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Theological Study Group East Rev. Brian C. Smith March 25, 2010 Social Ethics in the Making (Dorrien, Gary; Wiley-Balckwell, 2009). Gary Dorrien’s ambitious work Social Ethics in the Making (SEM hereafter) traces the modern history of social ethics in the United States. He identifies three leading figures: Walter Rauschenbusch of the social gospelers, Reinhold Neibuhr representing Christian realism, and Martin Luther King, Jr, “the leader of modern America’s greatest liberation movement” (SEM, 2). The gift of SEM is its vast scope. Dorrien presents an enormous variety of historical and biographical sketches relevant to modern social ethics in America. Since it is impossible to discuss all that is worthwhile, my contribution to the discussion will be limited mainly to Dorrien’s treatment of Rauschenbush and Neibuhr. However, I will also make honorable mention of a few other figures in Dorrien’s work, including Francis Peabody and Walter Muelder. I. Origins of Social Ethics: Francis Greenwood Peabody (1858-1922) I have always assumed that the discipline of social ethics has a long history. It does not. Dorrien traces the origin of social ethics as a discipline to Francis Greenwood Peabody, a Unitarian minister who began to lecture on ethics and homiletics at Harvard Divinity School in 1880. Peabody’s focus on social ethics represents an intentional break with the predominant theological focus of “saving souls” and individual morals. He combined an inductive method of theology with attention to the emerging social sciences, especially sociology. In fact, Peabody wanted to treat theology as a science, “with the same method of free research and the same spirit of singleminded devotion to the truth,” so that theology might gain more credibility in a changing academic environment (SEM, 16). To this end, Peabody established a “Social Museum” at Harvard to promote scientific understanding and ethical idealism. The Peabody Museum displayed maps, charts, models, and photographs depicting living conditions and social reform efforts in Europe (SEM, 33). Peabody made a shift away from personal salvation and moral philosophy. He believed that the kingdom of God was a present reality in every soul that welcomed God’s Spirit, and that God’s kingdom was not yet fulfilled but was unfolding. “Jesus was a revealer not a reformer or a revolutionary…His ultimate concern was to show the movement of God’s life in human souls, not to become entangled in social problems” (SEM, 25-26). And yet, Peabody contended that personal salvation and social salvation were interdependent. Dorrien describes Peabody’s view: “For Jesus there was no conflict between the spiritual life and the social good, for he conceived personal religion as the means to the end of social religion” (SEM, 27). Peabody, who is credited with launching social ethics and eliminating the chapel requirement at Harvard, argued hard against the wave of laissez-faire ideology and the more dangerous riptide of social Darwinism (SEM, 36), for such ideas simply justify the position of robber barons like J.P. Morgan, James, Fisk, and John D. Rockefeller at the expense of the public. Today’s robber barons of energy, finance, technology, and insurance are still arguing for a laissez-faire government and a “free market” economy. Peabody’s idea of social ethics called for a new order based on “traditional ethical and religious truths” (SEM, 35). 1 II. Socialist Kingdom of God: Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) Walter Rauschenbusch, like Peabody, was raised to believe that Christian hope is essentially personal and spiritual. The son of German Baptist immigrants, Rauschenbusch was raised in upstate New York and spent several summers with family in Germany. The gospel became real to him in parish ministry, while serving a working-class Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, and another congregation near gang-ruled Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Initially, Rauschenbusch would go door-to-door to meet people, seeking to “awaken in their hearts the love of Christ as the only sure cure for their love of self and sin” (SEM, 85). He was committed to hard work for God and the way of the cross: “to follow Jesus Christ in my personal life, and to live over again his life, and die over again his death” (SEM 86). He came to see the Christian life as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and a kingdom-building journey from sin to salvation. The church, he believed, existed to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. Rauschenbusch was driven to social ideas by the miserable conditions of people in his congregation. Many of them lived in crowded, run-down five-story tenements with over twenty families to a building. Having to lead funerals for children who died of malnutrition and disease broke his heart. He resisted advice to focus only on “saving souls.” To Rauschenbusch, if politics and economics caused people to suffer, then preaching the gospel meant dealing with politics and economics (SEM, 88). Rauschenbusch was tested by personal and family trials. His father, a prominent Baptist academic suddenly moved to Germany without his wife, and Walter cared for his mother in her devastation. In addition, Rauschenbusch was going deaf. Upon losing his hearing, he became shy and withdrawn. Yet he enjoyed a happy marriage and a band of like-minded friends (SEM, 87). In 1889, he became involved in the Society of Christian Socialists who aimed “to apply the ethical principles of Jesus Christ, so that our industrial relationships may be humanized, our economic system moralized, justice pervade legislation, and the State grown into a true commonwealth” (SEM, 89). Rauschenbusch cranked out numerous articles for the monthly socialist publication called For the Right, in which he promoted such reforms as an eight-hour workday, socialization of the railroads, municipal ownership of utilities, a city-owned underground transit system, the “single tax” on land, separation of church and state, government regulation of trusts and monopolies, ballot reform, and workplace safety (SEM, 89). In a move to improve his hearing, Rauschenbusch travelled with his sister to Germany, where he found the key theme of his life and theology. Dorrien describes this theme: “Because Jesus proclaimed and initiated the kingdom, the church was supposed to be a new kind of community that transformed the world by the power of Christ’s kingdom-bringing Spirit” (SEM, 90). In Rauschenbusch’s thinking, the kingdom of God is a social reality that pervades every aspect of life and it cannot be lived alone: You have to live it out with me, and with that brother sitting next to you. We together have to work it out. It is a matter of community life. The perfect community of men— that would be the kingdom of God! With God above them; with their brother next to 2 them—clasping hands in fraternity, doing the work of justice—that is the kingdom of God (SEM, 90). Rauschenbusch objected to the church’s indifference to the causes of suffering and injustice. The church was wrong to settle for anything less than God’s kingdom of healing and justice; on the other hand, the socialists were wrong to struggle for a kingdom with God left out (SEM, 92). For Rauschenbusch, God is ultimately responsible for the kingdom. He viewed Jesus as a firstcentury prophet of the kingdom of God, who shared in the hope of a “divine catastrophe” that would end Roman tyranny and raise Israel to new life. This newly ordered kingdom would be God’s creation—not the result of human progress (SEM, 95). My chief annoyance of liberals, and I am one of them, is that some liberal Christians seem not to have any use for God. This criticism clearly does not apply to Rauschenbusch, who insisted on the primacy of God in human affairs. Rauschenbusch did present a variation to the orthodox view of God, however. If the kingdom of God was a fully democratized society of cooperation, freedom, and equality, then God should also be viewed as a loving Creator, rather than despotic feudal lord. As Dorrien describes, the God of the heavenly monarchy would need vice-regents, popes, and kings to manage his kingdom, but the indwelling, democratic God lives and moves in the lives of human beings, and acts directly upon them. Thus, Rauschenbusch viewed God as kindling the intellect, giving energy to do what is right, sending dreams and longings for freedom and solidarity (SEM, 107). While this view may seem “unorthodox” to a Baptist, it seems orthodox enough to an Armenian. For example, the Wesleys, who retained such transcendent language as King, Lord, and Master, also utilized immanent language such as Friend of Sinners and Lamb of God. They never ignored the “condescension” of Christ’s incarnation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Rauschenbusch regretted that the church seemed to suppress the social aspects of the gospel, and he came to his political view of the kingdom of God from outside the church through his socialist associations (SEM, 87). In Christianity and Social Crisis, his “dangerous” book, Rauschenbusch viewed capitalism as the principle cause for the crisis of his times, and he imagined new possibilities if the kingdom ideals of Jesus could be put into practice: If production could be organized on a basis of cooperative fraternity; if distribution could at least be approximately be determined by justice; if all men could be conscious that their labor contributed to the welfare of all and that their personal well-being was dependent on the prosperity of the Commonwealth; if predatory business and parasitic wealth ceased and all men only lived by their labor; if the luxury of unearned wealth no longer made us feverish with covetousness and a simpler life became the fashion; if our time and strength were not used up either in getting a bare living or in amassing unusable wealth and we had more leisure for higher pursuits of the mind and the soul—then there might be a chance to live such a life of gentleness and brotherly kindness and tranquility of heart as Jesus desired for men. It may be that the cooperative Commonwealth would give us the first chance in history to live a really Christian life without retiring from the world, and would make the Sermon on the Mount a philosophy of life feasible for all who care to try (Christianity and Social Crisis, 341). 3 Rauschenbusch and the social gospelers gained influence among mainline Protestant denominations and took aim at the abuses of capitalism, favoring some form of economic democracy or socialism. For example, in 1907, Harry F. Ward organized the Methodist Federation for Social Service, and in 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted its first set of social principles: For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life. For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions. For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality. For the abolition of child labor. For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safe guard the physical and moral health of the community. For the suppression of the “sweating system.” For the gradual and reasonable reduction of hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life. For a release from employment one day in seven. For a living wage in every industry. For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised. For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills (SEM, 111). Having praised German socialism and reform in his Christianizing the Social Order (1912), soon Rauschenbusch realized that such examples became indefensible in light of Germany’s militarism and expansionism. The Great War (1914-1918) cost Rauschenbusch dearly. Many took his pacifism as unpatriotic and deferential to Germany. In truth, Rauschenbusch objected to the Great War and most wars because they were fought for nationalistic conquest and greedy exploitation, and not for creating democracy (American Revolution) or liberating oppressed people (American Civil War) (SEM, 104). “Don’t ask me to combine religion and the war spirit,” he said, “I don’t want to lose my religion; it’s all I’ve got” (SEM, 105). The Great War and the Great Depression caused many to lose faith in the optimistic march of progress. But these historic crises ratified the social gospelers’ critique of both militarism and capitalism. During the 1930s every mainline Protestant denomination adopted unequivocal statements opposing war, and a record number of clergy identified as “Socialist,” including 34 percent of Methodists (SEM, 121). III. Christian Realism: Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) Even as the social gospel gained influence in the mainline Protestant denomination, it also came under attack. The chief criticism of the Social Gospel is its idealistic sentimentality, and Reinhold Niebuhr became its chief critic. He traded the language of liberal idealism and optimistic progress for the orthodox-sounding language of sin, redemption, tragedy, and transcendence. Dorrien credits Niebuhr for turning the word “liberal” into a derogatory term (SEM, 226). Niebuhr set out to influence American public life from the perspective of a realistic 4 Christian ethic that viewed God’s powerful and righteous transcendence over humanity’s limited and sinful struggles. Reinhold and his younger brother Richard, also a theologian, grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, and like Rauschenbusch, their parents were German immigrants. Reinhold was graduated from Elmhurst College and attended Eden Theological Seminary -- Dorrien reports Niebuhr’s disdain for both schools (SEM, 227). Seeking a better divinity school, he transferred to Yale. He really wanted to attend Union Theological Seminary, but was academically unqualified. Ironically, Niebuhr was invited later to join the faculty at Union even without a doctorate. Unlike Rauschenbusch who felt divided loyalties during the Great War between Germany and America, Niebuhr took a strong pro-American stand, offering pastoral services to stateside troops. Whereas Rauschenbusch the pacifist felt some loyalty to his parent’s homeland, Niebuhr felt the need to prove his own Americanism, “I cannot bring myself to associate with the pacifists. Perhaps were I not of German blood I could” (SEM, 231). After the Great War, Niebuhr believed that American intervention could create a new world order based on democracy, free trade, and the League of Nations, but he came to see the Treaty of Versailles as fatally flawed by the vengeance of the Allies and the naiveté of its liberal architects (SEM, 232). While the Temperance movement was gaining strength by emphasizing moral purity, Niebuhr insisted that it was a distraction from the most important issue: economic justice. As a pastor in Detroit, Michigan, Niebuhr took aim at Henry Ford, whose image as a good employer, Niebuhr claimed, was based on self-deception and self-promotion. Ford claimed that his wages were so generous that there was no need for unemployment insurance, pensions, and disability compensation. Writing for the Christian Century, Niebuhr exposed Ford’s claim of paying fair wages as a fraud. Sarcastically, Niebuhr asked what civilized society would allow a mechanic (Ford) to determine the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people? (SEM, 234). It’s kind of like letting the oil companies write energy policy or insurance companies write health care reform. When Niebuhr joined the faculty at Union in 1928, he plunged himself into New York politics and joined the Socialist Party, which was gaining in acceptability. He complained that liberal Christianity was too soft to confront evil in the world. In his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society he ridiculed the moral idealism of liberalism and sought to end the call for building the kingdom of God. While individuals could occasionally act altruistically, he reasoned, groups could never act in the interest of others. He limited morality to the realm of individuals, not societies. He detested secular appeals to reason and religious appeals to love, calling both “stupid.” His alternative was a Christian version of Marxism: “Marxian socialism is a true enough interpretation of what the industrial worker feels about society and history to have become the accepted social and political philosophy of all self-conscious and politically intelligent industrial workers” (SEM, 237). He warned that capitalism was on a self-destruct course, since it needed ever-expanding markets in a world of limited markets: “Capitalism in short can exist only by 5 attempting to universalize itself but it can live healthily only as long as it fails to do so” (SEM, 246). Niebuhr believed that capitalism deserved to die, because it is unable to justly distribute the wealth created by modern technology. Niebuhr attacked liberal Christians for trusting the goodness of human nature too much and treating the reality of sin and evil too lightly. Evil is always a good that imagines itself to be better than it is, and sin is an existential part of the human condition, for which humans are responsible (SEM, 248). He rejected the “love perfectionism of Jesus” as an impossible ideal in a fallen world (SEM, 250). His harsh criticism evoked a challenge from liberals like John Haynes Holmes who questioned if Niebuhr really was a Christian. They lashed out at Niebuhr for his dogmatic temper, cynicism toward morals, and his pessimism about humanity (SEM, 249). A new generation was losing its faith that the world was getting better, and Niebuhr’s realism gained traction in light of high unemployment during the Depression and emergent fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Niebuhr was critical of optimistic liberals, but he was an idealistic socialist with high expectations. He suggested that a socialist revolution in America would be the only thing that could save Western civilization, and he was critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal for not going far enough (SEM, 253). These days “communism” and “socialism” get treated as being the same thing, but Niebuhr was a socialist who opposed communism. During the Cold War he compared communism to the threatening rise of Islam in the Middle Ages. He supported McCarthy’s quest to root out Communism in America and favored the execution of the Rosenbergs for stealing nuclear secrets. However, he never advocated that America should engage in anti-Communist military conflict (SEM, 263-4). He supported Johnson’s election on the promise that he would not escalate conflict in southeast Asia, but one year later Johnson poured troops into the region. The Vietnam conflict did not represent a real test of America’s containment policy, nor were America’s national security or economic interests enhanced by it. America’s foray into southeast Asia exposed the “illusion of American omnipotence.” The carnage sickened Niebuhr, and he objected to the use of chemical weapons, which had the effect of “saving” an unhappy nation by ruining it: “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation” (SEM, 269). Indeed, Niebuhr took sin and evil seriously, and Dorrien credits Niebuhr as “the major Christian ethicist of the twentieth century.” He saw the rules of justice as “applications of the law of love” mediated by the principles of freedom, equality, and order (or balance of power), and Niebuhr offered very little vision of what a good society looks like (SEM, 274-5). His theology was thin. He viewed the cross as the means of God’s judgment and mercy for human sin, and as the symbol of the ethic of the (unattainable) law of love. To Niebuhr the resurrection was a symbol “from our present existence to express concepts of a completion of life which transcends our present experience.” He held that bodily resurrection “can of course not be literally true, but neither is any other idea of fulfillment literally true” (SEM, 275). No wonder Billy Graham’s popularity outlasted Niebuhr. And no wonder prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen are popular. Niebuhr’s conviction that any idea of fulfillment is impossible (perhaps approximated) is a message that would leave most people unfulfilled. 6 Yet, Niebuhr’s influence can still be felt. President Obama, who called Niebuhr one his favorite philosophers, accepted his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with a speech that made me think immediately of Niebuhr. IV. Socializing Personalism: Walter Muelder (1907- 2004) Whereas Niebuhr’s anti-liberal Christian realism dominated American theological conversation for 30 years, one voice that stood steady on the ground of liberalism was Walter Muelder and the school of “Boston Personalism.” Whereas Rauschenbusch advocated a democratic version of the biblical kingdom of God, and Niebuhr sought to influence American public life according to Christian and socialistic principles of approximate justice, Muelder fused the philosophy of Boston Personalism with Christian social ethics. Boston Personalism is a philosophy based on the transcendent reality of personality. Its founder, Boston University professor Border Parker Bowne, held that that the soul is active and is the same as consciousness, and that self-consciousness is necessary for all thinking and the world of objects. As Dorrien explains, whereas “the reality of personal consciousness cannot be explained on impersonal grounds, everything can be accounted for by the reality of consciousness” (SEM, 306). By the time Muelder was a student at Boston University, he was a full-fledged social gospeler, personalist, pacifist, and socialist. Born near Decatur in Boody, Illinois, Muelder claimed to come to personalism and the social gospel by birth. His father, a German Methodist immigrant, prepared for ministry under Bowne and learned “a gospel he could preach without fear or favor and with compassion to his generation” (SEM, 308). But Muelder would become a third generation personalist, who insisted that personalism had been too individualistic. He developed an understanding of the social mind or “communitarian” dimension of personality: “the consciousness of objective spirit exists in individual minds, which participate in it and achieve awareness of each other thought it” (SEM, 310). In other words, the soul is both social experience and individual experience. Muelder’s philosophy undergirded his principled commitments to pacifism, democratic socialism, racial justice, the social gospel, and “the flourishing of personality.” For example, to Muelder, racial integration was about the rights of individuals and social groups to participate as equals in society and required accepting cultural differences. He called on Christians to practice integration in their “innermost fellowship” (SEM, 312). On the subject of economics, Muelder admired Rauschenbusch on cooperation, responsibility, and competition, especially how competition bred a fear that undermined kingdom values. The goal of preachers was to preach salvation to redeem individuals and the social order. Muelder promoted a reasonable, ethical politics of the common good that took seriously the infinite value of personality (SEM, 313). He spoke of the “responsible state” which was accountable to God and to the people, and which encouraged people to use the state and other agencies to advance social responsibility (SEM, 315). 7 Whereas Muelder admired Rauschenbusch, he had a mixed view of Niebuhr. “I appreciated his Marxism and his realistic appraisal of communism, but I dislike his failure to do his philosophical homework as he put forward a Neo-Augustinian view of persons, politics, and power” (SEM, 320). Dorrien notes that whereas Muelder was consistently a pacifist, Niebuhr was the kind of ethicist who only opposed war between wars. Muelder also critiqued Niebuhr for beginning with the isolated will of the individual, which resulted in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Nieburh’s reality was not the total picture of reality, according to Muelder, because it fixated on the individual. Muelder saved his greater criticism for the Chicago School of naturalism. As you might imagine, physical nature cannot be all there is to a personalist like Muelder who believes that reality is basically spiritual and experienced by the soul. The Chicago School’s natural science, social behavioralism, and nontheistic social idealism were insufficient tools to explain religious experience, which is best understood, Muelder argued, in terms of personality and value (SEM, 321). Walter Muelder and his “communitarian” version of Boston Personalism influenced numerous social ethicists, including Paul Deats, Phil Wogaman, Alan Geyer, Tex Sample, Carol Robb, and Rufus Burrow. Perhaps Boston Personalism’s greatest contribution is, in Dorrien’s words, “in giving Martin Luther King, Jr. to the world” (SEM, 323). In closing I would declare Dorrien’s SEM to be a captivating chronicle of modern American history and an array of interesting figures who have contributed to the American tradition of social ethics. In another paper, I might explore the influence of German social ethics on American social ethics, or the many connections of social ethics to Chicago, from Graham Taylor, Jane Addams, and Reverdy Ransom to Gibson Winter. Or I could explore the fact that many early social ethicists had access to political influence, or why democratic socialism and economic democracy have been demonized in America. These and many other questions are stimulated by SEM, which has awakened my appreciation of the history of social ethics and strengthened my Christian convictions about the goal of an ethical society. 8