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

Do you agree with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s argument that, under the influence of Niebuhr, the religious establishment has accommodated itself too much to what you might call the worldly realities of power politics?

I think that the religious establishment has accommodated itself in more or less the way that he says. But I wouldn’t lay the blame on Niebuhr.  

Anybody with any common sense must ask, “Why is it that so many religious people are so enthusiastic about war?”  Opposing evil isn’t the half of it.   The influence of money and corporate power are factors. And there’s the wish to take part in the affairs of one’s time, which is what I feel rising strongly off the opinion pages every morning. “May you live in interesting times,” that old proverb says. Well, for political commentators, wartime is the very definition of an interesting time. Who wants to be on the sidelines when the most dramatic events of their lifetimes are happening? Who doesn’t want to play general on cable TV? If you’re a pacifist like Stanley Hauerwas, there are a lot of television shows that just won’t call you. There are a lot of magazines that won’t ask you to write for them. There are a lot of think tanks that won’t invite you to address the powers and principalities. And there are a lot of invitations to the White House that won’t be proffered.

How do you see George Bush’s role figuring into all this?

Let’s go back to Niebuhr for a moment. In important ways, the mess we’re in is an illustration of Niebuhr’s view of the frailty of human nature and the power of self-interest. We as a people elected a president of weak character—a person who doesn’t have the character to make responsible decisions. Other stronger, willful people have been able to manipulate him to their ends, and because of that we have an army of a hundred thousand soldiers in Iraq and the dollar is going through the floor as we inflate the currency to pay for it. Now, that’s a fairly homely way of seeing the situation we’re in. It’s less grandiose than saying there’s corporate hegemony going on in this country, or that it’s all about oil, or it’s about the President’s desire to get revenge for Saddam Hussein’s wish to kill his father. Those are more colorful explanations, but I’ll stick with the one I just gave you, which to me comes from what would be called a Christian realist or a Niebuhrian realist estimation of human nature.

Do you sense that a desire for relevance at the expense of self-examination or critical thought is more common today than in the past?  

I think that that tension exists in every age. One of the reasons that Niebuhr is so remarkable a figure is that he was able to move in the corridors of power without losing his sense of his own home truths. He moved among powerful people. He influenced them. He broke bread with them. And yet he remained his own man. That is relatively rare in every age, I think.

I think it’s fair to say that many commentators place the blame for Iraq on the shoulders of politicians. But your Atlantic piece is a chronicle not so much of politicians as of thinkers and philosophers – editors, columnists, think tank scholars and theologians who philosophized their way into a case for war. Why did you turn a critical eye to thinkers rather than politicians when examining some of the poor judgments and arguments that led us to where we are today?

It’s just natural. My book, and my other articles too, have to do with the ways ideas take root in human lives—the way books influence people’s actions. Thomas Merton, in The Life You Save May Be Your Own , read medieval philosophy and was inspired to enter a Trappist monastery in Kentucky; Walker Percy read The Magic Mountain while at a mountain sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis and decided to become a novelist.   The book is the story of certain ideas with consequences.   So I naturally took an interest in the way ideas about war and peace set people going in the early stages of the war.

The working idea behind my article “The Year of Two Popes” was that Joseph Ratzinger could be known through his writings much the way Pope John Paul II could be known through his public appearances—and that I could combine reporting and close reading to get access to their characters in a way that  would be very satisfying. Something similar is going on in this piece about the latter-day Niebuhrians. The idea was to get some necessary distance on recent events by using Niebuhr as a guide.  It would be impossible to examine all the arguments made about the war and tell a story of everybody’s changes of opinion and make it interesting. But by looking at the war through an account of the uses of Niebuhr—by following the bouncing ball of arguments and cross-references—I hoped to focus things in a way that it wouldn’t be quite possible otherwise.

Is there anyone you consider to be a modern-day Niebuhr?

Not among political thinkers or commentators. To me the person whose sense of history is most akin to Niebuhr’s is Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic. I don’t agree with everything Leon writes, but he has a biblical sense of history and he brings it into just about everything he writes.

Who should our prophets be today? Should writers and thinkers take leadership in the political arena?

From the archives:

Interviews: "Gilead's Balm" (November 17, 2004)
Marilynne Robinson talks about her long-awaited second novel and the holiness of the everyday.

At this point, we need as many authentic leaders as we can get.   But it may be that the real leaders are leading through their writing.   Serious writers find a way to respond to what’s important in their time, but often not in the ways we expect. In 2004, the firm I work for published Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a book having to do with a Protestant minister in the Midwest in the fifties. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and although there are many things in the book to marvel at, what struck me especially is that it appeared at the precise moment when the tradition of mainstream liberal Christianity seemed most absent. Just when the kind of believer that the novel depicts—a decent, searching, modest clergyman in the Midwest, who wants to do the right thing but isn’t noisy about it—seemed to have gone out of our public life, there popped up a novel which in effect called our attention to what we had lost.

What can someone who is a resolutely secular thinker gain from studying the work of a theologian like Niebuhr whose basic beliefs – for example, belief in God – might not square with secular beliefs?

I myself am a Christian, but I can imagine not being one and reading Niebuhr and thinking, “Wow, this guy’s really got it. He is truly wise. His insights must have some source other than individual genius. He seems to be drawing from a deep well, and I’d like to see what’s down there.”

That’s the way I felt when I read Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor’s book about the art of fiction. I was in my early twenties and trying to write fiction, and on every page of the book she had something to say about how fiction works that was absolutely right.  I said to my self, “Well, if she’s that right about fiction and she’s making constant reference to her religion, then I had better take a closer look at her religion”—which happened to be mine, too. I feel something of the same sense of recognition when I read Niebuhr’s work.

In your Atlantic piece you use O’Connor’s term “realist of distances” to describe Niebuhr. Did that come from her writing on fiction?

Yes. In her view, every serious writer sees himself as a realist, and “realist of distances” was a term she used to describe the ideal novelist, and also the prophet. She wrote, “the fiction writer should be characterized by this kind of vision. His kind of vision is prophetic vision. Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism that does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth.”

Am I saying that Niebuhr was a prophet? Not directly. But here we are, reading his work as an account of our time. So in some sense he foresaw the future that is our present.

Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.
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