Not Everyone Loves Niebuhr

Not Everyone Loves Niebuhr June 9, 2017

And more people should be suspicious when a mainline Methodist (James Comey) starts quoting a German Reformed theologian (Reinhold Niebuhr). What would John Wesley say?

What John Fea says, which seems to be where popular opinion is going, is that James Comey’s bona fides in standing up to President Trump just became even deeper and more profound because Comey seems to be channeling Niebuhr.

I for one think Christians should be wary of cheering for fellow Christians in public square arguments. It looks like special pleading. When you add that Niebuhr was President Obama’s favorite theologian, it looks like you are currying the favor of the former emperor. Optics anyone?

But in the case of cheering for Niebuhr, it looks even more strange when you consider how theological rather than political or national the ethicist’s outlook was. Rather than looking to the United States’ own traditions (remember the separation of church and state?) of foreign policy, such as the categories supplied by Walter Russell Mead — Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and Wilsonians — Niebuhr went cosmic. He situated the Cold War in the universal struggles of good and evil that Israel and the Old Testament prophets addressed.

Paul Elie, an astute writer, put Niebuhr’s appeal this way:

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 Communist 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.

All of that makes some sense, though the theological food fight that Comey explored for his undergraduate thesis between Niebuhr and Falwell sounds like the 1932 Yankees playing the 1964 Mets. Did anyone really think Falwell had a chance?

But by linking the American narrative to the ancient story of the Old Testament patriarchs — mind you, redemptive history, Niebuhr neglected the very good and thoughtful native-born voices that informed U.S. foreign policy (think George Washington’s farewell), and he added to America’s Israel complex. That psychological defect goes back to the Puritans and their regard for their society in the New World as the New Israel. How that adds to American humility rather than adding to American exceptionalism is anyone’s guess. Actually, Walter McDougall has important arguments to make about why civil religion, even of a Niebuhrian kind, may hurt rather than aid Americans in trying to identify the limits and possibilities of their nation’s international responsibilities.

More America, less New Israel, puh-leeze!


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