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3 for the Price of 1!: Christian Realism as God’s Totalitarianism

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The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) is really three books rolled into one, with three separate but overlapping arguments. Because of this, it can be hard to follow the different strands. I thought the most helpful way to introduce my book to readers would be to unpack each of the arguments. Before I begin, though, let me define briefly my subjects, the “old ecumenical Protestant left.” Like the old left it was affiliated with, the old Protestant left has often been reduced to a few of its leaders, namely Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich; the community orientation of the movement has thereby been lost. While I, too, many years ago set out to write about Niebuhr, I quickly discovered that he was just one among many left-leaning Protestant writers and organizers who came to prominence in the interwar years. Subsequently, my book looks at all the people who created “Christian Realist” political theology. Christian Realism constituted the core of the ecumenical American Protestant left. Building on Heather Warren’s work, Theologians of a New World Order (Oxford 1997), I show how Christian Realists’ primary concern was joining with British and other world churchpersons to build an intra-Protestant (“ecumenical”) world church as a political as well as pastoral endeavor—culminating in the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC)in 1948. Now, on to the three arguments:

First, I argue that Christian Realists championed “participatory democracy” throughout their lives. That catchphrase was coined by communitarian college student radicals in the 1960s. However, historians have located its origins among Progressive-era reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey who opposed the growing “bigness” (William James) of American life. Put simply, their pragmatist equation of truth-seeking with consensus-building translated into an emphasis on popular participation in public deliberations concerning local, state, national, and even world problems. Through the Theological Discussion Group formed in 1933, the Realists instituted and promoted the participatory democratic principles they had acquired from religious educators steeped in Dewey. Granted, broad civic engagement became increasingly less of a focus for Niebuhr, but it remained strong for his associates in the ecumenical movement. They critiqued the New Deal and Cold War liberal state from a participatory democratic standpoint. The WCC’s advocacy for a “Responsible Society” bound American, British, and nonwestern church leaders behind strengthening “participation” in public life and checking the “trend toward bigness.” The old ecumenical Protestant left thus testified to the potency of the participatory democratic tradition while also serving as a bridge between the Progressives and the New Left.

Second, I argue that Christian Realists pictured Protestant ecumenism as a countertotalitarian affair. The Realists did not start the ecumenical movement. Nor did they begin the “Catholicization” of mainline churches that was the heretofore hidden, untold revolution underway throughout post-World War I mainline churches. Rather, Realists invested in the geopolitical potential of both tendencies. Here, again, Niebuhr took a back seat to his colleagues who did the actual heavy lifting of ecumenism out of its piecemeal infancy and into the WCC. The rapidity of ecumenical development during the 1930s and 1940s was the result of the threats church leaders across the world felt from the spread of totalitarian forms of nationalism. The embrace of “high-church” strategies by traditionally iconoclastic, low-church liberal American evangelicals—what some Realists at the time called “Evangelical Catholicism”—was intended to reunite laypersons in the absence of infallible authority. Imagining the WCC as a “higher form of collectivism,” ecumenical leaders believed that their transnational community-in-formation would withstand and furthermore witness against the triple entente of secularism, capitalism, and totalitarianism. Liberal missionary E. Stanley Jones adopted the phrase “God’s Totalitarianism” to characterize ecumenical Protestant countertotalitarianism. It was not without its weaknesses, and it was eventually divorced from its roots in defending Western “Christian civilization” following World War II. Nevertheless, it did speak to liberal evangelicals’ ongoing quest for a realistic and yet holistic social gospel.

Finally, I argue that Christian Realists reflected the conservativism within twentieth-century liberalism. Scholars are generally aware of the seachange in meaning of the words “conservative” and “liberal” since the 1930s. What generally passes for conservativism today is largely nostalgia for the classical liberalism of a Locke, Smith, and Mills (with dashes of “family values” and “corporate populism” thrown in for good measure). What then of strong-state liberalism? Could the suspected Roosevelt-Johnson-Obama trinity have more in common with Burke than Marx—or represent the reconciliation of the two? My primary concern here is explicating the conservativism of the old ecumenical Protestant left, not in redefining American liberalism in its entirety. Nor do I enter into the tired debate over Niebuhr’s status as a “neoconservative.” Rather, I’m most interested in how Niebuhr and ecumenists at home and abroad 1) understood their mission as a literally conservative one; 2) how they intersected with traditionalist conservatives like Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet; and 3) how their “adaptive traditionalism” differed from the modernism of fundamentalists and new evangelicals. What Viereck termed “conservative socialism” effectively captured the evolving aim of ecumenical Protestantism.

To sum up: The old ecumenical Protestant left sought to deepen and defend real democracy in response to growing concentrations of irresponsible power. They moved the social gospel backward in rediscovery of Western religious and cultural traditions that members decided were essential to good global governance as well as justice for the dispossessed. The Right of the Protestant Left thus offers a new perspective on Christian Realism, on the politics of ecumenism, and on the nature and relevance of the mainline churches who continue to make manifest Evangelical Catholicism. What began as a simple effort to broaden my academic and personal horizons has culminated in a complex and, at times, counterintuitive re-imagining of public theological boundaries.

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