Niebuhr Now

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An interesting exchange between Peter Steinfels and Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City:

Q. What insights of Niebuhr’s are most pertinent for the nation’s public life today?

A. His sense that elements of self-interest and pride lurk even in the best of human actions. His recognition that a special synergy of selfishness operates in collectivities like nations. His critique of Americans’ belief in their country’s innocence and exceptionalism the idea that we are a redeemer nation going abroad never to conquer, only to liberate.

Q. You’ve written two critical books on political neoconservatism. Don’t many neoconservatives claim to be Niebuhrians?

A. In various phases of his public career, Niebuhr was a liberal pacifist, a neo-Marxist revolutionary, a Social Democratic realist, a cold war liberal and, at the end, an opponent of the war in Vietnam. He zigged and zagged enough that all sorts of political types claim to be his heirs. Even the neoconservatives can point to a few things...

Asking what Niebuhr would think about this or that is a favorite indoor sport. I cannot flat-out call myself a Christian realist in Niebuhr’s sense. His realism makes it too hard to make a Christian claim at odds with the national interest. Yet for me Niebuhr’s thought is always in the mix. And today I believe he represents a road not taken: a prudent foreign policy chastened by a realistic and religiously grounded understanding of the limits of power.

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