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.
In point of fact, this movement and the entire habit of confusing theology with social reformism could be seen in much of Christendom by the early Twentieth Century. Efforts to use Christianity as a means to transform the social order could be seen in continental Europe where the development of “Christian Socialism” took an overtly political turn after 1910. In Britain high clerics including Archbishops of Canterbury Cosmo Lang and William Temple fully supported the idea of religious social activism. Lang often quoted the line credited to the American political humorist Finley Peter Dunne, stating that “…the purpose of religion is not to comfort the afflicted, it is to afflict the comfortable.” William Temple, for his own part, became the first avowed Socialist to head the Anglican Church.
The turn of American religious denomination away from theology and toward social activism continued apace throughout the Twentieth Century. The growing secularization of society, both in thought and action, led many traditional mainline Protestant Churches including the so-called “Seven Sisters” (United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church-USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Episcopal Church-USA, American Baptist Churches of the USA, Disciples of Christ) to blithely follow along by liberalizing and secularizing themselves. While these changes alienated some church members, the new secular emphasis fully engaged numerous clerics and considerable numbers of younger members of church congregations.
The Catholic Church fell prey to these same secularizing and liberalizing tendencies. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) institutionalized many of the generally Social democratic ideas which had taken root in the church by the late 1940s and the propagation of such ideas proceeded apace, as formerly conservative Catholic religious orders, particularly the Jesuits, radicalized during the 1960s. By the early 1980s Catholic priests and the lay religious played a central role in the nuclear freeze movement, critiqued capitalism (and found it wanting) and adopted a permissive, even encouraging, attitude toward homosexual conduct, even among their own officially celibate membership.
Today the social activist strain among American Protestants can be seen in the sense that most denominations began ordaining women priests years ago. The Episcopals and the United Church of Christ have waged very public internal battles recently over the installation of openly Gay bishops. Finally, the African Methodist Episcopal Church serves as a bully pulpit for the lunatic Anti-American ranting of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
On the Catholic side, the radicalism of the 1980s has been tamed, to a certain extent. Still, among a sizable segment of lay Catholics and among some nuns and priests there exists open support for birth control and support for legalized abortion, although this is carefully qualified as “…only when medically necessary”. Catholic congregations regularly hear sermons supporting mildly socialist ideas, criticizing Republicans, and counseling “peace” even when confronted with the conclusive evidence of radical Islamic intent to wage war on Christianity and the USA.
The point of this column is not to impugn the integrity of the often dedicated and selfless people who comprise the Religious Left in America. These folks deserve commendation for the fact that, in an increasingly nihilistic world, they have values and they largely stick to them. The point, however, is to state that among the Religious Left, their leftism generally trumps their religiosity. Few of the Protestants who support women priests, Gay bishops, or the anti-American hysteria of the Reverend Wright will disown the Democratic Party in November. Likewise, one would be wise to refrain from betting that the pro-abortion, pro-birth control Catholics will permanently stray from their home in the Obama wing of the Democratic Party. They may be making a little noise right now, but they will return home this coming Fall.
In a world that now equates social work with piety, and rallies, demonstrations and “occupations” with theology, the activist side gets the upper hand. Among liberal Christians their liberal side usually takes the measure of their Christianity. This is a grim fact that those who predict a massive religious defection from Obama and the Democrats would do well to remember.