The rapid growth of urban-industrial society in the late nineteenth century forced Christians to find new ways to express their social ideals in the face of overcrowded cities and the emergence of vast inequities in access to services, power, and wealth. As a result, a “social gospel” emerged in the Protestant mainstream in the early twentieth century. While theological conservatives drew upon traditions associated with revivalism, which tended to emphasize the moral reform of individuals, theological liberals called for a reconstruction of the social order itself. They insisted that Christians needed to address directly, and in Christian terms, the new realities of urban industrial life. Confident and optimistic, liberals found an articulate voice in Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist who had worked with the poor in the area called Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. He transformed the biblical idea of the kingdom of God into a vision of the progressive Christian transformation of America into a cooperative Christian society. The social gospel became the driving vision of the Protestant mainstream in the decades preceding the First World War.
The war destroyed the confident optimism of this period, but in the 1930s, many Protestants found in Reinhold Niebuhr another powerful voice for a Christianity oriented toward social and ethical issues. As an urban pastor in Detroit, Niebuhr combined an interest in rigorous theology with a realistic approach to social justice and ethics. Together with his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, he championed a Christian social vision, known as neo-orthodoxy (though Niebuhr himself loathed the word), that inspired many Protestants into the 1950s. While there had been a Federal Council of Churches since 1908, the new National Council of Churches, formed in 1951, became an important instrument through which mainline churches could articulate a common theological and social vision in a rapidly changing America.
Social Christianity also found expression in the Catholic community. Many Catholic immigrants took part in the tumultuous labor movements of the nineteenth century. A formal framework for Catholic social thought and action was articulated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. This set Catholics on a course between socialism and capitalism by emphasizing the natural right to property, the justice of a fair wage, and the mediating role of the state. This approach dovetailed with the social policies of the New Deal years and remained central to Catholic social teachings until the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s. Many of these themes remained part of the teaching of the American Catholic leadership, although by the late twentieth century other issues, such as opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and women’s ordination, received more attention.
The turbulent 1960s were marked by a resurgence of social Christianity that took many forms. The civil rights movement, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African-American clergy, was a classic restatement of the Protestant social gospel in its insistence that the religious ideal of justice be embodied in the institutions of society. Christian churches were active in the movement for racial and economic justice. Liberation theologies, which originated among progressive Catholics in Latin America, articulated the gospel anew from the perspective of those who experience racial, political, and economic oppression. Many women began to work out feminist theologies, beginning with the voices and experiences of women who had been marginalized in both church and society. Evangelical Christians also developed a strong voice on social issues, articulated in publications like Sojourners magazine.
After the death of King, who, by the time of his assassination in 1968 had turned his attention to the Vietnam War and other issues of social justice, popular reaction to war protests, black militancy, the “counterculture,” and other issues provoked a reaction from many laity in the “mainline” denominations, who believed that their leadership had become too strongly aligned with liberal and radical causes. The emergence of the Religious Right in the 1970s reframed Protestant involvement in social issues from a traditionalist direction. Most mainline Protestant denominations, however, as well as many lay Catholics, remained committed to social witness in the form of environmentalism, feminism, and gay rights.