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Public Theology: History of Social Thinking of the Church
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History of Social Thinking of the Church
Gary Dorrien's book, Soul in Society, is recommended, especially for its criticism of neoconservatives.

By Ed Knudson

I woke up the day after the 2002 mid-term elections to hear that Walter Mondale had lost the election for Senate in Minnesota. It made me sad. When I lived in Minnesota in the early 1970's I had been involved in practical politics and had come to know Mondale. He is a most decent and thoughtful man.

When I had heard of Paul Wellstone's tragic airplane crash I immediately wondered if Mondale would be asked to run in his place and was happy that he was asked to do so.

His loss of the election made me wonder what has happened to politics in this country. Who knows exactly what was going in the minds and hearts of Minnesota voters? What do the words "liberal" and "conservative" really mean today? What is the role of Christian faith in guiding decisions of people of faith as they go into the voting booth?

I sat down and spent the day reading a book called Soul and Society: The Making and Remaking of Social Christianity by Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal priest and Associate Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College, Michigan. I had begun the book a while back and now decided to finish it as a way to ground myself again in what the church has been teaching about social and political involvement.

It is an excellent book. It focuses on Reinhold Niebuhr as a central figure in social Christianity. But the most helpful part of the book for me at this time was the discussion of the role of those who refer to themselves as "neoconservatives". These are thinkers who had been committed to the social mission of the church at one time but who came to reject concern for peace, for social and economic justice, in favor of "realistic" acceptance of the role corporate capitalism in society and aggresive promotion of military power for the United States. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, Robert Benne are examples of this perspective. Their writings over the years have given intellectual support to conservative political movements in this country. They have become apologists as well for the religious right and their thought now influences foreign policy in the Bush administration.

Dorrien criticizes the neoconservatives: "In the name of defending traditional cultural values, they routinely condemn educators and clergy for subverting American culture while ignoring the far more influential and subversive impact that commercial society makes by turning labor and nature into commodities."

I would go further and also say that it should be a matter of great concern to the church that a group of persons purporting to speak out of Christian faith are institutionally located within agencies funded by the very corporate interests which they do not criticize. Michael Novak, for example, receives his salary from the American Enterprise Institute.

I think it is necessary for those interested in public theology to take the time to read books like Dorrien's, to gain a sense of the history of the church's social thinking. At any rate, he provides a much better and more complete understanding of options for public theology than the neoconservatives.

The influence of neoconservatives and their less thoughtful but politically involved allies in the religious right has skewed the political culture in ways harmful to the future of peace and justice in this country and the world, as even demonstrated in the loss of Walter Mondale in Minnesota. Without them and the religious right George W. Bush would not be president, we would not be talking about war with Iraq. Corporate interests, supported by the neoconservatives, are now so dominant over the media that reasoned policy options are not presented or discussed realistically. Neoconservatives have turned their back on one of the most important ingredients of any democracy, reasoned public discourse; they support a conservativism that has become absolute, that attacks anyone or any idea with which it disagrees. Niebuhrian realism means that we do, indeed, have to look at the world as it is; that does not mean, however, that we have to accept it as how it should be.

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Date Added: 11/7/2002 Date Revised: 11/7/2002

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