When I Was Hungry You…Modern Conservative Social Gospel

This is probably one of the most misunderstood and maligned groups in the melding of religion and politics. Folks who fall into this category believe, as a matter of conscience, that those things that are contrary to scripture as a general rule should not be allowed in legal civil society. Much like the Progressive social gospel adherents, they vote their faith, and the intent is to protect society from those things that they deem harmful to it. What is important to understand is that these individuals and groups are not, as many seem to think, motivated by fear or hate, but rather by the sincere belief that those things they deem harmful to society should not be allowed, or at the very least severely restricted.

The most well known example of a conservative social gospel initiative was prohibition. While there were numerous laws going back to the colonies restricting alcohol, the temperance movement driven primarily by women, especially Methodist women, succeeded in eventually getting the 18th Amendment passed making alcohol illegal in the United States. This happened after numerous state wide laws that prohibited alcohol were over turned. The ability of conservative social gospel believers to organize and effect legislation is unparalleled. The temperance movement also supported, and had success in state and local legislators, passing harsh prostitution laws. The basis for this, especially for the women in the movement, was that these two vices above all else, kept men out of the home and caused them to oppress their wives. Carrie Nation, a leader in the movement, once commented that “almost everyone who was in jail was directly or indirectly there from the influence of intoxicating drinks,” and after destroying a painting of a nude woman commented “It is very significant that the pictures of naked women are in saloons. Women are stripped of everything by them. Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food, and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare of all things!”.

Another success of the conservative social gospel believers was the introduction of Blue Laws that prohibited certain activities on Sundays. Most of these laws are now relaxed or repealed, but many lasted for a significant amount of time. In Texas, for example, selling housewares such as pots and pans, and even washing machines was forbidden on Sunday until 1985. Many states still ban selling cars on Sunday.

In today’s modern society, the most well known example is likely opposition to legalized same sex marriage, though there are many others. Conservative social gospel followers have become know collectively as the religious right, or Christian right, and have made attempts to influence legislation on euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, gambling, abortion, sex education, school prayer, intelligent design, and pornography, as well as several other things. Some groups that may be familiar are The Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, Free Congress Foundation, and others.

A distinction needs to be drawn here between those who have a more conservative political leaning, and are indeed Christian, but are not in line with the conservative social justice types. So, using myself as an example, I do not support legalized gambling, state lotteries, etc., do not support elective abortion, and find homeschooling to be a valid alternative to public schools, I hold these positions primarily due to my understanding of natural rights and how they have influenced our system of government and not out of any particular religious belief. I have religious beliefs on these subjects, but those beliefs are not the driving factor of my vote. There are many like this.

There is a marked rise in Christian nationalism, especially since the 1970’s, in America. Modern incarnations include the Alliance Defending Freedom, and First Liberty Institute are good examples as is The National Reform Association which has been active since 1864. Groups and individuals of this belief are not monolithic, but range across a broad spectrum of beliefs. To be perfectly clear, this is not a racist movement in anyway, it is a religious understanding.

Dominion theology has become a major driving factor in the current Christian Right. Of course this is a broad strokes statement, so it does not apply to all, but it does seem to be a motivating factor to most. I have little desire to spend a lot of time here explaining it, but there are some things that are held in common with all forms of this particular belief. Fredrick Clarkson, a journalist, did an extensive study on the various types of Dominion theology that were influencing the Christian Right. He noted three things held in common. First, was the belief that America was once, and should again be, a Christian nation. They reject the enlightenment influences on American government. Second, promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, and some times even other versions of Christianity. Equality here is in the public sphere. For example, I do not believe that Islam is equal to Christianity, but I do believe that Islam has the same rights in the public sphere as Christianity. Finally, the endorse a type of theocratic vision in that they believe that the ten commandments, or religious law, should be the foundation of civil law, and that the Constitution should be a vehicle for advancing Christian Biblical principals. Recent examples in modern political life that tend toward dominionism to some degree include, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Dan Patrick, Sam Brownback, James Lankford, and Rep. Steve King.

This should be understood as little more than the other side of the coin to the progressive social gospel followers. The Christian Left seeks to build a better world, through government, where everything is more equitable and even, and the Christian right seeks to build a better world where the evils of vice are eliminated, and sin is not endorsed, the end goal is essentially the same, to see their tribe and their vision advanced.

There can be little surprise that these two groups clash so vehement. When two groups, with diametrically different beliefs, but the same end goals, exist with a significant voice, that voice will, by necessity, attempt to justify itself by disparaging the other. The largest difference between the social gospel movement historically and the movement today is that there really is not a unified vision of the goals. There is no child labor law push that everyone is behind, no prohibition push, no recognition for the need of labor unions, etc. From this point, there were two competing visions of the movement. One focused on every social issue imaginable and focused on making all things a matter of justice and provision by the government to those who needed it, while the other focused on the moral fabric of the nation trying to legislate morality.

Next time, the rest of us and the social gospel.

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