Welcome to the second post in my series on Christian political discourse. Last week I set out my theoretical assumptions and outlined my posting itinerary for the next several weeks.

My goal for this series is to, in the end, articulate a roadmap toward a rhetoric of love. As a Christian, I am convinced that all Christian language must be measured against how well it loves neighbor.

In this post, I am going to sketch a historical and social context for my study of Christian political discourse.

Given that I am an American, I am really only interested in (and feel competent to talk about!) Christian political discourse within American politics. Thus, I will not (for example) address European Christian Democrats, British evangelicals, Egyptian Coptic Christians, Russian Orthodox Christians, or Syriac Orthodox Christians in Syria and Lebanon. I am purely interested in American Christian political discourse.

Additionally, I am only interested in contemporary discourse. That is, while historical framing is needed, I will not set about analyzing in any methodical way the ways in which American Christians have, historically, used political discourse. Further, I will focus my attention on a national, rather than regional, discourse.

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Now for some historical framing:

In the late 1800s, along with the rapid rise of heavy industrialization, appalling working conditions emerged in the cities in the United States. These appalling working conditions disproportionately affected immigrants, the poor, women, people of color, and children. These conditions caused many different segments of society to raise their voices in objection. These voices included socialists—such as Upton Sinclair who exposed the evils of the meat-packing industry in Chicago—populists, anarchists, and Christians. Two primary streams of Christian critique of social injustice emerged at this time.

One stream was the Catholic social teaching, touched off in an official capacity by Pope Leo XIII (1891) when he issued the Encyclical Rerum Novarum in which he discussed, among other things, the need for a living wage, the rights of workers to bargain collectively and form unions, and a defense of private property against socialist extremism. In unusually strong language, the Pope noted, “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself” (para. 3). This was the first document in a now long and rich history of social teaching by the Catholic Church. The next encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI (1931), discussed the ethical implications of the broader social and economic order.

Following in the same tradition, a number of papal encyclicals were published in the twentieth century. In July 2009, Pope Benedict XVI published the most recent encyclical in this tradition entitled Caritas in Veritate. This encyclical displays a progress of thought. Rather than being focused exclusively on workers, this latest encyclical focused on the moral evils which sit behind much of the systemic oppression in our world. The Holy Father addressed concerns ranging from the environment to poverty to sexuality. In this tradition, the emphasis is on the Church to give moral guidance, but to allow others to develop specific solutions to problems.

The second stream of Christian thought that emerged was the Social Gospel tradition. It had antecedents in the abolitionist movement, but came to fruition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Social Gospel rejected the common Christian view of two kingdoms, the first Kingdom being eternal life for the individual people—the heavenly Kingdom. The second was the secular Kingdom ruled by the sate. Instead, it argued that the Church’s job is to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (a kingdom of equality, peace, and justice), that Jesus died taking all the evils of the world on himself, and his goal was to replace evil and selfishness with love. The church was to work for social change in society so that the oppressed were taken care of.

The Social Gospel was almost universally propagated by liberal theologians in mainline protestant denominations. The movement tapered off in the 1940’s because the arguments of the early Social Gospel theologians—that ending poverty and disease and solving all of the social ills in human society is not only possible, but the purpose of the Church—were destroyed in systemic attacks waged against them by Reinhold Niebuhr and other Christian Realists. After two World Wars, two views held by the Social Gospel theologians were largely abandoned. The first was the view of humans as basically good. The second was the view of society as continuously evolving to become better.

However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the movement was revived by Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement. Making arguments from the doctrine of Imago Dei, Dr. King demanded an end to segregation and class oppression because they are moral evils. Echoing the arguments of the earlier Social Gospel theologians, Dr. King’s argument was that all people are image bearers of God, and therefore all people deserve to be treated with the utmost respect. Because segregation, class oppression, abject poverty, and other similar social ills create contexts in which people are not treated as image bearers of God, then such social ills are to be rejected and addressed.

The tendency of those who promote the Social Gospel is to be both politically and theologically liberal. Politically, most of those who promote the Social Gospel argue for state redistribution of property and wealth, regulation of large corporations, and massive social-welfare programs which assist the disenfranchised. Most churches who espoused the Social Gospel were housed in mainline protestant denominations.

As conservative theology has returned in force to the American religious scene, so too has conservative politics shaped by religion. With the rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s (a political answer to a changing culture), conservative theology found its political expression in focusing on so-called moral concerns, like abortion, feminism, and gay rights. With the cultural revolution in the 60s, many previously apolitical theological conservatives found themselves at the ballot box. Moreover, with the rapid decline of the liberal denominations beginning in the 80s, the political debate came to be perceived as a war between secular America and Christian America.

However, in the last several years, many young evangelicals who embrace a conservative theology are increasingly embracing the old political tenets of a dead Christian Left. These young evangelicals see the Social Gospel as a moral imperative with far greater weight than the older “moral” concern with gay marriage and feminism. Both Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis (old Christian Left warriors from a generation ago) are capitalizing on this shift. The election of Barack Obama, a theological conservative who embraces political Liberalism, is indicative of this shift.

It is into this theological, cultural, and political milieu that any Christian political discourse must speak. Understanding this historical background will help us as we try to sort out who is saying what to whom, and why it matters.

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Next week we will discuss the rhetorical spaces from which I plan to draw the texts I will analyze. I will consider traditional media, social media, churches, governmental bodies, etc.

As always, thanks for reading!

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