At the heart of modern capitalist economics is the idea of infinite accumulation. At the heart of Christian social teaching, however, is a strong conception of distributive justice and the related notion that there is such a thing as having enough. The prevailing American preoccupation with piling up money and material possessions is spiritually deadening. The readiness to defend ill-begotten privileges with force is immoral. The prevailing view of nature as a commodity to be conquered and exploited degrades the sacredness of creation. These themes have marked Christian ethics at its best. Figures such as [Walter] Rauschenbusch and [William] Temple were powerful advocates for progressive Christianity, partly because their minds were rooted in the biblical and spiritual wisdom of the past, partly because they were alive to new challenges and horizons for the church, and partly because they believed that Christianity has an important social mission. If liberal Christianity is to regain its public voice, it must recover this spirit.
That’s the conclusion to Gary Dorrien’s 1995 book Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (pp. 375-6). It traces the history of liberal, mainly Protestant, Christian social ethics in America from the social gospel period, through the rise of Niebuhrian “Christian realism,” to the more recent development of liberation, black, feminist, ecological, and other “pluralizing” theologies.
According to Dorrien, a signature concern of Christian social ethics–one that runs like a thread through all these movements–is extending democratic principles to the economic sphere. This has taken a variety of forms: Rauschenbusch’s calls for a “cooperative commonwealth,” Niebuhr’s early Marxist-influenced analysis of social power and class conflict and his later evolution toward New Deal-style reformist liberalism, and the aspiration toward democratic forms of socialism among liberationist voices. Contrary to the impression you might get from the current political scene, American Christian social ethics has long had a strongly social-democratic, if not outright socialist, bent.
Dorrien is far from uncritical of this tradition. He agrees with some–though not all–of Niebuhr’s criticisms of the social gospel tradition. He acknowledges the failures of central-planning approaches to the economy. He also points out that more recent theologians’ calls for “socialism” often have a dreamy, unreal air, and they fail to spell out what they want in concrete terms.
But Christians can’t give up on the need to press for greater distributive justice. Dorrien reviews some recent experiments with greater economic democracy (a term he generally prefers to “socialism”). These include worker ownership and management of firms and public mutual funds for directing investment. In general, he prefers pragmatic experiments in making the economic system more just and democratically accountable that don’t rely on overly centralizing power in a bureaucratic state. Dorrien also emphasizes the ecological impact of economic growth and the pressing need to pursue distributive justice and “eco”-justice simultaneously.
Neoconservative Christian ethicists like Michael Novak have turned their back on this tradition and embraced what they call “democratic capitalism” as the only viable economic system after the fall of Communism. But Dorrien points out that actually existing capitalism not only fails the tests of distributive justice and ecological sustainability–it leads to a cultural coarsening that conservatives themselves deplore, even though they tend to blame it on “liberal elites.”
Dorrien is realistic about the state of liberal, mainline Protestantism. Too often, it has focused more on making sweeping social statements and lobbying Washington than on nurturing vibrant religious communities. While he disagrees with those, like Stanley Hauerwas, who are critical of Christian attempts to create a more just society, Dorrien argues that a progressive Christianity that isn’t rooted in a genuine “spiritual experience of Christ” has lost its reason for being. It’s because of what Christians believe God has accomplished in Christ that they act to foster signs of the in-breaking Kingdom in the social order:
The kingdom to which Christians belong and owe their loyalty is partially prefigured in the world; it calls Christians to bring the transforming virtues of love, peace, and justice into the world; it calls Christians to join sides with the poor and oppressed to attain justice; but it does not make political success the criterion of its action or seek power over the social order. The social ethic of the way of Christ is an ethic of faithfulness to the prophetic biblical ideals of freedom, equality, community, and redemptive love. It calls the body of Christ to be a moral community that incarnates these ideals in the world and lives faithfully by them. It seeks to bring sustainable justice and peace to the world but does not live by the world’s tests for worthwhile activity (pp. 374-5).
This is a responsible social ethic for a post-Christendom world: one that embraces the duty to work for structural justice without surrendering Christian distinctiveness or assuming the role of “chaplain” to the existing order.