Sunday, September 9, 2007

Reinhold Niebuhr and Campaign 2008

PBS's Religion & Ethics website has an interesting article that notes the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr's thinking on the 2008 Presidential race:

Midway through Rinde Eckert's play "Horizon," the main character, an ethics professor loosely based on Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, flashes back to a childhood scene. "What is original sin?" his father asks. "The understanding that we are by nature selfish creatures. That all action is rooted in desire. That we are not innocent and can never be innocent," the boy responds, in a fair summation of Niebuhr's view on the matter.

Thirty-six years after his death, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) is making a comeback. Perhaps not since President Jimmy Carter acknowledged Niebuhr's influence--his 1976 campaign book WHY NOT THE BEST? cited the theologian's observation that to establish justice in a sinful world is "the whole sad duty of the political order"--has the name Reinhold Niebuhr been on so many people's lips.

. . .

Actor and playwright Eckert's homage to Niebuhr ran for a month this summer off-Broadway, not long after presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was quoted by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks as saying Niebuhr is "one of my favorite philosophers." Brooks himself quotes Niebuhr consistently and has described him as "one of America's most profound writers on war and international conflict," a thinker we could use today "to police our excesses" in foreign policy.

In August, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer drew heavily on Niebuhr in a speech at the Chautauqua Institution about passion and humility in politics. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's forthcoming book on religion and politics takes note of the current longing for a new Reinhold Niebuhr to inspire the next generation of religious liberals. As political theorist William Galston put it recently in an essay about doubt in American politics in the journal "Democracy," "after a period of neglect, Reinhold Niebuhr is the man of the hour."

Peter Beinart, editor-at-large at THE NEW REPUBLIC and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, advocated a Niebuhr-inflected American humility cum muscle in his recent book THE GOOD FIGHT: WHY LIBERALS--AND ONLY LIBERALS--CAN WIN THE WAR ON TERROR AND MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

"He became more the focus of the book than I expected," said Beinart. "I began to realize Niebuhr more than [historian and liberal partisan Arthur] Schlesinger was the key to it, at least intellectually. If there was a Kevin Bacon figure in Cold War liberalism, it was him," Beinart said, referring to the party game whereby the actor can be connected to nearly any other star in six steps or less.

Niebuhr's focus on morality in international affairs could not be more relevant today, four years into a war that has become fraught, for many, with doubt and uncertainty. His unrelenting gaze inward, at a United States he refused to herald as the world's unquestioned savior, diverges from the renewed sense of American exceptionalism that followed in some quarters after September 11, and it highlights the distinction between the acknowledgment of evil's existence and America's own involvement in that evil. "As Niebuhr famously said, we always use evil to prevent greater evil," said Beinart. "The recognition that America is capable of evil has been brought home to a new generation, in things like Abu Ghraib, in the most topical way since Vietnam."

While it may be impossible to know where Niebuhr would stand on Iraq, his reasoning can serve as a resource in addressing current moral and ethical issues, and his perspective may help shape public debate ahead of next year's presidential election. "He's perennially relevant at the general level," said Richard Wightman Fox, author of REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A BIOGRAPHY and a professor of history at the University of Southern California. "The more specific you get, the more you can take a position on either side."

Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, in his new book HARD CALL: GREAT DECISIONS AND EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE WHO MADE THEM, wonders openly what the prominent theologian and critic of pacifism during World War II would say today about Iraq: "Would [Niebuhr] have perceived in the Iraq war a realistic response to injustice and a threat to our own security, or just pretentious idealism? And if the latter, would he argue we should withdraw from the country, after our many mistakes in the prosecution of the war, if doing so would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and even greater threat to our own security interests? One could ask the same questions about the appeals to our moral superiority that summoned Americans to battle after the attacks of September 11. Would he deplore them as a milder form of the arrogance and absolutism claimed by the terrorists who hate us? I doubt it. As Niebuhr argued in his criticism of pacifism, there are moral distinctions in history, and we have a responsibility to defend the right against the wrong…Both sides claims Niebuhr for their own. Which is right?...The best we can hope for in this life, he would tell us, is a proximate justice."

Niebuhr's last teaching assistant, Ronald Stone, now professor emeritus of Christian social ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, credits Niebuhr's resurgence in part to a reaction against attempts to create a democratic Middle East. "To many of us, neoconservatism has run its course," said Stone, "and the foreign policy of the neoconservatives hasn't worked, so realist prudence and reluctance to involve the U.S. in a war seems to be the wisdom of the day."

. . .

University of Virginia religious studies professor Charles Mathewes sounds a similar note. Niebuhr, he suggests, "is the best theologian to think about things if you want to think about sin without being cynical." Mathewes says he sees in Obama "the complexity of the Niebuhrian outlook," but he also believes Hillary Clinton possesses "theological depth I think people don't pick up on." Both Clinton and Obama, he says, "are prepared to become Niebuhrians."

Stone, too, sees Clinton as a Niebuhrian candidate because of her pragmatism and willingness to reach across ideological divides, exemplified by her bipartisan work in the Senate. As a teenager in Park Ridge, Illinois, she read Niebuhr and other theologians such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with her Methodist youth minister, Don Jones. Jones's "University of Life" program took suburban high schoolers into Chicago to meet black and Hispanic gang members and to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, giving Clinton, as she once said, "a sense of social mission." In a 1993 profile of the then-First Lady, Jones told the Washington Post, "She is both idealistic and pragmatic. Really, she embodies that dialectic."

This is a rich essay and is well worth reading. Read it all here.

It strikes me, by the way, that Niebuhr's thinking can be influential even to those who do not believe in a God. Niebuhr defined man's sinful nature in a way that could be accepted a a truthful statement of human behavior by an atheist, and Niebuhr's focus on action in the real world--as well as a pragmatic scepticism and humility about what can be accomplished--could also be embraced by a non-believer. Indeed, to someone concerned that personal faith is playing too much of a focus in American politics would find much comfort in Niebuhr's own warnings about the dangers of religious crusades:

"Where there is freedom, there is sin," Niebuhr wrote in his 1943 book THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN. It is a sentiment that stands in sharp contrast to George W. Bush's second inaugural address, which spoke of the ideal of human freedom and declared that U.S. policy would actively "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture." Niebuhr's Christian realism--his recognition of the persistence of sin, self-interest, and self-righteousness in social conflicts--rejected absolutism and argued that overarching moral principles must adapt to changing times and circumstances. Rejecting idealism, he argued that the unbridled social optimism of early 20th-century liberal Protestants was misguided, because the kingdom of God could never come to pass on Earth. History, he believed, was about struggle more than progress.

"In his desire to improve liberalism, he said let's not try and make this a utopian process," according to Eckert. "Utopianism is blasphemous because it imagines perfection through history, and we have to recognize that's not in the cards. We are grounded in our condition, our original sin, if you will."

. . .

According to Fox, Niebuhr wrote and thought quite a lot in his final years about Abraham Lincoln, someone Obama has repeatedly quoted in speeches and in his book THE AUDACITY OF HOPE.

"Obama's discussion of Lincoln is exactly what Niebuhr would think," Fox said. "He sees how Lincoln's God is a transcendent God. He's no one you can mosey up to and say he's mine…. What you get is not a blueprint of what to do to be on God's side but a challenge to take responsibility for human problems and social justice."

Hence one of Niebuhr's great paradoxes: Even if God's judgment lies beyond history, we cannot ignore that challenge within history. Beware, though, the conviction that rising to the challenge always derives from personal faith--a warning voters may find useful as they weigh their options in the run-up to November 2008.

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