The Author’s Corner with David Kirkpatrick

KirkpatrickDavid C. Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University.  This interview is based on his new book A Gospel for the Poor: Global Social Christianity and the Latin American Evangelical Left (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: Writing this book was an exciting journey that took me to five countries and allowed me to interview fascinating characters around the world. I was especially motivated to bring the voices of marginalized yet deeply influential Christians into established and ongoing conversations. As I started the project, I began to uncover ways in which the influence of Latin Americans had been hidden or excluded, including through translation and adoption by American leaders. As a Spanish speaker myself, I was also motivated to translate Spanish materials for an English-speaking audience and to narrate the ways in which these leaders navigated their bilingual world. At times, progressive Latin American evangelicals used their bilingualism to their advantage, saying one thing in English and another in Spanish. This type of historical recovery motivated me throughout the project. But more importantly, I think their story was worth telling: A Cold War generation of Latin Americans who demanded a place at the table of global evangelical leadership, seeking to strip Christianity of its white, middle-class, American packaging. Within a fraught and contested space, they sought to construct a gospel for the poor.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Gospel for the Poor.

DK: In A Gospel for the Poor, I argue that the intellectual scaffolding of the Evangelical Left was built not in the American public square but in Cold War Latin America. In this context, transnational conversations provoked the rise of progressive evangelical politics, the explosion of Christian humanitarian organizations, and the infusion of social justice into the very mission of evangelicals around the world and across a broad spectrum of denominations.

JF: Why do we need to read A Gospel for the Poor?

DK: A Gospel for the Poorfuses the worlds of Pope Francis and Billy Graham. Many of the main characters in the book are familiar to readers—Graham, John Stott, Carl F. H. Henry, Stacey Woods (founder of InterVarsity-USA), Gustavo Gutiérrez, and others. This story not only recasts well-known Christian leaders but also argues for the importance and inclusion of lesser-known activists such as René Padilla, Orlando Costas, and Samuel Escobar. In order to do so, I utilized a far-flung set of archival materials mostly outside the United States—dusty boxes in René Padilla’s Buenos Aires garage, binders in Samuel Escobar’s apartment in Valencia, Spain, John Stott’s travel diary at Lambeth Palace library in London, long-thought-lost meeting minutes from Seminario Bíblico in San José, Costa Rica, papers of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Oxford, and, of course, the collections at Wheaton College to name a few. Alongside bilingual interviews, this subaltern dataset flavors the narrative and reframes key events and leaders.

A Gospel for the Poor seeks to answer key questions about progressive Christianity such as, why did many evangelicals in the North greet these ideas as family rather than foein contrast to their reaction to the so-called Social Gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Thus, we turn not to centers of power but to a revolutionary Latin American university environment, examining a cluster of political and social forces reshaping the post-war Americas:  rural-urban migration flows, the resulting complications of urbanization, and the rapid expansion of the universities, where Marxist ideas of revolutionary change presented a growing appeal to students around the world. In turn, this produced a renaissance of social Christianities in the U.S. and buttressed an increasingly interventionist evangelical foreign policy, as well.

For the Evangelical Left, they required theological justification for their political action and when searching for words to describe a gospel for the poor, key members turned to the Global South and language that was forged within the Cold War. In the words of Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, the Latin American Evangelical Left provided a “different theological ecosystem.”

Ultimately, A Gospel for the Poor contributes to an exciting ongoing conversation on evangelical internationalism and social Christianity. In this story, progressive Latin Americans became trailblazers, playing the role of controversial truthtellers and prophets, bringing to bear the reality of the Majority World into the consciousness of powerbrokers in the North. The role of progressive Latin Americans as a bridge between younger, emerging evangelical leadership in the Global South and the evangelical establishment was crucial to the task of challenging loyalties. In fact, it is fair to say that one cannot understand the contextual turn of global evangelicalism in the postwar period without understanding their role within it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?

DKMy path to becoming an historian of World Christianity was rather circuitous. I have long been fascinated by the relationship between the United States and Latin America, with all their crucial intersections whether migration, religion, or politics. In college, I studied Spanish and lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, between my sophomore and junior years. Through many journeys prior and since, I fell in love with Latin American culture and history. In conversations and research, the shadow of the United States was ever-present. In grad school, I fell in love with archival research and interviewing—a love relationship that still motivates my work. But perhaps more than anything, two mentors shaped my journey as an historian—Doug Sweeney at TEDS and Brian Stanley at Edinburgh. They took me under their wing and, through hundreds of hours of mentorship, taught me how to think, research, and write. To me, they are also tremendous examples of Christian voices in our contentious contemporary world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

JF: What is your next project?

DK: I have two current book projects that are well under way, both surrounding the issue of global religious violence. I am co-editing a collection of essays with Jason Bruner provisionally titled A Global Vision of Violence: Persecution, Media, and Martyrdom in World Christianity. We have a tremendous lineup of scholars with diverse perspectives. My second monograph is titled Blood and Borders: Violence and the Origins of the “Global War on Christians.” Blood and Borders situates American evangelicalism within in a transnational frame and foreground religious violence against Protestants in Latin America. It provides a fresh take on how American evangelicals view themselves, their neighbors, and their place in the world—a world that declared war on their perceived global family.

DK: Thanks, David!

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Will the Church Show Up in the Age of Trump?


I recently heard Senator John McCain say that Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, amply titled “America First: A Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” will be dead on arrival in the Senate.

But what if Trump’s budget, which cuts over $1 trillion in safety net programs, did go into effect?  Marv Knox, the editor of The Baptist Standard, is interested in this question.

Here is a taste of his recent editorial:

Three scenarios

Christians who touted their faith as a reason for backing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign have put God on trial, with two ways to win and one way to lose.

Win Scenario 1: Trump is correct, and his budget works.

His plan doesn’t merely balance the budget, but also wildly stimulates the economy, brings coal back in vogue, reopens industrial jobs and ensures near-zero unemployment with good-paying jobs. People don’t need a safety net, because they’re getting by on their own.

Beyond that, they feel better about themselves—“great,” even—because they’re working and making their way. Christians helped Trump win; life is good; God is great.

Win Scenario 2: Trump is not correct, but the church saves the day.

The federal safety net shreds, but the church shows up on time. Christian benevolences of all kinds flourish. The church feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, houses the homeless. Christians provide so much money to their hospitals and health clinics, even people who cannot afford insurance can receive highly specialized and expensive cancer treatment, surgery and every other medical need.

Christians sacrificed to take care of others, who thrived because of their loving benevolence. God gets the glory for their gracious spirits. America experiences a revival it has not seen in many generations.

Lose Scenario 1: Trump is not correct, and the church fails to show up.

The federal safety shreds, just as the president has planned. Meals on Wheels collapses. Parents can’t find work, and so they not only can’t bring home a paycheck, but they can’t meet the president’s stringent requirements for supplemental assistance. Their children go hungry. Their older cousins can’t continue their education because they can’t get student loans. Other calamity ensues.

Meanwhile, the church continues its current course. Less than 20 percent of members tithe, and congregations spend most of the money they take in on themselves, particularly buildings and staff. Food pantries and clothes closets can’t keep up with burgeoning need. Health clinics meet only a fraction of the demand. Expensive care from hospitals is out of the question.

Hurting people—the chronically ill, children, the elderly, even veterans—suffer without alleviation, either from the government or from the church. They can do math, and they realize 81 percent of evangelicals put the president in office. And now their safety net is gone. They can see the landscape, and they don’t see nearly enough congregations even trying to knit a new one. You can understand why they blame God. Either way they look at it—politically or religiously—Christian people did them in.

If 20th-century American history is any indication, Knox’s “Lose Scenario #3” is most likely.  Don’t get me wrong, the Christian church did some amazing work of benevolence in the last century and its members continue to do this work today.  But the church’s influence, particularly among evangelicals, has not kept up with the need.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  We could point to the evangelical rejection of the so-called “social gospel.”  We could point to the fact that most white evangelicals see no real disconnect between the pursuit of the American Dream and the pressing social needs of the world.  Similarly we could point to the way evangelicals have too often baptized capitalism.  I am sure there are others.  We are all guilty.

I hope Christians take Knox’s call seriously.  I appreciate his piece and I agree with it. But as a student of history, I realize that the church will need to make a bold break with the recent past if it wants to live without a government safety net.  And Knox is right about one more thing–it will take a revival.  The last time evangelicals displayed social action fitting with the call of the Gospel was during the Second Great Awakening.

Is Trump Energizing the Protestant Mainline?


Check out Harry Bruinius’s report at the Christian Science Monitor on liberal Protestants coming back to the church in the age of Trump.

Here is a taste:

The current “Trump bump” now energizing many progressive congregations, however, may only be a blip on what has been a decades-long decline of liberal Christianity and some of the mainline Protestant denominations that have carried its torch since the early 20th century, many scholars caution.

“The social gospel has found its biggest moment of relevance since the Reagan years,” says Brett Grainger, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University near Philadelphia. “The energy is feeding directly off the current administration’s proposed budget cuts, which target the most vulnerable members of society, and its policies on immigration, which rub against the belief that ‘love of the stranger’ is central to Christian teaching.”

“But if there is a revival, it’s most likely to be temporary, in that it thrives on its antagonism to Trump,” Professor Grainger continues.


Liberal Christianity and mainline Protestantism have been contracting for decades, in fact, losing millions of members and the cultural influence it once was able to wield. Mainline Protestant churches, including those in Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist denominations, have lost roughly 5 million adult members since 2007, and now comprise about 15 percent of the US population, according to Pew Research.

Formed in the “modernist” controversies of the 1920s, liberal Christianity began to “demythologize” certain teachings like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the literal meaning of Scripture. In response, conservatives emphasized the traditional “fundamentals” of Christian doctrine, which eventually gave rise to the term “fundamentalism.”

At the same time, many liberal congregations began to emphasize the “social gospel,” which focuses on Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and poor and the call to Christian service. Indeed, Christian congregations on the left were major players in the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the “sanctuary churches” movement that supported Central American refugees in the 1980s. Many were also part of the spread of “liberation theology,” first preached by Central American Catholics in the 1960s, who proclaimed that God primarily identifies with the oppressed and marginalized.


“Churches that are channeling this new anti-Trump energy into justice and caregiving issues, they’re not leaving their understanding of the Christian gospel behind,” says Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They are saying: This is who we are, we have a history of this, and we can’t be silent.”

Read the entire piece here.  Perhaps it is time for David Hollinger, Elesha Coffman, and Matt Hedstrom to weigh-in on this phenomenon with some historical perspective.

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

Brantley Gasaway: Diversity and Debates With the Social Gospel Tradition

GasawayBrantley Gasaway of Bucknell University offers another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  See all  of his AHA 2016 posts here.

While historians devote much of our time to critically examining the past, we also ask critical questions about the ways in which previous scholars have interpreted this past. As a result, numerous sessions at professional conferences such as this one are devoted to historiographical issues, re-examining familiar narratives, concepts, and interpretive categories. The first session I attended on Thursday was devoted to reassessing the concept and history of “culture wars.” Today, a panel of historians presented papers that sought to “Rethink the Social Gospel(s).”

In the earliest historiography, scholars portrayed the Social Gospel as a movement developed and led by elite white Protestant liberals, popular primarily in urban centers, concerned most with the deleterious consequences of industrialization and urbanization, and ebbing in influence after the 1930s. In recent decades, however, historians have challenged this characterization by showing how the theology of Social Gospel was adopted and adapted by a variety of religious and racial activists in many different locales and for many different purposes. Today’s panel continued this trend.

Curtis Evans, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, delivered a paper that examined the efforts of the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC’s) Department of Race Relations as a manifestation of the Social Gospel. This initiative was founded upon one of the Social Gospel’s core theological principles concerning “the fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.” As an ecumenical and cooperative organization of liberally-inclined Protestants, the FCC inherited the Social Gospel tradition and, from the early 1920s through the 1950s, extended their commitment to address social problems to racial injustice. Through the participation and leadership of African-American ministers, the FCC developed concrete programs designed to change not only individual attitudes but also systemic racism as embodied in economic, educational, and legal structures. Because the FCC concluded that the realization of the Kingdom of God required the eradication of racial injustice, Evans concluded, the work of the Department of Race Relations deserves a place in narratives about the Social Gospel.

Arlene Sánchez-Walsh of Azusa Pacific University focused on the labor activism of Emma Tenayuca and the 1938 strike of Chicana pecan shellers in San Antonio. The vast majority of the workers were Catholic, while a sizable minority were converts to the Assemblies of God tradition. Nevertheless, both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Assemblies of God leaders opposed the strike for a variety of reasons, including labor leaders’ association with communism. As a result, Tenayuca, who had indeed joined the communist party, and other workers were forced to draw their inspiration and justification from sources outside of traditional religious institutions. As Sánchez-Walsh explained further during the discussion period, she found no influence of the traditional “Social Gospel” theology and liberal Protestants in her case study.

Paul Putz, a Ph.D. student at Baylor University, focused on two controversies during the Gilded Age in the Midwest. In 1894, the commencement address given by Christian Socialist George Herron at the State University of Nebraska created public debates concerning the Social Gospel’s legitimacy and limits. In 1900, Charles Sheldon, author of the classic Social Gospel novel In His Steps (that introduced the question “What Would Jesus Do?”), assumed editorial responsibility for the leading paper of Topeka, Kansas for one week and pledged to run it according to Social Gospel principles. Despite their initial enthusiasm, local black leaders criticized Sheldon for virtually ignoring issues of racial injustice. For racial minorities, attention to racial problems represented the sine qua non of Social Gospel activism. Thus, Putz concluded, historians must pay attention not only to familiar leaders such as Herron and Sheldon but also to other Social Gospelers and their priorities.

Cara Burnidge of the University of Northern Iowa gave the final paper and offered the most explicit reflections on Social Gospel historiography. Her paper analyzed how Social Gospelers’ theology concerning the “brotherhood of man” led Washington Gladden, Lyman Abbott and other leaders to support the United States’ international interventionism and participation in World War I in order to spread the democratic ideals vital to social salvation. Burnidge urged historians to focus not only on Social Gospelers’ goal of social salvation but also upon the diverse means they championed in their efforts. In her case study, she highlighted leaders’ desire to work through the United States and its foreign policies to realize the Kingdom of God as a global reality. As such, Burnidge concluded, Christian interventionism in global affairs represented an important impulse of the Social Gospel movement.

Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso University and author of the recently published Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford, 2015), responded to the panelists by asking how their research contributes to historiographical accounts of the Social Gospel. With so much diversity and internal debates, is it still useful to talk about the Social Gospel, or is it better to describe Social Gospels? Is the Social Gospel best understood as a “movement,” a “tradition,” or a set of emphases?

While much of this discussion lies beyond my specialization, I left with a sense that it is most useful to differentiate between the self-conscious Social Gospel movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the practices of many Christians in a wide variety of contexts who drew upon Christian principles in diagnosing and redressing social problems. Perhaps this latter category is best characterized as “Social Christianity” in order to distinguish it from “the Social Gospel”—a suggestion made during the audience discussion by Mark Edwards (based upon, I think, the work of Gary Dorrien). I look forward to seeing how this session’s participants and other scholars write about the Social Gospel in the coming years.

The Author’s Corner with Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The New Abolition?

GD: I wrote The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel because we have long needed a book on the black social gospel tradition in which Martin Luther King Jr. was steeped and shaped, and that he epitomized.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New Abolition?

GD: The tradition of black social gospel Christianity arose in the late 19th century as an attempt to determine what a new abolition(ism) would require. The founding generation had four ideological parties; there were more black social gospel founders than previously estimated; they fought to establish a place for progressive theology and social justice politics in black churches; the crucial founders allied with W. E. B. Du Bois; and they founded a tradition of black social gospel progressivism that led to King’s role models, King’s movement associates, and King himself.

JF: Why do we need to read The New Abolition?

GD: Martin Luther King Jr. is incomprehensible and impossible without the founders and the succeeding generation of black social gospel leaders, notably Benjamin E. Mays, J. Pius Barbour, George Kelsey, Vernon Johns, and Howard Thurman. But the black social gospel tradition itself has almost no literature. The New Abolition describes the founders, and a succeeding book to be titled Breaking White Supremacy will deal with King’s mentors and the King generation.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GD: Most of my work operates on one of two tracks–philosophy of religion and historical theology, or social ethics and political thought. But both tracks have a strong intellectual history bent.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: In addition to the book noted above, titled Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, I am writing an essay collection on modern theology and a capstone book on economic democracy.

JF: Thanks, Gary! 

The Author’s Corner with Heath Carter

Heath Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso University  This interview is based on his latest book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago

JF: What led you to write Union Made?

HC: While a master’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School I stumbled upon an article in an old fundamentalist periodical about how the state of Wisconsin had quashed an attempt by a group of Christian ministers to form a union.  I read on, expecting the editor to rail against the state.  Much to my surprise, he instead reveled in the ministers’ misfortune, arguing that it served them right for associating with the devil (ie. the trade union movement).  The piece left me wondering whether working-class evangelicals shared the editor’s animus toward unions.  I had a hunch that their class experiences might have led them to different conclusions and was able to test my hypothesis during my first-ever graduate seminar at the University of Notre Dame.  That semester I wrote the first draft of what is now Chapter 5 on the religious dimensions of the Pullman strike.  One of the leading ministers in town had denounced the strikers and I was fortunate in that his still-active church, Pullman Presbyterian, had its membership records going all the way back into the 19th century.  I’ll never forget the excitement that afternoon when I discovered that, sure enough, in the weeks following the minister’s criticism of the strike a working-class walkout had commenced.  At that point I knew I had a story to tell.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Union Made?

HC: Working people keyed the rise of social Christianity in cities like Chicago.  In the generation before Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), blacksmiths, seamstresses, and the like were already preaching and practicing social gospels; and their religious activism proved the single greater factor in a remarkable early-twentieth-century turnabout, as one by one the nation’s churches finally embraced organized labor. 

JF: Why do we need to read Union Made?

HC: The answer depends on the audience.  Historians should read the book because it recasts the story of social Christianity, one of the most significant reform movements in modern American history.  But I hope that Union Madewill also attract non-specialist readers.  The book does not pretend to offer contemporary Christians or labor organizers solutions for present-day problems.  Nevertheless, these groups and others may find, as I have, that the voices of late-19th-century Chicago’s working-class prophets are still surprisingly resonant.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HC:  I did not take a single American history class in college, but my senior year at Georgetown I wrote an honor’s thesis on the Left Behind series that piqued my curiosity about the history of American evangelicalism.  Before I knew it I was off to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I had the privilege of working with Catherine Brekus.  By the time I finished a lengthy research paper on the rise of an evangelical left in response to the Vietnam War – an experience which offered me my first extended exposure to the delights of historical detective work – I was hooked.  I applied to a variety of PhD programs and two weeks before I was admitted to Notre Dame I received word that Mark Noll would be coming to replace a retiring George Marsden.  When I got a phone call admitting me into the program, I jumped at the chance to work with Mark, whom I had so long admired.

JF: What is your next project?

HC: I am planning to write an ambitious new history of the Social Gospel in American life.  Remarkably, the grand narratives of the 1940s and 1950s remain the closest thing we have to an overview of this important Christian tradition, which I will argue was born in the decades prior to the Civil War and extends all the way through the present day.  The book will draw on original research but also on the insights of recent generations of historians, who have produced a wealth of excellent articles and monographs that now need to be synthesized.    

JF: Thanks, Heath!

Fundamentalism and Class

Janine Giordano Drake, a graduate student at the University of Illinois and a reader of this blog, is working on a fascinating dissertation entitled “Between Religion and Politics: The Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936.”

In this video (unfortunately the video cuts off after only 10 minutes of what I assume was about a 20 minute talk), Drake presents some of her research on fundamentalism, class, and labor at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.  Drake shows how fundamentalists drew on the organizational tactics of the Labor Temple to get working class people to attend their churches.

Addendum:  Janine’s paper is part of a larger session on  “Religion and Politics” that includes presentations on Catholics and Jimmy Carter (Larry McAndrews), Mormons and race (Elise Boxer), fundamentalism during the Great Depresssion (Christopher Schlect), and postwar evangelical Methodism (W. Andrew Tooley).

Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s Faith

Sam Tanenhaus tries to sort out Barack Obama’s Christian faith:

What, exactly, is his brand of Christianity? If it is not hard to recognize, neither is it easily defined, to judge at least by his various discussions of the subject. There is, for instance, the “Call to Renewal” speechhe gave in Washington in 2006, in which he urged believers, whatever their faith, to question the morality of “a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it.”

This is not liberation theology, with its assertion that God favors the oppressed, but it does echo the Social Gospel, the movement that a century ago called for Christianity to “add its moral force to the social and economic forces making for a nobler organization of society” with churches actively ameliorating “the burden of poverty,” in the words of the movement’s leader, Walter Rauschenbusch.

And yet Mr. Obama is also an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who rejected what he considered the naïve moralism of the Social Gospel. From Niebuhr, Mr. Obama has said, he got the message “that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”

The tension between these two religious ideas — one wedded to progress, the other mindful of the limits of worldly activism — reflects the broader tension in Mr. Obama’s liberalism, itself divided between an enthusiasm for bold policy initiatives and a pragmatic understanding that some things can’t be fixed or even much changed through politics.

Tanenhaus is correct when he suggests that Obama is not a liberation theologian. First of all, he is not that sophisticated of a religious thinker to be called a “theologian” of any sort (although he is certainly more theologically minded than his predecessor). Second of all, when he does speak with a religious voice, which has been rare in the last year or so, he sounds more like a social gospeler than a liberation theologian.

Progress and limits. This seems to sum it up very well. Holding these two commitments in tension is not easy, especially if you are the President of the United States.

Evangelicals and Social Reform

I have been impressed lately by the fact that evangelicals have been returning a bit to their nineteenth-century roots. No longer is the Christian Right defining what counts as meaningful social reform.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has, for the last several years, called the nation’s attention to evangelical efforts at fighting poverty, AIDS, sex-trafficking, malaria, and genocide around the globe. This past January Richard Cizik and David Gushee founded the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a faith-based non-profit for evangelical social engagement. Earlier month, a group of evangelicals–some of them from rather conservative institutions–called for immigration reform that, according to this CNN article, “includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.” And now a group of evangelicals are calling for prison reforms that will protect prisoners from violence and rape.

This reminds me of a post I did back in January on the 1873 meeting of the General Conference of the Evangelical Alliance, a group of evangelicals from around the world who met to discuss a host of social issues, including cruelty to animals!

Look Out Jim Wallis: The Hammer is About to Fall!!

Jim Wallis better run for the hills or else keep his door locked at night. Glenn Beck is coming…

“So you go ahead and you continue to do your little protest thing, and that’s great. I love it. But just know — the hammer is coming. We’ve been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you. And when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night. Over and over.”–Glenn Beck

Listen to the whole thing. It’s really eerie and a little bit creepy.

Should Glenn Beck Leave the Mormon Church?

Yes–if he takes his own advice seriously.

Brad Hart, a loyal reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, has done a little research. He posted this in the comments section of my last post on Beck, but I think it deserves its own separate post. Here is it:

Glenn Beck states:

“I beg you, look for the words ’social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

Well, let’s see how his own standard applies to his Mormon faith:

“It is unfortunate that it is taking so long to bring full ECONOMIC JUSTICE to women. The feminization of poverty is both real and tragic. That is why you should work very hard to prepare for your future by gaining some marketable skills.”

~James E Faust, Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, September, 1986

“I wonder how much we offend Satan if the proclamation of our faith is limited only to the great humanitarian work this church does throughout the world, marvelous as these activities are. When we PREACH THE GOSPEL OF SOCIAL JUSTICE, no doubt the devil is not troubled. But I believe the devil is terribly offended when we boldly declare by personal testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that he saw the Father and the Son; when we preach that the Book of Mormon is another witness for Christ; when we declare that there has been a restoration of the fulness of the gospel in its simplicity and power in order to fulfill the great plan of happiness.”

~James E. Faust, September, 1995

And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir being honored for, “The achievements of those who beautify the world, especially in the fields of religion, social justice, and the arts.”

And from the Book of Mormon itself:

From the Book of Alma 1: 27-28, 30:

“And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.

And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions.

And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”

And Mosiah 4: 16-19:

“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”

Scot McKnight Sets Glenn Beck Straight

Yesterday we did a post on Glenn Beck’s call for Christians to flee churches that taught “social justice.” Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has weighed in:

…I find these sorts of statements so far from an awareness of Jesus (not to mention John the Baptist), so I post here the first words of Jesus in public preaching. This passage can’t be read without thinking Jesus was here to bring justice. After the jump, I’ve got John’s words, which have to be seen as some form of voluntary economic sharing as a form of creating justice.
But instead of turning back kind for kind, we shall commit ourselves all the more to telling the truth of the gospel and urge churches to make sure, because of their commitment to following Jesus, their website does mention justice.


4:16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 4:17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

4:18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and the regaining of sight to the blind,

to set free those who are oppressed,

4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.”

4:20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 4:21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.” 4:22 All were speaking well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 4:23 Jesus said to them, “No doubt you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ and say, ‘What we have heard that you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown too.'” 4:24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 4:25 But in truth I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three and a half years, and there was a great famine over all the land.4:26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 4:27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 4:28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. 4:29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 4:30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.

John the Baptist:

3:10 So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do?” 3:11 John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” 3:12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 3:13 He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.” 3:14 Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us – what should we do?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.”

I have my own beefs with the word “social” with justice, thinking it too often gets lumped with the US Constitution, but all justice will manifest itself in social and economic ways.

Glenn Beck: Beware of Code Words Like "Social Justice" or "Economic Justice"

Here is Glenn Beck’s latest rant. He told his radio listeners that if their church website mentions “social justice” or “economic justice” they should leave the church. Apparently these are secret code words for communism and Nazism.

Beck’s comments are attracting a lot of attention around the blogosphere. Joe Carter at First Thoughts wonders if Beck’s remarks are anti-Catholic and concludes that calling Beck an anti-Catholic is giving him too much intellectual credit. At the Catholic blog “In All Things,” Rev. James Martin suggests that any attempt to tell people to reject “social justice” is the equivalent of telling them to reject Christianity. The post on this issue at Inside Political Daily already has 501 comments.

Are there any Christian followers of Glenn Beck out there who are defending these remarks?

Christian Nation: Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy

One of the things I am arguing in my current book manuscript is that the question of whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” really depends on how you define the meaning of the terms “Christian” and “Nation.” In a previous post, I raised the question of how one might define the “nation” in the eighteenth century. In today’s post, I want to at least touch on some ways in which we might define the idea of “Christian.”

Is a “Christian nation” a nation that somehow upholds a belief in Christian orthodoxy? Those who want to use this definition often appeal to the Founding documents and try to show that they somehow reflect an orthodox view of the Christian faith. An example of this might be the attempt to define the Declaration of Independence as a Christian document because it contains references to God. Another variation of this approach is to try to pin down the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. The logic goes something like this: If the Founders were orthodox Christians then they must have set out to build a Christian nation. The problem with this approach is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not Christian documents. Moreover, few of the Founders were orthodox Christians and even if they were orthodox Christians the logic of connecting one’s personal beliefs to one’s view of government is faulty.

Or should a “Christian nation” be defined in terms of orthopraxy? In other words, should we measure the “Christian” character of a society based on whether or not the people and the government of that particular society behave, act, or pass laws that reflect the spirit of Christianity or the ethic of Jesus? Slavery, the treatment of native Americans, imperialism, the greed of capitalism, etc… might all be used here to argue against the idea that the United States is a Christian nation. I would also think that you could point to the good things that the United States has done in the world, or its historic role as an asylum for immigrants, as a way in which it has passed the “orthopraxy” test.

I have been reading a lot today in the period between the Civil War and World War I. During this period there were so many different versions of the “Christian America” theme that it is hard to keep track of them all. I focus my attention here on two of them.

The first is the attempts by an organization known as the National Reform Association (NRA) to pass an amendment to the Constitution proclaiming the United States to be a Christian nation. This movement began during the Civil War when many clergyman feared that God was punishing the United States with war because the Constitution made no acknowledgment of Him. The NRA made several attempts between 1864 and 1910 to get a hearing for their amendment, but it never even got close to a vote in Congress. Behind the NRA agenda was a concern that America’s Christian civilization was declining. If the Constitution declared that the United States was a Christian nation, then reformers would be able to appeal to it when fighting against those who opposed Bible reading in schools or the honoring of Sunday as the Christian sabbath.

The views of the NRA are not unlike the views of folks like David Barton, who have argued that everything from morality to crime to SAT scores have declined since prayer and Bible reading were removed from schools in the early 1960s. The logic is the same for both movements: If the government and the legal system recognize God, the Christian nation will go forward and God will bless the United States with more morality, less crime, and perhaps even better SAT scores.

The other view is the one promoted by the leaders of the turn of the twentieth-century movement known as the Social Gospel. As I read some primary and secondary materials today, I was surprised to learn that people like Washington Gladden (pictured above) and Walter Rauschenbusch were Christian nationalists. They wanted a Christian America based on social justice informed by the teachings and example of Jesus.

In the early 1890s, Gladden wrote:

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 the great consummation; 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

Gladden’s language here is actually stronger than many of today’s Christian nationalists. This guy wanted to build a Christian nation based not on orthodoxy, but orthopraxy. He didn’t care about the separation of church and state or the religious views of the founders. Instead he believed that a truly Christian nation was a nation where people were living out the Gospel in their everyday lives by loving God and others.

As I survey the idea of “Christian America” in American history, I find both of these approaches–orthodoxy and orthopraxy–to be present in the many attempts at building a Christian civilization in this country.