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In Defense of American Exceptionalism and Christian Social Ethics (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 24, 2011: Gary Dorrien's work in Christian social ethics deserves to be better known than it is, because his work can give us a better sense of American exceptionalism than we receive in other formulations of American exceptionalism, whether those other formulations are by President Barack Obama or by aspiring Republican presidential candidates.

My own sense of American exceptionalism is that American liberal culture (i.e., political liberalism in our experiment with American democracy, and economic liberalism in our capitalist economic system) is indeed imperfect, but nevertheless is the most adequate model of culture for all other peoples of the world today to aspire to emulate, inasmuch as they can. I hasten to say that I am not an advocate of unbound capitalism. I do not favor deregulation. I believe that capitalism should be bound by government regulations. I do not view our American government as a necessarily evil, as the title of Garry Wills' book A NECESSARY EVIL: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN DISTRUST OF GOVERNMENT (1999) suggests. Government is a necessary good. We need government to work for and protect the common good. But our elected officials are fallible, as we ourselves are.

Ah, but what is the common good in any given set of circumstances? This is the central question in Christian social ethics. Even though I do not share Gary Dorrien's Christian faith (I am a theistic humanist, as distinct from a secular humanist), I admire his essays in this collection about progressive Christian social ethics. In ECONOMY, DIFFERENCE, EMPIRE: SOCIAL ETHICS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE (2010), Gary Dorrien has reprinted a selection of his previously published writings. In some cases, he has adapted parts of two previously published works to create a new composite essay for this collection. This collection could be titled A GARY DORRIEN READER.

Gary Dorrien is the author of more than a dozen books, including his monumental three-volume study titled THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LIBERAL THEOLOGY (2001, 2003, 2006) and SOCIAL ETHICS IN THE MAKING: INTERPRETING AN AMERICAN TRADITION (2008).

Gary Dorrien is now the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Not surprisingly, Niebuhr's thought is prominent in this collection. Because President Obama claims to have been influenced by Niebuhr's thought, Gary Dorrien's new collection can help us better understand where President Obama is coming from, as they say. But Gary Dorrien's chapter about Obama is disappointing, to say the least. For a fuller discussion of Obama, the interested readers should see James T. Kloppenberg's book READING OBAMA: DREAMS, HOPE, AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (2011).

The title and subtitle of Gary Dorrien's collection call attention to the four groupings of essays in the collection: (1) the tradition of progressive Christian social ethics within which Gary Dorrien works, (2) economic democracy and social justice, (3) neoconservatives and U.S. empire, and (4) race and gender social justice.

Gary Dorrien's new collection is a timely antidote to the recent revival of Ayn Rand's stupid ideas glorifying being self-centered and selfish, which has been spurred on recently by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who claims to be a Roman Catholic, and others, some of whom claim to be Christians. Gary Dorrien's new collection can serve as a timely antidote to the Ayn Rand revival by reminding us about social justice and the need to be other-regarding, not just self-regarding (as Ayn Rand stresses).

Gary Dorrien tells us where he himself is coming from: "I side with the right order tradition in justice theory, which is more relational and solidaristic than the justice-as-rights views, but I share the social gospel conviction that the way beyond liberalism is through it, taking as foundational the rights of individuals to freedom of speech, association, preference, and the like, and the liberal emphasis on equality of opportunity" (p. xii).

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Let me dwell on the idea that "the way beyond liberalism is through it." In plain English, we should not discard liberalism, but embrace liberalism and advance liberalism and improve it. I like this thought and expression. Generally speaking, liberalism refers to liberal democracy as exemplified by American democracy and liberal economy as exemplified by American capitalism. In short, the way to the future for the United States is through liberalism, not through any alternatives to liberalism, regardless of how appealing those alternatives may seem to be.

In principle, American democracy is not unbound or unregulated democracy. For example, the American experiment in democratic government is different from the experiment in participatory democratic government in ancient Athens; the American experiment involves elected representatives, so it is not an experiment in participatory democracy. Moreover, American democracy is regulated by laws, which of course can be changed from time to time. But more importantly, the overall system of American democratic governance is a carefully constructed system of checks and balances.

Regarding the liberal economic order, we Americans have learned the hard way that unbound capitalism can lead to devastating results. So we should pursue government regulation of the capitalist economic system to protect the common good. To safeguard and protect the common good, we should avoid the kind of deregulation often espoused by Republicans.

The Republican noise machine excels in denouncing so many things -- so-called liberals (but what about libertarians -- aren't they liberals?), liberalism (e.g., democracy and capitalism?), socialism, communism, Marxism, Social Security, the welfare safety net, affirmative action, legalized abortion in the first trimester, gay marriage, tax increases for the rich, health care, etc. The omni-directional denunciations of the Republican noise machine remind me of the omni-directional denunciations of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) in "The Syllabus of Errors" (1864). In any event, whatever Republicans stand for, as distinct from all the stuff they stand against, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives stand with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Ayn Rand in favor of self-centeredness and selfishness.

Gary Dorrien sees Albert Ritschl (1822-1889) as establishing the framework out of which the social gospel movement developed. Dorrien says that "the trademark liberal Ritschlian school idea of Christianity [was] as an ellipse with two centers: eternal life as the goal of individual existence and the kingdom of God as the goal of humanity" (p. 15). Got that? The goal of humanity on this earth, not in the afterlife, is the kingdom of God on this earth, inasmuch as this is possible on this earth. Because this is a goal that we Americans can only hope to approximate as we work toward it, I would argue that it is therefore not an utopian goal, because it is not an unrealistic goal for us to strive for, provided that we understand that we will be able only to approximate it.

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In the 1950s, Eric Voegelin quipped, "Don't immantize the eschaton." (The eschaton refers to the end-time, the end of the world as we know it.) William F. Buckley, Jr., helped make this quip popular. But the quip is misleading.

Christian theology has for centuries claimed that the monotheistic God is both transcendent and immanent. The inbreaking of what is referred to as the kingdom of God is an example of how God is immanent. Therefore, the inbreaking of God's kingdom in individual persons in effect immantizes the eschaton.

Moreover, the inbreaking of God's kingdom is best understood as a personal experience in one's consciousness. This kind of personal experience breaks down the kind of self-centeredness and selfishness that Ayn Rand and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin glorify. But the inbreaking of God's kingdom is not limited to Christians or even to persons of explicit religious faith. The inbreaking of God's kingdom is best understood as an experience that is open to all of human persons and as an experience that has always been open to all human persons.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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