Obama’s Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Niebuhr
Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2009 for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.
Ever since then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr in a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, there has been speculation about the extent to which the 20th-century theologian has influenced Obama’s views on faith, politics and social change. Wilfred McClay, a historian specializing in American intellectual history and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award in intellectual history, offered an overview of Niebuhr’s unique form of progressive Christianity and addressed ongoing debates about the influence of Niebuhr’s work on 20th-century American politics and international affairs. E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, remarked on the recent revival of interest in Niebuhrian thought and spoke about the role Niebuhr played as a public intellectual active during the worldwide political upheavals of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Speaker:Wilfred M. McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Respondent: E.J. Dionne Jr., Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Advisor, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life
Moderator:Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life
And Obama went on for 25 minutes about his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr. And then David did a column on Niebuhr and then we got an excuse to do Niebuhr. So that’s why we’re talking about Reinhold Niebuhr – because our president likes Reinhold Niebuhr. But we thought you wanted to know about him anyway. So our session is really not about President Obama; it’s about Reinhold Niebuhr. But we used that teaser “Obama’s Favorite Theologian?” just to get your attention. And I’m sure the president’s name will come up in our conversation.
Bill McClay is an intellectual historian who’s taught at Tulane and Georgetown universities and now is an endowed chair at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Bill has, if you look at his bio, written some very important books. One is called The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which was the winner of a best-book award – the Merle Curti Award in intellectual history – in 1995. Remind me, Bill, who was Merle Curti?
WILFRED MCCLAY: He was a great intellectual historian.
CROMARTIE: Okay. (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: From the University of Wisconsin.
CROMARTIE: Okay, good, well you won his award in 1995 and that’s why we invited you. Now ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to hear from Bill McClay and then E.J. Dionne is going to read to us from about five different books by Niebuhr that he has stacked over here.
E.J. DIONNE: Even a thriller. How do you like that? I have a thriller on my list.
CROMARTIE: And you’re going to do all that in 15 minutes?
DIONNE: Twenty, you gave me.
CROMARTIE: Twenty, okay.
DIONNE: I’ll probably do it in 15.
CROMARTIE: Okay. Bill, we look forward. Thank you.
MCCLAY: Thanks. This is really quite a change. I think Francis Collins and Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a sort of uplifting, hopeful subject. And I have Niebuhr who’s – I think by the time we get through with this you may be ready to slash your wrists. (Laughter.) But I hope not. I hope not.
CROMARTIE: Do you have a song about that – suicide? (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: “Stormy Weather.” I’m leaning with “Stormy Weather.” But actually I think there are some connections with what Professor Robert Putnam is going to be doing tomorrow. So I think you will see some linkages. Niebuhr is a theologian. He’s also a student of power politics and a great admirer of the saying of Lord Acton, that the power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. (Laughter.)
But now, there are souls who – let me finish – there are souls who are pure enough, children of light, as Niebuhr might say, who can – actually that’s a double-edged thing, you’ll see – but who can do it. But I’m not one of them. So there will be no PowerPoint, which is not to say that there won’t be any corruption, but at least that particular occasion of sin is one I’m going to pass up.
Mike’s right: The occasion for this – the hook – is this discussion between David Brooks and then-Senator Obama, which was in 2007, actually. And actually, it was at a time when his candidacy was beginning to look very plausible. And it’s interesting – this may or may not be significant – but he said that Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers, according to David’s transcription – not one of his favorite theologians.
So that may or may not have any significance. And of course, David did say that Obama gave a sort of perfect description of the book in perfect sentences and perfect paragraph structure for 20 minutes, which does suggest that he knew the book in question, The Irony of American History, which is one of the books I’m going to talk about.
Obama’s not the first American president to declare his fondness for Niebuhr. Jimmy Carter notably did, and both before and after his election. Some people think that the famous “malaise” speech had some Niebuhrian input, and certainly it was influenced by Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism, although in ways that Lasch didn’t particularly like. It always tends to happen, when politicians use your books in speeches – all of a sudden you’re not so thrilled to see it happening. And I think Niebuhr would have been, probably, no exception.
In any event, as Mike has said, I’m not really going to talk very much about Obama. I have a feeling you all would want to, and between E.J. and myself, we may have some thoughts. And certainly, I’m not going to get into the question of whether his interest – Obama’s interest in Niebuhr – is genuine or not, whether he really understands Niebuhr or not. That’s unrelated to my pay grade. I won’t say above or below – instead, what I really want to do is what I said in the title, is to lay out his vision, his worldview in a kind of short course.
And obviously, if there’s an agenda here, it’s simply to indicate that his thinking, although it does develop – and whose doesn’t – has a core of consistency. There is a core to Niebuhr that seems to me carries through some three decades of concentrated work. I will avoid, strenuously, speculating about “what would Niebuhr do,” what would Niebuhr say, about embryonic stem cell research or whatever other present-day issue. I think there’s plenty to talk about, just with respect to what he did say and think. And I’ll lay that out and then we can speculate.
Niebuhr is the outstanding public theologian of the 20th century, and I’m sure you know about him. You may not know much about him. He has become a figure of obscurity in recent decades, and that’s partly because the term “public theologian” has come to represent something of a null set in recent times. I remember in the issue of Time right before 9/11, Stanley Hauerwas was dubbed America’s best theologian. But he’s not really a theologian who, whatever his other virtues, has much of practical import to say about political life.
But Niebuhr had an unusually long and productive career. He turned out many books, many articles; wrote journalistically; wrote highly, densely scholarly works. He was engaged. He was involved in the politics of the day, from World War I all the way to the Vietnam War. So he was not only a theologian of great distinction, but also a public intellectual who addressed himself to the full range of public concerns and had an enormously capacious mind that really could take in all kinds of issues that he wouldn’t necessarily have discussed in his books.
His importance in his time tells you something about his time. It was a time when theologians were important people. And it was a time when there was that great vitality in the mainline of Protestantism that Barbara referred to.
It’s an indication of the severe attenuation of that influence that the closest thing to Niebuhr in recent years has been the late Father Richard John Neuhaus – who converted to Catholicism (laughs) – and who had very low regard for the Protestant mainline. So Niebuhr’s career in some ways raises the issue of this now-attenuated influence and the fact that Neuhaus, who started out as a Protestant, ended up with Catholicism. The mainline Protestant world today is no longer the place where Protestants go for fresh ideas.
Also, as a general observation, Niebuhr is something of a counterpuncher as an intellectual, and what I mean by that term I think will become evident; but in short, it’s hard to know what he thinks about somebody or about some subject unless he’s reacting to them. That’s when he truly discloses himself: in taking exception to or responding to other thinkers, which is why I think it’s very important to see him in context and be very careful about what we can extract and use for all occasions.
One thing about the context is, I think it’s impossible to imagine him operating in anything other than a modern, Western, liberal environment, where there’s a strong tradition of science, of belief in the idea of progress – a society that is in some ways poised on the cusp of a transformation into secularity, or at any rate a world in which a secular option exists. He was very much a creature of that historical moment and a critic of liberalism from within liberalism, a breed that flourished particularly in the late ’40s and ’50s – and doesn’t seem to exist, at least in the same form, today.
The issues that he struggled with are quintessentially related to problems of advanced modernity, and science is one of them. I wouldn’t necessarily have emphasized this – but with Francis Collins here – his talk made me think again and again about how his own perspective on science represents an advance over the dilemma that Niebuhr saw us in.
Niebuhr upholds the idea of progress and remorselessly critiques it at the same time. I might add something else that you may know Niebuhr for – what’s called the “serenity prayer,” which goes something like “God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things that can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” I’m reciting from memory. But the interesting thing is what – to me anyway, as someone of conservative disposition – is what he leaves out, and that is preserving the things that need to be preserved. (Laughter.) It’s a striking omission! But it shows how thoroughgoing a progressive he was. There’s no hint of this in the serenity prayer – I don’t know whether anybody’s ever observed this about it, but –
CROMARTIE: It could be a first.
MCCLAY: It’s a first and last. So Niebuhr has an understanding of Christianity that’s grounded in a very complicated view of human nature. Actually, a lot of his persuasiveness derives from the fact that this view is more complicated and adequate than its secular equivalents. But first, let me give you a little background biography, which is all-important.
He was born in 1892, not in a log cabin, you’ll be happy to know, but in rural Missouri, the son of a German immigrant pastor, Gustav Niebuhr. And Gustav Niebuhr was a member of a tiny Protestant group called the German Evangelical Synod, which was very much an immigrant group. He really grew up in a German-speaking enclave, which was actually rather common in that part of the Midwest – Missouri and Illinois in late 19th- or early 20th-century farm communities.
By the way, an interesting side point: The German Evangelical Synod eventually became part of the United Church of Christ, which is the same Protestant denomination that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright belongs to. So there’s a sort of odd little connection there.
Reinhold inherited from his father this sense of pastoral vocation and a keen interest in social and political affairs. He built on this with two years at Yale Divinity School, and so he began his career as a theologian and pastor as an advocate of what was called the “social gospel.” The social gospel was a movement within liberal Protestantism which located the meaning of the Christian Gospel in its promise as a blueprint for progressive social reform, rather than its assertions about supernatural reality.
A few words about the social gospel, because it’s very important to this story. It arose out of a crisis within, particularly, Protestantism – although Catholicism had its own version of this – in response to industrialization and urbanization. In the Protestant case, particularly salient were the challenges to biblical authority rising out of these things, but more so out of Darwinism – Darwin and Darwinism.
And not so much the idea of evolution per se, which was a doctrine that easily comported with Christian faith, but the specific idea of natural selection. It was the randomness of the process of natural selection that was viewed as particularly threatening. And an equally powerful threat came from the so-called “higher criticism” of the Bible, which deconstructed the Bible, for all intents and purposes, into a collection of redactions of successive texts by multiple authors over long periods of time, and therefore not a text that should be regarded as having any kind of organic or authorial unity.
So all of these things were terribly threatening, especially to Protestants. Why Protestants? Because the whole basis of the Protestant Reformation, to oversimplify grandly, was to see the authority of the Bible as overriding – as superseding – the authority of the historical institutional church. There are some qualifications you’d need to make to that statement, but basically that is a fair assessment. So that tremendous weight is placed on the authority of that text, and if its authority falls into question, then the entire foundation of Protestantism is threatened.
So the social gospel was one way of responding to this problem. Social gospelers were modernists. They had dismissed the notion that the Bible should be read authoritatively in the way that, say, fundamentalists – the fundamentalist movement was just getting going at this time – read the Bible, or even the historical creeds. But the social gospelers insisted that what they thought of as the heart of the Christian Gospel was very much valid and alive and worth preserving. It could be preserved by dispensing with these supernatural problematic elements and instead socializing the Gospel, i.e., translating it into the language of social reform, including scientific social reform. They saw very little sense of antagonism between science and reform. And in the general optimism of the period, there were seen to be very few limits on what could be achieved.
Walter Rauschenbusch, who was perhaps the leading figure in the social gospel movement, put it this way – and forgive me, I’m going to have to read more quotes than I would normally read to give you a sense of these thinkers. But here’s Rauschenbusch: “We have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility.” So this idea of progress, the idea of perfectibility of the human condition, of man himself, to use that term in a generic sense, is very much at the core of it all.
By the way, one of the ways American sociology differed dramatically from, say, German sociology is that from the very beginning it had an astonishingly religious content to it. Albion Small, who was the chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, the founder of the first sociology journal in the United States, the president of the American Sociological Association, and so on and so forth, wrote the following: “Sociology is a science … of God’s image … a moral philosophy conscious of its task,” which was nothing less than “an approximation of the ideal of social life contained in the Gospels.” Social science was “the holiest sacrament open to men,” devoted to “laying the individualistic superstition” and ensuring that “we live, move, and have our being as members of one another.” In other words, the kingdom of God is not reserved for the beyond or the end of time, but can be created in the here and now by social scientists and ministers working hand-in-hand together.
Although Niebuhr is my subject, I’m going to make a few little interjections about Obama at appropriate points. And I think that certainly one of the things that one could speculate on is the degree to which Obama has been influenced by the social gospel, as I think his pastor Jeremiah Wright very clearly was. There is a lot of evidence that he has been. For example, there was the famous speech that Obama gave in South Carolina, during the campaign, in which he declared his desire to be an “instrument of God” – and declared, quote, “I am confident that we can create a kingdom right here on Earth.” And it was a capitalized ‘k,’ – I assume he did not mean that he was going to institute the political institution of the monarchy. So definitely, echoes of the social gospel were there.
So Niebuhr initially bought into this. He bought into the social gospel movement. It fit with his upbringing. It fit with his reformist inclinations. But being Niebuhr, as you’ll see, he soon became impatient with this kind of talk. He became uneasy with the progressive movement. He found it and the social gospel to be utterly naïve about human nature, about the intractability of human nature, and inadequate to the task of explaining the nature of power relations as they existed in the real world.
Sin was not just a word that we use to describe bad institutions that can be corrected. Sin, he thought, was something much deeper, an intrinsic part of the human condition, something that social reform was powerless to do much, if anything, about. And – I just had to throw this in for E.J. – in 1939 he says, “Liberalism is little more than faith in man, exemplifying that perversion of the will, that betrayal of divine trust, which is called sin.” Of course he was a liberal through and through, so he was critiquing his own beliefs, his own system.
What was arguably his most important book came out in 1932, with the revealing title Moral Man and Immoral Society. Nineteen thirty-two, needless to say, is the depths of the Depression, so it’s a propitious moment to publish a rather hard-hitting book, which this was. Niebuhr turned the social gospelers’ view on its head or on its feet – whichever Marxian analogy you like – and argued that in fact there was a disjuncture between the morality of individuals and the morality of groups. And the latter – the morality of groups – that morality was generally inferior to the morality of individuals. I’ll explain that in a moment.
This was, he thought, a fixed condition, a fixed dynamic of human life. Individuals could, once in a while, in rare instances, transcend their self-interest for the sake of a larger good. But groups of individuals, especially groups like nations, never could. So in fact, groups made individuals worse rather than better because the work of collectives was invariably governed by a logic of self-interest.
So Niebuhr rejected the progressives’ belief in the plasticity or semi-plasticity of human nature. He thought sin was a better explanation. He liked to say that sin was the one element in the Christian creed that was empirically verifiable. (Laughter.) And he also took aim – and I think this is more radical than people appreciate – he took aim at the very concept of socialization, which for the progressives was so central.
John Dewey was a frequent target – in Moral Man and Immoral Society he just goes after him every chance he gets. John Dewey argued that “The lost individual will re-find inner wholeness … by subduing himself to the forces of organization at work in externals.” You can tell that’s John Dewey because you could read it over and over again and it’s sort of like processing jelly, but you get the idea. (Laughter.) Niebuhr thought almost the opposite was true. As I said before, men have little enough goodness in themselves and socialization makes them worse because the reason for being, for all social groups, is to pursue the shared self-interest of the members. So that self-interest is triumphant.
He dismissed as sentimentality the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome by intelligent reform and that there we could transform into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades holding hands beside the campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arenas of national and international politics had to take full account of the un-loveliness of human nature, and the un-loveliness of power. The implications for Christians who wanted to do good in the world were fairly stark in his view. They had to be willing to get their hands dirty – very dirty, for existing social relations were held together by coercion and only counter-coercion could change them.
Social change was brought about not by persuasion, diplomacy, pedagogy, intelligence or sweetness, but by – to use a term that he uses repeatedly in the book – “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” Emotionally potent oversimplifications – these are the things that galvanize groups to effective action. You see why I say this is a rather depressing outlook – (laughs) – and it doesn’t get any better.
A quotation: “Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations.” So the idea of solidarity – the campfire – is an illusion. Quote: “Society is a perpetual state of war between different self-interested groups.” Jesus Christ, meet Thomas Hobbes. Quote: “The only way a society can maintain itself is by the coercion of dominant groups who go on to invent romantic and moral interpretations of the facts, and the peace lasts only as long as the underdogs are kept down. Then when they are able to successfully challenge and coerce a new peace, they impose another set of romantic and moral interpretations of the facts.”
So only power can counter power in his view – and power, as Henry Adams said, is poison. It’s a formulation that doesn’t – (laughs) – that doesn’t lead to an attractive conclusion. His conclusion was that the exercise of power was always morally dangerous, but also always morally necessary. You had to act in the world. You couldn’t take the option of opting out. Hence, the need for a dualism in morals, since – and I quote again – “The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability and can only be countered by competing assertions of interests.” So that’s James Madison – (laughs) – along with Hobbes. But in none of this is there a release from the moral requirements of Christianity. I’ll come back to that.
This rather stark view extends very much to the nation-state. And this was a response on his part to the social gospel, to the progressive movement and to a rather long strain in American ideas – progressive ideas – about solidarity. Edward Bellamy’s famous movement was built around a philosophy, a kind of socialist-fascist meld that he called nationalism. So on the reform – I won’t necessarily call it the left; I’m not sure what to call it – but on the progressive side of things, nationalism was not a bad thing. But to Niebuhr it was.
Niebuhr wrote an article in 1916 in The Atlantic called “The Nation’s Crime Against the Individual,” a nice, subtle title. And the idea here was, and this is before American entry into the first world war, which he strongly supported, that the nation cheats the soldier because it takes his loyalty, his willingness to die and sacrifice, for its own purposes without being able to hallow that sacrifice. Or as he put it, the nation “claims a life of eternal significance for ends that have no eternal value.” Or as he expressed the same idea some 16 years later in Moral Man and Immoral Society, “Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism.” It is “the unselfishness of the individuals [that] makes for the selfishness of nations,” which “is why the hope of solving the larger social problems of mankind, merely by extending the social sympathies of individuals, is so vain.” So much for empathy.
But there’s an interesting twist here; it is that all of this rejection of the social gospel, affirmation of original sin and so on, did not mean that he gave up on social reform. And Niebuhr was a man of the left and he remained a man of the left always. Maybe not enough left to suit some people, but he certainly was never a conservative. And he believed Christians were obligated to work actively for progressive social causes, for the realization of justice and righteousness, but they had to do this in a way that, as he characteristically put it, abandoned their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves.
The pursuit of social justice would involve them in acts of sin and acts of imperfection. Even the most surgical action, one might say, involves collateral damage. But the Christian faith, just as inexorably, called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that would seem to give no quarter to dirty hands. So we’re left with the feeling that Niebuhr is calling Christians to the impossible and, in a sense, he is. He insists original sin is true. He insists that its probative value is confirmed every day. Yet he insists at the same time that human beings are splendidly endowed by their Creator, still capable of acts of nobility and generosity or truth, still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All of these things he insisted are true at the same time and all have an equivalent claim. So he’s correcting the social gospel. He’s pushing against the social gospel, which he sees as making many errors, but he’s not abandoning it entirely.
These ideas would continue to develop. In 1938, he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University, very prestigious lectures in natural theology. And these were later published as what is arguably his magnum opus, a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man, about which David Brooks once said, as I recall, “If you write a book with a title like that, you really feel like you have nothing else left to say.” (Laughter.) And that appeared in 1943. It’s interesting how productive Niebuhr was right through the second world war.
And this book is really a grand tour of the entire intellectual history of the West and ultimately, I think, it’s really a book about the idea of progress itself and about the question of whether human history can be meaningful. I want to stress that last point. One of Niebuhr’s great antagonists was Henry Ford. He hated Henry Ford, loathed him for his treatment of his workers. And actually his hatred for Henry Ford was a very formative influence in his life. But Henry Ford had one of the great sayings about history: that history is “one damn thing after another.” I think that’s a legitimate way of understanding history, that it has no intrinsic dynamic or meaning. But Niebuhr wanted to struggle with that, of course.
And as a thinking Christian he had to see some meaning in history. Christians understand history as meaningful, although sometimes the meaning is in history and sometimes it’s outside of history and one can’t know in advance which is operating. So it’s another one of these hazardous but necessary operations. What he felt had happened, however, in modern times, was that there was a secularized idea of progress that saw an immanent order, or as he called it, “an immanent logos,” that was no longer related to a transcendent meaning, but was inherent in history itself. And this idea of progress was something that had emerged out of Christianity, that was in some sense an outgrowth of Christianity’s worldview and ethos, but that had threatened to negate Christianity. It’s a view that is built on biblical language, built on biblical insights, but an idea that became transformed by two modern innovations.
First, there was the elimination of the notion that grace, meaning the supernatural intervention of divine power to give meaning to history, was necessary. And second, the thinkers who laid the foundation of modernity – and this I think is really where you get to the heart of Niebuhr – failed to see that the dynamism of history was a double-edged thing. These thinkers assumed that all development means the advancement of the good, but in so assuming, they failed to recognize – and this I think he sees as characteristic of all modernity – that, and I quote, “every heightened potency of human existence may also represent a possibility of evil.” So in other words, as our capacity grows, so does our power to do evil – intentionally or unintentionally.
Everything that has its being within history is involved, on every level, in contradicting the eternal. And so the tendency is, as he says, to complete the system of meaning falsely in a way that makes either the individual or the group the center of the system. And then Niebuhr goes on and says, “It’s not possible for any philosophy to escape this error … but it is possible to have a philosophy, or at least a theology, grounded in faith, which understands the error will be committed and that it is analogous to all these presumptions of history which defy the majesty of God.”
So he sees progress as a factor of history, a facet of history. He sees that it’s right to conceive of history dynamically. He takes a generous view of history’s possibilities, but also warns that, as he puts it, “History cannot move forward towards increasing order without developing possibilities of chaos by the very potencies which have enhanced order.” In other words, we’re never out of the woods. That’s my redaction there. And the danger only increases as we progress.
Man’s capacity for evil advances with his progress towards the good. Hence, the greater the progress, the greater the need for vigilance, the greater the need for some metaphysical check on human pride. The image I like to use to describe this is of a tightrope, one that is always going higher and higher and, as you know, with a tightrope, you have to keep moving forward. You can’t stop moving. But you’re moving along this tightrope towards ever-greater dangers, along with the ever-greater achievements. And that I think is the vision that he’s operating with.
I was going to say a little bit about The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, but I think I’m running out of time. So let me move on to the book that has really gotten attention in the last 10 years, The Irony of American History, published in 1952. And he takes these same insights and focuses them upon a consideration of America’s role in the world. Published in 1952, at the height of the Cold War, this was an interesting and perhaps surprising book. It was a stinging attack on communism and at the same time a stinging attack on America, on the moral complacency of America, a warning against the moral failings that would make America vulnerable.
That’s Niebuhr – typically, as always, fighting on two fronts at once. Nobody can top Niebuhr for his anticommunism, but he also believed the United States resembled its antagonists more than it cared to imagine. And much of the book is devoted to making that case. He criticizes the communists for their philosophical materialism, but then points out that Americans are guilty of the same thing in practice. Here’s a statement that I think rings just as true today as in 1952: “Despite the constant emphasis upon the ‘dignity of man’ in our own liberal culture, its predominant naturalistic bias frequently results in views of human nature in which the dignity of man is not very clear.”
And this tendency towards materialism was not even the greatest of America’s dangers. Even more perilous, he thought, was one of our principal points of pride, the entrenched idea that America has a providential mission in the world and our nation’s rendered uniquely virtuous and innocent by the blessings of that history. And he goes through a discussion of this, locating the beginnings of it in the Calvinist Puritan tradition, and then the Jeffersonian tradition, which saw America’s as nature’s nation, free from the encumbrances of the old world. It was the place of the new man, of the democratic future.
America was, so to speak, the land of the great reset button, presumably labeled in the correct manner. (Laughs.) Even Abraham Lincoln, who was not a dewy-eyed fellow, called America “the last best hope of mankind,” words that certainly, if nothing else, convey a kind of cosmic significance to American history.
Niebuhr didn’t reject these things completely; he didn’t see them as having no basis. He did not reject the greatness of America, but he insisted that the American belief that America had turned its back on history and made a new beginning for humankind was naïve and dangerous, laying America open to the sins of spiritual pride. It was a source of strength that turned into a source of weakness. And that is what he meant by the irony of American history, the tendency of American civilization to allow decent motives and noble intentions to blind it to the sins and errors to which it’s prone and thereby let its virtue become the source of its vice.
It was an irony because it was unintended, inadvertent, unconscious and a consequence of good intentions, rather than doing evil for the sake of a larger good, which he called tragedy, not irony. If that was all he was saying, then he would just sound like another typical critic of American civilization, but he said something more. He said America had to act in the world and do so effectively. It had no choice but to do so. In the same way that the sinful imperfect Christian is required to act in the world and get his or her hands dirty in working for the cause of good, so a morally imperfect America was obliged to employ its power in the world.
Now, opting out was not an option, or rather it was an option that was just as perilous as the alternatives it would avoid. And let me just read you a couple of passages that illustrate this, and then I’ll stop: “Our culture knows little of the use and abuse of power; but we have to use power in global terms. Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.” Fairly timely words, I think.
Needless to say, he rejects both of these options and continues this way: “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimated.” And I will stop there.
CROMARTIE: No, that’s great. We’ll just keep it rolling. Everybody here knows E.J. Dionne. I know you’ve spoken on Niebuhr a lot and we’re delighted to have you respond to Bill. Thank you.
DIONNE: Thank you, Mike. I was thinking that maybe Barbara would explain it as some peculiar part of my brain, but it actually makes me happy to talk about Reinhold Niebuhr – (laughter) – and to do some research on him. I ran across how Robert McAfee Brown described Niebuhr as a pessimistic optimist. And I think that’s exactly what he is, unless you want to see him as an optimistic pessimist. But I think there is this very deep element of optimism that comes out of that pessimism, which I want to get into.
Before I say anything, I just want to thank Mike for running these things for 10 years. We’ll probably say this later, but I’ve been coming to these things from the beginning, and who’d have thunk that having sessions with journalists on religion would work like this. Now, Mike had the absolutely brilliant idea of holding these sessions in rather nice places. (Laughter.) But for me it’s not only been the meetings, but also all the friends I have met through this. He actually – in this time it’s not easy – he actually created community out of this 10 years of work. So I thank him and the Pew Charitable Trusts. (Applause.)
And I also want to say it’s a great honor to be with Bill McClay. One of my very favorite essays on the general subject of religion in politics is a piece Bill wrote in 2003 called “Two Concepts of Secularism,” which I commend to everyone. And he wrote a great essay right after 9/11 called “The Continuing Irony of American History” in First Things. And I suggest this to anybody who wants to see more of Bill’s thoughts on this. It’s a very interesting read in the wake – all these years later.
Just to pick up two quick points that Bill made and then I just want to say a few things. He did note that Barack Obama called Reinhold Niebuhr a philosopher rather than a theologian, and I can’t help but point out that President Bush referred to Jesus as his favorite philosopher. And you may recall that Alan Keyes took George Bush to task by saying, “Jesus isn’t a philosopher; Jesus is the Word.” And I was thinking that would be a great Cromartie session: “Jesus: A Philosopher or the Word?” So I hope Mike gets refunded. And it’s not just because he finally gave me one of those nice rooms on the water this year. (Laughter.)
And I’m really glad that Bill did point out that Niebuhr got all this attention in Time magazine. Can you think of a talk show that would book Reinhold Niebuhr now? I was thinking about that. “Tell us, Reinhold, what do you mean by the irony of American history?” “Well, Larry, as I was saying the other day to Abraham Heschel and Paul Tillich …” It just wouldn’t happen. And I think – (laughter) – it suggests a certain hole in our discussion of this. Colbert would have him on; absolutely, absolutely.
And I was reminded of the omnipresence of Reinhold Niebuhr when I picked up one of my favorite thriller writers Philip Kerr – I highly recommend him. His hero is a perfect Niebuhrian character. He is a German detective in Nazi Germany. He’s anti-Nazi. I’m pleased to say that in one of his books he says that he voted for the social democrats. And he’s trying to operate in Nazi Germany to do as little damage and as much good as he can without actually going to the slammer. And I opened my Philip Kerr and there right at the beginning is the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr. So we were destined to have this discussion.
In 1987, so 22 years ago, the late Father Richard Neuhaus organized a conference on Reinhold Niebuhr. It was funded – you will be surprised – by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It is written that the Pew Trusts will always be with us. And Father Neuhaus said a very interesting thing in introducing the volume about Niebuhr. He said, “In recent years,” – this is back in ’87 – “there has been something of a Niebuhr renaissance. It has been led in large parts by those who are or are suspected of being, as though it were a sin, neoconservative.” And then he adds – and this part I very much agree with – “Attempting to capture Niebuhr for any partisan agenda, however, would be a great disservice both to Niebuhr and to what he can help us do today.”
And I think it says something about Niebuhr that this new Niebuhr revival, which I think we are seeing right now, is not being led primarily by neoconservatives, but actually by liberals and certain dissident conservatives like our friend David Brooks. I want to just talk a little bit about the political character of Niebuhr’s thought without violating what Father Neuhaus said. I do think in the end he is unmistakably, or if you have the other view, irredeemably, a liberal in the end. I wouldn’t use the word “irredeemably,” but it is something worth talking about because it’s very much a question of how his view of original sin fits in with a liberal worldview.
How do you sort of get at what being a Niebuhrian is? My original example was going to be about a baseball player, but in deference to our resident hockey star Clare Duffy, I decided to use a hockey player instead. A Niebuhrian hockey player tries to win the game, but does not assume victory renders him superior to his opponent and would admit that he may have won unfairly when he high-sticked Clare Duffy and got away with it. That’s a Niebuhrian hockey player. A Niebuhrian wagering in Vegas plays the odds intelligently and tries to win, but always admits that perhaps luck or God’s grace, not his system, is why he won.
A Niebuhrian will get into a fistfight if it’s absolutely necessary, but would be acutely conscious of the pain his blows are inflicting on his opponent and know that the very fact the fight is happening is proof of the fallen nature of both himself and the person he is fighting. (Laughter.) And a proper Niebuhrian will have a sense of humor about all of these things, understanding the profound ironies involved in trying to act effectively in the world and trying to act morally at the same time. And that’s why I love Reinhold Niebuhr.
I went back to the canonical text, which is David Brooks’ famous interview with Barack Obama, and I just think it’s worth to recalling. It was actually just a short statement by Obama, but it’s worth quoting to provide a context for the headline that Mike put on our discussion. David asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” Obama replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” And David asked what Obama took take away from Niebuhr. And here’s what Obama actually said. “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
That is actually a pretty good description of Reinhold Niebuhr. And whether Barack Obama, the politician, was pandering to David Brooks’ well-known love for Niebuhr or whether he was reflecting something deep in him, it sounded pretty deep and I think it’s actually not a bad description of the way Obama views the world. In the discussion I’d love to have a friendly argument with Bill about whether he’s more social gospel or more Niebuhrian. I think he’s actually more Niebuhrian. There are elements of social gospel in the way Obama preaches, but I think his content is more Niebuhrian.
Niebuhr – and this is probably why I like him – is much more a “both/and” guy. He’s a “yes, but” guy. His favorite words are “paradox” and “irony.” He is a 1940s liberal and that’s why there is the big debate between liberals and neocons because a lot of neocons say they are 1940s liberals. I think Niebuhr, later in life, suggested that he did not take the same path as some of his neoconservative friends, particularly with his very early support for the civil rights movement – although a lot of them supported the civil rights movement – but also with his strong opposition to the Vietnam War. But that’s just a piece of history that we can talk about. What I like about him is that he believes what he believes passionately, but with a sense of humility. I got some Niebuhr in Francis Collins’ presentation today.
Why are there Niebuhr revivals? Niebuhr is the person we turn to for balance. We turn to him when things get out of hand. He is a critic of the left’s utopianism and he’s a critic of the right’s tendency to deify our own country. His critique of original sin I think applies neatly at different times to both the right and the left in our politics. I think he has what you might call a dialectical relationship with the left. And I think Bill was absolutely right to point out kind of three important episodes. He reacted against the social gospel not because he opposed the economic or social programs of the social gospel but because he had a different understanding of human nature. He thought liberals had too optimistic a view of human nature.
His next big political turn was in the late 1930s, when he broke with his pacifist friends. The Christian Century, as you know, is still around, but he broke with The Christian Century and formed another magazine called Christianity and Crisis to argue that we needed to go to war against Hitler and Nazism. And then he made his mark again in politics, with a liberal anticommunism that made him one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. And I’m going to cite Schlesinger before I close.
Niebuhr never stopped being a liberal, but he was a liberal critic. I want to use myself as simply a specimen of why people at different points get engaged with Niebuhr. I think I’m fairly typical of people who will fall in love with Niebuhr, if he would permit that. I’m not even sure he would. (Laughter.)
I read The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, which is the first Niebuhr I read, in the early-to-mid-’70s. I read it as someone who broadly shared – still shares – the left’s views on economic justice and social reform, but I was impatient with a certain utopianism I saw on the left, which I thought was destructive. And I was also impatient with some parts of the left that seemed not to believe in the disciplines and limits placed upon our aspirations by the need to persuade majorities and to build consensus in democratic societies. I was and still am turned off by self-righteous moralism disguised as morality.
Mike Novak is someone who’s written very well on that over the years and I think that tendency to be moralistic rather than moral afflicts the right, the center, the left and even parts of the self-satisfied center. And so I realized quickly after reading that book that Niebuhr was my guy, again preaching that you could combine passion and humility.
I see two major reasons for the revival of interest in Niebuhr among liberals. One, I think some of the criticism by Christian moderates and liberals of what we would see as a hyper-politicized Christian right square very much with some of Niebuhr’s criticism of a certain style of Christianity, a kind of revivalism that he was critical of in his own time. Niebuhr enjoined the believer to understand that “the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.”
We need a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us and a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities. Americans, Niebuhr argued, were never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. One great Niebuhrian quote should hang over all seminars. Niebuhr once said that “we must always seek the truth in our opponents’ error and the error in our own truth.” And that is also classic Niebuhr.
I think the paradox is that – and my friend Bill Galston really called this to my attention – one of the paradoxes is that Niebuhr encourages us to doubt and the kind of doubt that Niebuhr encourages is the kind of doubt that faith ought to encourage. If faith is defined solely as a demand that everyone assent, without reservation, to a long and particular list of propositions, that’s an odd idea. But I think this is an inadequate understanding of the Christian and Jewish traditions, which always call us to a form of moral doubt that, as Bill Galston has said, calls upon us to question our motivations and pretensions to special virtue.
Niebuhr said, “No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.” He argued that some of the greatest perils to democracy arise from the fanaticism of moral idealists who are not conscious of the corruption of self-interest. And in his assertion, which might usefully have guided us during our debate over the war in Iraq, Niebuhr warned, “A nation with an inordinate degree of political power is doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities, if it is informed by an idealism which does not understand the limits of man’s wisdom and volition.”
David Brooks and I did a session on Niebuhr recently, and one point that emerged clearly is that it is not surprising that Niebuhr really came to popularity in a period when he was writing about Nazism and Stalinism, which were ideologies that justified despotic pretensions in the name of creating new human beings and perfect societies. Niebuhr had a strong sense of human nature as a constant. He was very skeptical of projects designed to create a new humanity and was very aware of how terrible these projects could become.
This is religion’s essentially moderating role, which is far removed from ideology and from many claims that religion can provide a detailed textbook for creating the perfect society here on Earth. Even the religious left’s talk of our obligation to build the kingdom of God’s justice on earth emphasizes a constant act of creation – building – not a final outcome that human beings can achieve on our own.
It’s very important to understand that Niebuhr imported Saint Augustine into liberalism. And a friend of many of ours, Jean Elshtain, captured this very well. She wrote – and this is a totally Niebuhrian thought on Jean’s part – that if Augustine is “a thorn in the side of those who would cure the universe once and for all, he similarly torments critics who disdain any project of human community or justice or possibility.” “Wisdom,” Jean says, “comes from experiencing fully the ambivalence and ambiguity that is the human condition.”
When David and I recently did the session on Niebuhr, at one point, I blurted out that maybe we were talking about the marriage of Madison, Lincoln and Niebuhr. And then I looked up and I said, wait a minute. That is polygamy. (Laughter.) And I don’t know what Niebuhr would think of that. But one of Niebuhr’s – and I think Bill alluded to this – one of Niebuhr’s favorite public statements by any politician is Lincoln’s second inaugural address. And you all remember the key passage in Lincoln’s second inaugural, when he said: “Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”
Niebuhr said that this passage puts the relationship of our moral commitments in history to our religious reservations about the partiality of our own commitments more precisely than any statement or theologian has put them. Think about it. If anybody could have claimed that he was on the right side of history or even that he was on God’s side, it was Abraham Lincoln fighting slavery during the Civil War. Yet, Lincoln himself refused in this extreme instance to presume an identification of his will with God’s will. And I think that Lincoln demonstrated as clearly as any statesman, which is why he is a Niebuhrian figure, that it is possible to undertake great tasks in politics with firmness, commitment, principle and courage and still not pretend to absolute certainty about one’s course, one’s intentions or the purity of one’s motives. And I should note that I have learned much about this point from Congressman David Price of North Carolina, who is a divinity school grad and has written very powerfully about the relationship between Lincoln’s thought and Niebuhr’s.
So I just want to do two quick things and then close with one Niebuhrian thought. And I want to thank Bill because I know he’s very fond of the same passage I’m going to read to close out my remarks, and I’m grateful that he didn’t read it, so I could use it.
I’d like to call attention to two essays on Niebuhr that I think remain very important, and they show the reach Reinhold Niebuhr had – and continues to have – across philosophical lines.
Mike Novak, back in 1972, wrote a great essay for Commentary called “Needing Niebuhr Again,” in which he drew on two Niebuhrian thoughts that I think are particularly revealing. Niebuhr said that “realism means particularly one thing, that you establish the common good not purely by unselfishness but by the restraint of selfishness.” That sounds an awful lot like James Madison.
In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr said famously: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” One of the reasons Mike liked him – Mike then was still a liberal, but in transit over to the conservative side – is because Novak was very critical of what he saw as a new-class kind of privileged liberal. And he thought that Niebuhr called the bluff of those folks.
Mike wrote: “Pure intentions, high goals and unblemished radicalism of mind did not absolve men of the ambiguous consequences of what they estimate to be their most morally radiant actions. Political life does not follow the form of a morality play. It is tragic, and that is a Niebuhrian view.”
The other essay that’s worth looking up is one Arthur Schlesinger wrote, a beautiful piece in The New York Times magazine in 2005, an essay in which I think Schlesinger successfully claims Niebuhr back for the liberals.
Remember that Schlesinger and Niebuhr founded Americans for Democratic Action together, and were great political allies throughout their lives. Schlesinger used some of Niebuhr’s criticisms of the pretensions of American power as a critique of the Iraq war, and spoke of how liberals profited from an awareness of original sin that Niebuhr taught them.
This is Schlesinger: “The notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he declared: ‘Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection.’ In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago, dean of American political scientists, wrote in The New Democracy and the New Despotism: ‘There is a constant trend in human affairs toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility.’ Human ignorance and unjust institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world.”
This is Schlesinger again: “If proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was OK.”
Yet Schlesinger said that this notion became absurd for liberals when they confronted the evils of both Nazism and Stalinism. Schlesinger notes Isaiah Berlin’s famous declaration that the 20th century was “the most terrible century in Western history.” And this is Schlesinger: “The belief in human perfectibility had not prepared us for Hitler and Stalin. The death camps and the gulags proved that men were capable of infinite depravity. The heart of man is obviously not OK. Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature and history came as a vast illumination. His argument had the double merit of accounting for Hitler and Stalin and for the necessity of standing up to them.” And I think that is at the heart of The Irony of American History.
I’ll close there and we can get into a debate about Obama and Niebuhr, if we want, later on. But I just want to close with this thought. I’ve always said that the reason I like this optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism is I’ve always said to myself that I think I’m a psychological optimist because I am an intellectual pessimist. I am not shocked when people do bad things. I’m actually amazed at how well people do under the circumstances, so perhaps it’s worth noting Gene Debs’ great line that there should be another beatitude: Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.
But I think a Niebuhrian view of the world insists that you can hold on to hope, that good Obama word, even with a realistic view of the capacity of human beings to make mistakes, and even, at times, to perform great acts of evil. It is possible, as Jesse Jackson likes to say, to keep hope alive. So this is my concluding prayer, really from Reinhold Niebuhr.
He wrote in The Irony of American History: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.” I hope you will forgive in that spirit any flaws in this presentation. (Laughter.)
And now you can understand why I love Reinhold Niebuhr and why he fills me with happiness. Thank you very much.
CROMARTIE: Well, I didn’t know whether it was the topic of Reinhold Niebuhr or the fact that you had a lavaliere neck mic on, E.J. I’ve never seen you preach so much like that. That was great. Thank you. And thank you, Bill. David, you’re up first.
DAVID VAN BIEMA, TIME: This is both for Professor McClay and also for E.J. And so E.J. remembers it’s for him, I’m going to pervert one of his metaphors by saying that waterboarding is the ultimate form of high-sticking. And I don’t know much about Niebuhr. And the answer to this may be so obvious as to not make it enlightening, but if I understand you correctly and he believed in the necessity of acting, and getting one’s hands dirty and exerting power, while at the same time believing that inevitably there would be problems with pride and that the state was particularly apt to fall into the sin of delusion of special virtue, where would he come down in the torture debate?
MCCLAY: Part of what I was getting to in this overlong talk that I’ve prepared was the list of things that I think are wrong with Niebuhr, or are inadequate, and one of them may address this. And I actually think of E.J.’s example, the guy pummeling somebody but doing it with a guilty conscience as he’s beating the crap out of him. It’s awfully hard to tell whether a leader is acting in a Niebuhrian way or just in an unscrupulous way. You know, a lot of it has to do with an inner disposition that’s not visible to us. And that’s a problem, especially in political life where you have to deal with external standards and principles that, particularly in a democratic society, ought to be open to general scrutiny.
So a great example of this is – and I get this all the time from people on all sides because I’m a great admirer of Niebuhr and I’m happy about this revival – but when it comes to more general issues of war. For obvious reasons pacifists don’t like Niebuhr. I don’t even need to explain that. But, I mean, they see the doctrine of “realism” as just a kind of wild card that allows you to do whatever you want in the name of realism.
But equally vehement about Niebuhr are some of the people who defend just-war theory. Their argument is, look, we have a whole set of criteria that often are hard to nail down in particular instances, but at least as principles they are worth observing and worth trying to follow as a way of taming and legitimizing warfare in a civilized world. And in their view Niebuhr chucks all that, and says, well, you are going to get your hands dirty, bad things have to happen, but you’ve got to exercise power and innocents have to die, and eggs have to be broken to make omelets. He would never say that in that way, of course.
But you get my point, that there is some way in which what he writes can be very powerful in dealing with this way that “power is poison,” in Henry Adams’ terms – that it’s just inescapable. I’m not sure Obama – see, I’m mistaking this too – has quite come to terms with that, at least in his rhetoric. But that’s where I think the real test will come. But back to this issue of torture and war. I think that the problem with Niebuhr is he doesn’t give you clear standards by which to make judgments and have it legitimated in the public arena.
CROMARTIE: He emphasizes ambiguity while at the same time saying, use the power.
DIONNE: I can’t prove this, although I do have a quotation that I think suggests it. I think if you look back at some of the things Niebuhr said about the Vietnam War, they suggest that he would have opposed waterboarding. I think he would have ended up on the side of those who said, we must fight the terrorists but we can’t use every method and that those methods demean us and hurt us.
And my support for that – again, we can’t know for certain – are the very last words of The Irony of American History. He says: “For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.” If you want to make a case against waterboarding, that’s a pretty good text to cite.
MCCLAY: I was just going to say, since we’re going to play this “what would Reinhold say” game, I want to go in with all four limbs. I think that, certainly, if you were updating The Irony of American History, there would be a discussion of the ways in which the jihadists have elements of truth in their critique of American culture. Astonishing as it may sound, I think he would raise that issue. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.
ROSS DOUTHAT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Just to bounce one alternative possibility, especially off you E.J.: I wonder what you think of the idea that maybe what Niebuhr would say is that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 is the kind of forgivable excess that you expect from governments, but that the torture memos of 2005 are the kind of thing that shouldn’t be forgiven. And I don’t know. What do you think about that kind of distinction, the sort of institutionalization versus the sort of crisis mentality, getting your hands dirty with an individual case?
DIONNE: First of all, Bill is fundamentally right. The “what would Niebuhr say and do” debate is pretty tough to carry out.
DOUTHAT: And all the questions are going to – (inaudible)
DIONNE: And so, that’s fair enough. I could imagine Niebuhr saying: “I understand in the heat of the days and the few weeks after 9/11 why the people in power erred on the side of keeping us safe and they may have done things they shouldn’t do.” I still find it hard – again, we can debate this.
I still think he would have ended up on the critical side because what’s so fascinating about Niebuhr is the neocons have always sort of liked him, as Father Neuhaus suggests, because he always talked about the legitimacy of using American power in the world. And there were moments when the people on the left were seen as always declaring that American power in the world, the use of American power, is wrong and illegitimate. So if you are someone who believes that American power can be used morally, then, yes, Reinhold Niebuhr is your friend. But, he was also always very wary of jingoism, of our tendency not to look at our own flaws, the danger of overreach, the danger of doing things that were immoral in a moral cause.
And those are two sides of Niebuhr, and in some ways, you can say it’s an ambiguity, but I think fundamentally it actually holds together; you know, a shorthand is: American power can be used morally but it should be used with fear and trembling and we have to be very careful about how we use it. I don’t know. Would Bill disagree with that summary?
MCCLAY: Yes. What I would say is, one of the fundamental building blocks of the argument in The Irony of American History is that Americans are utterly bedazzled by this notion of innocence, desire for innocence. And I don’t know what he would say about this, but I think he might react to the current kind of orgy of interest in this subject that has to come up on every occasion.
And I’m not criticizing you for bringing it up, and there has been a lot of this, I think, in the early months of this administration, this pushing the reset button, this desire to kind of scapegoat and exorcise the past. This is contrary to the spirit of Niebuhr. There’s no basis in Niebuhr for thinking that America was ever innocent, that any administration is innocent or that there’s any reset button that any administration can ever push to make itself innocent.
So that doesn’t answer the specific question about this one issue, but I think it’s reasonable to deduce from his work – given that I don’t know what he’d say – but it’s reasonable to deduce that he might think that the emphasis on whether sending John Yoo and Jay Bybee to prison is going to atone for our national sins, over a war that began as a very broadly popular undertaking but later became a great burden to the national psyche, is a morally misplaced emphasis. Whether that’s an appropriate deduction – that’s a different question. I think they’re connected.
MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: I’ll change the subject. I think I played this role before in this kind of setting. But let me maybe defend the social gospel –
DIONNE: I love that.
GERSON: – at least properly understood, against the Niebuhrians, and ask your opinion on one point. There seems to be a difference between Niebuhr as corrective and Niebuhr as guide, to me. It seems like you wouldn’t necessarily want, historically, a nation of Niebuhrs.
You look at the way social progress took place in America. It was often true believers, patriots who believed we were a new order for the ages, or William Lloyd Garrison who believed in absolute social equality between blacks and whites when no one else did, for purely religious reasons, or William Jennings Bryan, who had this kind of fundamentalist social gospel because he believed in it absolutely. You know, true believers in this context.
Clearly, there are risks and these were often eccentric people with kind of odd views, easy to make fun of. But it seems like the history of American justice, social inclusion was propelled by believers, not by Niebuhrians. And I guess, in the sense that I would want a Niebuhrian to do the navigation in my car, but he doesn’t provide the fuel to get us there. The fuel is a belief in justice and truth in American history. So I’m wondering how you combine that kind of respect for Niebuhr as corrective with a recognition that that has not been the motivating principle of either the founding of our country or the progress of justice?
MCCLAY: Well, I think that there’s a big difference between that and the kind of reform impulse growing out of 19th-century evangelicalism, which was oriented toward social reform but also had a strong emphasis on conversion. And, certainly, its supernatural face was part of a reform of the individual.
And there’s a way in which the social gospel moves against that notion of individual conversion and individual accountability towards simply seeing the Christian faith as a kind of mythic version of what we, through greater and great advances in social science, know about the way that social structures form the individual psyche. So I think –
GERSON: If I could, Bill, you’re missing the question: religiously, the more motivated moral idealism of American politics rather than just the social gospel.
GERSON: It’s hard to regard William Jennings Bryan, who had a fundamentalist theology, as evidence of the social gospel, but he was, certainly, probably politically more influential of any of the advocates of the social gospel in changing the definition of the Democratic Party and doing all sorts of other things. Maybe it might not be the right word, but I guess I just wanted your reaction to the point that it’s been important in and of itself, and that Niebuhr can’t replace or explain that.
DIONNE: Now I see what you mean. Let me just say – Bill, do you want to –
MCCLAY: Go ahead.
DIONNE: What I want to say, first of all, is bless you for defending the social gospelers, because I have affection for them too, and in particular for their critique of the society that surrounded them.
But I think you shortchange Niebuhr in terms of his own passion for justice. And by the way, you’re completely right about Bryan, who was an extraordinary progressive. We forget how everybody sees him in light of the Scopes trial and forgets that he rejected Darwinism because he hated social Darwinism and how Darwin was used to justify radical inequality. So I identify with all that.
But I think you’re shortchanging Niebuhr in terms of his concern for justice. Richard Fox talks about how well into the 1950s Niebuhr could be very passionate in his critique of how capitalism actually works. In 1954, he wrote that capitalism had again become too complacent. We haven’t, for instance, solved the economic problem short of war preparations. There was a passion in him for justice. His critique of the social gospelers was not against their mission. And he certainly did not lack for a willingness to fight for labor, or for Social Security, or for all kinds of corrections to a system of unfettered capitalism.
I think he was critical of social gospelers on two grounds. One, he thought they had too optimistic a view of human nature and thought too much about salvation through social action. They forgot about sin along the way. And that in turn led to sort of a politics that didn’t work. He was not against the original motives of the social gospelers.
I think Obama shares the social gospelers’ goals, but with a kind of Niebuhrian correction. You know, in that famous speech at Sojourners, he talked a lot about social injustice, but then, he also talked about individual accountability and responsibilities. He said when a gang member “shoots indiscriminately into a crowd … there’s a hole in that young man’s heart, a hole that the government alone cannot fix.”
Contraception could reduce teen pregnancy rates, he said, but he also talked about faith and guidance, which “help fortify a young woman’s sense of self, a young man’s sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.” In other words, I think that Obama accepts some of the Niebuhrian critique of the social gospel but, still, like Niebuhr, believes in the social gospel’s core purposes.
CROMARTIE: Quick comment? Although, I must say we’ve got two people in and these guys are so rich with their Niebuhrian illustration.
DIONNE: Or they don’t shut up.
MCCLAY: I would only say that one of the things that Niebuhr insisted on, and it was another source of his criticism of the social gospel because it was so completely subservient to the idea of the nation, was the idea that an emphasis upon the collectivity over the individual could easily lend support to a kind of quasi-totalitarianism.
And he says explicitly in his later book The Self and the Dramas of History that you have to have some source of value standing above the values inherent in history in order for those values to have validity.
And even though he was himself very much of a theological liberal, he worried that the social gospel dispensed unwisely with the entire supernatural element of faith, which not only was necessary as a driving force for reform, but kept that balance, serving as a corrective to the tendency of all social aggregates to tyrannize the individual.
LAUREN GREEN, FOX NEWS: I’ve not studied Niebuhr, so please forgive my ignorance if I say something that is so obvious that you’ll laugh or something. But it seems to me that Niebuhr has this incredible understanding of the paradigm of the original sin, the fall, that we live in a broken world; but also of this narrative of redemption that there is definitely hope out there, this understanding that there are two prodigal sons, not just one. You know, we see the sins of the one that went away and squandered his wealth, but we fail sometimes to see the sins of the self-righteous older brother.
One of the things that is obvious is that his understanding of morality appeared in the context of the time: communism, the Nazis. What would he view as the evil today? What would his position be on the economic crisis? But also, is his effect on policy quantifiable? Did he have access to presidents like a Billy Graham did? Is there any quantifiable effect of him on American policy in any kind of administration?
MCCLAY: On the last part, I don’t think so. Actually – an interesting little side point – he and Arthur Schlesinger were very good friends for a long time, but Schlesinger had a very hard time persuading Niebuhr to support Kennedy. Niebuhr finally did, but with some reluctance. He was no fan of the family. He hated, he just absolutely loathed and distrusted Bobby. And the father, Joseph Kennedy, of course was awful, in Niebuhr’s view. JFK was OK, by comparison, but the thing he really held against JFK – and this is all amply documented in correspondence – were his sexual dalliances –
CROMARTIE: He knew about them?
MCCLAY: Oh, yes. Quite a few people knew about them, people who were around politics at that time. Yes, absolutely. And Niebuhr was very, very concerned not only about the sorts of risks that this would entail in terms of blackmail and national security, which he was very savvy about, but also what it said about the character of the man. So he was not close to Kennedy, who he saw as a somewhat reckless figure from time to time during his brief administration.
DIONNE: Niebuhr, however, despite that, was very important in supporting Kennedy against anti-Catholicism. Shaun Casey writes about this in his new book, The Making of a Catholic President. Not all liberal Protestants were comfortable with having a Catholic president, and within liberal Protestantism, Niebuhr was passionately opposed to bigotry against Catholics, and he played a very important role there. So despite his doubts, he was there.
MCCLAY: That’s right.
DIONNE: I think, when you think about his impact on policy over the whole period – his work in the labor movement, his support for the civil rights movement and all the work around Americans for Democratic Action ¬- he was engaged in all of the core social reform movements of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. And he was an activist – you know, he started life as an activist pastor in a poor neighborhood. He wasn’t a community organizer, but he almost was.
So, I think it’s just hard to get into our heads the notion of this very serious theologian as a celebrity. He really was a celebrity in that period, of a certain kind. So I don’t know how much he went in and out of the White House. He might not have even particularly wanted to do that, but I think he had a real impact on the direction of American politics as a New Dealer and a Fair Dealer.
MCCLAY: Well, one area in which I think you can document influence is in the way that the doctrine of containment came to be formulated. Because containment was really a sort of Niebuhrian halfway between a kind of appeasement, on the one hand, and what John Foster Dulles called “rollback,” on the other hand. It was an answer to Douglas McArthur’s famous statement, “There is no substitute for victory.” You know, it was this notion that containing – which is actually a very Lincoln-esque strategy – containing the expansion of communism, not rolling it back but containing it, would eventually lead to the destruction, the internal unraveling and destruction of the system.
Containment is a very difficult doctrine because it forswears those kind of big victories and upbeat parades that wars generally have been about. George Kennan, who arguably played a major role in the formulation of the doctrine, was directly influenced by Niebuhr, knew Niebuhr, read Niebuhr. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that something of the Niebuhrian mood influenced Kennan in that long telegram and “Mr. X” article and these other documents that ended up becoming formative to containment – the way those policies and perspectives became formulated. So that’s a big influence.
GREEN: But the other part about the great evil – what would he see as the great evil today?
MCCLAY: That I just don’t know. He’d be very concerned about biotechnology, I suspect. He already was. In The Irony of American History there are already passages about it. So I think he’d be very concerned about that.
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: I’ll try to be quick. Writing about religion for The Wall Street Journal, I always look for openings to talk about economics.
So I wanted to press you, E.J., and you, Bill, a little more on his views on economics. It was interesting to me that from the quote you read from Obama, he seemed right away to want to talk about Niebuhr’s view of economics, and I think a lot of us tend to think about his views of foreign policy as the most formative ones. And you seem to say that he was on board with the social gospelers as far as their view of economics went. And, if you can clarify that, that would be great.
And then, I guess the second half of that question is, if he saw institutions as so inherently sinful, even more so than individuals, I wonder what he thought about the potential for institutions to solve economic problems like poverty as opposed to individuals sort of bringing themselves out of it.
MCCLAY: I think his instincts were socialist. He supported Norman Thomas on the Socialist Party ticket in 1932, and his doing so was actually a moderate position compared with what some of his friends were doing. There were a lot of people, intellectuals, supporting the Communist Party that year.
However, I do think you can deduce from Niebuhr some support for free market principles, simply because really, by the time he writes The Irony of American History, he’s completely sold on the structure and dynamics of the U.S. Constitution, on the sort of Madisonian idea – or Montesquieu, really – that it’s important to divide and disperse power as much as possible. But he’s clearly sold on all of that. I think economics is one area in which he could be a little formulaic and weak and just kind of go with the journalism of the day rather than thinking and reading deeply into it, and thinking independently.
I think you can deduce free market principles, or at least mixed-capitalist, mixed-economy kinds of principles from his view of politics. But I think it would be anachronistic to go too far with that. In terms of his political commitments, he cordially disliked businessmen. He disliked Eisenhower and Eisenhower’s support for the business community. He was much more of an Adlai Stevenson kind of guy.
DIONNE: A quick concrete answer that parallels this. He was either a liberal or a social democrat. This is from Richard Fox’s biography. Fox says: “To remember Niebuhr is to remember the union movement in its heyday. For most of his life, the word ‘justice,’ a term constantly on his lips, meant justice for workers, especially industrial workers. Only at the very end of his life did ‘justice’ come to mean racial justice to the same degree that it meant industrial justice.” Although he was still earlier than most in supporting civil rights.
“When Niebuhr tried to give concrete content to his notion of justice, he instinctively thought about equalizing standards of living, reducing job insecurity and enacting social insurance schemes. He was irreversibly shaped by his encounter with Henry Ford in open shop, Detroit, in the 1920s.” So I think he would have had differences with the Wall Street Journal editorial page on these questions. (Laughter.)
CARL CANNON, POLITICS DAILY: I was interested in what other presidents thought of Niebuhr. Bill mentioned Jimmy Carter. Three presidents have mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr. Lyndon Johnson gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bill Clinton gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Rauh and mentioned that he worked for Niebuhr. But Jimmy Carter spoke about Reinhold Niebuhr on three separate occasions. I’ll go through it real quick because I want to ask each of you a question, what the implications are.
One was in May of 1978. Carter was talking to the Los Angeles Bar Association and he said, “As a governor and as a president” – and this made me think that he was thinking about Niebuhr even when he was governor – he said that he’d learned that “as Reinhold Niebuhr said, it is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world.”
In March 1978, he said, “From the experience of the urban renewal program of the 1950s, we learned to be skeptical about what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘the doctrine of salvation through bricks’ – the idea that we can bulldoze away our urban problems.” That was a bit of a straw man. Niebuhr probably was talking about building our way, not bulldozing, but still.
And then, in June, same year, he actually quoted and named Moral Man in Immoral Society, and Carter went on this riff, and he said that Niebuhr “pointed out the difference between a society and people. The expectations and demands on a person are a much higher standard. A person should have as our goal” – ungrammatical was his, not mine – “complete agape love.” The sitting president. He just went on this riff. “The most we can expect from a society is to institute simple justice.”
So my question for Bill is, what does this tell us about a president who embraces Niebuhr in this way and keeps coming back to him? And then, I would ask you, E.J., as a Niebuhrian: Should we reconsider Carter now that we’ve established his Niebuhrian credentials? Carter was Mike Gerson’s candidate in 1976, it should be pointed out.
CROMARTIE: Carl, what was your source? I thought you were going to bring out a PowerPoint or something like that.
CANNON: No. Trust me on those quotes.
CROMARTIE: Okay. You were just quoting. (Laughter.)
CANNON: From the public papers of the president.
CROMARTIE: You brought them with you?
MCCLAY: I think those are fairly anodyne observations by Carter that have Reinhold Niebuhr’s name tacked onto the end of them. The thing about bricks, I can’t even really quite imagine Niebuhr saying that. But he wrote so much that it’s quite possible he did.
I think Carter may have at some point been a serious student of Niebuhr. I just don’t know. But there’s a kind of Niebuhr line that you can embrace which is to say, well, you can’t expect the same things of institutions that you do of individuals. True, but that seems fairly obvious. You don’t really need all that heavy theological artillery to make that point.
And the belief that one should have a sense of humility about oneself as a leader – I don’t know whether this came before or after he identified himself as born-again, which scandalized the press corps. Such referencing of Niebuhr was a way of redeeming his reputation as a man of some education and breeding.
I don’t want to be too harsh about it. But if you look at Carter’s presidency, I think, in fact, many of the criticisms that Niebuhr makes of the children of light – that they have a kind of conviction about their virtuousness and the virtuousness of their cause, and that by being virtuous and showing their virtue they will sway the opinions of others – this just doesn’t work in Niebuhr’s view. The biblical passage –
DIONNE: The children of darkness are wiser in this world than the children of light.
MCCLAY: In this generation. Yes.
DIONNE: Yes. In this generation.
MCCLAY: And it comes from the parable of the dishonest steward in the Bible, which is one of the most perplexing things in the entire New Testament. I never have known what it means. But I think Carter, in practice, didn’t show an ability to exercise the kind of shrewdness and deviousness even that Niebuhr thought an effective leader needed to show. He hadn’t really taken in all of Moral Man and Immoral Society. By the way, as we were talking I did think of something else in Niebuhr: that he was a tremendous influence on Martin Luther King.
DIONNE: Yes. I was going to say that. That’s really important.
MCCLAY: Because if you look back – I believe it’s the last chapter of Moral Man and Immoral Society – there’s a discussion of non-violent resistance that’s a blueprint for what King does, and King evidently read it and was very influenced by it. King is not an example of a political leader, but an example of a social leader, a movement leader.
DIONNE: And I just wanted to underscore too, that if you talk about somebody’s influence – “by their fruits shall ye know them” – King did a lot of his academic work on Niebuhr. Richard Fox says Niebuhr didn’t see race as early as he saw the injustice of labor, but he was pretty early in understanding how important racial equality was.
And in terms of Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter was, and is, an intellectually serious believer and he’s an intellectually serious believer of a certain age. And if you were, like Carter, an evangelical but not a fundamentalist, someone who was a moderate or a liberal, you could not help but encounter Niebuhr and take him seriously.
You can debate, as Bill suggested, exactly how he applied Niebuhr. But I don’t think Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 because he sort of loved Reinhold Niebuhr. I don’t think it changes our view of him. I think we knew that he was a thoughtful Christian. He lost because of stagflation and the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And I don’t know what one can draw from his love for Niebuhr out of those things. I don’t mean to be glib about it. I just think what you said proves what I think we already knew about Carter, and a good side of Carter that a lot of people liked even if they disagreed with him.
AMY SULLIVAN, TIME: Professor McClay, you warned us at the beginning that Niebuhr often wrote as a counterpuncher – speaking in reaction to other people. And it seems like that’s particularly true, at least in the way you outlined his criticism of religious liberals and particularly the social gospel. You could be excused for coming away from that thinking that he wasn’t that different and that he believed Christians still should be engaged in efforts to make the world a better place and progress in social causes. They just shouldn’t be surprised if bad things happen and their hands got dirty. But there must be more to it than that. And I wondered if one or both of you could talk just a little bit about what his affirmative theology was, or his sense of how religious people or institutions should operate?
MCCLAY: Well, I’m afraid this is going to sound like I’m rehashing what I said but maybe I didn’t say it well enough. I think that Niebuhr wanted to stress – and yes, he is counterpunching when he does this – that there is no resolution to the problems of politics in this life. You can ameliorate suffering here and there, and you are obliged to try to do so. But the notion that history is somehow moving towards some sort of omega point where frictionless social relations will come into being, where the self-realization of individuals is going to occur in an unimpeded way, that it’s possible to imagine that the interests of different individuals and different groups are not going to clash, and clash in a way that’s more or less permanent in character, that those interests may shift around in complexion but will not clash – that’s an illusion.
DIONNE: He was anti-utopian.
DIONNE: That’s a concise word.
MCCLAY: Yes. I don’t believe in being concise. They pay me by the word. But you know, I’m trying to unpack what anti-utopian means in this context. It doesn’t just mean having moderate expectations. It doesn’t mean that perfection can only be approached asymptotically, and is not achievable for us here below. For Niebuhr, it is something much more disturbing. It’s the notion that the more we progress, the more we put ourselves in danger. That’s a very scary but very powerful principle. And I think that’s very different from the kind of progressive view that the social gospelers, by and large, took. But there’s an argument to be made that he oversimplifies people like Walter Rauschenbusch, who are not quite as blithe and naïve as he makes them out to be. And John Dewey even.
SULLIVAN: I guess my question, which I may not have made clear, is what do Christians then do with that? That may be the view, but then, how should they proceed?
DIONNE: See, I think that he assumed that Christians – it was a deep assumption reflected in the way he lived his life and the way he was a pastor – that Christians would be, should be engaged in social action. When you were a minister in a poor parish in Detroit – a place you love – at a time of union organizing, low wages and all the struggles going on. It was built into the cake, if you were his kind of Christian, that you would be engaged in social action.
What he was about was trying to think through not only what was the most effective form of social action, but also how should one think about that social action as a Christian. He came to believe – he started out as a socialist, and still maintained some of the socialist aspirations – nonetheless he came to see utopianism as both theoretically flawed and also as ineffectual in politics.
Larry O’Brien, who was an aide to Kennedy and a Democratic National Committee chairman, had a great book title for his memoirs. The book title was No Final Victories. And I think that’s an excellent view of democratic – small ‘d’ – politics. I suppose, for that matter, capital ‘d’ too. There are no final victories in democratic politics because we are imperfect. The world is imperfect. All political systems are imperfect, so you have to just keep fighting. And you shouldn’t give up because you don’t win a final victory.
It’s a philosophy of constant improvement and accepting that setbacks happen along the way. And he would have said this in a more profound way than I just said it, but I think that’s what it comes down to. And, at least to me, that is probably the most rational way to approach democratic politics.
MCCLAY: Can I say one other thing? I think I’m getting a better feel for what you’re really asking. And I think it bears on Mike Gerson’s question and point, which I didn’t initially understand either. Niebuhr lived in a time when you could count on Christian culture as a propulsive force, when your real task was how to channel that, how to correct it, how to keep it from its worst excesses and make it more self-aware and self-critical.
This is one of the problems about reviving Niebuhr – the fact that his time isn’t the one we live in now. Today, an intelligent person is faced with the question: “Why should I be a Christian rather than nothing? Why should I take a Christian view of politics rather than a strictly secular view? What does the Christian modifier contribute to all of this?” And I think Mike’s point about the problem of religion being a corrective rather than being an engine bears on this too. These are questions that Niebuhr didn’t really have to face.
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: It struck me that so far, a lot of the conversation about Niebuhr has centered on his enduring, or perhaps not-so-enduring, influence on American politics and on policymakers both current and past.
And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether that influence is discernable at all in American Christianity today, given that that was the realm in which he was operating.
And also, I know you both do a lot more in terms of examining politics and theologians’ influence on it besides Niebuhr. Looking at Obama, his public statements, the degree to which he invokes the Bible, or religion, or father, or morality, do you see any other specific figures besides Niebuhr and traditions like the social gospel shining through his words? And I don’t know if you’d go so far as to say actions. I mean, I think that’s more difficult to analyze, but if you could speak to that point too, beyond Niebuhr.
MCCLAY: Well, let me make one observation to start with, and I think E.J. would be better on Obama than I am. One thing that’s curious about all of this, and I think it tells you something about the times we’re living in too, is that – I think I mentioned this in passing – if you venture into the seminaries, what you will find is that Niebuhr is almost universally held in low esteem. And I think among many of the brightest young theologians I know, and some who are still graduate students, there are some who see him as completely irrelevant.
CROMARTIE: Is it because they don’t like the ambiguity?
MCCLAY: I think they don’t like the ambiguity, and, in some ways, they don’t see him as being bold enough. He’s tailored too much for a secularist worldview. Stanley Hauerwas is –
CROMARTIE: A theologian at Duke University.
MCCLAY: – is, in some ways, far more influential. And Stanley Hauerwas – to talk about a counterpuncher – he has pretty much made a career out of eviscerating Reinhold Niebuhr at every turn, including in his own Gifford lectures. So what’s odd is that people in the position of David Brooks and E.J. and others – I suspect E.J. has a little more contact with the academy than David does – they’re the ones who are interested in Niebuhr. And people like me. I’m a historian. I’m not even in a theological world. But the theologians, I think they see him as a back number.
Now, what that means, I don’t know. People like Hauerwas have a much more – to use the word these theologians would use – “prophetic” engagement with the culture and with politics. One way of translating “prophetic” means without any sort of acknowledgement of the sort of half-measures and compromises and acquiescence that you need to make to be politically effective. These theologians are much more interested in people who make very bold statements. And in that sense, ambiguity is indeed part of the complaint.
CROMARTIE: Let me just ask, Bill, before E.J. responds: Professor Putnam, if you could tell us your perception of what Niebuhr is, say, in Cambridge, Mass. Or at least, if you know, in the divinity school or in the political science world in which you work.
MCCLAY: Well, there is a Reinhold Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary, where he taught. And the guy who occupies it –
DIONNE: He’s a great guy. Gary Dorrien.
MCCLAY: Yes. He’s a big critic of Niebuhr.
DIONNE: He’s an affectionate critic of Niebuhr.
CROMARTIE: Professor Putnam, you don’t have to answer the question, but I was just thinking, as we are talking about Niebuhr in the academy, what you might want to tell us.
ROBERT PUTNAM, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: This is what will cause you to withdraw the invitation to me to speak here even tomorrow because actually, I have relatively little contact with the divinity school at Harvard and almost no contact with theologians. It’s not a matter of principle. (Laughter.)
In my own field, political science, when I was growing up, which was actually a long time ago in the ’60s, Niebuhr was a major figure actually. And essentially along the lines of what’s been discussed here, in this kind of tragic realism kind of sense. So, probably, most political scientists of my generation know a little bit about Niebuhr. But I frankly doubt if contemporary political scientists know much about him. And maybe they should, I think, from a political-science point of view, not from a theological point of view.
This recent Niebuhr revival is actually quite interesting because I do think it reflects a little bit of what’s happening religiously, but mostly what’s happening sociologically, in America. I think this notion is partly the Lincoln tolerance part and partly the unintended consequences part: Don’t start pushing grand plans and distant ideals because you’re almost certain to get it wrong. That part, along with the hope part. I don’t know if that fits theologically or not now, but I think I see it as a little bit of the ethos of our times. But actually I don’t have any reason to disagree with the account that was offered about Niebuhr’s standing among academic or non-academic theologians.
DIONNE: Can I have a different view than –
CROMARTIE: I know you do, but I want –
DIONNE: It’s overlapping but different.
CROMARTIE: Okay. Here it is.
DIONNE: Bill, you may not completely disagree with this. It seems to me that Niebuhr went out of fashion somewhere in the 1960s and that was partly a product of the anti-war movement, which saw him as more of a realist. And, you know, there was a rebellion against realism. He wasn’t left-wing enough.
And also, when you think back to some of the theological trends in the late ’60s and ’70s, the death of God movement, the theology of hope, the theology of liberation – I would love to know what Niebuhr would have made of liberation theology; what he would have agreed with, what he would have critiqued.
I think that the journalistic and political comeback of Niebuhr has some parallels now in the academy. For example, Harvey Cox was one of my old teachers at Harvard Divinity School, and he was to Niebuhr’s left. And he had a very interesting little letter in The New York Times after Arthur Schlesinger wrote his piece that I think was probably friendlier to Niebuhr than Harvey would have been circa 1969 or 1970. I want to ask Cox about this. I think it reflects Niebuhr’s resurrection – a good theme for a Christian theologian – and the new engagement with Niebuhr that’s going on now.
Bill is absolutely right about Hauerwas. Hauerwas, by the way, played a big role in the symposium about Niebuhr I quoted earlier. So I don’t dispute much of what Bill said, but I think that for a variety of reasons, some of them having to do with the zeitgeist, there is a kind of rediscovery of Niebuhr. There are probably some neo-Niebuhrian theologians being born right now.
MCCLAY: Just one quick thing. One of the appeals of Hauerwas, and I think one of the concerns – this is a Putnam-esque theme, that’s why I’m bringing it up – Niebuhr really was in his heyday in the ’30s through the ’50s. Living in those years, it is not surprising that individualism and what might be called the sort of defense of the integrity of the individual over against collectivities and groups of any kind became one of his greatest themes.
That is not, it seems to me, so large a concern now. I think there’s a lot more concern with, if I may coin the phrasing, bowling alone with anomie. To take it to a theological level, one sees a lot of concern, particularly among the young, that our churches are not organizations in which people really are experiencing community, being bound together. And I think there is a lot more interest, particularly among the younger people, with finding a more vibrant and vital form of community than Niebuhr really has to offer, because Niebuhr is very guarded. He offers a very low level of social trust, Niebuhr. He’s always looking out for the ways the individual can be captured and co-opted by groups, and trying to maintain that individual’s independence.
DIONNE: Ten seconds – just 10 quick seconds on that. There’s a debate over whether the Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society, which is decidedly against the collective – but remember, he’s writing in a moment when Hitler and Stalin are rising – whether that emphasis is quite as strong in some of the later work. And I’d argue that there is a greater concern for community in the Niebuhr of the ’40s and ’50s than there was in that particular book.
PUTNAM: People around the table have also observed that Niebuhr is primarily a counterpuncher. The culture and theology against which he was counterpunching then is just very different from the kind of theology and society in which it would be useful to have counterpunching now. That’s my view, and I guess that’s close to what you were just saying.
DIONNE: He is more than a counterpuncher. (Laughter.)
LYNN SWEET, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: My question is aimed at you, professor: How did the Holocaust influence Niebuhr? As you said – or as E.J. might have said – he was in his heyday during this period, and I know he certainly was a supporter of the state of Israel and all that, but you know, you often don’t get these great figures who are working real-time with one of the great issues of the world happening. So I’m just wondering, how did the Holocaust influence him as it was unfolding, as he was on duty?
MCCLAY: You mean during the’40s? Well, I don’t know. I can’t answer for that. I think it’s not a theme that figures all that prominently in his work, but I think – and this is sort of a cliché, but I think it’s true – that it was really after the ’67 and ’73 wars that the Holocaust as a theme becomes much more prominent in American Jewish consciousness and in American public life. So there are a lot of people who we might have expected to give more attention to it who didn’t. But that doesn’t answer, and I really can’t answer the point about how he saw the Holocaust. I mean, he was very aware of issues like the firebombing of Dresden and strategic bombing in general and the use of nuclear weapons and the moral calculus involved in those things.
DIONNE: He was a very, very strong opponent of anti-Semitism, a very early person in inter-religious dialogue, and one of the reasons he broke with his pacifist friends is because he believed Nazism was evil. And his whole critique of Nazism was rooted in the idea that it was demonic in general, but in particular, demonic in its treatment of the Jews.
So I don’t know what he was. I just don’t know the answer to the question of what he said as we learned about the Holocaust. But everything in his history – all of his associations with people like Abraham Heschel and lots of other Jewish leaders, and his writing about Nazis, says this was all very important to him. I don’t have in front of me more detail than that. But it mattered to him. It mattered to him enormously.
CROMARTIE: How close was he to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Were they close at all?
DIONNE: I don’t know if they knew each other. They may well have.
MCCLAY: Someone asked me about that yesterday. I’m going to look it up actually. I have Fox’s biography so I’m going to look it up. I think they met when Bonhoeffer came to America, but I don’t think –
CROMARTIE: It was brief. It was brief.
DIONNE: Can you pass that?
CROMARTIE: We’re moving the Niebuhr library books back and forth. (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: Can I say something? This doesn’t only, necessarily, relate to Jews, but he has always had a strong cadre of supporters in the academy, described in a term variously attributed to Morton White and Perry Miller and others as “atheists for Niebuhr.” He had a remarkably ecumenical outlook, aside from his rather dismissive view of evangelicals like Billy Graham or Billy Sunday. But he had very good relations with Jews, both religious and secular.
There’s a story about the Niebuhr family place in a little town called Heath, near Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where they spent a lot of time. And Niebuhr’s daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, has written a book about the serenity prayer, which also talks a lot about this little town. Felix Frankfurter came out there once and went to a service that Niebuhr conducted where he preached, and as he was leaving, he shook Niebuhr’s hand and said, “Thank you for preaching such a wonderful sermon that really warmed the heart of a believing unbeliever.” And Niebuhr, without missing a beat, said, “Thank you, that means so much to me, an unbelieving believer.” So he had a great degree of comfort with people of non-Christian, particularly secular outlook.
DIONNE: Just to answer the question from Fox’s biography: Niebuhr actually wrote a piece for The Nation called “Jews after the War.” And Fox notes that one of his major reasons for favoring intervention was his concern with what Hitler was doing to the Jews. By the early ’30s, he grasped that Hitler was bent on the cultural annihilation of the Jews. From that time on, he was a firm, though sometimes qualified, backer of the Zionist cause. So it was a big part of him.
FRED BARNES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: What was Niebuhr’s objection to Billy Graham?
MCCLAY: I think it was part of this sort of critique that people like Will Herberg made of American religion in the ’50s: that it was too culturally complacent, too adapted to American life. I mean, Billy Graham was, in a sense, the quintessence of the emphasis on individual conversion and nothing else, at least in Niebuhr’s view. And let me quickly add that this was not at all fair to Billy Graham. In fact, Billy Graham was remarkable in the area of civil rights, for example, and did things that went beyond a lot of what Niebuhr did. But that was Niebuhr’s view. And it’s true that Graham didn’t challenge social structures. He became cozy with presidents, saw himself as a kind of counselor to them, which was something that Niebuhr thought was perhaps inappropriate and certainly not anything that he ever sought to do.
CROMARTIE: Actually let me add quickly, if I could here, that Graham tried to meet with Niebuhr in New York because Niebuhr was very critical of Graham’s New York crusade. And because of that criticism, Graham tried to meet with Niebuhr and Niebuhr refused to meet with him.
DIONNE: Mike Gerson will like this. This is from Fox’s book: “Niebuhr found himself pushed to a defense of the same liberal social gospel he had been repudiating for decades by Graham. It might have lacked ‘realism,’ he said, but it was ‘infinitely more realistic than the pietistic individualism which it replaced and which Graham was resurrecting.’ Graham was certainly better, Niebuhr urged, than the popular religious therapists who dispensed with a God of judgment altogether,” but Fox quotes Niebuhr – this is about Graham – “‘Evangelism has a blandness which befits the Eisenhower era.'”
ADRIAN WOOLRIDGE, THE ECONOMIST: I’m going to ask two questions. One is about Niebuhr’s influence outside the United States. We have a very American-centric view of things. I wonder if he had much influence in Britain or Europe? And the second is about this other character who seems to have suffered the same fate as a lot of people in the politburo when they fell out of favor, sort of being written completely out of history – Jeremiah Wright. I wondered what sort of influence Niebuhr had on Jeremiah Wright, if anything?
MCCLAY: Oh yeah, I wouldn’t know about the second one. I mean, my sense of Jeremiah Wright is that he’s much more influenced by James Cone and by black liberation theology, although I’m sure he had some contact. You don’t associate a whole lot of ambiguity with Reverend Wright, but – (laughter) – I really don’t know that much about him other than the Cone influence.
CROMARTIE: What about British influence?
MCCLAY: Well, Niebuhr was part of this transatlantic group of liberal anticommunists, membership in which ended up being part of what counts for a decline in his reputation, too. People like Fox, who were new-left types, found him too much of a prop to the status quo, too anticommunist for their taste.
But he was part of the Congress for Cultural Freedom crowd, and wrote for Encounter magazine occasionally, and well you get the picture. So he was part of that world and was read all over Europe, not just in Great Britain. And there’s a bit of a revival of Niebuhr going on in the U.K. now. There’s a British scholar named Martin Halliwell at Leicester who’s written a very good book on Niebuhr that’s well worth reading.
CROMARTIE: Is it a biography or an explication of him?
MCCLAY: It’s more of an explication. It has biographical elements.
WOOLRIDGE: Is it more than 700 pages?
MCCLAY: No, I think it’s about 400.
DIONNE: You know, I think that’s right. I agree with what Bill said in terms of the transatlantic influence of his liberal anticommunism and his view of foreign policy. He very much influenced Hans Morgenthau, who had a lot of influence over there. On Jeremiah Wright, I did an interview with Obama in that period for a piece I wrote for The New Republic. Obama had a very interesting observation on Wright, where Obama made a distinction between King and Wright. He noted that in his early stage King had the combination that was all about – publicly, especially – reconciliation, but that King was angrier toward the end of his life, particularly about the Vietnam War, and that Wright came along in that late stage and was much more influenced by the period of disillusionment at the end of the civil rights years than by the spirit of hope at the beginning of the civil rights years.
And so my hunch is that, just as Bill said, Wright clearly was influenced by James Cone and his black liberation theology, which was part of all those post-liberal theological developments in divinity schools that led to more radical forms of theology. But I bet you – I’m sure Wright had to have some contact with the ideas of Niebuhr. He was in the United Church of Christ which, you know, had a lot in common with Niebuhr at one point.
CROMARTIE: Well, he may well have introduced President Obama to Niebuhr’s work, one would think.
DIONNE: That’s an interesting question.
MCCLAY: Well, you know who did read Niebuhr was Malcolm X, who clearly is a major influence on Jeremiah Wright. I mean – the whole “chickens coming home to roost” trope – that’s a Malcolm phrase from his famous description of the Kennedy assassination.
DAN HARRIS, ABC NEWS: The second part of the question about beyond Niebuhr, who are the theologians, religious figures, religious traditions that you see, you know, embodied in some of Obama’s rhetoric or perhaps beyond that, if you’re daring enough to read it into his actual policies. Just to kind of get beyond Niebuhr while still on the subject of Obama.
DIONNE: I have tried to figure out who has influenced him. If you read the Sojourners speech, he’s clearly spent some time, or somebody has, looking at the whole debate around John Rawls: What are the obligations of the religious person in the public square in making arguments that are accessible to those who do not share the same religious commitments? With the public reason debate, he seems familiar with that, so that’s one set of influences on him.
I think the formative influences, both rhetorically and to some degree substantively, are all the traditions of civil rights Christianity. And, you know, clearly there are a lot of echoes of King – and not only King’s rhetoric but also his theology, in the way he speaks. And in some ways, what I see in Obama is an effort to go back to civil rights Christianity as part of his way of reformulating a sort of progressive gospel – to make a link between that and Niebuhr, which is quite a natural link since King himself was influenced by Niebuhr in a lot of his language. But beyond that, I don’t know. I’d be very curious. It’s a good question.
CROMARTIE: Bill, you have anything to add to that?
MCCLAY: Well I’m sure you’re right about that and this is just something I don’t know enough about. But I’ve read The Audacity of Hope and the other autobiographical book and I don’t think his rhetoric has the kind of yeastiness of a lot of the ’60s-era civil rights people who were really coming right out of the black Baptist church. You know that book by David Chappell, A Stone of Hope? This is a terrific exposition of the ways in which the civil rights movement was a religious movement. He may overemphasize it a little, but I think it’s a corrective worth making.
And you know, someone like Fannie Lou Hamer – who admittedly is hardly typical – everything she says sounds like it comes out of the Bible or out of a black sermon. And Obama is much more of a guy who went to prep school, who went to elite colleges and universities and wants to kind of draw on that religious language and imagery, but I just don’t know that it steers him.
DIONNE: A book that I think is really important in understanding King is Jonathan Rieder’s The Word of the Lord is Upon Me, and the subtitle is The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr. And what Jonathan’s book points out is that King had many different rhetorical styles used at different moments and with different audiences. And I think it’s a really good account of King taken whole. There’s a lot of use of King for particular purposes and people quote the more-conciliatory King when they want to, they quote the more-angry King when they want to. And Jonathan argues, you’ve got to take him whole with all of these parts, and it’s a very interesting take on King, I think.
MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Follow-up on that question to maybe return it to Niebuhr a little bit. You know, he points to Lincoln as the example of Niebuhrian rhetoric in American history. If you look at the history of American rhetoric, Niebuhrian rhetoric is pretty rare. I mean, during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t use it – he used The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. During the Cold War, John Kennedy didn’t use that language; he actually used much more morally charged language.
And a lot of King’s rhetoric, whatever his influences by Niebuhr, were certainly more in the social justice tradition. You know, the kingdom of God on Earth. But I think there’s a misinterpretation of Lincoln in a lot of ways. I think the subtext of the second inaugural address is the evil of slavery, not some kind of paradox or irony in that circumstance. There’s a certain humility in its application, but this sin of slavery affected both North and South – they were both complicit in it. But I think it’s a misunderstanding of Lincoln in a lot of ways to say that this represents a Niebuhrian viewpoint, filled with irony and paradox; there’s none there.
But what does it say that when people need to motivate in American history – if you’re Franklin Roosevelt and you’re engaged in the long twilight struggle, that you don’t use Niebuhrian language – that it isn’t even a rhetorical option in American history? You call people to grand purposes and moral missions and American exceptionalism and a lot of other things – and how did Niebuhr himself kind of deal with that notion?
DIONNE: Just on Lincoln: I don’t think there’s any ambiguity in Niebuhr’s view about slavery. The paradox and irony around and about slavery – the paradox and irony are that even though you are engaged in a just struggle against slavery, you may nonetheless be inveigled in its evils, as you suggest. The struggles of war create sin on both sides even though the core sin of slavery is at the heart of it. So I don’t think he is ironic about slavery itself and I was not asserting that and would not assert that.
GERSON: And I guess my point was not necessarily to assert that. I think, actually, if you look at Lincoln’s rhetoric and actions on these issues, it was a fairly extreme course that he took in these situations, insisting essentially on certain views at the cost of the Union and, you know, the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives on moral principle. That had a terrible cost, which he realized. But he was willing to do those things. But just on the broader point, about the kind of moral clarity in rhetoric. I mean, how would he diagnose that? Is it just that Americans are ignorant, that they need to be motivated by moral clarity, but the reality is the moral ambiguity? I’m just curious about the level of rhetoric.
MCCLAY: I think it’s worth pointing out that at the time that he gave the second inaugural, there was no doubt about who was going to win and that it was going to happen very soon. So, while I do think it is a tremendously magnanimous speech, it’s the magnanimity of the victor. And that’s important to note, but the other thing is that there is a different task that the rhetorician is called upon to play in that instance, in calling the nation to a task that has yet to be performed – to heal, to reconcile. Particularly in the case of this particular war, the point is not just to crush the South; it’s to bring the South back into the Union, into this sort of family that they had thought to extricate themselves from, for whatever reason.
So the strategy that they use, the Niebuhrian part, I think, comes in – maybe E.J. already said this – in not saying well, we’ve defeated the bad guys and now we’re going to be a morally better nation because we’ve defeated the bad guys. What he says is, that this is a national sin for which we all bear some responsibility; it is a mark upon all of is, and maybe this war came because of the need to expiate the sin of slavery, and if it has to go on and on and on, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. So he’s –
GERSON: Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned Lincoln, because, you know, that’s a different debate.
MCCLAY: The point –
GERSON: The point is the difference between Niebuhr’s diagnosis of the moral conflicts of the Cold War or World War II. Maybe one of the reasons, to just put it bluntly, that Niebuhr’s influence waned in the aftermath of that is that he was talking about the ironies of American history just at the point that America was on the verge of some of the greatest moral achievements in human history. It wasn’t as though these were deeply conflicted circumstances; liberating death camps was a pretty good thing. Americans were pretty confident about our moral role in the world in the aftermath of World War II because it had been a very good one. The Cold War was conducted with a language of moral certainty –
DIONNE: Can we go back and forth on this? Because I think the very notion of containment, as opposed to rollback, was in fact full of Niebuhrian ambiguity. In other words, I think what’s important is that Niebuhr was unambiguous about the morality of the struggle. And it’s good, actually, that you brought up Lincoln, because Niebuhr, just so we get him on the record correctly, said that Lincoln’s brooding sense of charity was derived from a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning than that of immediate political conflict.
This combination – a moral resoluteness – about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand, while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle on the other. Niebuhr was at his high tide in the ’40s and ’50s because he believed in the struggle against the Nazis, the liberation of death camps and anticommunism. But he was not a jingoist. He did not believe America was automatically moral or always right.
And the very idea that he was in favor of containment as opposed to rollback says that we can behave in the world in a way that is responsible in confronting communism but does not carry all the risks that rollback would entail. I think possibly – and we would probably both have to look this up and then we could debate the text – I do think some of Kennedy’s rhetoric had some of that in it. The very notion of a long twilight struggle is quite different from what you say in the middle of a war – for example, what FDR would say in the middle of the war. Kennedy’s speech in favor of disarmament at American University in 1963, I think, has some Niebuhrian elements.
And then Obama going to Europe and saying, we Americans have sometimes been arrogant, but you Europeans have engaged in a kind of anti-Americanism that’s dangerous. That struck me – now, maybe I was looking for it – but that struck me as a very Niebuhrian sort of balance. I thought it was a good thing to say. Others didn’t think it was a good thing to say. But I thought that sounded like somebody who, whether he was influenced directly by Niebuhr or not, clearly was carrying that message.
JOHN SINIFF, USA TODAY: Last night there were a few of us who were having a discussion about the office of faith-based initiatives, or whatever it has become under President Obama, and I realized that at the end we came to this unsatisfactory, very Niebuhrian conclusion as to what he’s trying to do to with this office. And I wondered, E.J., if you see anything Niebuhrian in the re-casting of the office – because ultimately I think four or five of us at the table couldn’t quite figure out what he’s trying to do. Maybe that’s the purpose. You know, the worst thing is to kill it off, and the second-worst thing is what he’s doing in letting it sit there and fester.
DIONNE: As far as I can tell Niebuhr has no direct influence or indirect influence on Obama’s thinking on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Laughter.) God knows what Niebuhr would think of this, and he does, but we don’t know. (Laughter.) I think what Obama is trying to do is walk a line between not wanting to overturn it and thinking there is good work done here; and in fact, partnerships between government and faith-based groups pre-date President Bush. I think that it distorts the debate on both sides if liberals say, this is a Bush creation and we’re against it. Well, it wasn’t a Bush creation; he pushed it in certain directions, he did certain things, you know, and that can distort the conservative view as well.
And I think Obama is trying to figure out, “How can I be true to things I say or believe about church-state separation and religious liberty and still keep this thing going?” So I think they’re still struggling toward resolving that, and he’s clearly kicked down the road the hardest question, which is the religious hiring issue, and he’s clearly tried to fudge that for a while, and my impression is that he’s going to fudge it for a while longer.
I think he’s going to have to confront it, but the shrewd thing I think he did – shrewd because I thought he did the right thing – was to say we don’t want this whole effort to get blown up immediately in a debate over this hiring issue when we know there is quite a lot of common ground on these partnerships. Bill Clinton had some of the first faith-based offices at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other parts of the administration. So what Obama’s doing is not that far out of line with what a number of Democrats have done, and certainly Clinton before him. And so I think they’re still figuring it out, is the short answer.
CROMARTIE: You have anything to add to that, Bill?
MCCLAY: I agree about the continuity with Clinton. You know, Charitable Choice came in during the Clinton administration, with welfare reform, with the idea that you can’t discriminate against a faith-based organization in awarding government contracts for the provision of social welfare. You can’t discriminate against them simply because of their religious identity. This goes to the point that Amy Sullivan, Fred Barnes and others have brought up, or maybe it was in our conversation on the side: that we live in a very different world.
I mean, at one time in the past correctives seemed to have been needed to protect the secular, to keep the religious realm from overwhelming the secular. Now, it seems to me both Democratic and Republican administrations have seen the need to push back the other way, to some extent. Whether Obama will sustain that or not, I don’t know. But I agree with E.J.; this has lasted for a while, even if it hasn’t always been so effective.
CROMARTIE: Well, on that note of heated agreement – (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: Raging moderation.
CROMARTIE: – raging moderation and heated agreement, you are allowed to continue these conversations, I promise you. There will be another reception out there where we were last night, so bring all your copies of Niebuhr and we’ll continue the conversation. Join me in thanking both these gentlemen for their time.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, spelling and grammar.