Saturday, July 30, 2005

Review: The Social Passion

(Richard Allen. The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-28. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.)

As far as the word "classic" can apply to any work of academic history of progressive social and political movements in Canada, I think it applies to this book. In what I've seen in my other reading to date, few works have been noted as consistently as being significant for breaking new ground in understanding pieces of history with contemporary relevance. Of course the construction of something as a "classic" should be treated with some suspicion, and in this case I think it is not only because the book contains important and interesting history -- which it does -- but also because it served a role in constructing a noble historical narrative for a major and relatively mainstream institution, the New Democratic Party, and the Canadian centre-left more generally. Indeed, the back of the book contains a strong endorsement from none other than Tommy Douglas, the "father of Medicare," the posthumous winner of CBC's soft nationalist and sexist "Greatest Canadian" competition, and (as both an NDP luminary and a former Baptist preacher) the most prominent living product of the social gospel in Canada at the time.

However, that cynicism having been vented, it is still an important book. It is a discussion of the role of the social gospel in progressive Canadian social change between 1914 and 1928, during and just after its years of peak influence.

The social gospel was a religious movement that swept Protestant Christianity in the English-speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It pushed many churches and many churchgoers to shift from the atomized individualism that had dominated mainstream Protestant thought up until that point, into seeing the collective aspects of society. Most importantly (from my point of view, anyway) it made engagement with social change an imperative of faith and endorsed collective solutions to social problems. Its most complete (if temporary) triumph was a struggle that hardly seems progressive today, and indeed it was the more central concern of the more conservative wing of the movement: prohibition. But the social gospel also played a role in the winning of suffrage for women, and its positions on other social and labour issues, particularly those of the progressive and radical wings of the movement, were important even if victories in those areas were rather less spectacular. Under the influence of the radical social gospel, the statement on social issues by the Methodist General Conference in 1918 was one of the most radical ever passed by a mainstream church in an English-speaking country. The key paragraph read:

...the triumph of democracy, the demand of the educated workers for human conditions of life, the deep condemnation this war has passed on competitive struggle, the revelation of the superior efficiency of rational organization and co-operation, combine with the undying ethics of Jesus, to demand nothing less than a transference of the whole economic life from a basis of competition and profits to one of co-operation and service.

As well, a number of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 were prominent social gospellers.

I find the history of the social gospel movement interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, there is a tendency in the current environment to associate religion exclusively with the right, even though I know people who actively practice various faiths who are deeply involved in progressive social movements in Canada today, and even though a significant slice of middle-class NDP support still comes from progressive people of faith. So as not to alienate our allies who are people of faith, I think it is important to understand and respect the contributions that people motivated by faith have made to the history of social change. As well, as I noted in a recent comment, I find it kind of amazing that ministers of the sort like Salem Bland and J.S. Woodsworth actually existed, because they feel like such a contrast to the Protestant Christianity that numbed and alienated me, both through completely uninteresting and disconnected churches that I attended growing up, and through narrow-minded and bigoted followers whom I encountered at school.

On the other hand, though the contributions of the social gospel should be understood and respected, so should its rather mixed character. The more radical fringe of the movement was the one that ended up surviving (e.g Woodsworth went on to be the founding leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the NDP) and, in some ways, making the most lasting contribution to society. Some of those people might have had a somewhat different take on this issue later in their careers, but in the period of time covered by this study probably 98% of the social gospel spectrum still spoke of "evangelizing" and even "Christianizing" the nation. They generally were not immune to problems that were pervasive in society at large and in the broader left in that era: a very monolithic and uncritically modernist understanding of the flow of history and of social change, a lack of attention to oppressions other than that based in class, an almost unquestioned conservatism around issues of sexuality and personal conduct, and a host of other things. Again a few radicals aside, most of the social gospel leaders had no difficulty giving their full enthusiasm to support that orgy of bloody imperial stupidity, World War One. In fact, most followed the lead of the majority of members of the British Fabian Society (an important think-tank of democratic socialists in the UK) who endorsed "social imperialism" in supporting the South African War in 1899-1902. Most Canadian social gospellers took World War One as one more part of the great crusade for reforming the world.

The social gospel also had a certain tendency towards enthusiastic moral or ethical positions on social issues that were not fully grounded in the realities of power governing a given situation. When there was greater resistance than anticipated, or more complexity, or a need for more radical (to-the-root) solutions than a particular segment of the social gospel or a particular religious institution could easily support, there was often ideological retreat. For example, when the practical difficulty of achieving a co-operative commonwealth became clear in the early '20s, the divisive nature of the massive labour uprising in those years had its impact, and the willingness of much of the owning-class to do whatever it took to prevent such social change was demonstrated, other than the radicals, much of the social gospel suddenly discovered interest in an approach that tried to encourage employers to be socially conscious rather than trying to create a system in which the whims of a handful of men would be irrelevant to the wellbeing of most people. Indeed, the combination of changing theological currents (which I had trouble understanding fully, to be honest) and the inevitable political tensions among the different strands of the social gospel lead to its crumbing as an active political force in the country by the end of the study period, though its contributions at the time and its legacy in terms of subsequent flavours of socially engaged Christianity and leftist political thought in Canada are certainly significant.

There are aspects of the book that I found disappointing. I wish it had talked more about the rise of the social gospel, instead of just about its peak and decline. I wish it had a more coherent narrative unifying the book -- it sometimes felt disjointed. I wish, strangely enough, that it was designed better; this may be a product of having a long-time partner whose family has been in the printing trade for 150 years. I wish it took the time to explain some concepts more fully, particularly theological ones which those of us with a more secular bent might not already get. But on the whole, this book is a solid look at an important piece of history.

(See also my review of The Evangelical Century.)

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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