Q. How does your approach to Christian social ethics compare to Niebuhr’s?
A. There have been three major traditions of Christian social ethics over the past century ”” Social Gospel liberalism, Niebuhrian realism and liberation theology ”” and Union Seminary has been a major center of all three. Niebuhr absorbed the social justice ethic of the Social Gospel but turned against the idealism and rationalism it shared with the Progressive movement; he believed that the Social Gospel took too little account of conflict and human sinfulness. A generation later, liberation theologians turned against Niebuhrian realism, which they judged to be too much a defense of the American political and religious establishment.
My own work has been influenced by all three of these traditions: by the Social Gospel, by Niebuhr’s powerful blending of theology and political realism, and by the black liberationist, feminist, multicultural and gay rights perspectives that have flowed out of liberation theology and postmodern criticism.
From the beginning of social ethics as a distinct field in the 1880s, social ethicists have debated whether their field needs to be defined by a specific method. Should they burnish their social scientific credentials, or head straight for the burning social issues? Niebuhr is the field’s leading exemplar of directly addressing the social issues of the day without apology. I am on his side of that argument, though I also spend a lot of time explaining that there are other approaches to social ethics.
Q. What insights of Niebuhr’s are most pertinent for the nation’s public life today?
A. His sense that elements of self-interest and pride lurk even in the best of human actions. His recognition that a special synergy of selfishness operates in collectivities like nations. His critique of Americans’ belief in their country’s innocence and exceptionalism ”” the idea that we are a redeemer nation going abroad never to conquer, only to liberate.