Book Review: Social Ethics in the Making


Social Ethics in the Making. Interpreting an American Tradition,
By Dorrien, Gary,
New York, Wiley-Blackwell, hardback, (2008), paperback edition (2011).

In the dog-eat-dog late 19th century world of the Gilded Age, when Horatio Alger stories touted rags to riches, the yawning gap between rich and poor was as extreme as it is today. In that Social Darwinist milieu of abject oppressive poverty, a progressive Christian movement called “the Social Gospel” was born. Progressive Christians were convinced that Christianity had the social responsibility to transform society so that it reflected the mission and message of Jesus, with an arc toward social justice and “social salvation.”

Gary Dorrien, who is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York, has written an encyclopedic primer of social ethics, an academic discipline that grew out of the Social Gospel. Dorrien analyzes the three major traditions of social ethics, and offers both biography and thought of both major and minor lights in the field – from the beginnings of the optimistic Social Gospel, to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and later to the various expressions of liberation theology, including feminism, and ecological ethics, as well as some of the backlash of Right-wing thinkers.

Much of the character of Christian social ethics will speak to people on the secular Left, because they share a common view of the “social problem” and the socialist vision of a just and egalitarian society. In fact, the book’s sub-title could well be, “Progressive Christianity and the Socialist Vision.” The classic struggle of the Knights of Labor, the Hay Market Massacre and the formation of the American Federation of Labor all had a great impact on the liberal churches in forming their understanding of the nature of the social struggle. The laissez faire theory of society was seen as a hellish counterpoint to the teaching of Jesus.

The greatest early lights of the Social Gospel movement were Washington Gladden, called the “Father of the Social Gospel,” and Walter Rauschenbusch, probably its most profound thinker, both of whom held strong socialist positions. Their vision of the “kingdom of God” which Jesus proclaimed was akin to Marx’s vision of the classless society. The Social Gospel was the dominant thought among progressive churchmen in the 1920s and ‘30s. It also had its weaknesses, however. It tended to be a gospel of eternal optimism with a middle class idealistic Jesus. It fell short of demanding racial justice and often gave luke-warm support for women’s rights.

Nevertheless, Dorrien shows that the Social Gospel paved the way for everything that was to follow in social ethics. It had black, anti-imperialist, socialist and feminist advocates. An early voice against white supremacy and for black freedom and equality was the fascinating Rev. Reverdy Ransom, who, although now all but forgotten, sounded a call much like a combination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Reinhold Niebuhr in the early ‘30s ridiculed the Social Gospel in his classic Moral Man and Immoral Society, which ushered in what Niebuhr called “Christian realism.” In the years of the Great Depression, this premier social ethicist pushed aside the optimism of the Social Gospel for the language of sin, power politics, transcendence and realism.  He made the case that individuals might operate with altruistic motives, but society is made up of classes and groups who have clashing interests. In this howling arena, where each group demands to be heard and seeks power, the voice of Jesus calling for selfless love may only be a future vision, and the best we can realistically end up with is “rough justice,” which is the compromise amid countervailing  power relations. Reform is possible, but it comes through struggle between capital, labor, and an assertive national government.

Niebuhr in these early days was an ardent socialist, but later, upon giving up Marxism, he adopted a welfare state realism in the Roosevelt era that put him in the mainstream of liberal democratic politics. He was, among other things, a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action. In domestic politics, Christian realism was a strategy of balance-of-power relations between capital, labor, and assertive national government. As an aside, Walter Reuther, the union leader, was influenced by Niebuhr’s thinking, and Barack Obama is well-read in Niebuhr’s writings.

Internationally, Niebuhrian realism was a theory of balance-of-power interrelations among nations, which American strategists applied particularly to the USSR. This legacy was toxic. In defense of Niebuhr, he said that he hated that Cold War ideologues considered themselves Niebuhrian. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the neo-conservative ideologues promoted imperialist expansionism, a rationale that led the U.S. into, among other things, the fiasco in Iraq. This neo-con adventurism is the sorriest misuse of Niebuhr’s thought. It should be said, however, that Niebuhr’s persistent prophetic public call to stop fascist tyranny prior to World War II is one of the high points of the social ethical tradition.

After holding center stage for 30 years, Christian realism was pushed aside by liberation theology, which became a formidable force with the publication of Gustavo Gutierrez’ epoch-making book, A Theology of Liberation, linking Christian theology in dialogue with Karl Marx to the struggle for the political, social and economic freedom of oppressed people. Although liberation theology swept through third world societies, it was perceived as too marginal and radical in the U.S. to have much impact. Meanwhile social ethics produced offshoots, with followings in every direction, such as feminist theology (often white in orientation), womanism (speaking primarily to the situation of black women) and mujerista thinking (addressing Latina culture).

With growing awareness of capitalism’s deleterious effect on the environment, social ethicists, such as the theologian, John Cobb, who addresses theology within the context of evolution and relativity, and who already decades ago raised a prophetic voice, and the Lutheran Larry Rasmussen (Gary Dorrien’s predecessor in the Reinhold Niebuhr chair of ethics at Union Theological Seminary). They, among others, have been powerful advocates for ecological ethics and sustainable development. In light of capitalism’s continuing destruction of mother earth, sustainable development means, among other things, a dramatically expanded worker and community-owned sector that deals gently with the environment, and an end to industry’s greedy environmental pillaging.

All of these contemporary movements share a vision of a socially transformed economic order with the hope that predatory and community-destroying economics would be replaced. This “something better” has been at the heart of progressive Christianity’s social mission.

Dorrien also describes the neo-conservative backlash to progressive social thought, including the erstwhile liberal, Michael Novak, who extols the glories of “democratic capitalism,” and even sees religious qualities in it by drawing parallels between Roman Catholic sacramental theology and seven “sacramental” qualities in corporate America.

Dorrien concludes that the “discredited” Social Gospel vision of a cooperative commonwealth and a decentralized egalitarian economic democracy is more relevant than ever today. The seemingly hopeless problem of social and environmental injustice can only be confronted and overcome if there is a meeting of the minds and concerted united efforts among progressives, both of the secular Left and people of faith.

Dorrein’s thought-provoking book has significance for progressives of every stripe. It is particularly useful for students and scholars, but it is eminently readable and can fill an important gap in the thought of people on the Left. For those who think that American Christianity is represented only by the dangerous antics of the religious Right, it will offer hope that there are many progressive people in faith communities with whom we can find common cause.

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