American universities are more European than Europe when it comes to religion. They are generally secular to the core. American academics typically believe that science shows that religion is silly superstition – it certainly has nothing to contribute to law and politics.
I leave aside the extent to which major religious faiths accept the conclusions of modern science. It seems to me that universities are filled with ignorance about the intellectual contributions of theologians to various issues in ethics, politics, and law. That is one of the reasons I assign Karen Lebacqz’s book Six Theories of Justice in my seminar on Constitutional Law and Political Theory.
The book has an accessible summary of the views of Rawls and Nozick together with an account of the critical literature. And, for readers unacquainted with their writings, an account of this character is not easy to find. More important, the book brings theologians into serious dialogue with political theorists. I particularly enjoy discussing the chapters on the Catholic Bishop’s account of political economy and the views of Reinhold Neibuhr (and wish I had time to discuss the chapter on Jose Porfirio Miranda, a liberation theologian).
The Bishops’ critique of unrestrained capitalism and strong views of social justice come as a surprise to students who associate the Bishops with their views on sexual issues and women. They argued against the inegalitarian character of the capitalist system, for a right to material welfare, and for the right to a job at the same time they inveighed against hedonism and materialism. The Bishops provide an obvious contrast to the libertarianism of Nozick. And they place even greater emphasis on economic justice and political participation than Rawls.
Niebuhr also issued criticisms of capitalism that were similar to the Bishops. And he also criticizes consumerism. As John Patrick Diggins wrote in his excellent little book, Why Niebuhr Now?, Niebuhr said that “Love of possessions is a distraction that makes love and obedience to God impossible.” He deplored the factory conditions prompted by the structure of capitalism. He laid some of the blame at the feet of the “complacent” middle class and the Church. As Niebuhr put it, “A National Thanksgiving if it is meant to express gratitude for material bounty becomes increasingly a pharisaic rite.”
But his focus on sin collided sharply with the perspective of the Bishops. To be sure, the idea of sin is hardly foreign to Catholic thought. But Catholic thought for a long time focused on sins, not sin. It sought to categorize types of sin and the appropriate penance that should be imposed in confession. Moreover, Catholics understood sin as separation from God. Nonetheless, Catholic thought entertains a sunnier view of human nature than Niebuhr. Catholic thought is animated by conceptions of the common good, of shared interest, of consensus possibilities. The Bishops thought that the interests of labor and capital could be harmonized. Instead, Niebuhr saw politics as a clash of usually irresolvable selfish interests. For Niebuhr, individuals are permeated with sin: making themselves the center of the universe, animated by pride, and thoroughly self-deceived. Groups are even worse. Americans fight wars for material reasons while convincing themselves that they fight them to promote democracy and to help the very people whose lives they make miserable.
From Niebuhr’s perspective, James Madison was on the right track in trying to balance interests against interest, but I doubt he would have thought that leaders free of those interests would make judgments in the common good or that there is a common good to be found.
In the end, I think the criticism of capitalism by the Bishops is too restrained and the view of harmonizing interests too precious (though it may have been a politically calculated move for them to put their heads in the sand). At the same time, I think Niebuhr is excessively cynical though he is far more right than most of us would like to admit. I do know that these theological writings prompt good discussions in connection with Rawls and Nozick. Nor should it be surprising. Theological ethics in a variety of faith traditions have been developed in communities of discourse that go back many centuries. Why wouldn’t they have something interesting to say about a broad range of legal, political, and ethical topics? There may be good historical explanations for why theologians are absent from reading lists in law, politics, and ethics, but I do not think there are good reasons for their exclusion.