On April 13, 2012, the Phi Alpha Theta history society at UND will hold the annual Red River Valley History Conference. I presented a paper at this conference last year, and plan to do so again this year. You can view some of my previous publications and book reviews here. This year, my paper is based upon some research that I began back in 2008. Below is a brief synopsis of my argument and findings.
While at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I was introduced to the work of H. Cornell Goerner, an important figure in the mid-twentieth century Southern Baptist establishment. Alan Scot Willis in his 2004 work All according to God's Plan frequently described Goerner and others like him as progressive. This progressivism related to race, and not theology, however. Goerner supported improved race relations when many in the South did not. I found Goerner interesting because of his involvement in mission work, but during my studies at UND, I began to look at his writings in a different way that was tied to one of the major themes in American church history.
As pointed out in the paper referenced above, one of the topics that I've studied is that of American exceptionalism. From a quick perusal of some of his books (published by the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing arms), Goerner was a major believer in the idea of American exceptionalism. He was glad that America devised the atomic bomb because it was the most Christian nation of the day. In this area, current Southern Baptists would see little difference between his viewpoint and their own. As mentioned above, Goerner's theology was fairly conservative. He was not a fan of the social gospel, and he railed against theological liberalism. He believed that salvation was for the individual, not society. Most Southern Baptists and theologically conservative evangelicals (myself included) would agree with this belief.
The big difference that shows a major change in political discourse, however, is related to the idea of social justice. Today, politically conservative commentators rail against such programs as social security. Glenn Beck argued that pastors who want social justice are closet communists and ties them to Hitler and Stalin. Goerner wrote in the 1940s and 1950s for social justice and was glad for the improved working conditions then prevalent in the United States. The ironic thing about this statement is that it appeared in the same book, America Must Be Christian, in which he stated that it was good that America got the bomb. Goerner had no love for communism, noting that it kept people behind the iron curtain from hearing the gospel. No one would have called him a radical liberal commie at the time. He was part of the Southern Baptist mainstream establishment, and few have ever called the Southern Baptists one of the more liberal denominations in the nation. What is the importance of this writing? It shows that in terms of economic rhetoric, the current discourse is drifting toward that heard in the Gilded Age, rather than the post-war period that most people today seem to think was the most idyllic time in American history.