Strategy and Memory for Progressive Believers

by Gary Dorrien
Columbia University Press, 2010

coverThis book is an indictment of imperialist fantasies, enormous suffering visited on others, and the “shredding” of America’s reputation in “the war on terror.”

The footnotes in chapters 10 and 11 reveal how Dorrien has honed and repurposed some of the punchiest material on neoconservatism from his previous books The Neo-Conservative Mind and Imperial Designs. But this is more than score-settling with neoconservatives: Dorrien is convinced that it matters whether one is right or not, and that policy mistakes must be analyzed in service of renewed hope. How much did the weaknesses of an “ethically-thin and inherently nationalistic” foreign policy realism, for example, open the door for neo-conservative ideologues and opportunists? What strategies do progressive people of faith need to move forward?

Certainly Dorrien’s long observation of the neoconservatives paid off back in his 2004 response to the Iraq war — and it continues to help in charting the interests behind the Libyan and other potential interventions. Chapter 12 of his book rigorously dismantles the lies, incompetence, failure, and moral debts accumulated in the Iraq war, while chapter 13 speaks topically to revived claims for “American exceptionalism.” But this is to turn perhaps too quickly to battles in policy and on the ground.

In his introduction, Dorrien emphasizes that the lecture-turned-essays that make up the book are not organized arbitrarily around him as author, but are rather interrelated by three subjects: “economic democracy, racial and gender justice (‘difference’), and U.S. empire,” and by three ethical traditions: “social gospel progressivism, Niebuhrian realism, and liberationism.” Dorrien synthesizes the three ethical traditions in his own method, using more of the first and third and yet taking some of his power analysis from Niebuhr. Realism, just to be clear, is not his tradition; his is “anti-imperial progressivism.” And his overall critique of liberation perspectives, especially in economic matters, is that practical or tested alternatives are all too often absent. Yet liberation perspectives in their particularity have much to teach about difference so he listens carefully especially to feminist and black scholars, lifting up Rosemary Ruether, Katie Cannon, and Cornel West above a strategic sampling of the also-read. His definition of the field of social ethics thus emerges as the grappling with the application of social justice by a wide range of methods, churches and other communities.

The last essay in Gary Dorrien’s collection Economy, Difference, Empire is the inaugural address he delivered upon taking the Reinhold Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary in New York (January 30, 2007). It is among the most personally revealing of his public lectures: here he is not only condensing his arguments, but also giving us some of the clearest statements of his own positions. Certainly there is still the careful historical explanation of each policy and the scrupulously fair account of each thinker’s view, but in these lectures the moral accounting comes to the fore. The title of that final lecture, “Social Ethics in the Making,” became the precursor of a 700-page book by the same title.

DorrienTikkun readers may remember reading articles by Dorrien in Tikkun’s print magazine and on its website; he has been writing and speaking widely since the 1980s, when he opposed Reaganite intervention in Central America and economic depredation here at home. His biggest similarity with Reinhold Niebuhr, in fact, may be his commitment to and popularity on the lecture circuit, though another similarity might be his unconventional academic path; he had written three books before being granted a Ph.D. He is also a Midwesterner, though one of part-Cree ancestry and a blue-collar economic background. His voracious intellectual appetite opened up in college; he got in courtesy of a baseball scholarship and has since trained his athletic discipline on the writing of books. Raised with limited but still powerful exposure to “the suffering God in Catholic iconography,” he became an Episcopal priest; his late wife was a Presbyterian minister, his depth of faith tested by her tragically premature death.

Dorrien almost always moves with great historical grasp but not without his own polemic punches and placements. This book’s early chapters start with Social Gospel and socialist champion Walter Rauschenbusch and then discuss religion and social change through comparisons among Reinhold Niebuhr, the great anti-Nazi Swiss theologian Karl Barth … and Billy Graham, often flogged by Niebuhr. In this way Dorrien opens up the economic crisis of the 1930s, World War II and post-war periods, contrasts between Europe and the United States on socialism, and the impacts of religion on culture, including the failure of evangelicals generally to address racial inequality.

Dorrien’s historical range is wider than Niebuhr’s, and his social and political commitments much more steady and systematic than Niebuhr’s dramatic changes from pacifist to supporter of World War II and the Cold War, and from socialist to mixed-economy liberal. Dorrien’s three-volume history of the Liberal tradition in Christian theology is a very strategic mapping that (among many other things!) returns Niebuhr persuasively to the Liberal fold theologically. Dorrien also identifies the understated elements that Niebuhr kept from the Social Gospel heritage despite his denunciation of its purported innocence about evil and optimism about change through moral persuasion. Dorrien’s own stature comes through in his clear mastery of the Niebuhr legacy; his defense of Niebuhr’s enduring commitment to justice, equality, and freedom (including his turn against the Vietnam war); and his correction of Niebuhr on the need for a “cooperative commonwealth” rooted in the Social Gospel understanding of social salvation and the “Kingdom of God” preached by Jesus.

Dorrien traces his own apprenticeship in economic democracy primarily to Michael Harrington, though he has never been attracted to the Marxian tradition that Harrington kept trying to revise. Influenced also by the Christian socialism of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1930s, and by many others, Dorrien argues consistently for a decentralized, cooperative-encouraging, and pluralistic democracy in economic life. Rarely does he leave out specific examples — the Meidner plan for democratizing capital investment, the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, worker-owned enterprises around the world — though he cautions about their weaknesses in technological adaptation. The market clearly has a place for sharing price information, but its tendency to inequality and its great cultural impact in globalization are to be resisted. Dorrien includes two chapters on Norman Thomas and Christian Socialism that lift up the learnings and legacies of these traditions. Thomas, though starting as a Presbyterian minister, became the Socialist Party’s perennial candidate and made generally secular, progressive moral arguments.

This 409-page book is a surprisingly quick read, though if you choose to engage with the additional 64 pages of footnotes, they might slow you down. After setting up his progressive Christian approach and its historical grounding, he gets down to “Breaking the Oligarchy” — the top 1-2 percent who run our country. His summary of two paths is right to the point:

In the first vision (unlimited liberty to get wealth), the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the just society minimizes the equalizing role of government. In the second view (realized democracy), the right to self-government is considered superior to the right to property, and the just society places democratic checks on social, political and economic power.

In his discussion of racial and gender justice, Dorrien invites us to meet Rosemary Radford Ruether, Cornel West, and Katie Cannon, making each sound like a friend (West would be the closest) and using the biography of each to open up feminist theology, Black Theology, and Womanist theology. Ruether’s creative trajectory includes her initial critiques of patriarchy and recovery of prophetic biblical material while teaching at Howard University, her increasing re-interpretation of Christian tradition and address to anti-Semitism, and her theological work for grounding liberation movements, including democratic socialism and eco-feminism. Dorrien clearly identifies with the struggle both to keep democratic rights and to retain the redemptive, world-transformative elements in Christianity while avoiding what he sees as the essentialism and separatism of a Mary Daly position.

The Black Christian tradition is ably embodied in both West and Cannon. Discussing West allows Dorrien to show off some of his own philosophic chops, which are otherwise not on display in this volume. West’s own multi-disciplinary creativity and commitment to racial reconciliation and uniting various strands of African-American politics have led to a wide range of debates, with West ranging all over high and popular culture, though often returning to Du Bois as a lodestar. Dorrien defends West’s moves at many points, clearly enjoying West’s energy and engagement. In his chapter on Obama, Dorrien is not as frustrated as West has now become with the president’s economic and political caution, but Dorrien was clear before the election that Obama’s personal appeal has always been related to his recognition of the power of racism in American culture and search for nonthreatening positions.

In his chapter on Katie Cannon and Womanist theology, as well as in his last essay, Dorrien presents a very sympathetic account of the struggle of a woman achieving a whole collection of “firsts.” At the same time he acknowledges his own majority position that has too rarely, even in ethics, confronted the problem not of personal bias but of structural white supremacism, visible throughout American culture. Dorrien describes the achievement made by Katie Cannon in getting a Ph.D. at Union Seminary thirty years ago, and then, in his address, pledges to stand with all those who are working to prevent the struggle for racial justice from ever getting submerged. He also shows the contrasting positions on Cannon’s legacy among leading black women scholars whom she inspired but who want to apply some of her insights in a less confessional and race-specific specific way.

The essay that is perhaps of greatest interest to Tikkun readers is chapter 17, “Religious Pluralism as a Justice Issue,” which was presented originally in December 2008 to the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. This lecture traces the work of Gregory Baum, a priest-sociologist of secularized Jewish background who fled to Britain in 1939 at age sixteen and was then sent to Canada.

Baum became part of the liberal-leaning generation of Vatican II scholars out to modernize Catholicism without the self-destruction found sometimes in liberal Protestantism. He grappled personally and academically with the extent of anti-Judaism and later anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition. Dorrien uses Baum’s deepening Christian self-critique to deftly summarize the five dominant schools of liberal theology and to show how their struggle with modernity played out and is still being played out. The great liberal theologians were not wrong in their basic approach: “the idea of a theology based on reason and experience, not external authority, which offers a third way between orthodox authority religion (elsewhere: ‘overbelief’) and secular disbelief.” At the same time, both in the academy and the popular pulpit, liberal Protestantism sought to interpret other religions on its own terms and only recognized religious pluralism — with some reluctance — after World War II. (Dorrien uses Henry Ward Beecher and Harry Emerson Fosdick as examples to make this point.) Dorrien also notes that Baum continued to critique Christian “supercessionism,” but kept the Gospel’s liberating energy for a consistent range of justice concerns, particularly the Church and labor.

Dorrien also discusses another distinguished Catholic thinker, John Courtney Murray, alongside Baum. Murray argued that religions should not be treated inequitably — the basic “justice issue” point that some mainline Protestant leaders didn’t get until, by the 1970s, their establishment privileges had become liabilities. Murray combined an affirmation of moral rights and responsibilities within Catholicism — keeping religious depth — while also respecting religious diversity. The lesson Dorrien draws: “to reject the usual options of watering down Protestantism, stripping religion from the public square, treating democracy as a substitute for religion, or reducing religion to values.”

In sum, the essays in this volume provide substance and strategy for serious readers who are not likely to read Dorrien’s many scholarly works. The essays all combine historical wisdom and passionate commitment. If the book has any flaw, it is Dorrien’s expansive generosity toward the views of older thinkers. And yet, as we sail against the winds of denial and domination, it is good to have Dorrien’s historical rudder and great knowledge of tricky currents. He is an indispensable coach for those seeking to apply their religious vision to social change in this country.

Chris Iosso serves as Coordinator of Social Witness Policy for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and blogs at
tags: Books, Christianity, Rethinking Religion, Reviews   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *