George McGovern, the former U.S. senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who died this week at age 90, was greatly inspired by an intellectual and religious movement known as the Social Gospel.
McGovern was best known as a champion of liberal causes and as a social justice advocate. He opposed the wars in Vietnam and in Iraq.
He insisted that a strong “progressive” federal government should protect the poor and vulnerable and expand economic opportunity. He consistently voted for civil rights and anti-poverty programs and was particularly vocal about issues of hunger here in the United States and across the globe.
The son of a Methodist minister and briefly a seminary student himself, McGovern’s reform impulses were rooted in the liberalism of the New Deal, the populism of the prairie and the Christian Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century.
The Social Gospel movement was a Christian response to the forces of modernity, including the rapid urbanization, industrialization and mass immigration of the late 1800s. To expand the appeal of the Protestant church in cities where the Roman Catholic was especially popular among immigrant groups, Protestant clergy sought to create a movement around social justice concerns for the poor.
Disgusted by the poverty found in American slums, the movement provided a rationale for action addressing these concerns. Applying Christian ethics to social problems, Social Gospel followers sought to operationalize the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10): “They kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Social Gospel movement rejected conservative individualistic social ethics and developed a theological liberalism and progressivism that sought to establish a Kingdom of God with social justice for all. Intellectual historians say the movement peaked in the early 20th century, although its influence on social justice movements remains strong.
While a graduate student in the late 1940s, McGovern encountered the ideas of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the defining theologians of the Social Gospel movement. Rauschenbusch was a Baptist minister of a congregation located in Hell Kitchen in New York City. His A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) sought to create a “systematic theology large enough to match [our social gospel] and vital enough to back it.”
Rauschenbusch argued that some traditional readings of the Bible have not shed light on institutional sinfulness: “It has not evoked forth in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from the inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.”
He called for a democratic cooperative society brought about through nonviolent means.
The powerful theological beliefs of the Social Gospel movement would be inherited by various faith-based social justice movements, including those of liberation theologians, civil rights advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.
As many of us mourn the death of McGovern, we drawn inspiration from his commitment to social justice and to serving the needs of those marginalized by economic inequity.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and is an active advocate for all those who suffer on the streets. He holds a certificate in alcohol and drug counseling from Santa Barbara City College.