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Public Theology: Public Theology and Social Democracy
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Public Theology and Social Democracy
The social democratic tradition is important for public theology today. Religion in politics globally and in the United States continues to have influence. Michael Harrington had some advice on this.

By Ed Knudson

The social democratic tradition in Germany and the Nordic countries is not known for its support of religion in any form, indeed, quite the opposite. The church in those countries in large part did not side with workers but with business owners as industrial development became widespread in the 19th century. That may be one reason, indeed, that so much of Europe does not participate actively in religious life. But there are reasons why it is necessary now to recken with the role of religion in politics and how it may help or hinder the goal of social democracy in the United States. Any serious public theology must address these matters.

One of the foremost leaders in the social democratic movement in the United States was Michael Harrington who wrote in The Politics at God's Funeral:
"My practical point is that men and women of faith and anti-faith should, in the secular realm at least, stop fighting one another and begin to work together to introduce moral dimensions into economic and social debate and decision."
Since that was written in 1983 the opposite has happened until very recently. There has been increasing polarization between the faith and anti-faith communities while religious conservatives have again and again been winning elections for Republicans.

But the fact is that the primary Protestant denominations, Roman Catholics, and Jewish reigious groups all share many of the goals of social democracy with its emphasis on economic justice. At this website we want to encourage the formation of mutual understandings and coalitions among perhaps historically antagonist groups to further the benefits of social democracy for all.

In fact, this must be done in order to move forward a social democratic agenda in the United States right now. It won't happen by accident. Many, many people need to become more active in real politics. The election of Barack Obama has brought dramatic change to the whole context of politics in this country. But he will only be able to accomplish his goals, which can be closely linked to social democratic values, if there continues to be strong political organizing in local communities. The "primary Protestants" can have a big role in such organizing if they would seize the opportunity.

Here are some of the factors involved in a discussion of religion and social democracy which we will be exploring at this website:
  • With the dramatic changes of the last years, the end of Communism and the Cold War, the rise of Islam and Iran, there is new interest in religion among scholars and politicians, such as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
  • Some of the most interesting retrievals of events and figures in religious history are being made by thinkers in continental philosophy, eastern Europe as well as in the United States, such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Georgio Agamben.
  • Politics cannot ignore religion because it has played a major role in the history of western civilization and the United States. The habits of thought, even of non-religious persons, have been influenced by the categories and practices of religion. In various ways it has also been a part of the history of social democratic practical politics.
  • Religion does play a major not always helpful role in both national and global politics. It is necessary today to be both highly critical of some forms of religious faith, such as the religious nationalism of the Christian right-wing in the United States, as well as to formulate new understandings of the role of "spirit" in a free society, not in a way that promotes false universalisms but which opens the world to new possibilities.
  • During the modern era religion was relegated to private life, separated from influence in the public sphere. Many people today take this as common sense. But one does not need to promote the end of the separation of church and state to be concerned with the role of religion in public life. It may well be true that social democracy cannot come to the United States in a more complete form unless it is supported by large numbers of people who take religion seriously. Exactly what this means will be part of the subject matter for discussion at this website.
  • One of the theological orientations important to a social democratic project is liberation theology which has emerged from the critical prophetic tradition, especially Latin America, which has very strong biblical roots, includes economic structures within its religious analysis, and can be used also to interpret the central categories of Reformation theology. Martin Luther in the 16th century attacked what had become an oppressive religious institutional regime which, Luther believed, terrorized the consciences of believers. It can be argued that modern corporate structures do the same because of their nearly exclusive power over the major media.
  • Various forms of liberation theology now strongly influence large numbers of those in the mainline denominations and seminary students. Some of the most interesting and exciting theological work has been done by feminist scholars, for example, and biblical scholars are demonstrating the degree to which both Jesus and Paul understood themselves over-against the political dominance of the Roman empire.
The "ecumenical church" made up of the mainline denominations and the National and World Council of Churches have been in various ways addressing all of these factors which affect the relation of religion and democracy. They are now and potentially can be even greater allies of social democracy with its emphasis on justice, peace, and a sustainable future. The same concerns are shared today by many Roman Catholics and members of Jewish religious communities. There are many ways these and other faith traditions can make significant contributions to an understanding social democracy.

Religion, if it is to be involved in public affairs in a democracy, must be "civil." One reason the constitution of the United States does not include any faith declaration is because the founders wanted to avoid the violence caused by religious wars following the Reformation period. Any particular faith which demands that its specific views be adopted and promulgated using the power of the state must be understood as uncivil and not worthy to be listened to within the public context of a liberal democracy.

At the same time, religious knowledge rooted in deep historical perspectives can provide meanings and wisdom not otherwise available in public life. Unfortunately, the often irrational and hysterical rantings of so much of the religious right has made many people hesitant to consider the contribution of any form of religion.

If there is one book I recommend for those not familiar with theological discussion and politics it is the one mentioned above, Michael Harrington's 1983 book called The Politics at God's Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis and Western Civilization where he calls for cooperative political action between people of faith and those on the left who have rejected any religious faith.

One of the most important Protestant American theologians of the last century was Reihold Niebuhr. His work was vastly influential and not only within religious communities. An article on his Christian Realism by Robin Levin is highly recommended.

Christian faith has been the source of substantial criticism of western liberal culture as manifested in the capitalist order. Reformation leaders were all concerned with and critical of the early capitalism developing in the 16th century. The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in his "Attack on Christendom," his last book which in a sense summarizes his many previous books, very severely criticizes a church which accomodates itself to culture, a state church, or the kind of situation which seems the goal of the religious right, where the church dictates through the state. The so-called neoconservatives, who want religion to play the social function of unifying the nation, forget that we have seen that in previous centuries, it was called Christendom, and it was rightly criticized by people like Kierkegaard. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall is one who is not letting the church forget that lesson.

The phrase "civil religion" is used by some to promote the idea of a generalized patriotic religious nationalism. We reject that use of the phrase and that idea. The person who made the phrase famous, sociologist Robert N. Bellah, is also hesitant about that concept. He writes in 1980 in his book Varieties of Civil Religion:
Notions that America is God's country, and that American power in the world is identitical with morality and God's will, have not died even today. Fortunately, these ideas never shaped the normative documents of the American civil religion, nor have they characterized its greatest heroes - men like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King - but they have formed an important tradition of interpretation, one carried by nationalistic clergymen more often than by jingoistic politicians. The best antidote to this tendency toward archaic regression is the critical tradition that has characterized American political life from its beginning. This critical tradition has been expressed in what Martin Marty called a public theology and what Walter Lippmann called a public philosophy. A strong public theology opposed our more unjust wars, especially the Mexican-American, Spanish-American, and Vietnamese wars, demanded racial and social justice, and insisted on the fulfillment of our democratic promise in our economic as well as our political life." (from the Introduction, page xiii)
Since Bellah wrote those words we have seen the growth of the religious right which is the type of Christianity most familiar to the American people through its actual promotion in corporate media. This website is highly critical of the religious right with its "Revivalist Theology" and seeks to publish materials to counter its influence in the world today.

It needs to be quickly mentioned that the two most significant theologians of the 20th century both promoted social democracy, Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. Tillich's book called The Socialist Decision is a profound work written from the experience with Hitler's Germany. The phrase National Socialism, by the way, from which the term Nazi is derived, is a misnomer. Hitler jailed socialists and labor union leaders and leaders of the Social Democratic Party at the time. His regime is better known as fascism, which is state control through business corporations. Some Protestant theologians in Germany, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, did lead resistance against the Nazi regime. That period of history is crucial for anyone who seriously wants to reflect on religion and society, including the danger of any government which adopts a particular religious expression to try to control the hearts and minds of the people as neoconservaties have been trying to do for some time now.

I myself have been influenced by a book by the philosopher John Rawls called Political Liberalism which suggests that classic liberal governments are not designed to be able to answer questions having to do with comprehensive religious meanings. To ask such governments to do so is to ask them to do more than they are designed to do. At the same time, human beings cannot live without "meanings" about life as a whole. Such meanings, we suggest here, come from those many religious and cultural communities which are able to participate fully in a "free society" which does not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Government should not legislate on behalf of any of these communities, but make possible the conditions where all of them can be free. Exactly how that can be done will be the topic of some of the activities at this website.


The above article has become one of the most sucinct statements of the perspective presented at this website. So I would like to add a couple items which were not adequately covered or have become more important to me since this was written.

I believe the major mainline denominations known as Protestants need to begin to seriously come together institutionally in order to be able to speak clearly into the public context of today, to seriously engage in public discourse. In fact, failure to do this means the continued decline of these church bodies. This will reinvigorate local preaching and organizing in congregations, it will create a national public consciousness of Protestants helpful to local pastors and congregation members. The primary Protestants have been in their various institutional expressions highly critical of both government and business practices from a perspective of peace and justice, and for just this reason they have been marginalized by the powers that be, including the corporate media.

We need to recognize the church faces now a time of radical re-orientation concerning the basic identity and theology of Protestantism. Much exciting and invigorating theological research and writing has been taking place in the past years, but rarely does it get to the local level. We cannot rely on seminaries for dissemination of new outlooks, time lags are too great, pastors can no longer rely on what they learned in seminary to define theological content for their entire lives. New information technologies provide for on-going networks of communication and learning but these require adequate institutional support over time. So the national bodies must establish on-going learning networks and this should be done within the context of a new "Protestantism". Five hundred years after the Reformation we now face a major challenge for the future of Protestanism. The Protestant faith built this country, now we must accept responsibility for what is happening and how to imagine the future. Critical to this theological study is to interpret the reality of recent history in the context of historic Reformation faith. Pastors must have something to say that makes sense to real people struggling to live faithfully in an extremely confusing and complex world of competing world views and economic and political forces.

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Date Added: 4/10/2010 Date Revised: 12/17/2011 7:25:41 PM

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