Interviews November 2007

Everybody Loves Reinhold

Paul Elie, author of "A Man for All Reasons," discusses the contested legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose mantle everyone, regardless of political orientation, wants to wear

You fault The New Republic with idealism as well, writing that its editors’ arguments in 2002 and 2003 in support of going to war in Iraq “were plainly idealistic salvos in the culture wars in the United States and the Middle East.” Can you talk about what you mean by this?

The problem isn’t that they were idealistic. I’ve read The New Republic sinceI was in college and I’ve written for both the front and the back of the book, and to me the magazine has been pretty frankly idealistic, whether the argument is for campaign finance reform or gay marriage. That’s what I’ve always liked about it. But this war was different. In the piece I  quote some of the editors’ arguments for the war, which were framed as political realism. I don’t think political realism about the Middle East suits The New Republic today because the magazine’s commitment to Israel is a frankly idealistic commitment. TNR’s support for Israel is not simply about the U.S.’s national interest — it’s grounded in a belief in the historic rightness of the Israeli cause that is not subject to the vagaries of American self-interest.  Of course, there’s a sense in which such support for Israel is rooted in a deeper religious realism, which reminds us that the Jewish people have always faced hostility from their neighbors and have had to man the barricades just to survive.   But TNR’s very frank and ardent celebration of the ideal of Israel means that political realism sits uneasily in the magazine.  

It’s ironic that Niebuhr’s full perspective only became clear in the course of the war.  

From the archives:

"A Man On a Gray Horse" (September 2002)
The mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may have gotten a lot of things wrong—but we could use a thinker like him today. By David Brooks

Yes—in a sense, the war tutored some commentators about Niebuhr, when it would have been better if they’d let Niebuhr tutor them about war.   David Brooks is an obvious example.   In 2002 he invoked Niebuhr’s realism when taking a position that was clearly in favor of the impending war, and yet he also struck a Niebuhrian note when he renounced those earlier positions a year or two ago.  “We were blinded by our idealism,” he said of himself and other neoconservatives.  No wonder: they were calling it realism—putting forward graduate-seminar idealism as hardheaded realism at the crucial moment.  

You suggest that Washington has a superficial understanding of religion, and you criticize standard bearers such as Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell for contributing to a deterioration of our understanding of what you call the “biblical perspective.” What, in your view, are the implications of having politicians in power who lack a biblical perspective?

As Niebuhr characterized it, the biblical tradition brought to America a sense of a long history which our relatively young country lacked. You can feel the press of that long history in his prose. Niebuhr is fluent in the history of the patriarchs, the history of the prophets and kings, and the history of the early Christians in conflict with the Romans, to the point where biblical history runs between the lines of everything he wrote. Now, I don’t doubt that Reverend Falwell knew the Hebrew Bible chapter and verse, but he brought religion to Washington as a new thing, as a way to roll back the tide of liberal decadence that crested in the late sixties. Ever since then, the Christianity that ’s current in Washington has measured history along the modern American timeline: its story goes back to the New Deal, which is the fall; the election of Reagan is the restoration.

At the same time, there’s a lack of awareness of the biblical tradition among secular liberals. Not so long ago even people who were frankly not religious acknowledged that the biblical tradition was an important part of the American past. For example, [folk singer and activist] Pete Seeger was a member of the C ommunist Party, but he would sing songs about the Walls of Jericho or Michael rowing his boat ashore, with that refrain “Hallelujah! ”   That vocabulary, those historical episodes, were part of the stock of common references of the American people, and they served to remind people of human frailty, of the recurrence of war and famine, of feuds among families and so forth. If you take that biblical sense of history away on both sides, you’re left with a fairly ahistorical secular liberalism and a fairly ahistorical religious conservatism, and that’s a recipe for shallowness in our political life.

So you don’t have to believe in the Bible to acknowledge its influence?

I don’t think you have to believe that what’s in the Bible is the so-called gospel truth to acknowledge that it powerfully animated the founders of this country. The figures and stories I’m talking about have a place in our national self-conception. The Greeks are there too, and just as you can’t take the references to the Greeks out of the American past or out of our architecture, you can’t scrub the references to the Bible out of history and strike down the church steeples and expect our sense of our past to make sense. If you really want to understand American history as it applies to the present I think you have to take account of the extent to which the biblical ideas were part of the furniture.  

For example, the biblical tradition says that the human person has free will and responsibility for his or her choices, while recognizing that there are many social forces pressing on each of us at all times. There’s another view of human nature afoot that says we’re just people-shaped neurochemical compounds and that we don’t make choices based on our will or with any freedom at all. We’re just responding to chemical stimuli and a person is just the sum of his or her chemical impulses.

Those are two profoundly different conceptions of what a person is. People can dicker all day about the extent to which Thomas Jefferson was a Christian or not. But I think it’s beyond dispute that Jefferson thought human creatures exercise free will in a responsible way, a conviction that to me is part of our biblical inheritance.

You describe Moral Man and Immoral Society as a book whose “power is finally a literary power.” I’ve often found that like historians, great novelists engage with what’s come before, particularly when it comes to reworking Christian ideas.

Just think of the presence of the Bible in the work of a writer like Faulkner. I’m not sure I’ve ever given much thought to what church he was raised in or what religious convictions he held. But his writing is biblically thick, so to speak, and in a way that seems expressive of the biblical culture of the South, even if Faulkner himself stood apart from much of the religion around him.   Now, we wouldn’t—we shouldn’t— take Faulkner’s work off the syllabus because of the references to the Bible in it. If you want to understand, say, Absalom, Absalom, you are going to have to come to terms with the fact that it is based on a  story from the Hebrew Bible about King David’s rebellious son.   And it’s the biblical echoes or overtones or whatever you want to call them, that make characters and readers alike know that this is a story that is somehow more than “just a story”—that something essential is being enacted here.  

I suspect that something similar is true about politics. Of course we should beware of the president who’s confident that he ’s going about God’s business when he goes to war—but at the same time,  without some biblical points of reference our political history is stripped of something that’s essential.

Can you elaborate on what you meant by Niebuhr’s “literary power”?

A good reason to feel positively about Barack Obama right now is that he can write. He wrote a book on his own—I’m talking about Dreams of My Father. And it’s a human book.  It wasn’t written by a speechwriter, and it wasn’t written for an obvious motive.  None of the other candidates can say that.  For me, that ability to put words together and make them live on the page—and to make yourself live on the page—is a good indicator of talent or character in a broader sense.  

In my other work—my group portrait of four American Catholic writers and my account of the two popes in The Atlantic—I always emphasize human agency and the power of words to affect history. It’s often said that history is written by the winners, but really history is written by the writers. Niebuhr’s influence today is a good example of that. He simply wrote better than most of the people in his position today can write.  

When you read Niebuhr you feel that the whole man is writing. He hasn’t cordoned off his political side from his religious side from his historical side. There’s a sense of a full human being there on the page. Even though his writing is ’t history per se, it has a stronger sense of history than most books by historians do.  It isn’t autobiography, but you know when you’re reading him that he ’s a person who has grasped life whole and is able to focus on the matter at hand.   That’s a quality I associate with literary writers, not with political commentators, or, alas, with most members of the clergy.  

You write, “an understanding of the religious outlook is crucial to our grasp of the challenges of a globalized world.” Are you also arguing for the importance of understanding the role of religion in a global context, particularly in terms of conflict between the U.S. and the Islamic world?

We’re now taking political action in a world in which many, many millions of people still take a religious view of things – as if the arguments against religion in the books on our bestseller lists had never been made and their authors didn’t exist. If you’re a realist at all, you understand that a bestselling book like God Is Not Great or The God Delusion or The End of Faith doesn’t make religion any less true for those people, at least not in the short term.    In my view, this is the time to try to understand a religious point of view better, not to say it’s hogwash and call for an end to it. In this, the fact that our country has a religious strain to its own history is a positive advantage.

It ’s clear that some of the animus directed against America in Islamic countries has to do with the prevalence of Christianity here and the presence of a vigorous Jewish culture, too.   We can say amongst ourselves that we are a secular nation, but people in other countries don’t necessarily think so: they see that our Judeo-Christian heritage can’t be effaced simply because some people say it ought to be.   And in some respects they’re right.

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