Needing Niebuhr Still?

Essays

In my book, The Right of the Protestant Left (Palgrave, 2012), I tried to restore Niebuhr to his precarious place within what I called the “old ecumenical Protestant left.” The reality is, the more Niebuhr’s celebrity rose among those outside of the church, the more marginal I found that he became to the main currents of liberal American Protestantism. I’m not referring here to the pacifist circles that Niebuhr turned his prophetic pen on. Rather, his friends, colleagues, and younger brother were so frustrated by Niebuhr’s indifference toward building a inter-Protestant world community—their chief interest—that they even considered leaving him out of their project altogether. Niebuhr was eventually reconciled to the ecumenical movement by his critique of “secularism” and his analyses of national and world problems through the lens of “original sin.” Still, those closest to Niebuhr continued to deride him as the “sackcloth and ashes man,” the “sin-snooping” saint who was fundamentally out of touch with the Christian hope….

[NOTE: This entry was initially published today at the Religion in American History blog. David True graciously offered to have it posted here as well.]

The immediate occasion for this post is a shameless plug. Among the many panels put together for the 2013 AHA and its affiliates on the subject of religion, I want to highlight The Christian Origins of the American Century, which will feature papers by Cara Burnidge, Caitlin Carenen, and myself, and commentary by Malcolm Magee and Andrew Preston. It’s a bit early in the morning on Friday, but Darren Dochuk has offered to buy attendees coffee and a scone, so it’s all good. In the meantime, and to cover my shameless plug in robes of serious historical inquiry, I thought I’d revisit a question that Randall Stephens took up a few years ago at RIAH (see “A Man for All Seasons”): After all these years, why is Reinhold Niebuhr still America’s premier public theologian and, more importantly, what does that say about us?

In my book, The Right of the Protestant Left (Palgrave, 2012), I tried to restore Niebuhr to his precarious place within what I called the “old ecumenical Protestant left.” The reality is, the more Niebuhr’s celebrity rose among those outside of the church, the more marginal I found that he became to the main currents of liberal American Protestantism. I’m not referring here to the pacifist circles that Niebuhr turned his prophetic pen on. Rather, his friends, colleagues, and younger brother were so frustrated by Niebuhr’s indifference toward building a inter-Protestant world community—their chief interest—that they even considered leaving him out of their project altogether. Niebuhr was eventually reconciled to the ecumenical movement by his critique of “secularism” and his analyses of national and world problems through the lens of “original sin.” Still, those closest to Niebuhr continued to deride him as the “sackcloth and ashes man,” the “sin-snooping” saint who was fundamentally out of touch with the Christian hope.

This is how I introduce Niebuhr and Christian power politics in my AHA essay:

Who would Jesus nuke? That’s a question that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “Christian power politics.” And the solution is Reinhold Niebuhr. At least, looking lately across the American political spectrum, it seems Niebuhr still knows whom Jesus would waste. Niebuhr’s official foray into realpolitik began in 1932 with the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr therein drew a sharp line between religious and political morality. It was one thing to preach “love thy neighbor” when that neighbor was a person or family; but how could labor love management? How could America love Japan, especially in 1932, or vice versa? In other words, Jesus’s personal morality, however noble, had little relevance for social and diplomatic problems which were always collective in nature. Niebuhr scored anti-pacifist points in service of an independent and aggressive farm-labor movement, unafraid to use violence to achieve social justice. Niebuhr would soon after reframe his arguments to justify American intervention into World War II and against Soviet expansion. Niebuhr’s thought remains prized today by the left, right, and center. One would think the entire scope of political theology could be reduced to the question, What Would Niebuhr Do—although the answers to that question have given rise to a host of unholy contradiction. But what was “Christian” about Niebuhr’s power politics? Sure, he talked a lot about needing to control the effects of original sin, but his closest friends (including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) found Niebuhr’s whole theological superstructure irrelevant to his base Machiavellianism. No wonder that Barak Obama has deployed Niebuhr in defense of a nation with the soul of a predator drone.

The paper then proceeds as one more of my feeble attempts to exalt World ‘s Student Christian Federation chairman Francis Pickens Miller as a co-founder of post-World War I Christian Realism. The irony of this American historian, though, is that I ask myself all the time, What Niebuhr Would Do? The potential of Niebuhrian realism to moderate and, when necessary, frustrate groupthink is indispensable. I’ve found that to be as true of faculty-administration clashes as of political partisanship and imperial rivalries.

And I’m not the only one who still looks up to “the modern Socrates of sin” (as one student once lionized Niebuhr in a poem). During and after his lifetime, Niebuhr was the subject of literally thousands of short and lengthy investigations. Richard Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985) reigns supreme among comprehensive Niebuhr studies despite several notable efforts by Ronald Stone and others to topple it. Fox was sensitive to the “great man” history charge as well as to the need to evade presentism; but was it an accident that the biography appeared in the midst of the Reagan administration’s re-ideologizing of the Cold War? In any case, it seems Niebuhr resurfaces whenever someone feels that America needs a kick to its exceptional head. Three recent Niebuhr studies—Martin Halliwell’s The Constant Dialogue (2005), Charles Lemert’s Why Niebuhr Matters (2011), and John Patrick Diggins’s Why Niebuhr Now? (2011)—testify to an abiding zeal for explaining and updating Niebuhr for future generations. However, as Paul Elie noted a few years ago is his essay for The Atlantic, “A Man for All Reasons,” everyone today wants to claim a piece of the Niebuhrian realist legacy. Those viewing Niebuhr as a pre-critic of the war on terror—including Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (2008), Eric Patterson’s edited collection, Christianity and Power Politics Today (2008), and Ray Haberski’s God and War (2012)—are winning the day over assumed neo-and theocons.

Yet my question is: what questions aren’t we asking when we’re wondering what Niebuhr would do? Was Francis Miller right when he complained in 1933 that Niebuhr had “no theory of the church”—that Niebuhr’s devout faith in the nation-state was ultimately a betrayal of the transnational forms of community that Christians should be trading in? Was and is Niebuhr and his followers addicts of what Stanley Hauerwas once christened “Constantinian power?” Is it finally time to admit with James Cone that “God cannot be white”—that the only “Christian” politics worth investing in should seek liberation for those crushed by coercive structures such as whiteness? To do so would not necessarily be to repudiate Niebuhr as much as re-read and re-utilize him. While Bacevich has proclaimed Niebuhr’s Irony of American History (1952) the most important work in American foreign policy, the radical theologians of the 1960s, as well as Niebuhr’s colleague and confidant John Bennett, tried to point people back to Moral Man.

With all that said, do you find Niebuhr more of an asset or liability to current political theology? Should he be dethroned? If not, why not? If so, replaced by who or what?

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