“. . . the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation . . . “ (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1920)

union-pacific-railroad-station-kearney-nebraska-1910s-preview

The Union Pacific Railroad Station, Kearney, NE (Photo: FamilyOldPhotos.com)

The Union Pacific Railway station in Kearney, Nebraska, was familiar to my family in about 1951. We went to the station regularly for a full school semester to take my father to the train and to pick him up. He went (perhaps weekly) to Denver to study at Iliff Theological Seminary. Several years before he had finished most of the work for his degree at Central Baptist Theological School in Kansas City, but he had not completed the final work, writing his thesis.

Why he chose to go to Iliff instead of Central Baptist I do not know. It was theologically a much more progressive school. Kearney is a college town, and my guess is he was influenced by the well-educated members of the Baptist Church of which he was pastor. That is pure speculation.

My father’s thesis was a study of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew chapters 5-7) interpreted in light of the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader of the “Social Gospel” movement. Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was a theologian from Rochester Theological Seminary and a Baptist pastor. He was the great-grandfather of Paul Raushenbush whom many know from his years as Religion Editor for the Huffington Post.

Much of my father’s preaching on the Sermon on the Mount over the years is clear in my mind. I think his study of Rauschenbusch was an academic pursuit and did not overtly influence his preaching. Its basic tenet that the Christian gospel demands a morally responsible and compassionate approach to social problems, however, was at the heart of my father’s life and teaching. He and I often disagreed on how that was to be achieved, but the goal of a benevolent society and government was never in question. My father was often surprised when my understanding of some issue obviously came directly from what he had taught me but with widely divergent conclusions.

I have been trying to imagine what my father would think of Trump. My father, who worked closely with the Mexican Baptist Church in Scottsbluff, NE, which is still in a joint ministry with the First Baptist Church 60 years later. My father, who supported his friend Emily Wilks, member of the school board in Scottsbluff, as she worked to enhance and improve the public schools of the city. My father, who considered Edwin T. Dahlberg, pacifist and President of the National Council of Churches, a friend and teacher. My father, the Baptist preacher, who never once in my life admonished me or rejected me because I am gay, and who traveled across the country to spend time with my partner and me.

My father was not a saint. I was disappointed, particularly in his later life, with some of his intolerance, with his support of the Iraq War (simply because President Bush was a Republican), with a few of his other attitudes and beliefs. However, at age 90, he read Bishop Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die when I gave him a copy, and we had lively discussions about it. A couple of years before that we had the same interaction with Oliver Sacks’ A Leg to Stand on.

This writing did not begin as a remembrance of my father. I would be foolish to attempt that because my memories are my memories. They bear a strong resemblance to the truth, but they obviously come from my perceptions of events from 50 or 60 or even 70 years ago. They are also, as all childhood memories are, shaped by my relationship with my father – over the years at times good, at times strained.

This writing began as an attempt to explain to myself the ground reasons that I am so repelled by Trump and so appalled that he is President of the United State. One of my professors of rhetoric in graduate school said, “We write to know what we think.” I am trying to ascertain what I think.

This began with my father because I am trying to understand where my ideas about government and politics came from. He was a conservative Republican. But his understanding of that mindset was far different from what I hear today. He was not interested in making anyone wealthy. He was interested in justice and equality, and he thought “big government” gets in the way of those ideals. I would have to have long conversations with my siblings and the few friends I have left who knew him in order to sort out all of those political ideas.

But I am absolutely certain that my father would have been heartbroken if he knew that his President purposefully and with ulterior motives made up and spoke “alternative facts.” He assumed that much of what passed as political discourse was alternate interpretation of facts, and he assumed that those alternatives were used as propaganda to change people’s minds to win elections. However, it would have shocked and angered him to hear the President lie – purposefully and blatantly – about the size of a crowd, for example.

I believe that my father and the vast majority of his generation expected political discourse to be grounded in truth – with strong disagreements, but with the integrity of the truth. He, for example, told me many times that he hated the atomic bombing of Japan and President Truman’s justification of it, but he understood why Truman had made the decision. I am most likely being Pollyanna about this. Politicians lie. They always have lied. They always will lie.

Lying to win a political conflict, however, is different from making up a wholesale alternative reality in order to get and keep power. Where is the line between the two? I don’t know. I only know that we have crossed it. The problem(s) or situation(s) Trump’s alternative realities are meant to fix or change will pale in significance in comparison to the destruction of the fabric of our society that will be the result of the triumph of “alternative facts.”

(Note: My own attachment to the religious texts Rauschenbusch quotes is so tenuous that I hesitate to copy his writing here. I do not mean to imply that our nation needs to be in a relationship with a particular God or concept of God. I simply mean to offer Rauschenbusch’s words on the moral responsibility of a nation.)

from Christianity and the Social Crisis
By Walter Rauschenbusch
London: Macmillan 1920

The prophets were public men and their interest was in public affairs. . . . Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic views of an organic national life . . . We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental point of view distorts the utterances of the prophets . . . [The prophet] ridicules the attempts to appease the national God by redoubled sacrifices; he urges instead the abolition of social oppression and injustice as the only way of regaining God’s favor for the nation. If they would vindicate the cause of the helpless and oppressed . . . then their scarlet and crimson guilt would be washed away. . . Of course the text is nobly true when it is made to express God’s willingness to pardon the repentant individual, but that was not the thought in the mind of the writer. He offered a new start to his nation on condition that it righted social wrongs. We offer free pardon to individuals and rarely mention social wrongs.

We have seen that the prophets demanded right moral conduct as the sole test and fruit of religion, and that the morality which they had in mind was not the private morality of detached pious souls but the social morality of the nation.

Rauschenbusch’s book is available here.

 

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