The Right of the Protestant Left: God's Totalitarianism
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
295 pp., 54.99
God's Totalitarians were an audacious bunch. As World War II was wrecking any promise the Great War had left standing, one of them dared to posit that "To believe as a Christian is to believe in the possibility of a Christian world." Further, he insisted that "By its nature, Christianity cannot be content with a niche granted it for the sake of its humanizing influence or its venerable age. It is either the driving passion of our lives and the heart of the world or it is nothing." Another, speaking at the same moment, averred that it was time to "make the United States a Christian nation again, as she was in the days of the Puritans."
Fundamentalism redivivus? Bryan brought back to life? Hardly. The first quotation comes from an essay by the philosopher Helmut Kuhn in Theology Today, then only recently launched from Princeton Theological Seminary. The second catches the Oberlin College theologian Walter Marshall Horton in vigorous affirmation of the Federal Council of Churches' 1945 declaration that "The time is at hand for evangelical Christianity to launch a movement to win America for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior." These men possessed impeccably liberal bona fides. And yet what could be more "totalitarian" than to seek to make America Christian—much less the world?
This paradox, and many like it, are what Mark Thomas Edwards wishes readers of his sleek new study The Right of the Protestant Left: God's Totalitarianism to ponder. But it's surely a sign of the times that such convictions by such people can be posed as paradoxical. Miroslav Volf in A Public Faith notes that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have long acted—rightly, on his view—on the assumption that "an authentic religious experience should be a world-shaping force." Over the past sixty years, though, these forces have had to take different shapes due to the expanding presence of the liberal order. Edwards in a dense but brisk narrative guides the reader through these shifts in the guise of historian-provocateur, challenging above all contemporary notions of ecclesial identity and political possibility.
He calls his book "a comparative cultural-intellectual group biography," the group under review being those public theologians known by the mid-20th century as "Realists." It's a tag mainly associated with Reinhold Niebuhr, but Edwards expands it to include those in a wider network who emerged in the early 20th century from under the influence of the social gospel and who united around a variant of mid-century Protestant theology Edwards dubs "Christian agnosticism." "Their cosmopolitan piety would not suffer strict or precise theological and ethical codes," Edwards explains. And so "They contained their Christian agnosticism within traditional liturgical and ecclesiastical forms," seeking to forge a global Christian community grounded more on "ritual and institutions" than "fixed beliefs."
With more than a touch of (apparently unselfconscious) euphemism, Edwards terms this vast endeavor "adaptive high church traditionalism," leaving the reader to wonder what, exactly, such Christianity was adapting itself to. These churchmen (along with the Niebuhr brothers, Edwards pays particularly close attention to Francis Pickens Miller, Henry Van Dusen, and John Bennett) had been formed under the sway of philosophical pragmatism, and it provided an ideal, at least, of intelligent adaptation. Holding to "experience as the only medium of revelation," these theologians "looked forward to the discovery of a tested universal body of spiritual knowledge." This was, of course, to be a scientifically tested body of knowledge; they thought of themselves as "Realists" precisely because, in Horton's 1934 formulation, they endeavored "to face all the facts of life candidly … to pierce as deep as one may into the solid structure of objective reality, until one finds whatever ground of courage, hope, and faith is actually there."
Which leads to another question: how could this species of "scientific theology," as Edwards terms it, possibly fuel visions of world-Christian triumph? With this puzzle Edwards turns us to the ideological dimensions of the story. The Realists may not have been conventionally orthodox—they even distanced themselves from Barthian neo-orthodoxy. But they were culturally evangelical, living out with ardor deeply embedded, deeply American religious-political impulses. Thinking of themselves as correcting and improving upon the legacy of Social Gospelers like Walter Rauschenbusch, they continued through the 1950s to imagine their theology as a "genuine Christian foundation" adequate for the reforming of not just America but the fracturing world, "falling to pieces because it has tried to organize itself into unity on a secularistic and humanistic basis without any reference to the divine Will and Power above itself," as one ecumenical committee declaimed in 1937.
It was the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, the 1963 recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award, who, it turns out, described the 20th-century mission of the church as "God's totalitarianism"—"always," he claimed, "a liberal project." And what was the liberal (and, "totalitarianism" notwithstanding, very pacific!) city on a hill to look like? It's not in our day a familiar way of imagining ideological possibilities. Call the stance left-conservative. Edwards notes that, to many Realists, "there was something natural in moving to the 'left politically' and to the 'right culturally.'" It would be more accurate to say that they weren't moving culturally to the right so much as remaining more or less in place (at least until the last third of the century) while the mainstream was rapidly moving in libertine directions. But this orientation and endeavor amounted to, Edwards claims, a genuine "third way," founded on the conviction that a conservative, organic experience of social relations—"conventional formations of family and neighborhood"—requires "leftist means of distributive justice."
At the heart of Edwards' narrative, and certainly the most illuminating dimension of it, are the unfolding attempts of the Realists to bring politics and religion together to achieve this social end. In the 1930s they (mainly) saw the New Deal as in service to their vision. That's no surprise to most, I suspect. What is more surprising is their making common cause after World War II with the new brand of conservatism gathering around the poet and historian Pieter Viereck, the University of Chicago English professor Richard Weaver, and the central intellectual of the movement, Russell Kirk. Viereck saw the New Deal as sound conservatism; Niebuhr for his part published an essay titled "We Need an Edmund Burke." Both tended to see the supposed conservatives of the GOP as false friends. In 1952, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (a Unitarian) articulated this sentiment and sensibility in memorable fashion, revealing, in this neo-Augustinian era, its general logic and appeal:
The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country—the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party—the party of the reckless and the embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric … Our social-security system and our Democratic party's sponsorship of the social reforms and advances of the past two decades [are] conservatism at its best.
And so there was in fact a "right of the Protestant Left," a decidedly conservative impulse to secure some features of Christian civilization through democratic "strong state" means.
Stevenson, of course, lost not once but twice in his bid for the presidency. And the flickering left-conservative inclination—named as such, actually, by Norman Mailer, who quixotically and flamboyantly represented it—would go the way of many other remnants of the disintegrating world of Christendom, U.S.A. branch, by the 1970s. (See Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History . Describing himself in the third person, he writes: "Mailer was Left Conservative. So he had his own point of view. To himself he would suggest that he tries to think in the style of Marx in order to obtain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." Mailer "believed that radical measures were sometimes necessary to save the root.") Edwards credits the Realists as having preserved the progressive era ideal that by the Sixties became reformulated as "participatory democracy." What by then was becoming divorced from it was the recognizably Christian culture that had helped to spawn it, and that had made this (now) unseemly left-right union broadly available to many beyond the formally Protestant realm. In this regard Edwards singles out, not implausibly, the brilliant and anguished Christopher Lasch as a legatee of Realist reflection and activism. Tellingly, Lasch as a public intellectual was a very lonely man.
It's worth pointing out that when E. Stanley Jones etched the image of "God's Totalitarianism" it was by his lights a way to re-describe—in, to be sure, the panicked hyperbole of the day—what Christians have always believed their primary purpose to be: winning, for their own well-being and safety, erring creatures back to their creator, an end that would require institutional means. That is certainly an audacious endeavor even by Christian standards, given what Christians believe about the fall. But it surely doesn't count as a paradoxical one. Rather, it is as straightforwardly logical as a fire department.
What makes this "totalitarian" mission seem a paradox today, the paradox that Edwards' study centers on, is the long, full emergence of the society that with no small help from the Protestant establishment has succeeded Christendom, a society equipped (for better and worse) with enormous powers of constraint, persuasion, and above all presence: today's liberal imperium, capable of casting visions of paradox where people once saw logic. Edwards doesn't question this totalizing power and doesn't seem much inclined to. It's a pity. Sometimes paradox reveals, after all, the deepest truth.
Eric Miller is professor of history and the humanities at Geneva College. He is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (Eerdmans) and Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hopes, Spiritual Longing (Cascade).
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