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Public Theology: Political Realism and Religious Engagement
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Political Realism and Religious Engagement
The world is broken. People of faith must reckon with that fact as they consider political engagement. Reinhold Niebuhr provides some insight for today.

By Byron Williams

As a self professed Neibuhrian, I believe the church could benefit from his thinking today. It seems the preeminent Christian theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, has made something of a comeback. In his day, few possessed the broad spectrum of influence, as did Niebuhr.

Niebuhr’s public theology was the standard for how those with a “realistic” faith would confront the complexities of the 20th century. A broad coalition ranging from Martin Luther King to former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and others cite Niebuhr as having profound influence on their thinking and subsequent actions. Niebuhr’s Christian Realism, where he offers a Christian ethic that combines a dose of pragmatism staking out a middle ground between Christian idealism and hubris to challenge both the church and society to reflect deeper about its role in a post-WWII world.

Niebuhr developed a modern strategic framework that sought to introduce American leaders to the harsher realities of international politics that included a thermo-nuclear component. Niebuhr's realism did not believe that liberal Christianity could maintain a pacifist stand on every issue that appeared on the international stage.

Since his death in 1971, outside of academia, the name Reinhold Niebuhr was hardly mentioned in the public conversation, including the protestant church. Time had seemingly eroded his influence that was until September 11, 2001. But those who do look to Niebuhr today are more likely to be political pundits than individuals engaged in public theology leaving a chasm that the church, be it liberal or conservative, seems unwilling to close. The late historian, Arthur Schlesinger, in a 2005 New York Times article profoundly asked: “Why, in an age of religiosity, has Niebuhr, the supreme American theologian of the 20th century, dropped out of 21st-century religious discourse?” New York Times neo-conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a piece for Atlantic Monthly in September 2002 where he sought to rekindle Niebuhr's wisdom as a starting point for American foreign policy post 9/11. He wrote: Niebuhr's great foe was idealism. American idealism, he believed, comes in two forms: the idealism of noninterventionists, who are embarrassed by power, and the idealism of imperialists, who disguise power as virtue.

Likewise, Peter Beinhart, former editor of the New Republic and author of “The Good Fight: Why Liberals and Only Liberals can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” citing Niebuhr, calls for a more aggressive foreign policy on the left.

He writes: “But before Vietnam, and the disappointment and confusion it spawned, liberals did have a clear story of their own. In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive.”

He adds, “Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves.”

Those who cite Niebuhr to support their 21st century worldview tend to omit his opposition to the war in Vietnam, which I would argue Iraq is more akin than the post-WWII period that Brooks and Beinhart seek to align their thinking. Furthermore, it could be argued that Vietnam is the residue of the type of hubris and arrogance that Niebuhr correctly warned. My biggest criticism of the Brooks and Beinhart type application of Niebuhr is their use is primarily to justify a predetermined position.

Central to Niebuhrian philosophy was the notion: the choice is not between good and evil but rather between evil and more evil. Here Niebuhr, the liberal Protestant, offers a cautionary critique to the limitations of humankind that finds its roots in the philosophy of Edmund Burke widely regarded as the patriarch of modern day conservatism. Just as Burke offered that no one was in sole possession of truth, fighting evil, for Niebuhr, does not make one good by default. The recognition of this fact creates perhaps the ultimate paradox. Niebuhr was quite aware of power’s egalitarian ability to corrupt both sides. If one accepts the Jesus ethic that it rains on the just and the unjust, would that not suggest that good and evil, however defined, exist in close proximity if not an overlap? Was that not the scene presented to us in the Good Friday scenario as Jesus is sandwiched between two thieves? It would therefore be the height of arrogance, haughtiness, and a false sense of superiority to assume that one could pursue a cause so noble they would be immune to the seductive forces of evil.

Understanding Niebuhr’s philosophy may allow one to justify their position utilizing one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century but it is equally important that one apply such understanding in a contemporary framework. The initial challenge for anyone who seeks to interpret Niebuhr’s thought for a 21st century context is to acknowledge that Niebuhr would hardly recognize the world today.

In addition to 9/11, the world today is one that must grapple with an AIDS crisis in Africa, the rise of China as an economic power, the potential of a complete destabilization in the Middle East, along with a self-induced guerilla war in Iraq that threatens to bog America down in some manner politically, economically, and militarily for decades.

Robin Lovin, ethics professor at Southern Methodist University writes: “Coming to terms with Niebuhr's Christian Realism thus requires us both to understand how our world is different from the one in which he lived and to ask whether his theologically formed way of looking at the world might help us with the new realities. There is a prophetic task for academics that involves freeing 21st century Christianity from the grip of Niebuhr's highly successful 20th century formulations of Christian Realism.”

Lovin’s argument suggest we are better served not by seeking to understand hypothetically Niebuhr’s position on, say, the Iraq war but using Niebuhr’s prism of Christian Realism in a macro context to raise vital questions as to the direction of the country and how to proceed.

If the choice is not between good and evil, but evil and more evil, some of America’s post-9/11 actions beg the question: Is America representative of the evil or the more evil? It is incomprehensible to many today to see America as evil, let alone more evil. History does suggest that evil has run a parallel course along side America’s perceived great moments.

It is the mature society that can talk about both with equal authenticity. America’s "divinely" inspired assaults on the indigenous peoples of this land and its systematic treatment of African descendents who were originally brought here under a forced immigration policy are dark chapters that haunt the country to the present day. Even the noble efforts of WWII were not free from American participation in evil as Japanese internment camps serve as an immoral reminder. There is something about fear and arrogance that makes it practically impossible for a society to engage in the type of self-reflection that Niebuhr advocated.

I have little doubt Niebuhr would have offered critical observations about our contemporary global challenges, I believe he would have also opined that our attempt to confront so-called evil forces does not render us immune from participating in it, as Abu Grahib and Gurantanamo Bay tragically bear witness.

Niebuhr commenting on the nature of evil suggests: “Evil is always the assertion of some interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community or the total community of humanity or the total order of the world.”

When those actions are combined with hatred of another race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, not only does it become easier to commit such acts but also they receive an asterisk of justification based on the uniqueness of the circumstances. How many times has history recorded societies making such Faustian bargains in the name of self-preservation?

Here is where we needed the Niebuhrian voice, not from pundits trying to justify their positions but rather from the church offering realistic moral caution. Niebuhr’s political thinking may be making a limited resurgence the same, however, does not hold true for his public theology. The latter, I fear, remains in the bowels of Cold War antiquity.

I suspect the church’s inability or unwillingness to embrace Niebuhr lies in the tension created by his realist thought. If one agrees the thesis of the Christian ethic is the absoluteness of the moral ideal and the endless possibilities for the fulfillment of the beloved community, one is already in conflict with Niebuhrianism. “In the religion of Jesus,” says Niebuhr, “the perfection of God is consistently defined as an absolute love by comparison with which all altruistic achievements fall short.”

For Niebuhr, original sin makes the achievement of agape love impossible. The seductive power of pride and hubris allows humans to ignore reality in lieu of an unrealistic vision of self. It is unrealistic to love your neighbor as yourself, which is part of the highest Christian ideal, but that does not mean one must abandon this utopian quest. For the church to offer this as an edict that is achievable, in a literal sense, disables one from engaging in the complexities of the 21st century. If the church is imprisoned in a melancholy dungeon of idealism it is unequipped to effectively participate in the public conversation. Moreover, in times of moral crisis it would have no moral authority except for an immature theology that one could obtain in the vast majority of children’s Sunday Schools taught each week.

Niebuhr, therefore, can have no influence on contemporary public theology if the church cannot admit that a Christian dialectic exists between the dominant themes of good v. evil and divine providence against the realist approach suggesting that no side is immune from the influences of evil no matter how noble the cause.

It is much easier for us to see America as the “shining city on a hill,” promoting the notion that we had received most favored nation status with God, than to offer a realistic critique of the moral consequences of being a long-term debtor nation. The Christian faith, as Niebuhr often preached, cannot be simply reduced to the belief that certain divine acts of providence in one’s favor are proof positive of God's unwavering love. Assuming momentarily that God’s largesse did include special favor for America, would not the legacies of the British and Roman Empires lead one to conclude that under the best case scenarios such providence carries a statute of limitations?

The church collective, of whom I am part, fails to expose the subversive manner in which evil avails itself. Few would consider it evil to sit in one’s S.U.V. idling in the fast food drive thru. But when one factor the inordinate amount of the world’s resources America uses to sustain its petroleum based economy such benign acts do indeed imply a touch of evil.

To be fair, calls for the church to reclaim Niebuhr assumes a period when the overwhelming majority of mainline congregations embraced his thinking. A romantic thought perhaps, but hardly congruent with history. Niebuhr was far more popular in academia and the public square than within the church.

Would a 21st century version of Reinhold Niebuhr receive the same fate of that of the Greek Mythology character Cassandra? Cassandra had the gift of telling the future twisted by Apollo making everyone who heard her foretellings of future events believe that they were instead hearing lies. We have more than enough post-9/11 evidence to conclude if there was a Niebuhr on the scene his calls of caution against hubris and evil would most likely fall on deaf ears, labeling him as an anti-American who sides with the enemy.

It is the Niebuhrian philosophy in a macro context that remains relevant in 21st century America. But that appears to be less appealing than using Niebuhr for preordained purposes.

Imagine if Niebuhr wrote today, what he wrote in 1952: “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Though truer words could not have been spoken. I suspect more were listening then than now, which explains the deafening silence from the church as Niebuhr’s name is invoked from competing sides for the purposes of moral self-justification.

This article appeared at Byron Speaks


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Date Added: 2/19/2009 Date Revised: 2/19/2009 1:54:19 PM

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