As Paul Elie observes in his November Atlantic piece, “A Man for All Reasons,” ever since President Bush declared a “war on terror” in 2001, references to the mid-century Protestant American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr have proliferated. Across the ideological spectrum, intellectuals and religious leaders have invoked Niebuhr to support their varying positions on America’s proper response to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the threat of militant Islam. It is a trend, Elie notes, that seems to be intensifying rather than abating; politicians have begun to follow the lead of the pundits, so that “by now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter’s equivalent of a photo op with Bono.” After reading Elie’s article, those not yet versed in Niebuhrian thought will find it hard not to notice references to him everywhere.
So who was Niebuhr and why is a theologian who has been dead since 1971 and who published his last major book in 1952 now cited so frequently as a voice of authority? In a sentence: Niebuhr’s religious faith, far from keeping him cloistered in his church, drew him into a lifelong engagement with ideas that shaped politics and global affairs.
Born in Missouri in 1892 to a German evangelical minister, Niebuhr trained to follow in his father’s footsteps from his youth and became pastor at the age of 20. He went on to attend the Yale Divinity School and is today known as one of the preeminent Protestant theologians of the past century. Throughout his adulthood, he participated in a wide range of political activities and produced trenchant written commentary on the events of his time. In the early 1930s, he ran for a state Senate office as a socialist. With the outbreak of World War II, his pacifism gave way to a concerned advocacy for military intervention against Hitler, and he began to push back against the liberal belief in progress purely through reform. His politics continued to evolve following the war. In 1947, together with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., George Kennan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others, he founded Americans for Democratic Action to take a stand against communism, and later supported America’s nuclear program.
Niebuhr thus came to be associated in many people’s minds as much with the politics of power as with the tenets of Christianity. In the run-up to the Iraq war, for instance, those arguing for intervention pointed to Niebuhr’s widely known belief that circumstances sometimes warrant “morally hazardous actions,” particularly when “defending freedom against tyranny.” On the other hand, when the tide of enthusiasm for the war later began to ebb, those seeking to backtrack and set a more circumspect course for the future seized upon his calls for restraint and his sense of the dangers of unreflective power. For Elie himself, it is Niebuhr’s warning that history nearly always gives the lie to any overly idealistic scheme that makes him most relevant today. In the early 1940s, Elie writes,
Niebuhr foresaw that the American struggle in the postwar years would be a struggle with our addiction to power, and that our national story would be a story of our efforts to distinguish between the courageous and the foolish uses of that power—a story of our reluctant recognition that power can bring about necessary change, but that it can also have brutal unintended consequences. Moreover, he saw that distinguishing the one from the other would call for wisdom, the quality born of “the triumph of experience over dogma.”
Niebuhr’s words certainly seem prescient in light of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. But as Elie takes care to point out, Niebuhr’s outlook was not at heart a political one. All too many of the thinkers now invoking Niebuhr, he argues, tend to ignore the deeper religious background of his thinking, homing in on only those aspects of his perspective that directly address their own immediate political concerns. Niebuhr’s conclusions, Elie reminds us, were thoroughly informed by what Elie calls a “biblical perspective”—a long sense of human history as reflected in the stories and lessons of the Bible—and by his view of human nature as “rooted in human sinfulness.”
For Elie, the brushing aside of Niebuhr’s Christian dimensions is symptomatic of a greater problem: our intellectual and political leaders have largely lost touch with the biblical perspective that once guided our country’s founders and continues to profoundly influence the lives of most people living in the world today. In an age in which intellectual discourse in this country is increasingly secularized, and religion tends to inform our national politics in only a superficial way, Niebuhr stands out as a man whose Christian beliefs provided a deep well of insight.
Elie’s portrait leaves an impression of Niebuhr as a careful thinker—a man who did not shrink from fully engaging with the issues of his day, or from embracing paradox and ambiguity in both the past and present. Fittingly, it is Niebuhr who authored the Serenity Prayer, a reminder of the importance of striving for good in the face of human fallibility and the limitations of what we can accomplish: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Paul Elie and I spoke by telephone on September 12.
How did you become aware of Reinhold Niebuhr and the many references to him since the war began?
It started with my reading about World War II and the sixties. My first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, is about four American Catholics whose work I’d read since college— Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. Niebuhr shows up a few pages away from them in all the big books about religion in America. Shortly after I started working at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux about 15 years ago, an editor named Elisabeth Sifton joined the company, and someone mentioned to me that she was Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter. I was astonished. To me, Niebuhr was a great American—an historic figure of such stature that I didn’t imagine him having a daughter who was alive and well and a legendary editor in her own right. But there she was, shelving the great books she had edited in an office down the hall.
In the years since then, she and I got to know each other reasonably well, but we never really discussed her father’s work. That was a good thing, because I knew it more from other people’s books than from his own. But after the war on terror was declared, I started seeing references to Niebuhr in the newspapers, and it was apparent to me that I had better get acquainted with Niebuhr’s work firsthand. I sought out his books—some of them in second hand shops, because they’d gone out of print—and that led to the piece that’s appearing in the November issue of the Atlantic.
You present Niebuhr’s name as synonymous in many people’s minds with American political realism—“ the school of thought that places national self-interest above idealistic schemes for social reform”—yet you argue that what Niebuhr himself articulated was a Christian realism, “rooted in his sense of human sinfulness.” Can you speak more about the distinction between those two ideas?
It’s a crucial distinction. Niebuhr’s realism, often called “Christian realism,” was grounded in a sense of human frailty and weakness before God. This sense of sinfulness leads to several conclusions that are key for him: You can’t ever do anything out of a purely idealistic motive – selfishness and self-interest are always in the mix; you’re bound by history and the human condition; and history is a process of “one step forward, two steps back,” because most human plans don’t go quite the way their protagonists expect them to go. You can try to reform things, Niebuhr says, but you’re only going to get so far, because the human person without divine aid is a profoundly limited creature. This realism tells us that we’re called to act in history and to try to do the right thing, but we’re also called to be aware of the limitations of our actions and not get carried away by our schemes.
Political realism is a pretty thin reduction of that. It basically says, “We’re Americans, so in politics we have to act in American self-interest, right?” It takes Niebuhr’s awareness of the role of self-interest in human affairs and makes it a baseline for foreign policy: since we can’t eliminate self-interest from our actions, we might as well be frank about it and make self-interest primary.
There’s an ongoing debate over the claims of realism and idealism in American foreign policy. What’ s lost in this debate, I think, is the depth of the true realist position. Realism is not merely pragmatism or enlightened self-interest. It comes from a grand conception of human nature in history that leads to tough conclusions about what’s possible in politics.
Did Niebuhr’s association with the idea of Christian realism predate his association with the idea of political realism?
Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society is the touchstone for Christian realism, at least in its modern form. It was published in 1932 and had an immediate effect. But his role in political realism is often dated from his association with postwar figures like George F. Kennan and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. One of the reasons for the tension about Niebuhr’s work is that he made common cause with people who had a more narrowly political sense of things than he did.
The tension between Christian realism and political realism existed in the fifties just as it exists now, but for whatever reason, Christian realists and political realists at the time were able to get together and share objectives. The alliances are different now. A lot of people who consider themselves Christian realists, weirdly enough, are political idealists.
Who do you have in mind, the theocons?
Let’s face it, war fever turned a lot of Christian realists into inadvertent idealists for a season or two. For many Christian thinkers, the commitment to fight evil was and is a realist commitment: there are evil leaders out there, and if we don’t oppose them, they’ll have their way with us. That is a Niebuhrian position in that Niebuhr would have been the first to point out that war is never ideologically neat. But it seems obvious now—and seemed obvious to many people before Saddam was toppled—that signing on to the White House’s war meant signing off on all sorts of idealistic schemes for the remaking of the Middle East .