Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Garry Dorrien on Reinhold Niebuhr & U.S. Foreign Policy

I have mentioned Garry Dorrien on these pages before.  An Episcopal priest, historical theologian, and Christian social ethicist, Dorrien recently went from being a chaplain and religion professor at a midwestern university founded by Baptists to being installed as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary of New York and Graduate Professor of Religion at Columbia University. (Listen to a podcast of  Dorrien’s inaugural address at UTS here.)

 UTS is one of the iconographic places of U.S. religious history:  One of the first places where then new historical critical approaches to biblical studies were practiced, it’s major early biblical scholar, Charles Augustus Briggs was tried for heresy because of this by the Presbyterians and expelled from their ranks. (He became an Episcopalian.) Union’s trustees severed its ties with the Presbyterian church rather than limit academic freedom or be forced to fire Briggs–making Union the first U.S. free-standing theological seminary without ties to a specific denomination. It soon became a center of the early modernist/liberal movements, and then of the Social Gospel. Towering preachers in the liberal tradition such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and George A. Buttrick became associated with Union in one fashion or another.  Later, Union was home to Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realism he represented as a correction to perceived weaknesses in the Social Gospel.  Union was host, briefly or for longer periods, to such diverse figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (as a post-graduate student), Paul Tillich (as a refugee theologian fleeing the Nazis), the early process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who was far more Christocentric and rooted in mainstream Christian theology than most process theologians), the Scottish theologian John Baillie, the Welsh New Testament scholar, W. D. Davies (after Davies’ time at Duke and Princeton), and with the career of Fr. Raymond Brown, Union became the first Protestant seminary with a major Catholic biblical scholar.  Union was even briefly a center of Barthian thought with the presence of Robert McAfee Brown. Then Union became a flourishing center of various strands of liberation theology, housing faculty who pioneered in Black Theology (James H. Cone), feminist biblical studies ( Phyllis Trible), North American reception to Latin American liberation theology (McAfee Brown, again),and much more.  Rather than the site of one major theological tradition like many seminaries or universities, Union has been a crossroads of many North American theological currents.  My own mentor, Glen H. Stassen, received his B.D. at Union and was deeply influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, D.D. Williams, & W.D. Davies (but not Tillich who had already left for Harvard; Glen has a profound distaste for anything Tillichian).

Garry Dorrien represents several of those strands in his own work:  He is a self-declared liberal theologian, shaped by the Social Gospel, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theologies.  He has also been an excellent historian of “Barthianism,” and the rise of post-fundamentalist “neo-Evangelicalism.”  In this interview with Peter Steinfels of the New York Times, Dorrien continues his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq. He also disputes Neo-Conservative claims to inherit the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr, and surfaces several Niebuhrian themes that it would benefit U.S. Americans to reclaim and recover.

Pacifists like myself are widely expected not to appreciate Niebuhr and Niebuhrians like Dorrien. After all, Reinie began his life as a liberal pacifist, but had a conversion to non-pacifism as Hitler rose to power. He became one of the strongest critics of Christian pacifism in the 20th C.  But, like Duane K. Friesen and others, I appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticisms of naive, liberal forms of pacifism and believe that Christian pacifism is better for encountering and wrestling with Reinhold Niebuhr’s strong critique. Post-Niebuhrian Christian pacifism, as Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged in his famous essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” is far stronger than any pacifism which hasn’t taken Niebuhr into account.  Thus, I also appreciate Dorrien’s retrieval of Niebuhrian themes to criticize U.S. pride, imperialism, naivete, and Neo-Con hubris.

Hat tip to Melissa Rogers for alerting me to this significant interview.  In the future, I plan to blog through Dorrien’s 3 volume history of American Liberal Christianity.

May 26, 2007 - Posted by | foreign policy, theology, U.S. politics


  1. thanks for this post. i’ll have to check out that article. i’m at union now (just finished my first year) and so far dorrien is my favorite professor. i’ve taken three classes with him and he is just so intelligent and really knows his stuff. his three volume history of liberal theology is fascinating and written in a very engaging style. i still have to finish book three, but i am going to tackle that this summer.

    anyway, it’s fun seeing union get some press, and esp. prof. dorrien. it’s funny, i had no idea of the legacy of this school when i applied. it still blows my mind, really.

    Comment by shay | May 26, 2007

  2. I considered doing my Ph.D. at Union (under Larry Rasmussen), but I thought that a Yoder-influenced, Anabaptist-style Baptist would be swimming upstream. So, I didn’t apply, but I often wish I had. Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Harvard, Duke, etc. all have significant legacies–but none of them have had the incredible cross-traffic that Union has. I didn’t even touch the surface. Consider yourself quite fortunate to be studying there, even though UTS has been recovering from financial and other crises in recent years.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 26, 2007

  3. Thanks for pointing out this article. Dorrien is a fantastic historian.

    Comment by R.O. Flyer | May 26, 2007

  4. they are definitely recovering and i think they are doing quite well from what i can tell. my incoming class was the largest they have had in a long time, so it’s good to see them on the upswing.

    Comment by shay | May 27, 2007

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