Would Niebuhr subscribe to First Things?

Reinhold NiebuhrPaul Elie’s latest essay for The Atlantic, a 6,400-word report on the variety of political thinkers who cite the late Reinhold Niebuhr as their hero, starts off strong but spends too much time waist-deep in the big muddy of debates about the Iraq War.

The essay is a fine crash course in Niebuhr and his thinking. Considering that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also name-check Niebuhr, I think Elie missed an opportunity to explore other political uses of the heavily influential pastor and political philosopher. (Elie mentions only Obama’s enthusiasm for Niebuhr, and then only as an aside.)

Instead, we are treated to the entertainment of reading about Richard John Neuhaus and First Things (which Elie calls “the house organ of the theocons”) invoking Niebuhr while rebuking Stanley Hauerwas, the highly principled theologian and pacifist who sat on the First Things editorial board — until then.

Elie’s reference to First Things as a house organ is one of the first warnings that his essay will be a bit too predictable in its criticisms. There is, for instance, the clockwork invocation of Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan as villains:

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.

There’s also this breathtaking generalization about the supposed complicity of churches in the Iraq War:

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.

Jim Wallis, Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of mainline Protestant churches, authors of every anti-Religious Right book published in the past 18 months: Call your publicists, then have them call Paul Elie.

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  • http://johnluke.wordpress.com/ John Rich

    I don’t know if Reinhold Niebuhr would subscribe to First Things, but I do know that he could be considered a Christian version of a neocon.

    More appropriately, a former left-winger who was mugged by the reality of war and the challenges of totalitarianism to our freedom.

    As for Elie’s “the house organ of the theocons” appellation for Fr. Neuhaus’ fine magazine, this alone convinces me that the sound emanating from the Atlantic is that of agendas spinning and grinding.

    The very use of the term “theocon” is, or should be, just as offensive as what has become the usage understood by “neocon” — an insult, bordering on anti-Semitism (or anti-Christian in the case of theocon).

    Any use of such a term is merely a substitute for a discussion of the merits of an orthodox Christian’s reading of his faith.

  • Jerry

    Unfortunately the article is behind a pay barrier so I won’t get to read it myself. I can only comment that I agree with you that it started strong, pointing to his appeal to the entire political spectrum. The Wikipedia article on him discusses his evolution as a thinker.

    I looked around some more and on a page of quotes, found this one that fits pretty well with this blog:

    I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.

  • Mark E. Gammon

    Actually, Niebuhr is a classic realist, so it is hardly fair to lump him with the neocons/theocons. They are idealists in the sense of not recognizing the reality of power. Yes, Niebuhr was anti-communist (though very Marxist to the end); he was also pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-all-kinds-of-other-liberal-things. MLK read his Niebuhr and found in “Moral Man and Immoral Society” the tactics he would use to lead his movement — prescribed more than 30 years before by Niebuhr, in specific reference to black America.

  • Harris

    The turn at the end is unbecoming. Elie’s point at the ending quote is to focus on the form of the new main line, viz the Evangelical, those religious communities that have access to this political power. And here the evidence, anecdotally and statistical is clear: the opinions one reads voiced by the editorial staff at World are very much in line with what polls themselves show, viz. that the most reliable supporters of the war and this administration are found in the ranks of the social conservatives (Rod Dreher, “friend-of-this-blog” notwithstanding).

    Moreover, for this blog to suddenly turn and cite the liberal Evangelical and mainline seems altogether too convenient. The tmatt Questions and the dpulliam skepticism about the political Evangelical left are all too well known. This does seem to be a case of trying to have it both ways.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Mr. Harris,

    I felt that Elie’s use of “churches” was entirely too broad, given the subsequent words in the paragraph.

    Both Terry and Dan speak for themselves, as I do.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I’ve gone back to reading my Atlantic on paper, and the next issue hasn’t arrived yet. But I have to say I’ve been disappointed in their examinations of religion, and not just because they keep Christopher Hitchens on staff. They seem quite aware of religion as a political and social force, but they never seem to transcend that observation.

    Of course, the Niebuhr-loving Episcopal Church is chocked full of no-compromise opposition to any involvement in Iraq, even as it heavily staffs the chaplain corps. And one shouldn’t forget the close association of Niebuhr and Neuhaus in the CALCAV anti-war organization in the 1960s. It seems to me that, for quite some time now, the neat division into liberals and conservatives has fallen apart between sex and war. And it plays against the (liberal) media program of trying to understand the matter in terms of the political conservatives using the church’s support in sexuality to get them to sign off on neo-con and Reaganite military and economic impulses.

    I let my First Things subscription lapse when Neuhaus continued to indulge in rude twitting of ECUSA’s sufferings and when the content seemed to become almost entirely Roman (with a dash of rabbi). I haven’t read The Theocons, but Neuhaus’s transformation over the years certainly seems worth considering, if perhaps less tendentiously.

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