Symposium Introduction

Political theology needs deeper, more socialist, and thus more democratic roots. The dominant presumption that a German Nazi legal theorist sets the terms for political theology frustrates our political theological imaginations, most especially when confronted with problems of economic, racial, and climate catastrophe. On top of this, most accounts of Christian socialism in Britain and Germany regurgitate the lone hero myth—readers may be familiar with F. D. Maurice but are unaware of the movements that produced Maurice or other important leaders like G. D. H. Cole or William Temple; they may be familiar with Karl Barth and Paul Tillich’s early and crucially influential experiences with socialism, but they are ignorant of the role that Hermann Kutter or Leonhard Ragaz played in making such influence possible. This creates a problematic: political theologians shape their positions nearly always in response to the Schmittian position. Those who reject Schmitt’s analysis open the possibility of a reverse-Schmittian position: all theology is political. Is political theology merely stuck with the Schmittian and reverse-Schmittian positions?

Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism is a breath of fresh air of alternative genealogies and thus potential futures. As Dorrien replies to Catherine Keller in the forum below, Dorrien doesn’t “slam the door” on the reverse-Schmittian position. Dorrien’s point is that democratic socialism and Social Democracy did not come from nowhere, and telling this history expands our political theological imaginations. Dorrien’s work is richly historical, keenly insightful in its explication of Marxian political philosophy, and deeply theological. Those familiar with Dorrien’s work will find an author who, to my eyes and ears, is closer to his subject and so more courageous in stepping out from behind the history to point a way forward. The table-setting first chapter quickly moves to three chapters that delve into the story of democratic socialism and Social Democracy in Britain (chapter 2) and Germany, giving ample pages to teasing out Marxian theory (chapter 3), and dedicating essentially a whole chapter to Barth and Tillich (chapter 4). His final two chapters return to Britain and the guild and Fabian movements, before leaving his readers with the potentially ambiguous legacy of democratic socialism as pluralistic social democracy.

This forum brings together an interdisciplinary, intergenerational group of thinkers who are equally as passionate about this subject as Dorrien. Scholars like Joerg Rieger and Catherine Keller are well known for expertly teasing out the theo-political threads of our contemporary crisis. Rieger pushes Dorrien to consider the fundamental role of production and workers in democratic socialism. For her part, Keller points out that the best position for Christian democratic socialism is one that honestly accounts for its roots in theological liberalism that too easily acquiesced to disgusting and evil fascism. No easy separation between the political and religious traditions can be made: the point is to tell the history honestly and let the cleavages and alliances show themselves in order to help us make judgments for the best democratic socialist future. Filipe Maia offers an important contribution to the reverse-Schmittian line of political theology grounded in the liberationist theological critique of capitalism. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda questions what Dorrien’s book can offer our urgent economic and climate crisis, while suggesting that Dorrien sides with parties of Social Democracy rather than democratic socialism. Geoffrey Kurtz offers a helpful ideal-type analysis of the different theological roots of British and German strands of democratic socialism, while also suggesting four crucial aspects of Christian socialist thought.

Because they tower over nearly all forms of contemporary theology, Barth and Tillich are constant examples in these contributions. Dorrien has a bone to pick in getting Barth and Tillich’s relation to socialism right. Neither hold a light to the legacy of Ragaz (or in the United States, to Walter Rauschenbusch), but that is primarily because both loved Germany too much. For those readers hungry for a similar account of democratic socialism in the United States: patience is a virtue. Dorrien’s forthcoming second volume tells the US side of the story. Social Democracy in the Making stops in the mid-1960s with G. D. H. Cole, a Fabian atheist. The legacy is ambiguous yet promising because we have yet to see what political theologians will do with this impressive and urgently needed genealogy. This forum is a suggestion that this breath of fresh air can enliven, inspire, and challenge political theology in new directions.

Filipe Maia


Political Theology and the Socialist Hope

It may be obvious, albeit necessary, to begin my response to Gary Dorrien’s formidable Social Democracy in the Making with a reference to its first paragraph. From the start Dorrien indicates that the book combines his intellectual work and decades of social activist work, most recently in the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign (ix). Capturing the rebellious spirit wrought by the Occupy Wall Street movements, the Sanders campaign brought social democratic principles into the political agenda of the United States. Social Democracy in the Making narrates a story of similar breakthrough moments in the history of Germany and Great Britain, but the reader is never fully allowed to preserve this story in a safe historical vault. After all, Dorrien’s opening words also remind us of the victorious side of the 2016 US American presidential campaign. One could thus read Social Democracy in the Making as the history of a tradition currently coming to its fateful end, stunned by a renaissance of fascism.

That would be a mistake. In light of Donald Trump’s victory, the widespread assault on Social Democracy, and the global rise of fascism, this book displaces its readers to a historical account of the German and British trajectories in democratic socialism only to remind us continuously about the urgent need of a “Social Democratic standard of social decency” (x). Dorrien’s historical retrieval openly carries with it an “implied judgment about which parts of the history still matter” (xiii). In fact, this implied judgment implicates the reader in the politics of social democracy. Dorrien’s text treats its readers gently through a vast array of historical research while also radicalizing them into a tradition that conceives of history and theory as components of social and political transformation. For its theological audience, this book may also help to construct a new political-theological agenda.

For those accustomed to Dorrien’s work, the book will offer no surprises: it once again showcases his uncanny combination of erudition and a captivating prose, historical acumen, and theoretical depth, all the while conjuring radical political sensibilities. The book smoothly moves between intellectual and political landscapes of German and British social democratic traditions showing its ties—and disagreements—with Christian socialism. The focus is primarily on Britain and Germany, though Dorrien cannot help making occasional references to other nations, particularly the United States. This is certainly a statement about the book’s “implied judgment.” As Dorrien points out, the British case is “exceptional” because it combines social democratic politics, pragmatism, ethics, and an appreciation of religion. Germany, on the other hand, is much closer to debates in Marxist theory, less generous about religion, and more focused on ideological disputes. Germany and Great Britain trotted different paths but ultimately landed on similar ground—revisionism. Social Democracy in the Making does not capitulate into the discourse that this is necessarily a move away from the core of the socialist project, but rather points to the major achievements of this legacy even as it calls for continuous revisions and self-critique. Dorrien is always very clear in identifying the core of democratic socialism: an “ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community” (4) combined with its insistence on economic democracy (468). For these reasons alone, the book is already a relief in a global context that indicts social democratic principles only to endorse a rising fascist wave.

But Social Democracy in the Making also offers a great deal of insight for political theology. Dorrien’s first chapter, “Christian Socialism in Social Democracy,” opens with an important claim: “Political theology needs a better genealogy than the Carl Schmitt story that it usually tells.” Dorrien argues that an “incomparably better” genealogy would be to trace the history of political theology in the “religious and ethical socialists who imagined a democratic socialist society and contributed to the making of Social Democracy” (2). This is a crucial argument. Dorrien clarifies that the “reverse-Schmitt procedure” is related to “neo-Marxist, Whiteheadian, Deleuzian, and liberationist forms of political theology,” another important observation (3). As someone committed to this genealogy of political theology, particularly in its neo-Marxist and liberationist veins, Social Democracy in the Making creates possible pathways for further studies that unearth the connection between the story the book tells and current debates in political theology. In light of this, the major question the book raised for me is the extent to which Christian socialism has been able to create a robust legacy in political theology.

Nowhere is this issue more clearly addressed than in chapter 4, “Germanic Political Theology.” Dorrien describes the birth of twentieth-century theology in that fateful day in August 1914 when Karl Barth learned that his former teachers, the cultural elite of German Protestant liberalism, cheered for Germany’s declaration of war (218). Barth’s encounter with the chauvinism of his former professors puts contemporary theology right at the center of a political situation that ultimately led the Swiss theologian to socialism. Dorrien stresses, however, that Barth insisted that his decision for socialism was merely practical. Barth’s socialism was not religious but rather only a “practical political decision” (260), he confessed. Might this just be the way Barth found to maintain his theology uncontaminated by political preoccupations? Or may this point to an inability to theologize the political? As Dorrien described the Barthian revolt as the genesis of twentieth-century theology, I wonder if it is accurate to say that contemporary theology still hesitates to be fully political theology in light of Barth’s denial of considering socialism a theological problem. Did Barth confirm the basic premise of Schmitt’s political theology, namely, that politics and religion are definitely separate in the modern world?

More than a concern for a correct interpretation of Barth’s theology, my goal in raising these questions is to probe whether the socialist hope must come from and engender a political-theological commitment. Social Democracy in the Making seems to favor this position, particularly as it demonstrates great sympathy for the legacy of Christian socialism in Great Britain. At the same time, the British experiment also eschews theological debates, which once again may raise the question of its existence as political theology. In continental Europe, Dorrien’s narrative gestures toward Paul Tillich’s work as one that indeed articulates a socialist theological project. Dorrien sustains this by showing Tillich’s connections to the new readings of Marxist political theory at the Frankfurt School along with his expansive view of religion, culture, and politics. In this paradigm, Tillich could indicate that the struggle for justice is the “self-expression of the oppressed” and thus the embodiment of an ultimate concern. Dorrien summarizes Tillich’s position: “Nobody fights for justice lacking faith and ultimate concerns” (290). His endorsement of religious socialism included a rejection of the liberal and sometimes progressive understanding that religion is a “private” matter. Religion, for him, “was the depth dimension of life, the living out of the deepest wellspring of human being” (296).

In my view, this statement is one of the pillars to counter Schmitt’s legacy in political theology. One of its very promising outcomes is the identification of a lingering religious dimension within capitalism—one that ushers in the need for a theological critique of bourgeois society. This would also render the religious aspect of socialism an imperative. In the neo-Marxist tradition that begins to take shape at the Frankfurt School, this thesis may be found in Walter Benjamin’s studies of commodity fetishism.1 As Dorrien shows, Tillich was also drawn to Marx via this topic (278–79). Latin American liberationists assume this as the starting point of political theology and the project to build a theological critique of capitalism.2 In my own work, I have been suggesting how one can also trace this in the way Capital describes the capitalist mode of production achieves surplus-value by means of the exploitation of the worker’s living moments. Marx’s theorizations about the constitution of the working day engenders a death-dealing mode of temporality. Critical political theology, in this scenario, would entail the imagining and living out of alternative forms of temporality and of constituting the working day. Here the contribution of Christian socialism in Britain seems central, pacing its uninspiring technocratic ethos (402). Dorrien scrutinizes its ethical impetus: “The idea of socialism as ethically based, decentralized, economic democracy has deep roots in Britain through the cooperative traditions associated with Owens and Maurice” (9). Once again, I find in this a powerful opening into a socialist political-theological position. (It is worth mentioning, parenthetically, that Marxism did develop as an ethical tradition elsewhere, such as in Enrique Dussel’s creative appropriation of Marxist political economy and Levinasian ethics to form the Latin American tradition of liberation philosophy.)3

So, where shall a democratic socialist political theology go? Social Democracy in the Making does not intend to address this question, but it may provide some clues. For theologians like myself who tend to begin their thinking with the rise of liberation theologies in the 1960s, Dorrien offers historical perspective. And this is a true gift, always. Particularly as one witness to the ways in which democratic socialism developed significant anti-fascist forms of resistance. To the extent that Schmitt’s political theology quickly showed its totalitarian face, reclaiming the socialist story in political theology seems all the more important. Dorrien’s “implied judgement” does gain some explicit contours as he describes the best democratic socialism has to offer—in sum, pathways toward economic justice that open up opportunities to dismantle “white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege, repudiates Eurocentric presumptions, and upholds ethical commitments to freedom, equality, community, and ecological flourishing” (469). It is indispensable that this vision be affirmed. Social Democracy in the Making speaks of these demands as core to Christian socialism and, by doing so, it has the additional benefit of socializing new projects for social democracy. As talks of a “religious left” continue to pop up in public discourse, the time seems ripe to allow ourselves to be once again haunted by the specters of Christian socialism.

  1. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Marcus Bullock, trans. Chad Kautzer (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 1996); Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  2. See, for example, Franz J. Hinkelammert, The Ideological Weapons of Death: A Theological Critique of Capitalism, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986); Franz J. Hinkelammert and Hugo Assmann, A Idolatria do Mercado: Ensaios Sobre Teologia e Economia (São Paulo: Vozes, 1989); Jung Mo Sung, Desire, Market, Religion (London: SCM, 2007).

  3. Enrique D. Dussel, Para Una Ética de La Liberación Latinoamericana, Filosofía (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Argentina Editores, 1973); Enrique D. Dussel, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans. Alejandro A. Vallega, Latin America Otherwise: Languages, Empires, Nations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

  • Gary Dorrien

    Gary Dorrien


    Response to Filipe Maia

    I have followed Filipe Maia’s emerging scholarship for years with admiration. He is carrying the work of Franz Hinkelammert and Enrique Dussel into the next generation, fashioning a theological critique of the domination and skewed temporality of financial capitalism. When he was a doctoral student at Harvard, Maia had a hard time finding more than a couple of faculty who could support his studies in Marxism and its relevance to the next generation of liberationist social ethics. Now that he is teaching at Boston University School of Theology, he is ensuring that the neo-Marxian legacy of Latin American liberation theology will not be lost.

    He is right that the international character of socialism kept breaking my grip on a four-stranded rope of socialism and religious socialism in Britain and Germany. “Socialism in one nation” is a notoriously non-socialist idea, and much of the democratic socialist story is bound up with the fate of the first three Internationals that came and went, plus two world wars in which Britain and Germany opposed each other. My discussion of German Social Democracy plunged immediately into Marxian theory and the coming of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The British tradition has no comparable theoretical legacy or connection to Continental Social Democratic parties, but British socialism stayed closer to its union ground, was religion-friendly and pragmatic, and eventually built a powerful labor party.

    Both of these streams of European socialism carried into the United States. German exiles from the Lassalle wing of German Social Democracy were the heart of the American Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1877 along with a smattering of native-born anarchists and Marxists. Christian socialism spread across the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, often taking a Populist form. Most of the US American Christian socialists who wrote books and defended the movement intellectually were versed in British socialism and a few knew the German tradition. Very soon after the Socialist Party was founded in 1901 it was a wondrous stew of radical democrats, neo-abolitionists, Marxists, Christians, Populists, feminists, trade unionists, industrial unionists, Single Taxers, anarcho-syndicalists, and Fabians both American-born and coming from every European nation and Russia.

    The original idea of socialism goes back to the 1820s, in France and England, where Charles Fourier and Robert Owen were the pioneers. The idea was to achieve the unrealized demands of the French Revolution, which never reached the working class. Instead of pitting workers against each other, a cooperative mode of production and exchange would allow them to work for each other. Socialism was about organizing society as a cooperative community. That could mean many different things, and soon did. No definition of socialism as economic collectivism, or state control of the economy, or any particular ownership scheme is common to the many traditions of socialist thought. But the Fourier/Owen origin grounds my idea of the democratic socialist core that Maia cites—an ethical passion for social justice and radical democratic community that pushes for economic democracy.

    Maia notes that Germany and Britain took very different paths to a similar end—revisionism. In a broad sense of the term, “revisionism” names the periodic necessity of revising the socialist idea to fit contemporary circumstances—a necessity from which no socialist movement is immune. In the historical sense of the term it names the challenge to so-called orthodox Marxism that Eduard Bernstein made in 1898 and the challenge to British Fabian orthodoxy that the Hugh Gaitskell / C.A.R. Crosland revisionists made in the mid-1950s. Bernstein rocked the SPD and was tagged as a pragmatic betrayer of Marxism, but most of his critique was taken for granted by the next generation of neo-Marxists, and eventually all the Continental Social Democratic parties adopted it, including, in 1959, the SPD.

    Social Democracy in the Making details how and why Social Democracy became a pale reflection of a radical idea, democratic socialism, but I do not disparage Social Democracy. Germany has co-determined enterprises with 50 percent worker representation, universal healthcare, state banks that support cooperatives, and free higher education. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have high wages, strong unions, free education, monthly stipends to college students, up to 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and vibrant economies that are one-fourth publicly owned. These achievements of Social Democracy exist in the United States only as fantasies. I wrote this book toward the end of attaining more Social Democratic decency in the United States, not to bury Social Democracy. At the same time, I believe that the struggle for economic democracy must be waged primarily through new organizations and movements.

    I am grateful that Maia perceptively raises the question of what the Christian socialist tradition and its religious socialist offshoots offer to the discussion of political theology. This is precisely what I am asking those who write about political theology to do. I appreciate equally that Maia interprets me correctly regarding the political theology enterprise in general and the Paul Tillich position in particular.

    I am sympathetic to the political theology enterprise and I believe that the Schmitt and reverse-Schmitt traditions of it have been tremendously fruitful. Schmitt taught that the distinction between friends and enemies is the key to politics and that all forms of political thinking are ways of renaming theological categories. The reverse-Schmitt procedure says that all theology is political, especially when it claims otherwise. Reverse-Schmitt political theology undergirds much of the most creative work in religious thought today, especially in neo-Marxist, Whiteheadian, Deleuzian, and liberationist forms of political theology. It tracks the displacement of God by the sovereignty of the modern state, which in some renderings gave way to the godly sovereignty of corporate neocolonialism, capitalist Empire.

    My critique of political theology rests wholly on my strenuous objection to the genealogy it nearly always assumes or expounds. Political theology has an incomparably better genealogy than the Schmitt story it tells. It astonishes me that scholars in political science and religion are content to say that political theology—their field of specialization—began with a Nazi legal theorist. The religious socialists who imagined a democratic socialist society and contributed to the making of Social Democracy were doing explicit political theology decades before Schmitt, Emanuel Hirsch, and Paul Althaus championed the atrocious idea of fascist theology.

    Christian socialism responded to the ravages of nineteenth-century capitalism. In Britain it was predominantly cooperative, progressive, social ethical, and pragmatic, fusing liberal and democratic elements. In Germany it had a stronger ideological and statist character as a consequence of yearning for, and then defending, a unified German state. In both of these national contexts and the traditions they inspired in other nations, Christian socialism imagined a cooperative commonwealth that replaced capitalism with a political economy geared to the common good. It paved the way to all liberation theologies that make the struggles of oppressed peoples the subject of redemption.

    Barth and Tillich are exceedingly complex. One cannot tease out their views on religious socialism apart from their theologies, so I ran long on Barth and Tillich. Barth is often caricatured in this area in ways that must be corrected. Maia is right that I favor Tillich because he carried through the conviction that theology has to be about everything and he formulated the most sophisticated theory of religious socialism ever propounded by a theologian. Barth later regretted that he took a “moratorium” from the sociopolitical struggle, as he put it, for the entire 1920s. But his narrow conception of theology rationalized this outcome at the time, and Barth’s purely practical concept of socialism had two truncating outcomes. It restricted what he said about socialism theologically, reducing the decision for socialism to a practical political preference. And it yielded discussions of sociopolitical issues that lacked a socialist analysis exactly where distinctly socialist arguments were needed. Barth’s political commentary operated at the level of intelligent bourgeois newspaper editorials.

    This was not true of Tillich in the 1920s and early ’30s. Tillich made an advance on the Christian socialism of the previous generation by absorbing the neo-Marxian social criticism of the Frankfurt School and by conceiving religious socialism in ecumenical terms transcending Christianity. He grasped that the best part of Marxism was Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Capitalism strips nature of its sacramental power by commodifying all existence. The more a thing becomes a commodity, the less living power it possesses. The sacramental relationship to nature provides a brake on natural human desires for pleasure and domination. Capitalism, Tillich argued, eliminates the brake. Anything that the subjective will to power or desire for dominance takes from nature, it loses for itself.

    Some of my objections to Barth apply to Tillich, who never grappled seriously with Marxian economic theory, relying on his friend Adolph Lowe for spotty economic analysis, and who opted out of the struggle for social justice in his later career. But Maia points to the two crucial contributions of Tillich to political theology. Tillich refashioned the Marxian critique of commodity fetishism, prefiguring the starting point of Latin American liberationist political theology. And he was willing to tell his Frankfurt School audiences that they were wrong to consign religion to museums.

    The Frankfurt Institute made a crucial breakthrough by contending that orthodox Marxism over-relied on a base-superstructure reductionism that screened out existential and cultural factors. Marxism was a magnificent tradition of social criticism needing to be saved from scholastics determined to make it small and manageable. I love the mental image of Tillich imploring the Frankfurt Marxists not to repress religious questions. Socialism, he said, is the self-expression of the oppressed, providing meaning for subjected people, and meaning is ultimately religious, pointing to the Unconditioned that transcends all specific contexts. A person’s religion is whatever concerns her ultimately. Socialism is incomprehensible without its religious dimension. Tillich said it so emphatically that gatekeeper historians of the Frankfurt School marginalized his role in the Frankfurt Institute.

Catherine Keller


August 21, 2019, 1:00 am

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda


August 28, 2019, 1:00 am

Joerg Rieger


September 4, 2019, 1:00 am