A Man for All Reasons

In the debate over the war on terror (and just about everything else, too), neocons and liberals, theocons and Christian pacifists, idealists and realists have all called upon the writings of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. What does the promiscuous invocation of his work tell us about the man—and about his would-be acolytes?

Illustration by Greg Stevenson

The vital center was not holding. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., bow-tied eminence of American liberalism, stepped in. The “war on terror” was sputtering into its fifth year, and there was no end in sight; Schlesinger was 87, and the hour was getting late. He tapped out an essay for The New York Times, confident that the men down in Washington could be set straight if only they had the right guide. Where, he asked, was the wisdom of his old friend Reinhold Niebuhr when the country needed it? “Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse?”

Schlesinger was evidently unaware that the Niebuhr revival he called for was already under way. In think tanks, on op-ed pages, and on divinity-school quadrangles, Niebuhr’s ideas are more prominent than at any time since his death, in 1971. The seminary professor who was anointed the national conscience during the atomic era is once more a figure whose very name suggests a principled, hardheaded approach to war and peace.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Everybody Loves Reinhold"
Paul Elie discusses the contested legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr.

In his lifetime, Niebuhr was a restless and paradoxical figure: an evangelical preacher and the author of the Serenity Prayer, a foe of U.S. isolationism in the 1930s and of U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s. After his death, Niebuhrian became a synonym for American political realism—the school of thought that places national self-interest above idealistic schemes for social reform. But the war on terror has brought Niebuhr’s broader vision into focus: not only the struggle between realism and idealism in our foreign affairs, but the ongoing debate over the place of religion in America’s sense of itself. The fresh interest in his work, then, ought to be invigorating—a source of clarity and perspective.

It hasn’t been. On the contrary, the Niebuhr revival has been perplexing, even bizarre, as people with profoundly divergent views of the war have all claimed Niebuhr as their precursor: bellicose neoconservatives, chastened “liberal hawks,” and the stalwarts of the antiwar left. Inevitably, politicians have taken note, and by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono. In recent months alone, John McCain (in a book) celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war; New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (at the Chautauqua Institution) invoked Niebuhr as a model of the humility lacking in the White House; and Barack Obama (leaving the Senate floor) called Niebuhr “one of [his] favorite philosophers” for his account of “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.”

Who’s right about Niebuhr, and why does it matter? It matters especially because Niebuhr, better than any contemporary thinker, got to the roots of the conflict between American ideals and their unintended consequences, like those the United States now faces in Iraq. The story of the uses and misuses of his work during the war so far is the story of how the war went wrong; and yet a look at the partial, partisan Niebuhrs that have emerged produces something like a rounded portrait, a view of a man who really does have something essential to tell us about the world and our place in it.

The Realist

In 1967, with the country in the midst of what he called “the two main collective moral issues of our day—the civil-rights movement that seeks democratic improvements for our black minority, and opposition to the terrible and mistaken war in Vietnam,” Niebuhr looked back at his career in an essay written “from the sidelines,” where he had found himself since suffering a stroke in 1952, when he was 59. He recalled his

rather too-hectic activities as a member of the Union Theological Seminary faculty; as weekly circuit rider preaching every Sunday in the colleges of the east; and as a rather polemical journalist who undertook to convert liberal Protestantism from its perfectionist illusions in the interventionist political debates at a time when Hitler threatened the whole of Western culture.

It’s a telling piece of self-portraiture, for it suggests that the divergent views of Niebuhr today have their basis in his life—a whirlwind of preaching, speaking, writing, and organizing. Born in 1892, one of four children of a minister in the Deutsche Evangelische Synode von Nord-Amerika, Niebuhr trained for the ministry from age 15, and at 20 took over the pulpit of his boyhood church, in Lincoln, Illinois, after his father died suddenly. He went east to the School of Religion at Yale, then accepted the pastorate of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. There he began writing polemical articles “in profusion,” the biographer Richard Wightman Fox reports, in part to support his mother, who lived with him, and a spendthrift older brother. He “ended up doing a million things at once—he talked to student groups and YMCA meetings, he threw himself into community betterment projects, he became a pamphleteer,” his daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, explained in a 2003 memoir. He became an editorialist for TheChristian Century, which led to a job offer from Union Theological Seminary in New York; by then, his advocacy on behalf of ill-paid autoworkers in Detroit had thrust him into public life—an agitator in a gray flannel suit, bald and bright-eyed, voluble and inexhaustible.

At Union, Niebuhr taught what he called “applied Christianity,” and insisted that he was not a theologian (perhaps in deference to his younger brother, Helmut Richard, who was). His preoccupation with the workings of society more than with God or the individual put him closer to Max Weber than to Jonathan Edwards. Yet he was suspicious of the abstractions of sociology and politics alike. In one early piece (published in this magazine in 1916) he called war The Nation’s Crime Against the Individual,” because it asked a young man to give “a life of eternal significance for ends that have no eternal value.” After a trip to Germany, where he saw the aftermath of the Great War firsthand, he became a pacifist.

He then became a socialist, too, even running for the New York state Senate in 1930 on the Socialist ticket, but by the mid-’30s, he counted himself a liberal. Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, records both his disillusionment with radicalism and his abiding sense of liberalism’s shortcomings. The book is a quick, deep thrust against the liberal accommodation with evil through naïveté, inaction, and confidence in “reform” rather than the use of force. It’s a devastating critique of the yearning for purity and the radical forms that this yearning takes, whether the Christian wish to purify society of sin or the “rationalist” wish to purify society of religion and other superstitions. Against these he set a Christian realism rooted in his sense of human sinfulness. The human person, in Niebuhr’s account, is self-interested in the extreme. While the individual “moral man” can check his natural selfishness through conscience, self-discipline, and love, social groups—tribes, movements, nations—look out for their own and strive to dominate other groups. Everybody’s motives are always mixed. Order in society is achieved through the threat of force, so “society is in a perpetual state of war.” Peace among nations “is gained by force and is always an uneasy and an unjust one.” “Conflict is inevitable, and … power must be challenged by power.”

When it was published, Moral Man and Immoral Society seemed to describe the conflict between liberalism and radicalism at home; but in the years to follow, it seemed to describe the conflict between civilization and totalitarianism abroad, because Niebuhr, better and earlier than anybody else, had foreseen both the mass hysteria of Nazism and the liberal appeasement of Chamberlain and Roosevelt. But the book’s power is finally a literary power. There’s no grasping for precursors, no revisiting of the debates of the era just past. The allusions are to Augustine, Kant, and the prophets of Israel. Written in the white heat of the Depression, labor strife, Stalinist fervor, and the Weimar meltdown, it has the granite objectivity of the great chronicles of the vanity of human wishes.

Niebuhr’s long perspective—the sense of history being understood from a distance even as it’s happening—was the source of his authority, and he spent the rest of his career spelling out his sense of history in ever-greater depth. “This drama of human history is indeed partly our construct,” he wrote in 1960, “but it stands under a sovereignty much greater than ours … a mysterious sovereignty which the prophets are always warning that we must not spell out too much.” Today, his biblical sense of history—of what he calls “the limits of all human striving”—is what makes his account of American strivings still ring true. For him, history isn’t a record of past events but the story of human injustice and divine mercy—the ongoing, little-changing story of “the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound.”

Presented by

Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003). His article “The Year of Two Popes” appeared in the January/February 2006 Atlantic.

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