Divided by the Sermon on the Mount
27 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2019
Date Written: February 8, 2019
This Essay, written for a festschrift for Bob Cochran, argues that the much-discussed friction between evangelical supporters of President Trump and evangelical critics is a symptom of a much deeper theological divide over the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek when struck, love their neighbor as themselves, and pray that their debts will be forgiven as they forgive their debtors. Divergent interpretations of these teachings have given rise to competing evangelical visions of justice.
The historical context dates back to the 1880s, a period when the influence of the Sermon on the Mount was quite direct. During this era, Jesus’s teachings were at the center of an optimistic Christian vision of American society first called Applied Christianity and later known as the Social Gospel. Advocates of this vision, including Washington Gladden, a Columbus, Ohio pastor, and Rochester Seminary professor Walter Rauschenbusch, imagined that an approximation of the Kingdom of God that Jesus calls for in the Sermon could be achieved in American society. Traditionalist critics, many of whom became known as fundamentalists, insisted the Social Gospelers were misinterpreting Jesus’s teachings. Jesus is a Savior, they insisted, not a social reformer.
One side of today’s divide—the religious right—can be traced directly back to the fundamentalist critics of the Social Gospel. The other side does not trace back to the Social Gospel, however, as some have suggested; it has much stronger points of contact with another famous evangelical of the era, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was not a Social Gospeler—Jesus was a Savior, in his view—but Bryan’s vision of justice was closer to the Social Gospelers than to his fellow traditionalists. Given their affinities with Bryan, the Essay calls Russell Moore, Timothy Keller, and other leaders of the emerging alternative to the religious right “neo-Bryanites.” The Essay concludes by considering the political, demographic and theological factors that may determine which perspective prevails.
Keywords: Evangelical Christianity, Protestant theology, Christianity and law, biblical interpretation, fundamentalism, modernism, Social Gospel, religious right, justice, political activism, conservatism, William Jennings Bryan
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