The Paradoxes of Progressive Political Theology: Niebuhrian, But Not Niebuhrian Enough

I've shared two posts (here and here) commenting on the paradoxes of progressive Christian political theology.

I've argued that there is a paradox when progressive Christians use Anabaptist and liberation theologies to call for engagement in democratic politics.

To be clear, in pointing out this paradox I'm not judging any of the political theologies as theologies. I'm a fan of Anabaptist theology and liberation theology.

Nor have I been criticizing progressive political involvement and activism. I'm strongly in favor of all that action.

My point in these posts hasn't been about political action at all. My point has been about theology, about which theology best fits progressive political engagement and activism.

For example, to revisit my first post, a lot of progressives use Anabaptist theology to call for democratic political engagement. And that's just an odd fit. My point isn't to criticize Anabaptist theology or the democratic political engagement. My goal is simply to draw attention to the misfit between the theology and the praxis.

So, what political theology best suits progressive Christians working as activists and engaged citizens within liberal democracies?

If it's not Anabaptist theology or liberation theology, what is it?

I've suggested that the political theology that best characterizes most progressive Christians is Niebuhr's Christian realism.

I make this claim because most progressive Christians are liberals, and Niebhur's political theology was articulated and crafted as a theology to guide Christian participation in liberal democracies and the actions of the liberal democratic state. As we know, Niebuhr is Barack Obama's favorite theologian. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also greatly influenced by Niebuhr.

In short, most progressive Christians aren't Anabaptist or liberationists. Progressive Christians are Niebuhrian.

That said, while progressive Christians tend to be Niebuhrian they generally aren't Niebuhrian enough.

Largely because they don't know they are Niebuhrian.

Many of the confusions, tensions and paradoxes I've been noting in progressive political theology are due to a lack of self-understanding. If progressive Christians could recognize and own their actual political theology--Niebuhr's Christian realism--the confusions and paradoxes observed in progressive Christians circles would disappear.

And the benefits here aren't just about theological and political coherence. The benefits of self-understanding, owning and investing in the political theology that best suits you, can be spiritual as well.

For example, one of the ways that the liberal political theology of many progressive Christians isn't Niebuhrian enough is that it lacks Niebuhr's pessimism.

Niebuhr argued that when people are being hurt, politically you have to do something. Justice is love expressed politically. Justice is how you love your neighbor as yourself in a liberal democracy. This facet of Niebuhr's thought, this call to political action, speaks to progressives. It's the part of Niebuhr that attracted Obama and MLK.

But Niebuhr goes on to say that there is always a tragic, fallen, guilt-bearing, even sinful aspect to the exercise of political power. The state might make our affairs more rather than less just, but the state can never bring about the kingdom of God. Not this side of the eschaton. That's the pessimistic, realistic aspect of Niebuhr's political thought.

As liberals most progressive Christians are Niebuhrian, but they aren't Niebuhrian enough in this regard. That is, most progressive Christians lack Niebuhr's pessimism about political power. Many progressive Christians are motivated by a purity psychology that tends toward utopianism and the pursuit of a works-based righteousness/holiness via political activism. I think by embracing their natural political theology as liberals--Christian realism--the spirituality of progressive Christian political action and activism would be greatly enriched.

Specifically, if progressive Christians embraced Niebuhrian realism and pessimism they would be better positioned, theologically and spiritually, to avoid the ideological purity traps, contradictions, and utopian idealism they often succumb to in their pursuit of social justice.

By embracing Christian realism and pessimism, along with the imperative of justice, progressive Christian political action would remain energized and engaged, but take on a confessional, realistic, more pragmatic posture. Justice demands action, but we confess that getting our candidate elected isn't bringing about the kingdom of God. We also confess that when the state uses its power it will always have a tragic, sinful aspect to it.

Progressives don't need Anabaptist theology to be pessimistic about the state, Christian realism does the trick, and it does so while calling for political action in a way Anabaptist theology does not.

In short, if progressive Christians could embrace the political theology that best suits them their political witness would be theologically more coherent and spiritually healthier.

But when was the last time you saw a progressive Christian on Twitter #Niebuhr?


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