Hillary Clinton’s much publicized visit to Foundry United Methodist Church yesterday brought back many memories. My first assignment with IRD 20 years ago was to research and publish an article on Foundry’s then controversial pastor Phil Wogaman, a longtime liberal theologian who had taught at Wesley Seminary. He was an old time Social Gospel modernist, skeptical of biblical miracles but confident about perfecting society through state power.
My subsequent report on Wogaman’s theology and politics was picked up by columnist Cal Thomas, which led to longtime Foundry members Bob and Elizabeth Dole, then in a presidential campaign, publicly quitting Foundry. I actually attended Foundry on the Sunday of Elizabeth Dole’s final attendance. The church bulletin advertised a critique of the Republican Contract With America. Wogaman afterwards mentioned me in his response to the Thomas column from the pulpit, with the Clintons present. Later he covered the episode in his memoir, as I did in my own book.
During that time IRD’s office was across the street from Foundry Church, fueling suspicions of ongoing surveillance. Memories!
Wogaman, long retired, joined the Clintons yesterday for Foundry’s 200th anniversary, an illustrious history that includes presidents and other world leaders such as Lincoln, FDR, Churchill and Madam Chiang Kai-shek, among many others. Hillary’s speech recalled her own Methodist upbringing, an influential youth pastor who introduced her to the Social Gospel, her White House years at Foundry, during which the congregation formally rejected its denominational teaching on sexual ethics, and her ongoing Methodist-inspired devotion to promoting human equality. Understandably she did not cite Wogaman’s prominent role defending and counseling Bill during the Monica scandal.
To my knowledge, Hillary has not been a regular church goer since leaving the White House 14 years ago, although daughter Chelsea was married by a Methodist clergy in New York, whose congregation maybe a sort of home church for the Clintons.
But active church participation is not central for the Social Gospel, which focuses on transforming society, not saving individual souls. All the denominations that embraced the Social Gospel have suffered dramatic declines. It’s been argued that even as these churches die, their message has won, with Obamacare, same sex marriage, abortion rights, and an expanding welfare and regulatory state.
Under the Social Gospel, Christ’s message is so immanantized through political achievement that Christ Himself and His message of redemption, not to mention His Church, become sideline if not almost unnecessary. Instead, government becomes the primary mediator of justice and grace, and even of transcendant authority, with few firm restraints on its ultimate power.
The Social Gospel has lofty aspirations inspired by Christ’s desire to feed, clothe, house, heal and uplift. But the Social Gospel and its adherants in their zeal for building God’s Kingdom on earth forget the eternal Kingdom and its standards of righteousness possible only through the King.
Hillary’s message at Foundry yesterday and her personal spiritual biography encapsulate where liberal Protestantism has triumphed and failed, with consequences for us all.
(Above photo credit here.)