a greater threat to the American family than gay marriage), Warren remarked…

Historically evangelicals and mainline Protestants were all in one group. Along about the beginning of the 20th century there were some protestant theologians who started using the term “social gospel.” What they meant by that was you don’t really need to care about Jesus’ personal salvation any more. You don’t really have to care about redemption, the cross, repentance. All we need to do is redeem the social structures of society and if we make those social structures better then the world will be a better place. Really . . . in many ways it was just Marxism in Christian clothing. It was in vogue at that time. If we redeem society, then man would automatically get better. It didn’t deal with the heart. So they said we don’t need this personal religion stuff.

I wasn’t the only one surprised by Warren’s dismissive tone. Coming to the defense of the social gospel was none other than Paul Raushenbush, the great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbush.

There Rick Warren goes again proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. . . . Warren apparently read an essay on the evils of the social gospel when he was young and has been mislead and misleading people about it ever since. My guess is that his shrill denunciations come out of a fear that his new found interest in social issues might cause some in the evangelical world to brand him as a social gospler. He has cause to worry. There is deep suspicion of this kind of activity (by that I mean helping the poor and working with AIDS) among evangelicals and Warren has to be careful to shore up his Jesus credentials lest he be tarnished by those who questions his Christian commitments.

Rauchenbush probably didn't give Warren enough credit. Warren did say that both modernists and fundamentalists have something to bring to the table. “I think you need them both,” Warren maintained. “I think it’s very clear that Jesus cared about both the body and soul.”

Nevertheless, the exchange shows that the effort to redraw the evangelical morality map by Warren and others is a tricky affair. The new map expands into the land of poverty and global warming, a space occupied largely by the inheritors of the social gospel. But the old map puts solid boundaries around abortion and gay marriage, and some folks don’t want to add new territory. Moreover, displacing the values of old risks expulsion from evangelical country. Not convinced? Consider the recent controversies surrounding Richard Cizik, a former lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. Dobson, et al. have been weary of Cizik for some time, critical of his advocacy of “creation care” (see Cizik’s interview with Bill Moyers [strike one]). Still, attempts to ouster Cizik have been unsuccessful. Then, in early December, a door opened during an interview on NPR (strike two). Responding to a question about gay marriage, Cizik confessed, “I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think” (strike three, four, five….). Cizik resigned shortly after, a sign that the old morality map is still a standard in the evangelical atlas.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for posting -- this is a fascinating post.

I'd like to add that criticism of Obama's choice reaches well beyond angry gays and lesbians and includes many feminists, pro-choicers, and several others to be sure -- President of People for the American Way Kathryn Kolbert's editorial today on CNN is a good read.

Cheers to Paul R. and the spirit of the Social Gospel.
Anonymous said…
I think Warren must have confused the Social Gospel movement with liberation theology. Liberation theology is overtly Marxist, so Warren's words would obviously be welcomed as a compliment. It's too bad Warren confused this. Of course, I don't look to Warren as an expert on 20th century theology or many other things for that matter.

Warren is right, however, about the Social Gospel's dimunition of individual conversion. Of course, that's not necessarily a negative criticism, though from Warren's perspective it would be.

By the way, why don't Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama get more protests about their stance on homosexuality? Are they just too iconic? Anyway, they seem to get a free pass. Of course, Pope John Paul II was also iconic and he still managed to get criticism on the issue. (I also wonder what would have happened if T.D. Jakes had been chosen for the inaugurual invocation.)
Anonymous said…
I thought it was kind of neat that Paul Rauschenbush wanted to defend his great-grandfather. I wonder, though, if his words will calm the fires when he says that evangelicals are suspicious about work among the poor and AIDS victims. Say what you want about evangelicals, they've been doing this overseas missionary thing for a long time and they're quite good and financing it and supporting it.

It's sad that we have to be so suspicious of each other. In my city here in Mass., I love the work among the poor that I see done by evangelicals, Catholics, Unitarians, and mainliners. Quite often they even work with each other. I'm sure this is true in countless other cities. Why does this kind of reconciling work not get recognized? Why do nationally public figures seem to care more about their own agendas than really helping people at the local level? It's all enough to give me the Christmas blues.

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