Atradition within modern social Christianity that should be renowned is the black social gospel. Long before Martin Luther King Jr. emerged, there was a black church tradition that fused the racial justice politics of abolitionist religion with the social gospel emphasis on economic democracy, comprehensive social justice, and modern criticism. King’s mentors were steeped in this tradition, and nearly all of King’s close associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) belonged to it. But the black social gospel is little known, despite its colossal legacy and ongoing importance.

The social gospel in general was defined by its commitment to changing social structures in the direction of social justice. White social gospel luminary Walter Rauschenbusch famously urged churches to oppose the ravages of capitalist inequality and bad politics. Otherwise, Rauschenbusch asserted, religion was irrelevant and the socialists would be right to charge that churches...

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