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?
The Theoconservative

The biblical sense of history can make Niebuhr seem something other than a liberal. In the ’60s, his religiosity made him suspect on the New Left, and in the years after his death, his work resonated with the thinkers who were turning against that era’s liberal reforms. It was no great surprise when they claimed him posthumously as the “first neoconservative,” in their account of the recovery from the ’60s revels, and then as a precursor to the “theocons,” who emphasized the new conservatism’s roots in religious truths rather than in free trade or small government.

It was no great surprise, either, that in 2001, the theocons enlisted him to support the war on terror, using his work to vault over Vietnam to an earlier age when the United States had fought a noble war abroad in the defense of freedom at home.

They saw the terrorist attacks (and the swiftness with which some secular liberals said we’d had it coming) as dramatic proof that the United States was embroiled in a religious war, with Christians and Jews on one side and secular liberals and Muslims on the other. It seemed not to matter that the Bush team’s plan to remake the political culture of the Middle East was idealist rather than realist. For the theocons, the “preemptive” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a Niebuhrian test of America’s willingness to rejoin the struggle of good and evil—to set aside “accommodation” and oppose force with force once more.

Six months after 9/11, the historian Wilfred McClay set out the argument with special vigor in a talk to the Family Research Council, in Washington, D.C. McClay is a theocon yeoman with a chair at the University of Tennessee. After learning of the attacks, he told his audience, he’d turned to Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, whose themes he synopsized in such a way that they converged neatly with the preemptive-war and global-responsibility themes coming out of the White House. McClay wholly supported the war on terror (“When the President says, ‘Let’s roll,’ I’m ready”), and he was sure that Niebuhr would have, too. “What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War?” he asked rhetorically. “First and foremost, that it is right and just for Christians to support this war. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so.” He went on to say that he suspected “Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush’s remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months.”

Published in First Things, the house organ of the theocons, McClay’s talk caught the eye of the commentator David Brooks. In TheWeekly Standard shortly after the attacks, Brooks had called for a new, Niebuhr-style “humble hawkishness” in the prosecution of the war on terror; in The Atlantic 10 months later, he put out the call for a “modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr,” a philosopher of power in an age of conflict. Where McClay’s Niebuhr was a muscular Christian in a Humvee, ready to roll, Brooks’s Niebuhr was “A Man on a Gray Horse”—a sage of ambiguity who liked to “argue the middle against both ends.” Niebuhr, in what became a famous formulation, had written:

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.

Now Brooks, echoing Niebuhr, set realism against two extreme forms of idealism—“the idealism of noninterventionists, who are embarrassed by power, and the idealism of imperialists, who disguise power as virtue.” These were the extremes of Chomsky and Cheney, of Huffington and Halliburton. The effect was to make Brooks’s unmistakable support for the war appear the moderate—the Niebuhrian—position.

Brooks concluded that what America needed was a new, Niebuhrian “hawkish left … a left suspicious of power but willing to use it to defend freedom.” He got his wish. But the speed date between liberal pundits and massive military force came with unintended consequences.

A Liberal with Limits

Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history,” Niebuhr wrote in 1951. By then he had the American people as his congregation. He had given the prestigious Gifford Lectures (later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man). He had been featured in a Time cover story as America’s “No. 1 Theologian,” the man who had “restored to Protestantism a Christian virility.” He had joined Arthur Schlesinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, and others in founding Americans for Democratic Action, which sought to claim “the vital center” by cutting ties with the “doughface” sympathizers with communism. He had advised the State Department on the cultural reconstruction of Europe and had even been touted for president. Yet This Nation Under God, as he called it, would be his last major book; retitled The Irony of American History, it went to press in early 1952, shortly before the stroke from which he never fully recovered.

The irony of American history, as Niebuhr explained it, is that our virtues and our vices are inextricably joined. From the beginning, our national purpose has been “to make a new beginning in a corrupt world.” Our prosperity leads us to believe “that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.” Yet our counterparts abroad see us as at once naive and crudely imperialistic, and our power, ironically, has undermined our virtue, for “the same technical efficiency which provided our comforts has also placed us at the center of the tragic developments in world events,” bringing about a “historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity.”

What should America do about the Soviet threat? The Cold Warrior answered coolly but surely, with Sunday-morning lyricism: In foreign affairs, we should proceed vigorously but cautiously. We should take “morally hazardous actions,” risking our purity in the course of “defending freedom against tyranny.” Yet we should also recognize that all human motives are mixed and that weapons like the atomic bomb, which grant the United States unprecedented power, also raise the prospect that “we shall cover ourselves with a terrible guilt.” So we should “establish community with many nations,” be mindful of the unintended consequences of our actions, beware of the pretensions of “our contemporary wise men” to manage history, and let humility guide our actions abroad.

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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