Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part four of six)

When American industrial capitalism really started to take off, a few people became extraordinarily wealthy at the expense of… well, basically anybody they could exploit. Andrew Carnegie took to heart many of the criticisms against him and the Vanderbilts, and decided to try and help his image a little.

He set up foundations to support things he was interested in and introduced the Prosperity Gospel with the publication of his book The Gospel of Wealth (which he sent to all the rich people he could think of). The basic idea is that rich people have been blessed by God, and they have a duty to give back, to accomplish things with that money. He wanted them to build things like schools, libraries, and churches (provided that the name of the donor was always notably and unmistakably marked). To his credit he really did give away all his money, and encouraged other wealthy businessmen to do the same rather than leaving that money to be squandered by their children.

Several of the most notable philanthropists in American history have been not only wealthy, but religious. This has been the case even up to the present day. Rockefeller was a Baptist. He believed from day one that he'd been blessed by God. They were regular church attendants, and he even taught Sunday school. JP Morgan was so wealthy that he personally bailed out the US government twice. He was a devoted Episcopalian. Eli Lilly? The Lillys are an Episcopalian family. Bill and Linda Gates? Last reports indicate they’re Episcopalian, too. The Prosperity Gospel has its critics though, in abundance. The idea that good Christians are blessed with material wealth is a nice promise for Christians who are hoping God will grant them a new Mercedes, but it also validates people who are already rich (often through exploitation or illegal means) by giving them room to claim that God simply likes them better.

Another approach to socially-active Christianity is frequently referred to as the Social Gospel. The emphasis was no longer simply on saving souls, but on saving society and making it a healthier and more Christian place. It is worth noting, however, that “Social Gospel” is not a perfectly accurate way to refer to this movement. It implies a much more liberal bent than the movement had. Prohibition, for example, is hardly a liberal idea. It might be more active to simply call it ‘active Christianity.’ The Federal Council of Churches was created in large part to discuss and work out the application of this new ‘active Christianity’ and decide what exactly the job of American churches was going to be in all this.

The mainline denominations (Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, Presbyterians, Northern Baptists, Episcopalians, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) sent their leaders to meet and sort out the theological arguments for and against this new approach. They were hoping to be the voice of American Christianity, which of course meant that Catholics were not welcome.

For many this new organization was a difficult group to deal with. Suddenly "the church" is telling people that it is unchristian to shop certain places, buy certain things, etc. Orthodoxy is coming from the top down and not from the bottom up. Nobody asked the congregation members if they wanted an official voice of American Protestantism, let alone if these particular men ought to be representing them.

Most of these people were single-issue folk, who got involved in one or two causes and did not feel any particular motivation to fix the whole rest of the package. More broadly-involved members were hoping to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, and even if they did not know precisely what that was going to mean, it was a great phrase to toss around and certainly kept people motivated.

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