Louisville pastor is preaching the old-time Social Gospel to his flock


AFT Local 1360 

Derek Penwell looks like he might ride with Bikers for Trump.

He sports a gray-streaked beard and ponytail. His biceps are tattooed.

Penwell is a Disciples of Christ pastor in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. His theology hearkens to Walter Rauschenbusch who helped lead the old liberal and reformist Social Gospel movement.

Penwell is in the pulpit Sunday mornings at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. The activist, author, Huffington Post blogger and former college lecturer doesn’t shy from calling out the president and like-minded Republican conservatives who want to strip funds “from programs that support folks that need them the most.”

He warns against right-wing politicians who argue that poor people ought to shoulder more “personal responsibility” and who reduce wealth and poverty to “a matter of choice.” Such “is just a cover for selfishness at best, or something even more despicable at worst.”

Penwell sermonizes about the here-and-now, not just the hereafter. The Social Gospelers did, too, a century or so ago. The Baptist Rauschenbusch preached that Christianity “is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven."

Penwell brought his neo-Social Gospel message to the recent Tax Day March rally in the Falls City, one of about 150 such protests nationwide, including one in Lexington, Ky. He was a featured speaker at the downtown event which drew a crowd estimated at 400.

He argued that “religious people have a moral obligation to pay taxes, not just so we can have bigger bombs and better bridges but because those of us who have have a duty to defend and support those who have not.”

In America, he added, “it always comes back to choice. But choosing is almost always the prerogative of the wealthy and the powerful.”

Penwell isn’t rich. But he said, “In my neighborhood, if I want to buy food, I can choose to shop at one of several grocery stores. If I feel like something different, I can eat at one the many restaurants nearby, or I can eat fast food.”

If he were poor, he reminded rally-goers, he “often wouldn’t get to choose between bad food and good food…I could choose between bad food and no food, which is to say I wouldn’t get much of a choice at all.”

Penwell’s “sanctuary” at the rally was the downtown Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Rauschenbusch helped inspire King, who said "his writings left an indelible imprint on my thinking.” 

Standing on a bench under a leafing shade tree and speaking through a hand-held microphone, Penwell hammered home the theme of choice.  

“The wealthy and the powerful choose where to go on vacation. The poor and the powerless often get to choose just to stay home.

“The wealthy and the powerful choose which health plan, which doctor, which hospital that they want to patronize. The only choice the poor and the powerless usually have to make is whether to go to the clinic or to the emergency room.

“The wealthy and the powerful choose politicians who look and talk like them while the poor and the powerless get to choose politicians who look and talk like the wealthy and the powerful.

“The wealthy and powerful choose upon whom to lavish their charity and the poor and the powerless get to choose if they’ll take it or not.”

The Social Gospel movement rose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a Christian humanist alternative to Social Darwinism, a theory popular with the new industrial millionaires.

Social Darwinists claimed that in societies, like in nature, it was survival of the fittest. They rejected unions and laws to protect the poor and working classes and the environment against the avarice and abuses that came with unfettered capitalism.

Social Darwinists exalted wealth and insisted that organized labor and social democratic government should be spurned because they “interfered” in the “natural” workings of the marketplace.  

“Millionaires are the product of natural selection,” said philosopher William Graham Sumner, the country’s chief exponent of Social Darwinism. Rich people lived in luxury, he conceded but insisted that "the bargain is a good one for society." 

Well-heeled ministers preached Social Darwinism in big churches. “There is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings,” declared the Rev. Russell Conwell, also Baptist.

“Amens” rose from plutocrats in pews.

“The American Beauty rose can be produced … only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it,” Ida M. Tarbell quoted John D. Rockefeller in The History of the Standard Oil Company. “This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.” 

Rockefeller also said that “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest … “  

Social Darwinism is back in the Trump White House and among the Senate and House GOP majority, according to Penwell.

He said conservatives are fond of the notion of charity because it enables them “to maintain the illusion that the haves and have-nots are the result of virtue or vice and are, therefore, the product of their own choices. ‘I am where I am because I made good choices and if you are in a bad place, it’s because you made bad choices.’”

He said that as “a mechanism for voluntarily deciding who gets a portion of what we have is an especially apt exercise of choice since it reinforces the modern American belief that only the stuff that we choose has any value.

“To choose to give to charity is to take advantage of the power and resources at your disposal and to give to those whom you think are worthy of your attention. The problem though is when we disagree over who’s worthy and what that attention ought to look like.”

Thus, if charity undergirds “the current power arrangements,” them what’s the alternative? he challenged the sympathetic crowd. Unlike in his church, the congregation frequently interrupted his remarks with cheers and applause.

Penwell is partial to the historic Jewish idea of giving. “Hebrew doesn’t have a word that equates to the English word ‘charity,’ with its assumptions that giving is done from a position of power--that is, relying on the choice of the giver to be generous.”

He said the Hebrew word for helping the poor and powerless translates into English as “justice” or “righteousness.” Hence, in the Jewish faith, “giving is an act of justice; it’s not charity.”

He said that in Judaism “this act of justice is an obligation…in contrast to modern American assumptions about charity being done as a favor to those who don’t have.”

The American principle of taxation based on the ability to pay formalizes “this idea of giving as an act of justice,” according to Penwell.

He concluded that “arguing that support for the poor should come from a choice to give to charitable organizations doesn’t, as Sean Spicer might say, ‘pass the smell test.’”

Contrary to the claims of conservatives, “charitable organizations can’t do enough to feed all the people who need food,” Penwell said. “Non-profits can’t provide health care to all the people who need healing.

“Religious charities can’t teach calculus and physics to all the people who need to know those things nor can they tend to all the elderly and disabled who can’t take care of themselves. So we need programs funded by tax dollars to do all of that stuff for us.

“As a matter of religious devotion, we have an obligation to participate in a system that helps care for those who need our help, which is why as a country that prides itself so loudly and so often on its religious devotion, we need a president who’s an example and not an exception of what it means to pay taxes.”

He wrapped up by reminding the spring sun-warmed crowd, “In this country, it always comes back to choice, except when it comes to the president being honest with the American people about his taxes. Then there is no choice at all: you’ve got to show your taxes.”

Penwell wrote The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World.