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

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.

—Justine Isola

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 .

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.

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.