Return of the Social Gospel?

Sunday seems like an appropriate time to remind ourselves that there are a lot of religious people whose attitudes and beliefs are not reflected in headlines generated by people like Kim Davis, Micah Clark or Mike Pence.

When we read back through American history, we can see the ebb and flow of religious passions and the very different ways those passions were expressed. True, we’ve experienced frenzied Great Awakenings,  the “Christianity” of groups like the KKK, religious paranoia like the  Salem witch trials and a period of Social Darwinism that bears an eerie resemblance to the “makers and takers” dogma spouted by today’s corporatists– but religious beliefs also played a part in ending slavery and Jim Crow, and the Social Gospel motivated widespread efforts to ameliorate the miseries and injustices that came with industrialization and the Gilded Age.

A recent study reported at Think Progress suggests–fingers crossed!– that we may be on the cusp of a return to those kinder, gentler religious impulses.

Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, said in a press release. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

On economic issues, the study found religious progressives more passionate about eradicating income inequality than secular progressives. Eighty-eight percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.

Religious progressives were also refreshingly different from religious conservatives in another way: they disclaimed interest in imposing their beliefs on others.

While it’s too soon to know whether the survey signals a groundswell of faith-based progressivism, the findings echo the recent rise of an increasingly vocal—and increasingly influential—”religious left.” For example, progressive religious leaders are heading up the ongoing “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina, citing their faith as they decry the draconian policies of the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. In addition, religious progressives—as well as some religious conservatives—are spearheading efforts to produce an immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, and prominent, left-leaning faith leaders were a driving force behind recent attempts to pass federal legislation to help prevent gun violence. Religious progressives are also playing a crucial role in campaigns to better the lives of fast food workers and Walmart staffers, with pastors and priests utilizing their congregational resources and organizational heft to push for better wages and improved working conditions for laborers.

Religious voices for social justice…now there’s a concept!

Have a nice Sunday.


  1. I am beginning to wonder if the humanitarian actions taken by our government through the years have been and are being misread as being religious in nature? Treating one another humanely, including local and federal governments following the Constitution and Amendments, with the recent exception of SCOTUS actions, could easily be misconstrued by those who have a specific religious nature. The situation has gotten out of control and too many elected officials at all levels are running amok.

  2. Poverty does terrible harm to people causing despair, hopelessness and desperation. As more and more people are driven into poverty due to the manipulative greedy condescension and arrogant paternalism of a group of extremely wealthy people, the fight for income equality moves to the forefront as means of pushing back.

    There are those who pay lip service to their conservative religious ideology while demonstrating a complete disconnection from those whom by circumstance are much less fortunate than they are. Whited sepulchres describes them perfectly.

    Will we see the progressive religious join with the secular religious to remind the American aristocracy of what has happened throughout history to those who abuse their privilege? We can do more than hope and pray. We can educate ourselves and vote.

  3. Interesting to note that while the Methodist Church in Indiana was sometimes thought of as just an extension of the KKK, the Social Gospel was very strong in some parishes starting around the 20th century. Central Methodist (today’s Indiana Landmarks bldg.) was one of the strongest. Fwiw, that is the church Senator Richard Lugar grew up in. And when he was Governor, Frank O’Bannon and his wife attended there, too.

  4. Perhaps others can inform me about the history of a category that’s grown in my lifetime. The “spiritual, not religious.”

    It seems to me a misread of modern life to place such weight of categories that only roughly fit and seem to me soon to warp beyond recognition.

    The facts as I read them continues to be the tremendous rate of knowledge growth and pace of change. It’s exponential. Thus it makes the quest to hang onto a moral compass within the religious institutions a logical choice. Fortunately or unfortunately the institutional bigs, mainline chrurches cannot keep pace either. And certainly cannot deny forever science as it swallows us.

    The continuum of rigidity may come and go but I cannot help but think its failure will be due to the growing disconnect from daily life and its success will be the backlash.

    As deeply as the Internet has affected the last 20 years it’s barely scratched the surface. Biology is ripe to explode. Energy is ripe to explode. Technology remains explosively vibrant. By itself Apple is wealthier than all but 18 countries in the world.

    The drive to preserve self cannot deny these dramatic changes. We can hold onto repression at great cost and may do so in niche communities but all around us the worlds structures of communication and governance are assaulted. Democracy itself must adapt IMO and yet it’s so unclear I hesitate to predict anything.

    In a time when the simple manipulation of some genetic variation in the brain / visual cortex of a monkey allows that monkey to see infrared light spectrums what does the term miracle really mean?

    I do not see how blind approaches to change can survive. Values questions have to be pared to their core. Transparency – honesty- kindness or variations of love. Power and sharing of it I suppose but as we are able to plug into change ignorance is replaced by overwhelm as the dark opponent.

    Perhaps this is as easily seen around the science of climate change as anywhere. Enormous human destruction, loss of life, strife and conflict for resources are in a death race with progress toward easing disease and distribution of goods and management of movement and displacement and war prevention.

    Isn’t that what the Middle East is about? Oil, water and power? The resources and technology are available. The people are stuck.

  5. Who could ever forget Jim Jones? in 1956 he bought his first church in a racially mixed neighborhood. It was first called “Wings of Deliverance” and later “The Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church” In 1959 his church joined the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and he then named it The People’s Temple Christian Church Full Gospel. I actually went to that church a few times with friends and family before I decided to back off. Thank goodness for that or I guess I might have been one of the 900 dead followers. He was a tremendous charismatic speaker with a sweet gentle wife, Marceline. All that was in the name of religion! I guess he thought he was a religious progressive! A sad, sad story for all the people who believed in him!

  6. I don’t like the expression “Gay Marriage”. I think that now there is no such thing. Instead, the word “marriage” should be enough to describe the social, legal and religious relationship between any two PEOPLE.

    If there is “Gay Marriage” then there is also “Heterosexual Marriage” and, I guess, non-sexual marriage. What’s the fuss? Who are the winners and losers and what are the stakes?

  7. One of the very best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is – “wear the garment of the church loosely.”

  8. There is hardly anything more personal than faith. Sex, maybe. We all make assumptions about that for which there is no evidence and typically, why not, we assume what is comfortable for ourselves. So far so good.

    What causes problems is the concept of evangelism or the recruiting of others into specific faiths. The selling of THE faith. Marketing.

    Whereas faith is personal evangelical faith is one size fits all. Here’s what you believe, how you act and your thoughts.

    What is undoubtedly beneficial for many, many people is democratic faith. Informed choice. Choose the assumptions that satisfy your soul.

    Hard to make money on that though.

  9. Sam Smith, you’re correct in mentioning that small rural parishes in the Methodist Church, in Indiana and beyond, occasionally spent more time talking about an angry God sitting in judgement on their personal ideas of sinners rather than speaking about the Church’s stated mission of a strong social gospel.

    A social gospel and a strong belief of educating the mind are two key tenets of Methodism. At present, there are 100 Methodist-supported/affiliated colleges and universities in the US. Additionally there are 10 pre-collegiate schools with a few including the elementary grades. These colleges, universities, and schools are not incubators for right-wing religious extremists.

    Indiana has three Methodist-supported/affiliated universities: DePauw University, the University of Indianapolis, and the University of Evansville. Larger Methodist-affiliated universities with name recognition include Duke University and American University in DC. Education is the key to unlocking closed minds.

    I’m not surprised that former Senator Dick Lugar attended a Methodist Church.

  10. Pete; PLEASE do not remind me again that we are all different and we can learn from others…I am well aware of that fact. I have learned from you; maybe you will now learn something from me.

    Your countless comments on every blog, some only a few lines long but, are taking up valuable space listing them on the Recent Comments space. We have no way to know if we have missed comments from others on earlier blogs because you have listed so many times and the list is only so long to allow us to know who has posted on which blog. This means we have to go to earlier blogs and pull up all comments to know who has responded and what they had to say.

    Thank you,

    JoAnn Green

  11. I grew up in and was a member of a small rural Methodist church for 50 years. The sermons from the time I was in Jr High through my 40’s focused on giving more and more money to the church (ie send more money upline to the denomination). Over time those pastors basically destroyed the congregation. People kept leaving until there were only 12 families left. The sermons were never focused on rules and sin – only money. I vowed never to belong to a Methodist church again. I witnessed too much greed by the upper echelon of the denomination’s management. During this time many many small rural Methodist churches were forced to close because the members could not afford to pay the large apportionments that were demanded.

  12. JoAnn, thanks for your last comment. I scroll past them and also find it quite annoying that there are so many.

  13. I have one post on this topic. Apparently those who are scrolling impaired think that’s too many. As one who communicates most everything here from an IPhone I find the scrolling limitations confusing. I can scroll at what seems like 100 mph.

    Perhaps the real message is too many alternative ideas. It’s confusing to be confronted with diversity in thinking.

  14. Jesus was a tremendous role model for us to follow, a working man from a working family and a moral man to the core. Medieval monks sitting in their cells had nothing else to do so they dreamed up many of the rituals and much of the language that still hangs around in our liturgies today, none of which have much to do with the right and wrong guts of religious experience. The so-called King James version of the Bible with its “thees” and “thous” is another version of scripture written by Aramaic/Hebrew/Greek speaking writers that made it through the two canonizing Councils of Nicea in 325 and 381 A.D. into the Bible. Those left out are interesting to read as well. I will never know how Revelations made it through the canonical maze – it’s authorship is traced to St. John of Patmos in 98 A.D. I still don’t know what he was writing about – some say Rome, others say they don’t know. I’m with the others.

  15. Personally I realized back in graduate school in a linguistics class, where Noam Chomsky was frequently referenced as a linguist, that occasionally we do learn powerful truths from the most unlikely people if we only listen. From that particular graduate level class, I learned never arbitrarily to dismiss a person who says, “I seen something” or who speaks in a less than articulate manner. This person may indeed have seen something or discovered something of universal value.

    Case in point, Paul Thorn from Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of a Pentecostal tent revival preacher and the nephew of a pimp, also a former boxer (note the cauliflower ears) who challenged Roberto Duran in a fine match when he was only 23 years old. Thorn barely graduated from high school because he’s dyslexic, but his inner thoughts are expressed in music by writing his own lyrics and his own music. He’s a frequent guest on the syndicated Bob & Tom radio show from here in Indy.

    Take about 3 minutes, listen to Paul Thorn sum up in his music what so many of us are unable to articulate in words. The gifted and talented come in many different forms. Yes, we might be wrong.

  16. BSH. One “universal truth” that you remind me of is that democracy is beyond a model of government, it’s a way to see the world. Everybody speaking their truth and paying attention to that spoken by others. That is fundamental to equality which is fundamental to freedom which is fundamental to empowered or unlimited.

  17. Pete, I view our government by democracy as a form of consensus building where each member of our democracy might be well served by acknowledging from the get-go from all conversations that my truth is not necessarily your truth. Until all involved in the important conversations in our democracy acknowledge that our personally held beliefs are simply that, our personal beliefs that may or may not align with others’ personally held beliefs we forever will remain at the level of finger-pointing and blame-placing. Occasionally I think that some folks would rather argue than seek resolutions.

  18. Establishment politicians and media seem to be missing that the most accomplished, influential Americans are increasingly those who reject faith in favor of reason. The tide is turning, yes, toward sanity.

  19. I like all the blogs. Some are very long. Some don’t really seem to address the subject Sheila is writing about and some are personal almost to an extreme,
    but I read them and learn something from everyone.
    They are what they are even if many may seem to have too much information, personal or otherwise!

  20. Come on, Sheila.

    You’re a self-professed Jew and an atheist, but you dare to suggest how Christian altars ought conduct themselves to comport with your politics?

    Manners, please.

  21. Ultimately it’s one to one. The churches were founded here at the same time as those in other locations, one earth and one human species everywhere…not like some less prolific animals. I was just told today that Richmond [from an England habitat still evolving, too] Republicans are Christian, but in reference to Democrats. In fact, professional church leaders abound world-wide; USA Republicans and Democrats parties are not sponsored by …Anglicans, A.M.E. Bahai-Christians, Baptist, Christian, Episcopalian, Friends, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Judaochristians, Latter Day Saints, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics…working right here. Nor does that include the non-Christians still world-wide, same time schedules, but how many different governments. One government per church? Or one god, one party.

  22. Anyone have an inkling as to why Gopper refers to Sheila as a Jew and Atheist in one breath? Any idea as to why Gopper refers to any issue beyond his understanding? He is unaware of that old but true adage, “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and dispel all doubt.”

  23. JoAnn,

    Gopper sees Judaism as a race not as a religion. Consequently, a Jew in his mind can also be an atheist.

    That argument has been around a long time. That was the basis for the Nazis sending the Jewish converts to Christianity (including nuns) to the gas chambers.

    We will now here from Gopper denying that there were gas chambers. Please do not respond to his retort.

    Free speech does have its limitations, at least in Germany.

  24. Those “Christians” who refuse to acknowledge Judaism as a religion are also refusing to acknowledge Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi who brought a new message to all who would listen. They are the same people who accuse Jews of being “Christ killers” with no knowledge of what is in their Bible. I now view my years ago Sunday School lessons as fairy tales, Indian lore or Greek mythology…pretty or amazing stories. And, Bible Study was offered through my IPS Riverside School #44 but those who participated had to walk several blocks to the Methodist Church for those lessons. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, church and state were kept separate in the Indianapolis Public School system. That ended in recent years and lately participants are called Voucher Students.

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