Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Liberation or Liberalism?


Jackie sent this short article by Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who covers the evangelicalism and politics beat.

He compares liberation theology and the origins of the Obama campaign, in contrast to the current more liberal and Social Gospel oriented message of recent days. I think Sharlet is right in his perception of this shift, but I also think that it is inevitable. Can a radical liberation ideology be contained within the limits of existing institutional structures, like the presidency or a presidential campaign, for that matter? I don't think it can. It is by nature an outside agitator.

I find Sharlet's description of the Social Gospel as paternalistic to be interesting as well. A combination of manly overseeing, racial uplift (elite blacks in the nineteenth century also invoked this kind of message), but Sharlet doesn't get to the many many women who did similar social work with less overbearing methods. Imperialism at home, imperialism abroad. I'm not sure what this means for the twenty-first century because I think that ultimately, the Obama-Social Gospel comparison starts to break down when we look at foreign policy points, among other things.

4 comments:

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Thanks, Gale, for your analysis of Sharlet. You put into words what I was feeling about his interpretation of the Social Gospel - I just didn't have time to sit and think it out. Parts of the Social Gospel were of course at the time perceived as dangerously leftwing by some, and 100 yrs ago mainstream Americans could and did claim to be Socialist.

Jeff Sharlet said...

Thanks for noticing the piece. I agree that it's inevitable. And I'll vote for Obama. But unless we talk about that shift, we're going to settle for the Social Gospel instead of working toward liberation. That's my point -- the left is already getting complacent, its fatal flaw.

As for women, I only named two icons of the Social Gospel, and one, Jane Addams, was most certainly a woman, AND paternalistic. Despite the origins of the word, paternalism is a gender-crossing vice shaped most of all by class, right?

gale said...

Sorry, Jeff, for missing the Addams - I read too fast since I was preparing for class. I completely agree - the Left always falls apart, containing the seeds of its own destruction and all. And Jackie - I think that most socialists in America were a lot more organized and orderly (in terms of their activism and goals, at least) than the New Left.

I agree that Hull House and the other settlement houses have to be called paternalistic, but I also think that white women like Addams, Florence Kelley, and other social activists of the time were not adherents of muscular Christianity and certainly not imperialism - Addams strongly opposed the US occupation of the Philippines, after all. I think that from their position as women, albeit socially privileged and educated white women, they had a greater tendency to work *with* the immigrants in their community than on their behalf. You can see this tension explicitly in the anthropologist and women's rights activist Alice Cunningham Fletcher who had all kinds of mixed feelings about "civilizing" Indians in the Plains who actually had a much more egalitarian society than her own white Protestant society.

I don't want to be an apologist for the SG ladies, but I think that gender, and perhaps a more radical politics, made Social Gospel reformers like Addams a different kind of activist than TR. All of this, of course, has little to do with Obama!

Jacqueline Schmitt said...

Good thoughts, and no, such discussions will lead few Americans to vote for Obama, the critical issue at hand.
I do want to note that social gospellers, especially the settlement women, evolved. The settlements may have remained in reformist and paternalistic social worker mode, but many of those women grew beyond the 1880s and '90s in a more political, radical and engaged way, and their work -- not just social work but reform legislation -- laid the groundwork for the New Deal. Not even the Social Gospel stayed just as the Social Gospel.