The Christian social ethics project hits a wall

What is needed in America today goes far beyond public-policy tinkering.

Christian leader Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918.) Public domain.

For at least one hundred years, the primary project of Christian ethics in America has been American public reform.

Today, that project has hit a wall named Donald Trump. But it was already under serious question.

Beginning with early 20th century Social Gospel Christianity, and exemplified most strongly in the Baptist theologian/activist Walter Rauschenbusch, Christian ethics (especially Protestant ethics) turned its considerable energies to addressing major social problems in America. The biggest problem at the time was urban industrial capitalism, which was producing awesome products and making bushels of money but creating misery for a quickly growing urban-industrial working class.

Rauschenbusch and his cohort turned the Christian Gospel, Christian motives, and Christian principles to the task of softening the hard hearts of laissez-faire capitalists, changing business practices, improving urban living conditions, and standing up especially for the working class and the poor. The Social Gospel helped fuel progressive social reform from the era of the two Roosevelts well into the 1960s. One could even say that progressive, reformist Social Christianity has been the most enduring and visible strand of Christian witness in America for one hundred years. It has contributed to various social reforms and in many ways dominated the field of Christian ethics here.

It is easier now to see the assumptions that fueled reformist Christian social ethics. They included a way of reading the Bible, which told a story of a dawning kingdom of God, which focused on the Bible’s social justice aspects, which understood Jesus as a prophet/Messiah with a this-worldly agenda, and which saw the church as an advocate for progressive social change and policy reform. All of this operated within the framework of American liberal democracy and responded especially to the issues created by unfettered capitalism.

The discipline of Christian ethics has produced its own internal critics of this reformist Christian ethics, to the left and the right and from every other direction one could imagine.

Liberation theologians and ethicists critiqued the reformism as well as the invisibility of the concerns and voices of people of color.

Politically conservative ethicists embraced a Christian social-change agenda, but the change they sought turned out to be from the conservative end of the spectrum, on issues like abortion.

Church-focused ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas argued that the church should focus on its own discipleship rather than on America, that this is the position that has more coherence with the historic Christian approach to ethics.

Today all of these and other paradigms for Christian ethics jostle with one another in the marketplace of ideas.

And meanwhile, the American electorate has given us Donald Trump as our nation’s 45th president.

Progressive social-reformist Christian ethics hits a wall here. With the possible exception of aspects of the populist economic agenda that he ran on, there is almost nothing that now-President Trump has proposed that is not in direct contradiction to the progressive Christian social ethics agenda. Where do progressive Christian ethicists even begin to focus their attention? Climate? Immigration? Public education? Gender? Health care? Military buildup? Dakota Pipeline? Race?

But it’s not just the policy issues. Progressive American Christian social ethics always operated within the framework of a political system that they believed in, a culture in which there were at least a few agreed facts and even values, and an electoral system that produced leaders that were believable as presidents and generally attained the office without chicanery. And so they (we) would write our earnest articles and make our earnest treks to Washington within a system that was basically working and in which we wanted to participate to “make a difference.”

This situation is more apocalyptic. What is needed in America today goes far beyond what a bit of public-policy tinkering might be able to manage. Both our political system and our culture feel broken, and in this round have produced a president, and a presidency, seemingly broken from (before) the beginning. We are limping along, badly wounded. Yet another white paper on climate change hardly seems like the answer. But no one exactly knows what the answer is.

And so the liberationists will continue to speak for those most disempowered.

And the liberals will continue to focus on their reformist policy agendas.

And the Hauerwasians will continue to call the church to be a faithful church.

And the Democrats will hope for evidence of impeachable offenses.

And the evidences of a dawning reign of God will seem pretty faint.

And many of us will hold our breath, and pray for a better tomorrow.

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