Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought

Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought

Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought

Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought

Synopsis

Over the course of the twentieth century, liberal Christian intellectuals--both Protestant and Catholic--created a body of theological reflection on the rise and triumph of corporate capitalism. Unlike their secular counterparts on the left, they drew on religion to make sense of the emerging world of professional expertise, industrial technology, and therapeutic selfhood. Christian Critics explores their social thought and cultural criticism and examines the sometimes unexpected ways that these Christian leaders perceived the nation and its people.

Offering portraits of a diverse selection of critics--including Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Michael Novak, Mary Daly, and Garry Wills--Eugene McCarraher argues that together they left a contradictory legacy. While all supported movements for the rights of labor, racial minorities, and women, some endorsed the military-industrial order that established the professional-managerial class as a dominant national force, while others favored a decentralized political economy of worker self-management. At the same time, McCarraher recasts the debate over the "therapeutic ethic" by tracing a shift, not from religion to therapy, but from religious to secular conceptions of selfhood. His book returns theology to its crucial place in the history of twentieth-century American intellectual life and suggests its importance to the future of the American Left.

Excerpt

“Another great change is at hand,” wrote the architect and social critic Ralph Adams Cram near the end of World War I. Before the war, he recalled, the Western middle classes had ridden on the “chariot wheels of the new Juggernaut” of industrial capitalism. Confident of their power and merit, they had mangled the virtues of Christianity in the spokes of accumulation, national pride, and imperial grandeur. But now the Juggernaut had crashed, and Cram, pointing to the “signs and wonders” that portended a turning of the times, heralded the end of secular, capitalist modernity. If some saw the times as pregnant with secular possibilities—renewed commitment to reason and science and the fledgling socialist experiment in the Soviet Union—Cram perceived that within the secularism of modernity there lay “no powers of regeneration,” and he insisted that only Christianity could identify and transform the prospects of the future. the wellsprings of renewal in modern civilization lay in whatever remained of Christianity: that “spirit of real communism” (one very different, Cram noted, from “the bastard thing that now bears the name”) that fostered a “brilliant development of personality.” Men and women would produce “a new prophet, son of Saint Benedict”—garbed, he cautioned, “in a new habit” and beholden to “an amended rule”—and release modernity from secular captivity, breaking shackles with Christ to make “all things new.”

The desire to make all things new compelled a number of Christian intellectuals to create a body of theological reflection on capitalist modernity in the United States. For many liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics, theology became neither a hoary liberal art nor a recondite conviction, but rather a mode of critical attention to political economy . . .

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