During the first few years that we were members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, my wife was often puzzled about why other church members were seemingly unmoved by problems and injustices in the world that moved her deeply. One day a light came on, and she said to me, “Mennonites don’t have a social conscience!” She was right.
It was said of the apostles, “These are the men who have turned the world upside down!” The gospel changes the world one person at a time. The social gospel sees people as inherently good — it is the world that needs changing. Proponents of the social gospel have succeeded in implanting in the hearts and minds of a large portion of the population a deep-seated belief that we are personally accountable for all the evils in the world and that we must do something to right those wrongs. This is a social conscience.
Many of the larger Canadian churches, the Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and the Baptist Convention, adopted the social gospel program almost a century ago. One of their first targets was the sale of alcoholic beverages, believing that if such beverages were no longer available one of the greatest curses of society would be removed. Prohibition was established in Canada from 1913 to 1927 and in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Unfortunately, the real problem was that a large part of the population actually wanted alcoholic beverages. The net result of the experiment was a considerable expansion of criminal organizations.
Alongside the temperance movement was the women’s suffrage movement. In Canada it was Nellie McClung, a devoted wife and mother, an active church member and a writer of books for children who became the prime mover in pushing for women’s right to vote, temperance, and many other reforms. She was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921. In later years she was dismayed at the results of the movement she had helped create. She had believed that women, with their gentle and maternal instincts, would have a purifying effect on society. She had never dreamed that women would one day demand the right to enter public drinking establishments.
Economic injustices also were a major concern. The churches were enthusiastic supporters of the co-operative movement. Large grain-handling and retail co-ops were established in the Prairie Provinces of Canada and also co-operative banks (credit unions), with the profound faith that these would eliminate the injustices inherent in the private ownership of business.
In 1932 a new Canadian political party was established on social gospel principles and named the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The aim was to provide justice for all through the promotion of co-operative and government-owned businesses as alternatives to private businesses run for the profit of the owners. This party was elected as the government of Saskatchewan in 1944, with a former Baptist pastor as their leader. Despite honest attempts to implement their program, the promised benefits never seemed to materialize.
In the 1920’s the Methodist Church, the Congregational Church and half of the Presbyterian Church merged to form the United Church of Canada, making it by far the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. By the 1950’s it was noted that a decline had set in. A well-known Canadian writer, Pierre Berton, was invited to write a lenten study book for the church. The result was The Comfortable Pew. This book describes a condition where people looked on the church as a comfortable social institution where their hearts and consciences were never challenged. His proposed solution was a revival of the social conscience and the social gospel, to become more committed and active in dealing with the evils in society. The decline has continued. People appear to have decided that if this is all church is about, they can more effectively pursue those goals through other avenues.
The women’s movement took on a life of its own, demanding equal rights with men in all areas. For some years feminists loudly proclaimed that differences between boys and girls were merely the result of parental training. Recent research indicates that, given a choice between a doll and a toy truck, even very small girl babies naturally reach for the doll and boys for the truck. It is sad that we need the social sciences to tell us what our parents always knew.
A Canadian psychologist has recently written a book explaining why women are still very much under represented in upper management. It is not discrimination, it is because they are intrinsically different from men and have different priorities. The writer, Susan Pinker, describes herself as a feminist, and is also a wife and mother.
In their continued quest to eliminate all injustice, the social gospel movement moved on to discrimination against gays. The social gospel churches now appear to be quite comfortable with gay marriages and gay preachers. The social conscience is now trained to see any hint of lack of acceptance of such things as outrageous prejudice.
Animals have their rights, too. The difference between humans and other life forms is becoming blurred. Sometimes it appears that the needs of animals take precedence over the needs of humans.
The intolerant, totalitarian attitude that has developed in these movements may puzzle us. But if we consider that these are all manifestations of the social gospel, it becomes somewhat easier to understand. These are people who sincerely believe that society is in need of salvation and that they have the gospel message that is able to work out that salvation. Never mind that society actually seems to be growing worse as a result of the social gospel. It is only that unenlightened people stand in the way of the full realization of the redemption of society. The social gospel seems to create a zeal for the welfare of people in the abstract, and at the same time to anaesthetize feelings of compassion for real people, especially those who lack a social conscience.
The social gospel transformed the purpose of the gospel message from the salvation of souls to a kind of moral salvation. More recently, it seems to be focussing its attention on the salvation of the planet.
© Bob Goodnough, first published in The Business Bulletin, May, 2008