Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Social Gospel and the Legacy of the Canadian Protestant Left

At the end of the 19th century, society was at a crossroads. The laissez-faire model was not working. 1 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth and the other 99 percent mainly toiled 14 hour days - many living in dire squalor. Subsequently, restlessness [pdf] and rampant strikes became the mainstay. This was the age after all that spawned the various ideologies that preoccupied the 20th century.

Horrified at society's tailspin and the plight of a large percentage of the population, mainstream protestant religions and their middle class congregations began to question the methods and theoretical underpinnings of the era economic and social models. Resolving to remedy the ills of laissez-faire, they used their majority to reform the political landscape with a focus on institutional reform. Labeling their movement 'Social Gospel', the progressives went about assembling the modern welfare state in order to balance out the inequities of the market. The primary notion being the idea that salvation of the individual could be achieved through social improvement.

In Canada, the largest and most powerful church of the era - the Methodist Church (later the United Church) - was the most active social gospel proponent. It also served as the crucible for the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later NDP) and leaders such as J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. Sweeping the Praries and the industrial heartland, the social gospel forces of the CCF/NDP and Liberals used their influence to foster social improvements such as Medicare and hydro nationalization.

While social gospel as a political force has been lost to the ages and the United Church marginalized, it is somewhat ironic that the secular progressive Canada so many covet today is primarily a Protestant construct of the late 19th century.

6 Comments:

Blogger MapMaster said...

Also interesting is that the philosophical underpinning of the laissez faire capitalism that is being undercut in the West these days is the concept of individual responsibility as articulated in Christian theology. If life on earth is a test of the virtues of individuals exercising free will, the idea goes, then the test is only fair when that free will has a chance to be exercised. Therefore, a Christian should technically support minimal government intervention into the lives of its citizen and, by extension, the marketplace.

By the way, I grew up in the United Church and it always seemed to me to be more of a tax-exempt social club than a church.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Dick said...

This is exactly why the social gospel movement was so revolutionary - at least as far as Canadian politics is concerned. After following the above stated doctrine for over a century, social and economic conditions deteriorated to such a point that the mainstream intervened. It is imperative to view the movement in regard to the social and economic chaos of the time.

The thought was that salvation of the individual could only be achieved through social improvement as it pulled people out of their destitute situations and allowed them the ability through opportunity to exercise legitimate free will. A major portion of support came from the wealthy capitalists as it was seen as a means of keeping rival models at bay and placating the large underclass. It was bought into by mainstream christianity exactly because it preserved the laissez-faire underpinnings.

The movement was as much in response to the very real threat of rival economic models (ie. communism) as it was about promoting a new ideology. Social gospelism was the 'middle-way' compromise... which is why it focused on institutional reform while maintaining the capitalist model.

Good or bad, social gospelism is an understudied and poorly understood era in Canadian politics which has framed political discourse ever since.

2:51 PM  
Blogger MapMaster said...

It is a very interesting thesis you've got here. It would be worthwhile for somebody to pick up this thread.

As far as the idea that the salvation of the individual could only be achieved through social improvement, it seems to me that the social gospelists were in fact advocating the opposite -- that social improvement is to be mandated by the government and thus is not voluntary, that is to say, is not subject to free will. Perhaps the beneficiaries of the government programs could exercise a little more free will as a result (a dubious proposition supposing that the existence or degree of free will that a person has is only a result of one's finances), but the individuals that make up the country as a whole certainly have their freedom to act limited in scope by these mandates.

If the wealthy capitalists were the ones who supported these notions, it seems to me that they were authoring their ultimate demise -- while the free market continued to exist to some degree by placating the revolutionaries of competing ideologies, the compromise suggested by social gospelism is not compatible either with the free market or with individual free will. Compulsory institutions are never part of a capitalist society, they may only exist in competition. And we see this with government monopolies on health care, driver licensing, public education, etc.

I enjoyed this post very much. Are you by any chance the Dick who is an urban planner and carried on a correspondance on the London Fog some time ago on the subject of planning?

Best wishes in 2005.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Dick said...

I am indeed 'the dick'. As you can see I was sufficiently impressed, thus the Fog was added to the blogroll.

First off, I'm no expert on Social Gospelism, but as I understand it, Presbyterians and Lutherans advocate predestination. Furthermore, I'm not sure if I'm ready to make the causal leap from religion to the infallibility of the free market. It's always been my understanding that Protestantism - as Catholicism - has always had an organised social improvement element to it (tithing, the Salvation Army, etc.). Social gospel took it one step further by advocating its institutionalization as it was believed that Government was the only mean powerful enough to curtail the dire poverty of the age.

Secondly, while the capitalists were perhaps 'authoring their ultimate demise', I think that in the context of the era it was their best alternative to maintaining some semblance of the status quo. Given laissez-faire history during the 19th century and the angry popular resentment that it spawned, they probably got off quite lucky.

12:07 AM  
Blogger MapMaster said...

In that case, hello again Dick. I hope you weren't turned off the previous correspondance by the other fellow who was writing in. Although I do remember you said that it felt like you were beating your head against the wall, or words to that effect, and I can't say I don't understand the sentiment. I'm not sure that we share the same basic premises of philosophy; however, you are certainly a gentleman and a fine writer, so I have added your blog to our blogroll as well. I am quite happy I came across it.

Hmmm... You may very well be right about the Presbyterians and Lutherans believing in predestination, although I always thought that was the singular domain of the Calvinists. In any case, I didn't mean to suggest a causal relationship between religion and the infallibility of the free market (although some would argue that exists). But it is interesting, especially given the decline of the social gospel churches, that much of the strongest support for capitalism and minimum government comes from what we often call the fundamentalist Christians. This is especially observable in the United States, but also out in Alberta to a large degree as well. Contrary to how they are popularly depicted as puritans and hypocrites, their stances on government and the market are completely in rigorous accordance to the type of Christian theology I mentioned before.

Like the social gospelists, other Christians consider it a duty or a moral virtue at least to help provide for the less fortunate and to create strong communities (social improvement). Advocating the institutionalization of social improvement, however, means that people are no longer engaging in charity but only rendering unto Caesar, so to speak, regardless of the benefits of the institution. I suppose it could be argued that a good Christian would pay his or her taxes with a glad heart, and that makes it charity, but theologically that's pretty weak.

I imagine you are absolutely correct that the capitalists who supported these measures were trying to fend off the more extreme ideologies of communism and fascism that were so popular in the early part of the twentieth century. Typically pragmatic of businessmen, but it's coming back to haunt them. What I very much find interesting is the premise that laissez faire capitalism as it was practiced in the 19th century resulted in "society's tailspin and the plight of a large percentage of the population." I'm not so sure that this was the case; in fact, it has been argued, and I think it quite likely, that the majority of people at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century were much better off than society had ever been before (cf. Capitalism and the Historians, ed. F. Hayek, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1954). What it certainly did result in was "the angry popular resentment" you noted. To my mind, that is the real contradiction of capitalism: it is so successful at ameliorating the material conditions of humans that it raises education, awareness and expectations to such high degrees that people only then realize the enormous potential of humanity that had been smothered before in feudalism and absolute monarchy, as well as other stifling non-market regimes. Kind hearted as most people are, they then think, or at least hope, that its success can be replicated by a more orderly progression embodied in government institutions. But I don't think that can be done. Of course, we cannot know anymore, really, because most of the fundamental institutions in our society are not part of the free market (education and health care, especially), so it is hard to draw comparisons with what is and what could be.

3:05 PM  
Blogger Dick said...

Thank you for the kind words. You could be very well right on the Lutherans, I really have no clue. Anyways, I think I’ll have to do a little research and prepare a post eventually on the late 19th century. The era may prove interesting.

11:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home