Brian Birdnow

Regular readers of Townhall may have noticed a column penned last week by this writer questioning the easy expectations of many observers that most liberal Catholics will abandon President Obama over the birth control mandates. Quite a number of commentators claimed that Obama achieved the impossible by uniting liberal and conservative Catholics into a united “tribe” hotly opposing the new HHS mandates. Some of the commentators claimed that this misstep would cost Obama the November elections. The aforementioned column took issue with the easy assumption that left wing Catholics would rally to Mother Church and desert Obama, and suggested that most of those Catholics would vote Democratic in November, proving that social liberalism trumps religious orthodoxy nearly every time. Liberal clerics, however, placing social activism above theology and praising it as the highest possible virtue is certainly nothing new. It is, part of a continuum which has marked Anglo-American history for at least the last century-and-a-half.

The earliest strains of this tendency to replace traditional religious piety with the social reform impetus can be seen as far back as the mid-1820s with the spread of Unitarianism. The Unitarians preached a flexible and rationalist theology, and combined it with a low-key ritual, which attracted many upper class types, scientists, and intellectuals. In the words of Paul Johnson, the British historian, Unitarianism became for many intellectuals, “…a halfway house on the long road to agnosticism”.

This trend led, in the late nineteenth century, to the emergence of what became known as the “Social Gospel”. Theologians like Dwight Sunday and Mary Baker Eddy all sang from the social reform hymnbook. Washington Gladden coined the term “Social Gospel” by which he meant the churches promoting social reform, aiding the poor, and remaking the world for the supposed benefit of the ordinary citizen. Many of the Social Gospellers vigorously criticized the American economic system, saving particular scorn for competition and the profit motive, condemning them as wasteful and mercenary.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.