Friday, February 11, 2011

Christianity and the Social Crisis

I'm often asked to explain how my political ideology fits in with my religious beliefs. I'll start with a bit of background. When I was very young, my parents were part of a small group of passionate evangelical Christians who left the Church of God in Lloydminster to start a new church called Lloydminster Gospel Fellowship. Today it is the city's most charismatic evangelical church. It belongs to the network of Canadian churches under the banner of the Pentecostal Assemblies Of Canada (PAOC).

I was very involved in that church, particularly during my teenage years and early twenties, roughly from 1997 to 2007. At my most active stage, I was in charge of leading the music there every second Sunday or so. Around 2007, I made a clean break from that church, primarily over its dogma and political leanings (to the right, of course). Most of my family still attends that church today, and a couple of them are staff at the church.

Despite most people's instincts to write off evangelical Christians as being lost forever in a right-wing political wasteland, there is hope. Part of that hope for me comes from history, and another part comes from my own experiences.

Let's take history first. After I got involved with the New Democrats, I began to research the history of the party. As I dug up information on the founders and early leaders of the NDP, I began to discover a recurrent theme; many of them came out of the social gospel movement, which was a social justice-oriented movement within evangelical Christianity. Such figures included J. S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the predecessor to the NDP - it existed from around 1930 to 1961, when the NDP was formed) and Tommy Douglas, a Baptist preacher who became the first leader of the federal NDP and "Father of Medicare" in Canada. The movement was also very influential in the United States, where Martin Luther King Jr. took it and applied it to the civil rights movement.

Both Tommy Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by a book called "Christianity and the Social Crisis", written in 1907 by an American preacher named Walter Rauschenbusch. I read the book about 6 months ago, and it is as relevant today as it was when it was first written. The book still inspires some prominent evangelical progressives in North America, including Tony Campolo, founder of the "Red Letter Christians" movement in the United States, and Cornel West, prominent author and professor at Princeton University. The social gospel is not dead.

These progressive evangelical movements tend to be under the radar for almost everyone. The majority of Pentecostal churches in Canada (I can speak from a much more informed perspective about Pentecostal churches than I can about evangelicals as a whole) have a very conservative culture about them. I use the word "culture" for a reason. What most people outside of churches misunderstand is that the large majority of such churches have no coordinated effort to get people out to the polls to vote a particular way or to exert their collective political influence on Parliament. I won't say it doesn't happen, but in the many churches I have attended, I have never seen it done. What does happen is a much more subtle approach in which the church leadership, trained in networks of approved "bible schools" across the country, foster the creation or continuation of a conservative mindset amongst their congregations. The congregations develop a set of conservative values to which conservative politicians often appeal.

Part of what makes progressive politics a difficult thing for many evangelicals to grab a hold of is the culture of ignorance in many churches. I remember sitting in a church service where an active member of the church was sharing some thoughts in front of a couple hundred church members and ended it with a repeated call to "Stop watching CNN!" And it wasn't in the sense that CNN is not the right choice for your news. It was in the sense that you shouldn't care about what is in the news. He had the whole room clapping. I remember another time when I expressed to a long-time church member that I was out to "fix the world." His response was that we don't need to fix the world. Jesus will do that when he returns. I was shocked.

My impression of things is that they are changing, albeit slowly. Over the years since I left the church I was attending, two former pastors who worked there and many people I grew up going to church with (some still attending, some not) have expressed to me their concern with the way a political agenda is spread throughout churches without question. Many more people I know are starting to ask questions. It is a change that I have always seen as inevitable for many (not to downplay the amount of work is required to change things).

I say that because I have never known so much compassion as I knew in that church. Despite my political disagreements with the people around me when I was there, they cared as much or more for the people around them than they did for themselves. Most of them were the types of people who would be heartbroken to see their neighbour without food and would not for a second allow that person to go hungry. The connection that needs to be made is that we now live in a global neighbourhood. That connection is starting to be made. As travel becomes more accessible and connecting with people on the other side of the globe becomes easier and easier, those barriers are starting to be removed. Parents sheltering their children from the "corruption of the world" is no longer as easy as it used to be.

It is time that evangelical Christians began once again to apply the ideals of the social gospel to our society. The focus on individual wealth on the right does not have a monopoly on Christians. In fact, a society where the poor are taken care of and lifted up fits much better into the message of the gospels.

"Let others voice special interests; the minister of Jesus Christ must voice the mind of Jesus Christ. His strength will lie in the high impartiality of moral insight and love to all. But if he really follows the mind of Christ, he will be likely to take the side of the poor in most issues."

- Walter Rauschenbusch, from his 1907 classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis


  1. Excellent article Joel. I think you accurately summed up the state of the relationship between Christianity and politics relatively well. Perhaps your next article could tackle the all important divisive political wedge issues? (aka abortion & gay marriage)

    Growing up in a hardcore fundamentalist Christian church myself I saw congregations sometimes explicitly told how to vote. That however had less to do with economic political ideology and more about wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage. On the whole it seemed people were ignorant about the benefit of social programs, public healthcare & education. It's as if conservative politicians hijacked Christians via wedge issues. Because it always had been paradoxical to me how Christians could not want more social welfare via the teachings of Jesus.

    However there was also another darker influencing factor, and that was one of the prevailing beliefs that we are living in the end times and Jesus is due to return any year now, and Armageddon is about to begin and its every man for himself type of mentality. Alongside this is the concept that outside of your immediate congregation everything is "worldly" and she be kept away from - at arms length minimum. I grew up under the notion that TV's were devils boxes and no one could be trusted and that mankind is inherently evil, and just to keep to your own and brave it out till the day of judgement was that all that could be expected of you.

    When life on earth is reduced to a means to an end, (the goal is to get to heaven and avoid hell at all costs) it is hard to see the merit in putting the effort into good governance and looking after global society.

  2. Thanks so much for the great comment! I'll definitely do a post about those "hot-button" issues soon. ;)

  3. Good post, Joel. I'm this is an interesting blog so far.

    I think you've come across an interesting and little-discussed topic. Coming from the moderately religious background of the United Church, I have found it frustrating when many atheist leftists write off religious-types as being ignorant and incompatible with social-democracy. Moreover, I think this perception of hostility is very common within many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, turning off some who would share many values with the centre-left. The human welfare message of the CCF, with its religious roots, would fare relatively well with many Canadians who otherwise vote Conservative.

    That said, I'm curious to see what Adi thinks of this issue ;-)

  4. Ah! Great, thanks Joel.

    Your post on Xianity and politics is well done! My experience is that you’re right when it comes to the evangelical church and its relationship with politics. I’ve had a similar story, growing up with similar "a-political" (if anything can be such) Christian world view that tended to dismiss politics as a function of human degradation while strongly reinforcing the Protestant work ethic that leans so Right in its emphasis on independence.

    To add to some of your Christian social movements,alongside Rauschenbush (The Mustard Seed was a Baptist affiliate!) I’ve been inspired by the abolition movement and the suffrage movement- both of which gained their moral momentum from Christ’s call to equality and human dignity.

    Then there is the writings of the Catholic left- or the Catholic Liberation Movement (I love that name, bunch of Christian revolutionaries that had no connection with the Crusades!). It’s a movement that has profoundly changed my protestant-tinged perspective of Catholic theology (they don’t just pray to Mary!) and of Christ’s call as a healer of broken people and systems. So many Catholic Jesuit orders supported the work of the Left in South America. Many have died choosing justice over life.

    But most impactful, for me, has been the Catholic Worker (a communist newspaper published first in the 30s and which still is in print through many of their communities through NA) and their main leader Dorothy Day. Have you read her book Loaves and Fishes? I have a book of her quotes I should bring you. I think you’d like her fire.

    I've wandered in and out of comfortable faith and church attendance, but we’ve found the most connection in the Vineyard Churches- much more social justice oriented than Pentacostals but evangelical in its workship. I really like the idea of liturgy and the strong tradition that its steeped in, but I just can’t seem to bear sitting through a whole service of it! I guess it is what you know- and I like good worship music and ad hoc prayers... So we journey.