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Raising Up Niebuhrian Prophets In The Public Square – Responses To Robin Lovin (Scott Paeth And Daniel A. Morris)

The following are responses by Scott Paith and Daniel A. Morris to the article “Reinhold Niebuhr And The Shortage Of Prophets Nowadays” published in Political Theology Today the previous week. 

A Thousand Niebuhrs

For those of us who care about the relationship of morality and public life, these are difficult times. At this point it may be tiresome to rehearse once again the various depredations of the past year, but it is at the very least worth remembering that none of this was inevitable. Yet, as Reinhold Niebuhr so often cautioned, the self-righteous and self-justifying illusions through which we rationalize our prejudice, self-dealing, and tribalism are a continual threat to the survival of a democratic polity.

Robin Lovin helpfully draws us back to Niebuhr’s influence in thinking about the place of prophetic politics in the United States today. The ongoing lesson of Niebuhr’s theology is that it is not only possible but necessary for Christians to engage in the ambiguity of the struggle for social justice with all that is in them for the sake of creating the conditions of “proximate” justice that more and more closely embody the highest moral aspirations of the Christian faith.

This is the case, even at a time where it seems that we are retreating even from the partial achievements in that realm that were attained over the past decade. Even, perhaps especially, at a time when plutocracy seems to reign supreme, when open racism marches through our streets, when the sabers of war rattle between the United States and North Korea, the prophetic voice of the Christian tradition needs to speak out clearly the words of God’s judgment against the nation.

Lovin notes Niebuhr’s insight that the mark of true prophecy is that the prophet speaks a word of woe to the people. It is this word of woe that we must speak loudly and forcefully today in the public square. In an age when some Christians seem inclined to retreat from the public square, exercising a “Benedict option” and cocooning into enclaves of moral and spiritual purity, and others throw themselves down before the throne of power, prophetic Christianity can only be true to the demands of the gospel by standing in the midst of the assembly and declaring a loud and undeniable “no!”

At the same time, it is worth remembering that no one is exempt from this word of woe. Those of us who stand in opposition to the corruption, vulgarity, bigotry, and ignorance of the current administration are nevertheless subject to the same divine judgment as those who support it, for we too are the people who bear responsibility, and blame, for bringing about the present state of affairs. We too need to stand in line for our sackcloth and ashes. We too need to recognize the failure of democracy represented by the Trump administration is our failure.

But that recognition is not a counsel of resignation or despair. On the contrary, by recognizing our own responsibility, we can also begin to recognize our own power. And this recognition and lead us to action.

In 1952, under the administration of, in retrospect, a far more benign form of conservatism than we now face, Reinhold Niebuhr was tempted to despair. Never one to pull punches, least of all in his private correspondence, he wrote to Felix Frankfurter: “I feel seriously concerned about the future of this great country, because the two men [Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles] who seem to be guiding its destiny seem both to be stupid. The one is amiable and the other not, but the stupidity is equal.”

To which Frankfurter replied: “Gegen die Dummheit kampfen selbst die Gotter vergebens – “against stupidity even the gods fight in vain.” He then went on to say “and when stupidity is mixed with self-righteousness we have devil’s bread.”

One can only imagine what Niebuhr and Frankfurter would write to one another today, for there is a veritable feast of devil’s bread being distributed among the body politic, and we are all being forced to eat.

A prophetic politics for the present moment demands that we refuse at accept these circumstances. That we call upon the voices of all those who recognize that something deeply wrong and deeply dangerous is happening right now. A prophetic politics will call these voices together into a movement of active resistance against the present regime in the United States, and join in solidarity with other movements throughout the world striving to create those conditions of proximate justice in their own circumstances.

Lovin notes that “we have a shortage of prophetic politics today.” But that depends in part on where you look. There are movements of prophetic political action emerging from the grass roots all over the United States. While there may not be one Reinhold Niebuhr to embody the prophetic Christian response to injustice, there are a thousand Niebuhrs speaking from within their own situations, calling attention to their own injustices, and speaking their own word of woe against the corruption, bigotry, and greed of the current regime. Will it be enough? That story is not yet fully told, and as Yogi Berra once noted: “Predictions are hard, particularly about the future.”

Yet a thousand Niebuhrs speaking prophetically in the midst of the public square, have the potential to generate the kind of prophetic politics that can achieve a genuine and lasting positive change in our country, if only we can harness that potential into political power and action.

Scott Paeth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. He works in the fields of Christian Social Ethics and Public Theology. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. He is the author or editor of seven books, including The Niebuhrs for Armchair Theologians (W/JKP 2014), Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans 2014) Public Theology for a Global Society: Essays in Honor of Max Stackhouse (Eerdmans, 2010), Exodus Church and Civil Society: Public Theology and Social Theory in the Work of Jürgen Moltmann (Ashgate, 2008); Who Do You Say That I Am? Christology and Identity in the United Church of Christ (United Church Press, 2006); Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics (Sheed & Ward, 2006); and The Local Church in a Global Era: Reflections for a New Century (Eerdmans, 2000).


Amplifying Niebuhr’s Critics

Robin Lovin is quite right, I think, in his analysis of the prophetic elements of Niebuhr’s work. And I share his admiration for the ways that Jeremey Sabella’s An American Conscience highlights Niebuhr’s prophetic tendencies. I have two points that I would add to the discussion, though. One is about the atypical nature of Niebuhr’s prophetic voice. The other concerns Lovin’s search for figures who carry on Niebuhr’s prophetic project today.

First, Niebuhr’s prophetic voice was unique. While it is certainly true, as nearly every commentator in An American Conscience notes, that Niebuhr played a prophetic role in US political discourse, he did so in a very strange way. He was very willing to speak truth to power, especially when that power was embodied in capitalist interests, nuclear proliferation, or totalitarian regimes.

But unlike most other prophets, Niebuhr was willing to embrace power in his critiques of these dangerous forces. The Augustinian element in Niebuhr’s thought led him to seek restraints on injustice, even if those restraints were morally suspect in their own ways. (Precious little in this world is not morally suspect, after all.) Thus he critiqued both US and Soviet power during the Cold War, but warned that conditions would be far worse if one of these powers existed without the other to check it.

So yes, Niebuhr spoke truth to power. But he often spoke the truth of power against power. This is a delicate position for a prophet to take. Associating with or embracing power may make people wonder to what extent a prophet is genuinely concerned with truth, love, or justice. Niebuhr’s willingness to use power has opened him to critique from writers as divergent as Stanley Hauerwas and Miguel De La Torre. Both believe that his Christian ethical and political vision made too many concessions to power and thus became complicit in destructive projects such as capitalism and imperialism.

Second, I often hear people say that there is no equivalent to Reinhold Niebuhr today. I have heard people say there can’t be, because the Christian assumptions underlying US political discourse have been fractured by pluralism. I have heard others invoke the religious right and claim that Christianity’s role in politics has been too co-opted by conservative interests since Niebuhr’s death. Lovin makes a similar point about the lack of a Niebuhrian prophetic voice in politics today. For Lovin, our polarized political climate cannot bear either the subtlety or the vulnerability of Niebuhr’s prophetic voice.

I think Lovin is right about the unfortunate state of our polarized discourse. But I also think there are prophetic writers who are pushing Niebuhr’s project forward today. Kelly Brown Douglas, Traci West, Miguel De La Torre, James Cone, and others are doing the kind of work that Niebuhr did when he lived. I know these authors would vigorously disagree with this connection, as they have each in their own way critiqued Niebuhr and the white Christian tradition that he reflected.

Nevertheless, these writers are Christian scholars or scholars doing Christian ethics, using Christian categories and symbols (sin, grace, love, virtue, the cross, etc.), critiquing social injustice in the United States, and making active and concrete political recommendations in light of their analysis.

That is to say, many people are doing the prophetic work that Niebuhr did in his career. The differences in lived experiences between these writers and Niebuhr generate different prophetic voices, which can nevertheless be brought into democratic harmony with Niebuhr’s. These writers name the “power” against which truth must be spoken in different ways and/or more specifically than Niebuhr did. Power is patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, mass incarceration, and so on. Prophets are all around us, and they often sound a lot like Niebuhr, although they disagree with him in important ways.

Krista Tippett’s 2009 discussion of Niebuhr with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne included a regrettable moment in which an audience member asked: “Is there anyone in current American political discourse in thought and culture who might be compared to Niebuhr?” Strangely, Brooks nominated E.J. Dionne and Dionne pointed to David Brooks. This moment crystallizes, to me, the insularity of conversations about Niebuhr’s work. The fact that neither Brooks nor Dionne could even think of Cornel West is baffling.

Lovin is right. US political discourse desperately needs Niebuhrian prophets right now. Fortunately there are many to choose from, and the democratic potential in pursuing coalitions between Niebuhrians and his critics is enormous. Perhaps the most prophetic work we who admire Niebuhr can do today is to amplify his critics.

Daniel A. Morris is an independent scholar living in Northfield, Vermont. His training is in ethics and American religion. In 2015, his book Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, was published with Lexington Books.


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