Toward a renewed Christian social democracy

I enjoyed this article by historian-theologian Gary Dorrien on the prospects for a Christian version of social and economic democracy. According to Dorrien, while the dreams of a radical transformation of the economic system seem more distant than ever, they are still incredibly urgent, particularly in the wake of the financial collapse and the looming environmental crisis.

Dorrien provides an overview of American Protestant thinking on capitalism and socialism during the 20th century. Interestingly, proponents of the Social Gospel, in his accounting, come out looking better than some of their self-styled “realist” critics, including a young Reinhold Niebuhr:

One of the ironies of modern theology is that the American Social Gospelers of the 1930s and 1940s are nearly always treated as naive idealists, because many of them were pacifists, while Niebuhr is treated as the hero of the story. Yet Niebuhr was wrong about the New Deal, and the Social Gospel progressives were right. The Social Gospelers supported the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which allowed the new Reconstruction Finance Corporation to buy bank equity. Over the next year, the RFC bought more than $1 billion of bank stock, about one-third of the capital invested in U.S. banks. The Social Gospel progressives, speaking through the Federal Council of Churches, called for “subordination of speculation and the profit motive to the creative and cooperative spirit” and “social planning and control of the credit and monetary systems for the common good.” They supported mortgage restructuring, social security, public works employment, and selective nationalization, while Niebuhr replied that these were mere Band-Aids to make middle-class moralists feel better, and that the New Deal was a form of quackery.

The Social Gospelers told a story about the necessity of gradually democratizing society; Niebuhr told a more dramatic story, that history would either move forward to socialism or move backward to barbarism. There was no third way. Radical socialism, communism, and fascism were supposedly more realistic than the tame progressivism of the social democratic, Social Gospel, and New Deal movements. But the radical alternatives crashed and burned, and afterward Niebuhr retreated to welfare state reformism and the liberal Democratic mainstream.

The end of the cold war and the rise of right-wing “Niebuhrian” apologists for unregulated capitalism like Michael Novak, Dorrien argues, shouldn’t be taken to mean that Christians no longer need to think about alternatives to actually existing capitalism. What Christians need instead is a pragmatic, non-dogmatic form of socialism or social democracy that appreciates both the virtues and limits of markets and can come up with context-specific ways for making the economic system more democratic, decentralized, and participatory. For inspiration, he looks not only to the Social Gospel movement, but also to the Anglican tradition of Christian socialism represented by figures like William Temple, Charles Raven, R. H. Tawney, and Charles Gore. He also cites Paul Tillich as sharing “the Christian socialist aversion to state collectivism.”

The social vision of economic democracy cannot be imposed or transplanted. It can only take shape over the course of decades, as hard-won social gains and the cultivation of cooperative habits and knowledge build the groundwork for a better society. Such a project does not call for large-scale investments in any particular economic model. It does not rest upon illusions about human nature. It does not envision or require a transformed humanity. Reinhold Niebuhr’s epigrammatic justification of democracy suffices for economic democracy: The human capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but the human inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Dorrien’s article draws on material from his upcoming book, Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice.

p.s. See also Dorrien’s lecture, “A Case for Economic Democracy.”

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