Paul 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.