Theopolitics : the theological lineage of Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Howard Yoder.



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The story of twentieth-century political theology is often narrated as one of competing schools. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism is described as a radical break from the social gospel liberalism of Walter Rauschenbusch. In turn, John Howard Yoder’s communitarian theology is described as an alternative to Niebuhr’s realism, while at the same time resisting the liberalism of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. In this dissertation I renarrate the lineage of these figures by arguing that the political and ethical differences among them are predicated on more fundamental theological continuities. Contrary to standard narrations, I argue that Niebuhr adopts more of Rauschenbusch’s theological outlook than is ordinarily assumed and that Yoder not only adopts aspects of Niebuhr’s theology but also eventually offers a theopolitical vision that returns in certain ways to Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. In contrast to narratives that focus on discontinuities, I argue that the story is more one of internal family squabbles within a relatively coherent theological tradition—a tradition that I call theopolitical liberalism. While offering different answers and emphases, all three figures are united by a shared question that guides their work: How can Christian theology inform contemporary sociopolitical concerns? I limit my discussion to three theological themes that have become defining for Yoder’s project in particular: Christology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. By demonstrating how Yoder’s treatment of these key themes has precedent in these earlier figures, I hope to provide the most compelling case for my renarration. In addition to renarrating this significant chapter of twentieth-century American Protestant theology, I conclude by considering some implications of the renarration for current discussions in political theology.