Social Christianity is a heterogeneous tradition that has been cultivated by a diverse array of American Christians who shared in common an intuition that the source of social problems is more exterior than interior to the individual. Social gospelers have contended, in word and in deed, that sin infects not only individuals but also systems and structures; that salvation is not only personal but also societal; and that therefore participation in the struggle for a more just society is, for Christians, not so much optional as essential. This distinctly modern tradition first emerged in the antebellum period, but was overshadowed by older, benevolent, and bourgeois modes of reform until the early 20th century, when it gained a stronger foothold in both the institutional churches and the worlds beyond their walls. Social Christianity’s influence was never more formidable than during the New Deal era. It was during those pivotal decades, which saw the rise of a robust welfare state as well as of massive, faith-infused labor and civil rights movements, that social gospelers left their most lasting mark on American society. In the late 20th century and early 21st centuries, the tradition’s influence would decline precipitously, in no small part due to the success of a multifaceted backlash against social gospel ideas and movements. The rise of the modern right signaled, for social gospelers of all different kinds, a return to the wilderness.
Heath W. Carter
Michael P. DeJonge
Contemporary political theology often defines itself against Lutheran social ethics, which is portrayed as politically disengaged and overly deferential to state power. At the same time, contemporary political theology often embraces the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an exemplary political theologian. This incongruity is generally resolved by distancing Bonhoeffer from his tradition, at least on matters of political theology. But Bonhoeffer’s political theology was thoroughly Lutheran. Throughout the years of his political-theological engagement, from the Nazi rise to power in 1932–1933 to the drafting of Ethics and related writing in 1940–1943, he participated in ongoing conversations within Lutheran social ethics on the issues of, among others, the two kingdoms and the orders. In the process, he critically appropriated these elements of Lutheran thinking into an especially dynamic and christocentric framework that in turn informed his positions on various issues such as the church’s proclamation against the Nazi state and the ecumenical church’s witness for peace. Bonhoeffer is an example of Lutheran political theology, one that suggests the need to revise at least the more sweeping judgments about Lutheran theology as inherently incompatible with political engagement.