Many of Our Nation’s Proudest Moments and Wins for Justice & Equality Have Been Initiated By Leaders Who Rely On and Lead With Their Faith
As our nation has celebrated the life of Rosalyn Carter, we have been reminded of the absolute dedication to public service that both she and her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, have exhibited throughout their entire lives. And, as a lesson for our current political leaders it should be abundantly clear that their life work was both propelled by and because of their absolute dedication to social justice through their faith.
In 2019, after a fall left him with a black eye, 14 stitches and a fractured pelvis at the age of 95; President Carter showed up to help build houses in Nashville, Tennessee, for Habitat for Humanity. “I had a No. 1 priority, and that was to come to Nashville to build houses,”
Carter said at a gathering of volunteers, “One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others. That’s what Rosa and I have both tried to do.”
While certainly remarkable, the Carters are not the only example of working for social justice and a more democratic society while relying on their faith to find a way that unifies for common good.
Labor Leader Succeeds With Faith
Earlier this year we witnessed a tremendous approach by United Auto Workers Union President Shawn Fain as he led his members to strike against all of the big three automakers for fair wages.
As Fain stood before his members, asking them to support an effort that could find them a better position but also could leave them in a hard place as the process of striking beared out he called upon his lessons in faith over traditional union rallying calls:
“Great acts of faith are seldom born out of calm calculation. It wasn’t logic that caused Moses to raise his staff on the bank of the Red Sea. It wasn’t common sense that caused Paul to abandon the law and embrace grace. And it wasn’t a confident committee that prayed in a small room in Jerusalem for Peter’s release from prison. It was a fearful, desperate, band of believers that were backed into a corner.”
By using Christian and faithful rhetoric to rally his members for economic progress, Fain is implicitly linking the economic wellbeing of his members to his faith and inspiration to fight for justice: “Like my grandfather’s pay stub that I carry with me every day, I’m proud to have inherited my grandma’s Bible and her faith.”
Fain’s leadership has been called a revival of the Social Gospel movement. A movement that serves both as a way to apply religious ethics to address societal disparities in wealth and health and other conditions that leave some behind and as a counter-narrative to more dominant and divisive uses of religion in politics, particularly the White Christian Nationalist movement that garners more attention.
The Social Gospel Movement
“The Kingdom of God is not a future promise, but a present reality that calls us to work for justice and peace in our world today.”
Influential theologians and leaders such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden played pivotal roles in shaping the Social Gospel Movement, which had a lasting impact on various progressive and reform movements in the United States.
The Social Gospel Movement emerged in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a significant reform movement within Protestant Christianity. Rooted in Christian theology, this movement sought to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to address the pressing social and economic issues of the time, particularly those resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and economic inequality. Social Gospel proponents believed that faith should not be confined to personal salvation but should also inspire collective efforts to promote social justice, alleviate poverty, and improve the living conditions of marginalized communities.
The resilience of our Democracy is evident every time we see it tested by efforts to divide one group against another for political or personal gain. Washington Gladden, one of the early leaders of the Social Gospel movement, was a Pastor and a journalist. As the religious editor of the New York Independent he focused on the intersection of practical theology and the day’s social issues, while exposing corruption in public service. Gladden also served as a member of the Columbus, Ohio city council and is seen as one of “the first leading U.S. Religious figures to support unionization of the workforce” and was known for his opposition to racial segregation.
"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory."
From Social Gospel to Social Justice and Civil Rights
The influence of the Social Gospel movement surely influenced leaders whose commitment to social justice and civil rights remain examples today that we can draw upon when looking for models of leaders driven by faith.
As a candidate for President in 1968, Robert Kennedy’s commitment to advancing civil rights and to working-class white voters was building into a coalition that defied the racial and economic tensions of the time. Even before his campaign for President, in 1966 at the University of Capetown in South Africa, then Senator Robert Kennedy called upon all of us to become “ripples of hope” and to recognize the equality of all our people.
"We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people — before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the RIGHT thing to do."
-Senator Robert Kennedy
And, the Social Gospel movement absolutely influenced leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy as they came together with other ministers and leaders in 1957 to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Martin Luther King Jr cited Rauschenbush as an important influence in 1958:
“It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”
Formed as a response to the Montgomery bus boycott, the SCLC was rooted in the teachings of the social justice movement and established to organize for equality and civil rights in the philosophy of Christian nonviolence and was built through a purposeful and strong affiliation with churches across the south.
And, well before the 1950s, the National Urban League was formed in 1910 as a nonpartisan civil rights organization to advocate on behalf of economic and social justice for African Americans and against racial discrimination in the United States.
George Edmund Haynes, one of the Urban League founders and its first Executive Director studied at Yale Divinity School and prior to founding the National Urban League, from “1905 to 1907 worked as a traveling secretary for the YMCA, visiting 76 black colleges in the South to facilitate Bible Study groups, Christian meetings, interracial cooperation, and to organize college students for community service.”
While it remains a secular organization that does not have an explicit religious agenda, faith continues to drive the social and moral values of civil rights organizations and leaders that continue today’s battles for equity in the economic prosperity of every person in every community.
In 2020, Marc Morial, the current President and CEO of the National Urban League, called upon public and faith leaders to come together for the common good in a sermon delivered to the Washington National Cathedral.
“Well, we are once again at that time and at that point. We’re at a time and a point when people of faith, where God’s children, where leaders of denominations and faiths and religions across the board, must step up to help this nation redeem its soul.”
When tested our faith makes us more resilient and resourceful
“In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt, Tomorrow is Now, 1963
In March of 2023 the National Urban League and the National Building Trades Union forged a partnership with the Department of Labor to secure apprenticeships in the construction industry and guarantee that new jobs went to those that have often been overlooked when investment is made into the infrastructure of the communities they live in.
Less than 2 months after the UAW strike began, a deal with the big three automakers included a 25% wage increase through April 2028 and an end to tiered compensation.
Collective organizing to overcome injustice is inherent in the very democracy we all have faith in each time we vote and when we participate in our civil society on a daily basis.
Finding common value in our faith and in others will always make us stronger.