Political Theology or Social Ethics?: One Conversation, Two Tasks (Ted Smith)

Symposia

The Ethics section of the American Academy of Religion has organized an important panel investigating the question “Which is it – Political Theology or Social Ethics? And Does It Matter?” at next week’s Annual Meeting in San Diego. We invited the four panelists to contribute preliminary essays on this theme for discussion here, and three have been able to contribute: Ted Smith of Emory University, Keri Day of Brite Divinity School, and M.T. Davila of Andover Newton Theological School. We will be posting these over the next several days, beginning with Ted Smith’s.

The Ethics section of the American Academy of Religion has organized an important panel investigating the question “Which is it – Political Theology or Social Ethics? And Does It Matter?”  at next week’s Annual Meeting in San Diego.  We invited the four panelists to contribute preliminary essays on this theme for discussion here, and three have been able to contribute: Ted Smith of Emory University, Keri Day of Brite Divinity School, and M.T. Davila of Andover Newton Theological School.  We will be posting these over the next several days, beginning with Ted Smith’s.

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In everyday academic use “political theology” and “social ethics” have an almost uncanny relation to one another.  They might be Doppelgänger, if only we could keep them apart long enough to see the doubling.  The two terms carry different connotations.  But it can be very difficult to distinguish what they actually denote.

This play between overlap and distinction can be seen in a comparison of Gary Dorrien’s Social Ethics in the Making and An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology, edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey.  These two excellent books do as much as any works I know to name and establish the respective canons of social ethics and political theology. There are differences between those canons.  Dorrien’s book announces its focus on the United States in its subtitle – Interpreting an American Tradition – while Cavanaugh, Bailey, and Hovey seek to convene a global conversation.  Dorrien’s story of social ethics pays more attention to policy, while the Eerdmans Reader in Political Theology does more to emphasize liturgy.  The differences are neither mistakes nor coincidences.  They matter.  And the list of differences could be extended.  But no list of differences would undo the significance of all that the two books share.  Both books acknowledge a central place for Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr in the stories they tell.  Both feature thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, John Courtney Murray, John Howard Yoder, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Jean Bethke Elshtain, James Cone, Stanley Hauerwas, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Delores Williams.  So many common authors in such prominent roles would make it difficult to use these books to distinguish social ethics and political theology on the basis of bibliography.  These common lists also suggest that any distinctions based on method or subject matter would depend more on contemporary interests than on long-standing traditions.  The two books have different perspectives.  But they do not mark off two distinct disciplines, fields, or intellectual traditions.

When I have tried to make distinctions between social ethics and political theology, the distinctions have not proven to be sustainable in conversation.  Earlier this year a colleague asked me to compile a list of books for historians who might be interested in political theology.  I put together what we decided to call a “start-up kit” – not a list of the very best books, and not a comprehensive map of a field, but some suggestions for paths by which people could read their way into conversations about political theology.  I tried to emphasize a distinct trajectory that grew out of a cluster of texts by Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt.  I emphasized this trajectory in part because I thought it could be isolated as political theology and distinguished from the social ethics with which I assumed the readers of this blog would be familiar.  But when the blog Political Theology Today linked to that post and invited a series of writers to compile their “top ten” lists in political theology, the posts (collected here) opened political theology to much wider frames of reference – frames that, to my mind, made political theology more difficult to distinguish from social ethics.  I still think that strands of conversation that stretch back toward Benjamin and Schmitt are worth highlighting in the present context.  But the posts in Political Theology Today were right to expand the frames of reference from those that defined my original post.  When the purpose shifts from offering scholars a way into a field to compiling the best or most important texts in that field, the operative vision of the field needs to grow wider and more comprehensive, just as it did for the authors of the posts on Political Theology Today.  If that more expansive vision makes political theology more difficult to distinguish from social ethics, then it just tells the truth about the field.

I have been arguing that descriptions of the lived academic stuff of social ethics and political theology do not support the kinds of distinctions that would let us think of the two as different fields of study, or even as radically different traditions for engaging similar sets of questions.  There is just too much overlap in what these terms name in their accepted uses.  I would extend that case to argue that we should not try to create these distinctions where they are not now found.

Trying to define social ethics and political theology in ways that established durable distinctions would require endless taxonomical discussion that would draw us away from the urgent work that give these conversations whatever significance they have.  And strong distinctions would likely be institutionalized in different bibliographies, publications, journals, and guild meetings (or at least different guild-within-a-guild meetings) that would lead to impoverished conversations on both sides.  A better reading list would feature both Walter Rauschenbusch and Walter Benjamin. And a better conference would feature both Emilie Townes and Giorgio Agamben.  There are already plenty of centrifugal forces that would spin academics into ever smaller and more marginal conversations.  We do not need to add to their strength by creating analytic distinctions between social ethics and political theology that whirl them into what become separate worlds of conversation.

There are real goods in the multiple centers, competing perspectives, and fuzzy boundaries of the messy (if rather staid) conversation that we have now.  To value this unruliness is not to deny the value of making precise distinctions.  It is just to argue against using that precision to draw borderlines between social ethics and political theology.  The place for precision is rather in distinguishing two different tasks that are before the broader and more contested gathering that we already have.  I would argue that scholars gathered under the signs of “social ethics” and “political theology” need to keep two tasks in view:  drawing on religious traditions to think about norms for plural, democratic societies marked by a differentiation of religious, political, and economic spheres; and thinking theologically about the possibility of exceptions to such norms.  If the former task has been associated especially with social ethics, and if the latter has been associated especially with political theology, neither task should be used to define the essence of one discourse in ways that cut it off from the other.  For reflecting on religious traditions with an eye to norms for a pluralist society can end in modes of speech that add nothing to secular expertise already at work in public conversations.  It can even end up obscuring the ideological quality of seemingly universal rules that are rooted in particular commitments and exceptional decisions.  Keeping exceptions in view can interrupt the processes that lead to those ends.  But the wrong kind of emphasis on exceptions has risks of its own.  It can end in nihilism or tyranny, as it did with Schmitt.  The strongest corrective to these tendencies comes through attention to the value of regular and reliable norms for ethics and for reasoning about ethics.  Thus these two tasks – creating norms and reasoning about exceptions – have resources for checking and correcting one another’s worst tendencies.  They should be taken up together.

I try to hold these two tasks together in my own work, and I am far from alone in these efforts.  But the best way to sustain the necessary tensions between these two tasks is not through any one book, no matter how dialectical.  It is through interconnected networks of journals, guilds, publishers, conferences, websites, friendships and more.  When these networks include people who identify themselves as political theologians and people who identify themselves as social ethicists they are more likely to involve some whose primary focus is on norms and others whose primary focus is on exceptions. Such a complex conversation has more and better resources for the pursuit of each task.

 

Ted A. Smith is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and author of the soon-to-be-released Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford University Press, 2014). 

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