Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Diana Butler Ross on Niebuhr and the Democrats


Diana Butler Ross, who writes a column for Beliefnet's "God's Politics Blog", thinks see sees much of Niebuhr's thinking in the comments by Clinton, Obama and Edwards in Monday's faith forum. Here are highlights from her column:

Clearly unscripted and unplanned, what emerged was a re-articulation of a great American theology: the ironic strain of Protestant faith. In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr described this part of American religious-political character in his book, The Irony of American History. Irony, as Niebuhr described, is not humor. Rather, it is an understanding that American history was full of unexpected twists, that the most innocent political intentions had often undermined virtue.

“If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases, the situation is ironic.”

Irony runs deep in the Protestant soul, finding its original voice in St. Paul, who said, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

In recent years, Protestant irony has been in short supply. From both the Religious Right and the current president we have been subjected to a theology of victory, that which Martin Luther once called the “theology of glory,” a triumphal Christianity. No self-reflection, no sense of “I do the very thing I hate,” no anticipation of wisdom turning into folly.

Contrasting the theology of glory, Luther identified “the theology of cross.” Like Niebuhr’s irony, the theology of the cross understands human limitations, recognizes suffering, and acts in humility. It is the way of grace-filled risk, of trusting God—not armies or policies or ideologies or our own righteousness—to bring peace. St. Paul, Martin Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr—all voices of the cross.

These strains—triumphal or ironic, hubris or humility, of glory or the cross—have competed for the soul of American Protestantism since its beginnings. And, as expected, the more modest voices have often been less heard, perhaps because they represent the deepest place of Protestant spirituality. After nearly two decades of certainty, no wonder the Democrats sounded that note on Monday night—and it was refreshing to hear it. I was not only surprised by how well these Democrats spoke about faith, but that they sounded like Reinhold Niebuhr while doing it!

The irony of American history is clearer than ever. As Niebuhr wrote, we are “involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history.” Iraq? New Orleans? The gap between rich and poor? Will we have a political theology of triumphalism or irony? A theology of glory or the cross? Thank goodness we may well have a choice in the next presidential election.

Read it all.

for more about Niebuhr, read my post here.

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