The Piquant Social Gospel of Senator George McGovern
I was listening, the other day, to a man on the radio who said that he advocated “Value Based Voting.”
Value Based Voting, it became clear, was code for a particular politically conservative agenda. It was also clear that this gentleman’s working assumption was that his Bible supported all of his ballot and bullet points, and was therefore the source of his values.
Because it was just days after Sen. George McGovern died, I squirmed in my seat…although I could grant that I would have squirmed in my seat even if Sen. McGovern hadn’t just died.
Senator George McGovern, son of a Methodist minister, born right here in South Dakota, found himself drawn to the writings of another son of a pastor, a theologian named Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch lived between 1861-1918, and during these years spearheaded what became known as the Social Gospel Movement.
It was a bona fide Big Deal, this movement. It had enormous impact on the church in the early 20th century, and on politics too.
From his beginnings and never later questioned, Rauschenbusch believed that repentance had more to say for it than just turning away from personal sin, narrowly defined.
Instead, there was some societal repentance that challenged believers to change, too.
That sort of repentance showed up by way of actively working toward the reduction of poverty, toward the makings of peace, and toward the filling of bellies. It was not done by way of washing pots that were already clean, but by way of getting dirty, side-by-side, with those who were themselves bereft of means and power and all too often hope.
Rauschenbusch came by the idea honestly, by way of his time in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood he served as a pastor for eleven years. The place was plagued by poverty and crime, by miserable housing conditions and unemployment. It was also plagued by being disdained and systematically ignored by all who could do something about it.
It was neither right nor just, the way that these people lived. Rauschenbusch railed against it and against the system that allowed it—in fact needed it, really, to subsist.
In fact, that experience led him to, as his great-grandson wrote, see “economic exploitation of the poor as nothing less than a national sin.” Rauschenbusch was convinced that we are not right as a community until we are all alright. His caring for the poor was equally about him caring about how we live in community.
Where did Rauschenbusch get this crazy view that societal sin “counts?” That one’s Christian faith compels a person to roll up one’s sleeves, to advocate on behalf of the poor, to feed the hungry, to tend to the hurting, and to speak for and work toward radical peace?
Well, the Bible.
Both the Old and the New Testaments.
Taking care of the widows and orphans, speaking on behalf of the poor and destitute, having compassion rather than condemnation for the broken, equalizing the disparity between the rich and the poor, claiming space and rights to those who actually have them—it’s in there.
And Rauschenbusch was quite convinced that anyone who called themselves a Christian was called therefore to bring the matters Jesus valued, that is to say, Jesus’ values, to the political table.
And let me be clear: to those who say that it is easy to make the Bible say what you want it to say, I, for one, do not want it to say that we should give all that we have to the poor or forgive our enemies or take up our crosses or lose our lives to gain them.
But it does.
In fact, most of it is in this vein, this consistent stripe of servanthood to the neighbor, to the outcast, to the forlorn, to the weak, to the wounded, to the broken, to the wanting.
In poking around about George McGovern, I discovered a newspaper article in 1972, written by Jeffrey Hart, with the headline, “George McGovern: Social Gospeler?” The article, written with a clear Nixon bias, states, “Among the most piquant assertions being made about George McGovern is that he embodies the spirit of the so-called social gospel…”
I love that that word, “piquant,” was used to describe somebody associated with the Social Gospel movement.
Piquant, as in salacious.
It was piquantly salacious that George McGovern spoke up loudly for the poor and for the hungry and for peace.
Still is, for anyone. Often, with derision, the word “socialist” is thrown at those who speak and act in keeping with the Social Gospel movement, a movement which believes that it is in fact acting in keeping with the call of God to serve the other until all are uplifted.
It’s as if hurling the word “socialist” anti-god-ifies anything that is done on a grand scale on behalf of those who struggle.
Senator McGovern was called a socialist.
He wasn’t one.
But he didn’t deny the role of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Movement.
A blogger by the name of Bruce Miller interviewed Sen. McGovern once, and asked him what influences shaped him most. Sen. McGovern owned up that he gave large credit for his political agenda and principles to the Social Gospel Movement, for it led him to understand that if you are a Christian, you vote according to, you advocate on behalf of, you become involved in politics based on your values…values based on a different take from the gentleman named above, yet gleaned from that very same Bible.
The votes based on these values will most assuredly be quite different too.
Senator George McGovern was a values-based voter, and a values-based politician, and a values-based advocate.
He was a values-based man, in short.
Senator, I already miss your piquant objection to poverty and your salacious support for peace.
Let my voice add to the throng: You were indeed, very, very much valued.
Excellent reflection here Anna. I appreciate your writings.
It seems like there was such a movement back in the day for a social gospel movement. I wonder why the movement diminished, and I also wonder if, in the current social-political, and more secular climate, it could have a revival.
Anyway, thanks again.