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.
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.”
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.
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.
Those are words that Peter Beinart now knows well. As the White House framed the war on terror, he was among the most prominent of the liberal hawks who saw their support for the war as an exorcism of all the evil spirits of American liberalism’s recent past. During the long run-up to the war in Iraq, the liberal hawks ransacked modern history, seeking analogies in every U.S. war of the previous hundred years. Then, as it turned out to be a war all its own, they sought an exit strategy in Niebuhr’s ironic view of history, for they found themselves covered with guilt.
A graduate of Yale, Beinart went from his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to The New Republic, and was made editor at age 28. Under his direction, the magazine editorialized early and often in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A September 2002 editorial, for example, took a “realist” approach, basing its arguments in the supposedly clear threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But the magazine’s arguments were plainly idealistic salvos in the culture wars in the United States and the Middle East. A February 2003 editorial bemoaned “the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics” and argued that recent events had exposed the “moderate antiwar position … for the abject pacifism it truly is.” In The Washington Post, Beinart proudly likened the arguments to the arguments the magazine had made in support of the Nicaraguan contras two decades earlier.
This self-righteousness dissipated quickly. As it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and no exemplary democracy would flower, liberal hawks from Paul Berman to Jacob Weisberg to Christopher Hitchens stepped back from the brink of certainty and into the world of paradox and ambiguity. TheNew Republic caught the changing mood. “Were We Wrong?” it asked in June 2004, in a full issue devoted to the war. The responses varied, but the theme was one of Niebuhrian “ironic refutations”—the war just hadn’t gone the way the liberal hawks thought it would. Beinart confessed that he had been “too bipartisan,” claiming he overzealously supported the war in an effort to put his sense of the national interest ahead of his dislike of the Republicans. But when President Bush defeated John Kerry, Beinart changed his tack again. The problem for the Democrats wasn’t that they had supported the war in Iraq too eagerly; it was that they hadn’t supported the larger war on terror eagerly enough. In a strident postmortem cover story that December, Beinart called on the party to adopt “A Fighting Faith” that would put the struggle against Islamic terrorism at the top of the agenda. To do this, he explained, the party would have to purge itself of the forces on its far left, represented by the filmmaker and author Michael Moore and the Web activist organization MoveOn.org. Beinart’s supporting argument was simple: It had worked before. In 1947, he explained, Reinhold Niebuhr and his friends “met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism.” With the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, they courageously separated themselves from Communists and fellow travelers, bringing on two decades of Democratic clarity of purpose.
Early in 2005, Beinart was offered $600,000 to expand the article into a book. He left The New Republic for the Brookings Institution, but not before propagating the Niebuhr revival in TNR’s 90th-anniversary issue. It was a group-therapy effort with a “whither liberalism?” theme, and Niebuhr loomed as a messiah whose return was longed for. E. J. Dionne Jr. argued that what liberalism needed, if it was to recover itself, was a Niebuhrian blend of activist religion and activist politics; a few pages away, Martin Peretz asked: “So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It’s as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum.”
Beinart tried. By the time his book, called The Good Fight, was published, he was a full-on Niebuhrian. “The hero of the book in a way,” he would tell an interviewer, “is the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” There was Niebuhr in The New York Times Magazine, exhibit A in Beinart’s call for “The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal”; there was The Irony of American History on an Amazon list of “Peter Beinart’s 10 Books to Read on Liberalism.” (The irony was that The Irony was out of print.)
The aim in telling the story of the Cold War liberals was to equate “our fight” against Islamic terrorism with “their fight” against totalitarianism, giving liberals a “usable past” to match the conservative one of a Reagan-era restoration. What made Niebuhr the hero of the story was his sense of limits—of “the danger of unrestrained, unreflective power.” For Beinart, the policy implications of this “old theme” were clear:
America must recognize its capacity for evil and build the restraints that hold it in check. But it must still act to prevent greater evil. It cannot take refuge in the moral innocence that comes from no meaningful action at all.
So far, so good, but that’s not very far. For as it developed, the argument showed the liberal blind spots that Niebuhr had pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society. No fighting faith, Beinart’s usable past is as secular as the glass-box office complexes on K Street, and his Niebuhr is not a teacher of Christian ethics but a “tall, unaffected Midwesterner” who drafts position papers and attends briefings at the State Department. His sense of the need for limits in foreign policy is rooted not (as Niebuhr’s was) in human nature and history and religious faith—with all that those tell us about the limitations of people and nations—but in utility: We should observe limits because they’re useful to our national interests.
Truly, this was Niebuhrian realism turned on its head. An idealistic transformation of American domestic politics had been made a precondition for a supposedly realist foreign policy. A vision of the political transformation of Iraq had been replaced by a vision of the political transformation of Washington.
Rhodes scholar + New Republic + “Were We Wrong?” + $600,000 = big target, and when The Good Fight was published, the supposedly conflict-averse American left piled on. Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect was especially aggressive. He was all for a recovery of the “Niebuhrian doctrine of self-restraint.” But would Niebuhr have seen a parallel between the Cold War and the Iraq War? The answer, Tomasky was sure, was “a reverberating, ear-splitting ‘no.’” Explaining why in an exchange with Beinart on Slate, he predicted that the war in Iraq “renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more.”
The exchange had the sense of history that The Good Fight lacked, but it showed the perils of finding one’s antecedents in the recent American past rather than in the much longer, broader history that Niebuhr claimed as his and ours. And its retrospective tone suggested how fully the left had already left the war behind.
Now the antiwar voice was one of experience, the voice for military power one of credulity and naïveté. The Niebuhr who called for the triumph of force over inaction was being supplanted by the Niebuhr who ruefully described “the triumph of experience over dogma.” Enter Andrew Bacevich: retired Army colonel, Roman Catholic, contributor to The American Conservative. With his crewneck sweaters and helmet of white hair, Bacevich is a right-of-center Howard Dean—an establishment figure who’s made his mark by opposing established positions. In a review of The Good Fight for The Nation, he accused Beinart of casting “hawkish liberals as heroes, doves as fools and conservatives as knaves” in a “largely spurious” allegory—and of “channeling” Niebuhr in a way that amounted to “ritual abuse.” “He uses Niebuhr,” Bacevich wrote, “much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby preempting any further discussion.
“The real Niebuhr,” Bacevich confidently went on, didn’t worry “about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority”; he worried that they would succumb to temptation and do the wrong thing:
The real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox.
Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, characterized Niebuhr as a man like himself: a thinker beyond category who “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right … who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purposes and destination.” The emergence of such a figure as a hero in the unequivocally left-of-center, antiwar Nation seemed itself paradoxical. But a graver paradox was yet to come. In May, Bacevich’s son, Andrew Jr., serving as a first lieuenant in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol. “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose,” the elder Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post over Memorial Day weekend; but the headline went on to say, “We Were Both Doing Our Duty”—at once refuting the arguments of the people who claimed his opposition to the war had helped the enemy kill his son and acknowledging that for every family with a member in Iraq, death in battle is the cruelest of unintended consequences.
“The beginning of wisdom,” Niebuhr wrote, “lies in recognizing that history cannot be coerced.” But history can be changed by the force of righteousness; of this Niebuhr was sure, and of this Martin Luther King Jr. is modern proof. When King read Moral Man and Immoral Society in divinity school in 1950, he was struck both by Niebuhr’s frank appraisal of the role of power in society and by his application of it to race relations in the South. Having rejected pacifism, Niebuhr made his case for Christian participation in war by distinguishing between “non-resistance” and “non-violent resistance.” He argued that because Jesus counseled nonresistance (urging his followers to turn the other cheek), nonviolent resistance was no more faithful to the Gospel than violence—after all, it did resist. Nor was it practical, for it ceded all force to people who would use it without scruple. But Niebuhr, with characteristic subtlety, saw some merit in nonviolence even so. In peacetime, he allowed, nonviolent resistance could be an effective way to close the gap between the powerful and the powerless—as Gandhi had recently shown with his campaign of strikes and boycotts against the British in India. He added:
The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy … The white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so. Upon that point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies.
In jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, King drew on the passage from memory in his open letter to eight of the city’s white clergymen, recalling:
As Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
In a striking paradox, King had identified the philosopher of armed conflict with the cause of nonviolence.
When Stanley Hauerwas found himself “silenced” during the war on terror, he too sat down and wrote an open letter, and he too had Niebuhr in mind. Hauerwas, who teaches in the divinity school at Duke University, is the most prominent voice for Christian pacifism in America. A September 2001 issue of Time declared him “America’s Best Theologian.” Then the terrorists struck. A First Things editorial, “In a Time of War,” set out the journal’s stance. The target was recognizably Hauerwas, a member of the First Things editorial board, and the rhetoric was recognizably that of the editor in chief, Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who is to theoconservatism what Hauerwas is to pacifism. Support for the war, Neuhaus proposed, was not a matter of debate “between idealism and realism, nor between moral purity and moral compromise”; it was a matter of duty. Anyone with a “decent respect for mankind” would join the war effort. As for the “fraudulent” pacifists who promoted “nonviolent resistance,” they were living in “an unreal world of utopian fantasy that has no basis in Christian faith.” As opponents of military force, they should have no say “in the discussion about how military force should be used.”
“I have been silenced,” Hauerwas responded in a letter to the editors. He found it “almost beyond belief” that First Things had resorted to “the Niebuhrian distinction between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance in order to silence the pacifist voice.” As he saw it, that distinction affected more than pacifists; it forced all Christians to “leave Jesus behind when they come to the political realm” and reconcile themselves to “the order of disguised violence”—the world of legislatures and politics that leads, inevitably, to the order of undisguised violence that is war. His point made, he resigned from the editorial board.
Niebuhr’s “hold on Neuhaus’ soul seems permanent,” Hauerwas later wrote, and so it is on Hauerwas’s. It was from Niebuhr, he says, that he learned “that if you desire justice you had better be ready to kill someone along the way.” But an encounter with the work of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder convinced him that “if there is anything to this Christian ‘stuff’ it must surely involve the conviction that the Son [of God] would rather die on the cross than have the world to be redeemed by violence.”
Since then, Hauerwas has been what might be called a Niebuhrian inside-out, laying the problems of American Protestantism at Niebuhr’s feet. In his view—set out in his Gifford Lectures, given in 2000 and 2001, 60 years after Niebuhr’s—the Christian Church must bring the power of the Gospels to the world rather than seek accommodation with worldly power, and Niebuhr, in an attempt to make faith relevant to the age and acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion, became “the theologian of a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie.”
Published in a book shortly after the terrorist attacks, Hauerwas’s challenge to Niebuhr could be seen as a critique of the Bush administration and of the close ties between Christianity and patriotism. Six years into the war, Hauerwas is firmer than ever in his conviction that Niebuhrian realism is not realistic. As he sees it, the war on terrorism is not only not winnable; it isn’t even a war, for it has no clear enemy, purpose, or end. As in all wars, however, violence and the threat of violence are everywhere, from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo. The ubiquity of violence, he insists, shows the emptiness of Niebuhrian realism, for all Niebuhr’s further arguments lead to the crude conclusion that “the nations with the largest armies get to determine what counts for ‘justice’”; and the diversity of Niebuhrian opinions shows that Niebuhr has no clear answers to give us.
In 1943, with the Axis powers still strong in Europe and the Pacific, Niebuhr began to plan for the postwar situation, sketching out a peacetime alliance that would represent a mean between the extremes of anarchy and world government. As the military intervention he’d sought was becoming a fact on the ground, making American predominance in world affairs felt as never before, he was looking ahead to a time when the United States would need to “establish community with many nations.”
It was at this time that he wrote the Serenity Prayer, the 33 words now uttered countless times each day in 12-step recovery programs worldwide: “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.”
More than a prayer, this was Niebuhr’s prescription for action in the new era waiting on the far side of the war. He 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, a quality born of “the triumph of experience over dogma.”
Such wisdom is needed now more than at any time since 1945. The war in Iraq is far from over, no matter what any politician says. The forces of globalization and terrorism have made the United States at once more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before, bringing the “hell of global insecurity” to our office towers and mailboxes. With the so-called American Century safely behind us, we can once more begin to see that we are just one nation among many, for better and for worse.
Where, in such a situation, is the wisdom Niebuhr called for to be found? All the recent ritual invocation of his thought suggests that the place to look is not in his aphorisms and pronouncements, not in the particular petitions he signed or the committees he founded, but in his sense of history and our role in it.
Niebuhr was what Flannery O’Connor called a “realist of distances,” and the distance that gave his realism its clarity and explanatory power was gained through a grasp of what was known in his time as sacred history. In his view, the youth and optimism of the American experience was offset by the Founders’ conviction that we are a biblical people, enacting in the New World an older history. For Niebuhr, the aspirations that shaped our common life predated the republic: They were the visions of the promised land held by the patriarchs and the apostles, described in the history of Israel’s origins and destiny, which, in our early settlers’ account, became the story of our origins and destiny as well. This history tells of a people confident of its special role yet thwarted again and again on account of its pride, and growing in wisdom through a sense of the frailty of human nature and the limits of earthly powers. This history records that nations rage and peoples rise up together—that war sets brother against brother, despoils the land, and rends the social fabric; it counsels that you go to war with a heavy heart, for the truly good war has never been fought. This history acts as a restraint on national pride, not a stimulant to it, for it is not merely history, but in some sense our history, a story that cannot but be a cautionary tale, for it tells us who we are and what we are prone to do.
The war in Iraq, and the debates about the war, suggest that this history is now lost to us. On the surface, our society is thick with religion, but it is religion whose history is merely decorative, like the fiberglass pillars and aluminum gaslights of a McMansion in the suburbs. The Christianity that has a voice in official Washington has as its patriarchs Reagan and Falwell, not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet it has managed to make the nation’s longer biblical history repulsive to the liberals who once acknowledged it as a basic fact of our heritage. Lacking this history, liberals have a mainly ahistorical, secular political culture—one that assumes liberalism began with the New Deal or in 1948 and that would stand apart from religion altogether at a time when an understanding of the religious outlook is crucial to our grasp of the challenges of a globalized world.
In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that we fail to hear the voices of prophets like those who, during all the U.S. wars of the past century, called the ruling powers to account. To an astonishing degree, churches have underwritten the war in Iraq, recasting the biblical tradition in accord with the policies of the White House. They’ve replaced two millennia of thinking about war and peace with grade-school tutorials on Islam and facile comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, attempting to make a usable past out of events that are hardly even past.
Niebuhr would say that a biblical perspective, once lost, is not easily recovered—cultural regeneration being an abstract enterprise doomed to failure, like most human projects. Yet it’s worth recalling his conviction that history isn’t a true measure of things, that posterity is only a proximate judgment. “There is no way of transmuting the Christian gospel into a system of historical optimism,” he observed. “The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s and not ours.”
Even so, Niebuhr insisted, “we do have a responsibility for proximate victories”—“for the health of our communities, our nations, and our cultures.” What might this mean for the war in Iraq? It would mean frankly acknowledging, first of all, that the war as fought—in the misbegotten hope that Iraq, with its fractious history, could be remade in our image—has been lost. And second, that a full American withdrawal from the country is no more possible than a swift and easy victory was. Americans and Iraqis are bound together for the foreseeable future, regardless of the terms on which U.S. forces are drawn down—even if we are driven out of their country by rival factions in a civil war. “To love our enemies cannot mean that we must connive with their injustice,” Niebuhr wrote in 1942. “It does mean that beyond all moral distinctions of history we must know ourselves one with our enemies not only in the bonds of common humanity but also in the bonds of common guilt by which that humanity has become corrupted.”
As it was in Western Europe, so it is in Iraq. Its history now has an American chapter—and the other way around—and this shared history brings a shared responsibility, whether we like it or not. The recognition of this fact would be not only realistic, but the beginning of wisdom—the first step in the recognition of the limits of our power.