Raging Fire, Gentle Man: Gary Dorrien’s Public Scholarship (by Rev. Sandie Richards)

Rev. Sandie Richards

I first became aware of Gary Dorrien in February of 2005, when he gave a speech at Progressive Christians Uniting’s annual gala. He spoke eloquently on the subject of Empire, proffering new and challenging ideas even among a group of people who were already well aware of George W. Bush’s cabinet and the Administration’s Project for a New American Century. The themes he included in his talk are archived in an article he wrote for Cross Currents entitled, “IMPERIAL DESIGNS Theological Ethics and the Ideologies of International Politics.” That night he stunned us with a clear outline of the United States’ plans to maintain global empire – and just in case any of us had illusions about what may have happened had Gore won the 2000 election or Kerry the 2004 election, he stated that these plans were progressing inexorably, “EVEN IF the Democrats had won the 2000 election.”

Dr. Gary Dorrien

You can imagine the consternation of the progressives in the room. We all believed that things would not have been as bad under Gore or Kerry; however, now under Obama we see that Empire is what the U.S. does. Dorrien was right.

The passion with which he speaks is tempered by his gentle presence. An ordained Episcopal priest, Dorrien listens closely and respectfully to others, and is kind in his one-to-one conversations. One might call him humble.

In his 2009 opus, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition, one senses Dorrien’s passion for Social Justice and for the tradition history of the discipline of Social Ethics. As an ethicist and public scholar, Dorrien himself is the author of 14 books and over 200 articles. In this work, he pays homage to the American Social Gospellers of the past 150 years, tracing the lines of thought and discourse through close, careful, and extensive research and analysis. (Each chapter has dozens of endnotes; many of the endnotes have multiple citations.

His passion for the subject comes through in the writing; the reader is carried along almost as if these thinkers were Dorrien’s old friends, and he is recounting his conversations with them. He seems to love tracing the questions raised by Social Ethics as a discipline, as the discipline is developed and the conversations are recounted beginning in 1880 and continuing through to today.

He tackles Protestant thinkers and Roman Catholic activists with equal verve, describing, for instance, that Graham Taylor is “an indefatigable social activist” (Chapter 1, Inventing Social Ethics), and helping us to appreciate John A. Ryan’s commitment to economic relief following the great Depression, despite Ryan’s notion that the Roman Catholic Church should just be accepted as the faith of the Commonwealth.

But for me, the real genius of the book comes in Dorrien’s treatment of women ethicists and of men of color. In the book he shows the trajectories of the received tradition as reconceived by scholars such as Rev. Dr. Beverly Harrison and Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes (who both served in the Carolyn Beaird Chair of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary), without framing their work as somehow outside of, or anathema to, the stream of thought into which they have entered and have made their marks. It is this respect and mutuality that marks Dorrien as a new kind of American Scholar: a white male who does not rest within his privilege, but rather, continues to urge that people of faith work to restrain the abuse of money and power both within themselves, and without in the broader culture.  In this YouTube Video, Dorrien makes the case for equality through economic democracy and community cooperation. He does not push for his own ‘pet’ theories, but rather trusts the communities to create their own economic strategies, to ‘nurture and sustain social trust’, as well as empowering people to make their own choices in consultation with their communities.

I know Dorrien is my kind of Public Scholar, because when I read his books or hear him speak, I grow uncomfortable with my own complaisance. He does not bully, as some impassioned speakers might; rather, he fearlessly proclaims the truth of what is, and how it can and should be changed. He is collaborative and kind as well as bold and confrontational; a rare combination of Prophet and Learner – which serves us well in the public sphere. He has the passion of a raging fire, contained within a gentle man.

Rev. Sandie Richards is an ordained United Methodist Minister serving a vibrant, diverse, and active congregation in Downtown Los Angeles. She lives in Los Angeles with her comedian husband Bill, their son Woody, and their two little rescue dogs. You can reach her via email or twitter.

  • Elise Edwards

    Thank you, Sandie, for your intelligent post. Just a few weeks ago, at the Society of Christian Ethics annual meetings, I got to put a face and demeanor to the scholar whose name I hear about. I, too, was impressed by the ethic of mutuality and respect he seems to embody. I had not, until you wrote about him here, given much thought to how this relates to his endeavors in public scholarship. Until now, I have conceived of him only as a scholar in academia. This is because I had heard of him through my professors and through classmates who studied with him and read his works. Even as I read Social Ethics in the Making, it did not occur to me to consider the “public” aim of his work, even though he is explicit about citing public figures in the social gospel tradition and in social ethics as a discipline.

    I agree with you that we can learn something from him about being a public scholar in the way he goes about his work. There is a boldness and a willingness to make the audience uncomfortable that operates concurrently with a respect for their dignity, intelligence, and thought.

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    wonderful observations about Gary! when he was in Claremont for a conference I realized he could rock and audience as well as publish amazing stuff.

  • Wes

    What is a public scholar? Dorrien masterfully elucidates and explicates the history of [religious] social ethics in America, in a way that was deeply ingratiating to read. Yet, would someone without college or graduate level education in religion/ethics/theology find this book accessible? He tied together bits and pieces, names and ideas that I have come across into his summa, all the while focusing on a deep and as Rev. Richards said, “fiery” commitment to the public good. But would the “public” read this?

    In one sense, anything published is public. But in another sense, not everything published is accessible to the public. This doorstopper isn’t cheap, for example! I have no qualms with his scholarship. It’s great, but it does make me wonder more about the form and accessibility of being “public.” And yes, form does affect content.

    • Sandie Richards

      Indeed, the work is a door-stopper! That is, unless you have the eb00k version, which I do!

      Dorrien reveals that the inspiration for the work was a conversation he had with his students, in which they realized the need for a comprehensive view of the development of the discipline of Social Ethics.

      I don’t think he wrote the book for a general public; however, his work is most certainly public insofar as he is often engaged in public discourse in forums outside of the academy. The subject of his book is, in fact, the development of Social Ethics in and through public scholars.


      • Wes


        Good point. So then might way say not everything a public scholar produces is meant for a public audience? But there must be a general commitment in one’s work for the public good (social ethics in this case), and other venues to present the material to the public?


  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Thanks for your take on Dorrien. In such a long, varied text, it is sometimes hard to distill out overarching themes and strands, but you have done a good job of that. As I read Dorrien, I found myself being struck by the ways that his writing echoed themes found in asset-based community development, which looks to the resources and gifts already present in local communities to begin thinking about development and change. In a similar way, as you’ve described, Dorrien looks to each of these thinkers in their own right to redefine what it is that social ethics will mean for their time and place.

    However, Dorrien’s equal treatment of them has not necessarily meant equal respect for all of these scholars, and in fact, one might wonder at whether some of these other thinkers would have been able to write such an opus and have it published in the same way that Dorrien was able to. This is not to say that Dorrien should not have been published, since I think part of coming to understand privilege is learning how to use it in the most powerful and change-enhancing ways, but rather something that I wondered about while reading.

    • Sandie Richards

      Your comment about Dorrien not having equal respect for all scholars is, I think, quite true. And one does have to say that he clearly has a penchant for Reinhold Niebuhr, not surprising given that he is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.


  • Jennifer Gutierrez

    Thanks for bringing out another way in which people can engage in public scholarship. It is not just one man or one woman speaking in a loud voice. Your description of Dorrien’s scholarship in general makes it seem like his most powerful influence is on those with whom he has come into contact, his students, other scholars, other social ethicists or progressive Christians, etc. Dorrien’s voice may not be the loudest one on any particular issue, but his ability to listen allows him to powerfully influence the conversation.