Wednesday, March 16, 2011

McCarraher - Christian Critics

McCarraher, Eugene. Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Compared to the ultimately satisfying slog that was Phillip Rieff and even the similarly-conceived Luker, this was disappointing. It is essentially a historiographic synthesis of what various Christian social critics were writing and saying throughout the 20th century. Luker does the same, however Luker is much easier to pin down a central argument.

Still, Christian Critics fits usefully in my reading list. It picks up the strain of "social gospel" religious thought discussed by Luker (while Luker focuses on the failure of the social gospel to pursue racial change, McCarraher returns to a broader discussion of social gospel) and continues it up to the 1970s. McCarraher reveals how Christian intellectuals of the left gradually had their religious theology eroded as they struggled to adjust their ideas to the political developments of the century as well as the deeper cultural revolution epitomized by Freud in the early century, discussed by Rieff in the 50s and 60s, and reflected on by Lasch and Bell in the 70s.

The chronological organization helpfully roots developments in Christian Criticism within political developments.

Chapter 1 - Liberal Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the Social Gospel of the Professional-Managerial Class, 1900-1919 - Along with secular Progressives, liberal Protestant social gospelers looked to the professional middle class as the vanguard of social progress. Meanwhile, American Roman Catholics pursued "modern medievalism" that sought to assimilate Catholics into the corporate order, which would hopefully become decentralized.

Chapter 2 - After Such Knowledge: The Modern Temper and he Social Gospel, 1919-1932 - In the wake of WWI Social Gospelers preserved the pre-war ideals more faithfully than secular bretheren.

Chapter 3 - The Permanent Revolution: Christianity, Moral Economy, and Revolutionary Symbolism, 1932-1941 - Perception of Christianity as a permanent revolution designed to build the Kingdom of God. This led many Christian Critics to embrace Christian communism as an ideology...of course, this came to an abrupt end after WWII.

Chapter 4 - Rendering Unto Casar: The American Century, the Covenant of Containment, and the Gospel of Personalism, 1941-1962 - Led by Reinhold Niebuhr, religious intellectuals lined up behind the Cold War state against the atheism of the Soviet Union.

Chapter 5 - The Gospel of Eros: Paul Tillich, the Consuming Vision, and the Therapeutic Ethos - Tillich represents a contradictory figure of an intellectual who encouraged a therapeutic use of Religion while at the same time pursuing a rather hedonistic life.

Chapter 6 - The Twilight of the Gods: The Rise and Fall of the Secular City, 1962-1975 - Just as Isserman notes the Old Left was both hopeful of the potential of the New Left but disappointed that they weren't a larger part of it, so too did Christian Critics feel mixed about a movement that echoed much of their thought while at the same time being explicitly anti-religious.


Robert Booth Fowler - JAH -

"...Reinhold Niebuhr, whom McCarraher attacks for offering no religious alternatives to the United States and in the end surrendering to the "professional and managerial culture" as his "realistic ideal"..."

"Christian Critics is also an argument grounded in left politics but hardly that of the conventional American Left. For McCarraher, the needed critique of American capitalism and its political and cultural expressions should take a distinctly religious (Christian in this instance) form and must be reconnected with the American people. For him, the Left of today is something of an embarassment. So much of what it has to say is really "moral libertarianism," and it adopts a market model for morality that hardly facilitates a serious critique of capitalism. The Left, moreover, whether secular or religious, suffers from "the lack of popular American roots." The answer, for McCarraher, is a transformative religious left connected with real people and actual institutions."

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