Commonwealth Economics: Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem

By Dorrien, Gary | Tikkun, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Commonwealth Economics: Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem


Dorrien, Gary, Tikkun


For more than a century, Christian theologians have dreamed of a transformed economic order based on democratic empowerment and the common good. A century ago the Social Gospel movement reverberated with calls for economic democracy. In the 1930s, after global capitalism crashed spectacularly, theologians stressed the necessity of finding an alternative to capitalist boom and bust. In the 1970s, the rise of liberation theology resurrected the dream of a transformed economic order.

But the dream failed, and today capitalism prevails in more global and predatory forms than ever. Today the idea of a fundamental alternative seems quaint at best, even though global capitalism has crashed again. The idea of a systemic alternative has lost its coherence in a world of megabyte monies zipping across the planet at the speed oflight, de-linked from real production. There is no major movement to replace the predatory impulses of capitalism. There is only the necessity of creating one, recognized by thousands of disparate organizations and communities. For the very problems that gave rise to socialist movements still exist, still matter, and persist among new problems threatening the survival of the planet.

Almost every important theological movement of the past century called for a different future, especially liberal theology, the Social Gospel, Barthian neo-orthodoxy, Catholic social teaching, early Niebuhrian realism, ecumenical social ethics, liberation theology, progressive evangelicalism, and radical orthodoxy. The Social Gospel expounded a vision of decentralized economic democracy or, sometimes, democratic socialism. The Barthian movement was explicitly socialist, though it usually tried to keep theology and politics in different compartments. The papal encyclical RerumNovarum (1891) introduced the idea of a "solidarist" third way between capitalism and socialism in Catholic social teaching, which was expounded explicitly in Quadragesimo Anno (1941). For decades the ecumenical movement kept alive theogy helped to push the World Council of Churches further to the left on political economy. Liberation theology advocated a revolutionary Marxist or, sometimes, democratic socialist vision of liberation from structures of oppression and dependency. More recently the "Radical Orthodoxy" group associated with John Milbank has combined socialist politics with classical high-church theology. Twentieth-century theologians and social ethicists repeatedly dreamed of an economy based on human need and the common good.

In every case, the social mission of Christianity had something to do with replacing capitalist selfishness and inequality with something better. Virtually all of the Progressive-Era Social Gospelers spoke an optimistic language of progress and social evolution, even if they were radical socialists. The more radical Gospelers couched their views in third-way terms that kept their politics from sounding scary. Reform-oriented progressives such as Washington Gladden, Francis G. Peabody, Shailer Mathews, and Catholic ethicist John A Ryan favored a third way between capitalism and socialism, advocating cooperatives and guilds, while radicals such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry F. Ward struggled to make Christian socialism not seem dangerous.

The Great Depression yielded a sterner kind of Christian radicalism that spurned third ways, speaking a binary language of revolution versus barbarism. There was no third way between state socialism and reaction; for Reinhold Niebuhr and his followers, economic democracy was serious only if it stood for a revolutionary state control of the economy. In the name of realism and relevance, the Niebuhrians of the 1930s and other radical socialists propounded a host of bad ideas, rejecting markets and production for profit, claiming that state planners could replicate the pricing decisions of markets, and equating socialization with nationalization.

On these issues Rauschenbusch ended up looking better than the radicals that panned him for being too idealistic. …

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