ROSS DOUTHAT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Just to bounce one alternative possibility, especially off you E.J.: I wonder what you think of the idea that maybe what Niebuhr would say is that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 is the kind of forgivable excess that you expect from governments, but that the torture memos of 2005 are the kind of thing that shouldn't be forgiven. And I don't know. What do you think about that kind of distinction, the sort of institutionalization versus the sort of crisis mentality, getting your hands dirty with an individual case?
DIONNE: First of all, Bill is fundamentally right. The "what would Niebuhr say and do" debate is pretty tough to carry out.
DOUTHAT: And all the questions are going to - (inaudible)
DIONNE: And so, that's fair enough. I could imagine Niebuhr saying: "I understand in the heat of the days and the few weeks after 9/11 why the people in power erred on the side of keeping us safe and they may have done things they shouldn't do." I still find it hard - again, we can debate this.
I still think he would have ended up on the critical side because what's so fascinating about Niebuhr is the neocons have always sort of liked him, as Father Neuhaus suggests, because he always talked about the legitimacy of using American power in the world. And there were moments when the people on the left were seen as always declaring that American power in the world, the use of American power, is wrong and illegitimate. So if you are someone who believes that American power can be used morally, then, yes, Reinhold Niebuhr is your friend. But, he was also always very wary of jingoism, of our tendency not to look at our own flaws, the danger of overreach, the danger of doing things that were immoral in a moral cause.
And those are two sides of Niebuhr, and in some ways, you can say it's an ambiguity, but I think fundamentally it actually holds together; you know, a shorthand is: American power can be used morally but it should be used with fear and trembling and we have to be very careful about how we use it. I don't know. Would Bill disagree with that summary?
MCCLAY: Yes. What I would say is, one of the fundamental building blocks of the argument in The Irony of American History is that Americans are utterly bedazzled by this notion of innocence, desire for innocence. And I don't know what he would say about this, but I think he might react to the current kind of orgy of interest in this subject that has to come up on every occasion.
And I'm not criticizing you for bringing it up, and there has been a lot of this, I think, in the early months of this administration, this pushing the reset button, this desire to kind of scapegoat and exorcise the past. This is contrary to the spirit of Niebuhr. There's no basis in Niebuhr for thinking that America was ever innocent, that any administration is innocent or that there's any reset button that any administration can ever push to make itself innocent.
So that doesn't answer the specific question about this one issue, but I think it's reasonable to deduce from his work - given that I don't know what he'd say - but it's reasonable to deduce that he might think that the emphasis on whether sending John Yoo and Jay Bybee to prison is going to atone for our national sins, over a war that began as a very broadly popular undertaking but later became a great burden to the national psyche, is a morally misplaced emphasis. Whether that's an appropriate deduction - that's a different question. I think they're connected.
MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: I'll change the subject. I think I played this role before in this kind of setting. But let me maybe defend the social gospel -
DIONNE: I love that.
GERSON: - at least properly understood, against the Niebuhrians, and ask your opinion on one point. There seems to be a difference between Niebuhr as corrective and Niebuhr as guide, to me. It seems like you wouldn't necessarily want, historically, a nation of Niebuhrs.
You look at the way social progress took place in America. It was often true believers, patriots who believed we were a new order for the ages, or William Lloyd Garrison who believed in absolute social equality between blacks and whites when no one else did, for purely religious reasons, or William Jennings Bryan, who had this kind of fundamentalist social gospel because he believed in it absolutely. You know, true believers in this context.
Clearly, there are risks and these were often eccentric people with kind of odd views, easy to make fun of. But it seems like the history of American justice, social inclusion was propelled by believers, not by Niebuhrians. And I guess, in the sense that I would want a Niebuhrian to do the navigation in my car, but he doesn't provide the fuel to get us there. The fuel is a belief in justice and truth in American history. So I'm wondering how you combine that kind of respect for Niebuhr as corrective with a recognition that that has not been the motivating principle of either the founding of our country or the progress of justice?
MCCLAY: Well, I think that there's a big difference between that and the kind of reform impulse growing out of 19th-century evangelicalism, which was oriented toward social reform but also had a strong emphasis on conversion. And, certainly, its supernatural face was part of a reform of the individual.
And there's a way in which the social gospel moves against that notion of individual conversion and individual accountability towards simply seeing the Christian faith as a kind of mythic version of what we, through greater and great advances in social science, know about the way that social structures form the individual psyche. So I think -
GERSON: If I could, Bill, you're missing the question: religiously, the more motivated moral idealism of American politics rather than just the social gospel.
GERSON: It's hard to regard William Jennings Bryan, who had a fundamentalist theology, as evidence of the social gospel, but he was, certainly, probably politically more influential of any of the advocates of the social gospel in changing the definition of the Democratic Party and doing all sorts of other things. Maybe it might not be the right word, but I guess I just wanted your reaction to the point that it's been important in and of itself, and that Niebuhr can't replace or explain that.
DIONNE: Now I see what you mean. Let me just say - Bill, do you want to -
MCCLAY: Go ahead.
DIONNE: What I want to say, first of all, is bless you for defending the social gospelers, because I have affection for them too, and in particular for their critique of the society that surrounded them.
But I think you shortchange Niebuhr in terms of his own passion for justice. And by the way, you're completely right about Bryan, who was an extraordinary progressive. We forget how everybody sees him in light of the Scopes trial and forgets that he rejected Darwinism because he hated social Darwinism and how Darwin was used to justify radical inequality. So I identify with all that.
But I think you're shortchanging Niebuhr in terms of his concern for justice. Richard Fox talks about how well into the 1950s Niebuhr could be very passionate in his critique of how capitalism actually works. In 1954, he wrote that capitalism had again become too complacent. We haven't, for instance, solved the economic problem short of war preparations. There was a passion in him for justice. His critique of the social gospelers was not against their mission. And he certainly did not lack for a willingness to fight for labor, or for Social Security, or for all kinds of corrections to a system of unfettered capitalism.
I think he was critical of social gospelers on two grounds. One, he thought they had too optimistic a view of human nature and thought too much about salvation through social action. They forgot about sin along the way. And that in turn led to sort of a politics that didn't work. He was not against the original motives of the social gospelers.
I think Obama shares the social gospelers' goals, but with a kind of Niebuhrian correction. You know, in that famous speech at Sojourners, he talked a lot about social injustice, but then, he also talked about individual accountability and responsibilities. He said when a gang member "shoots indiscriminately into a crowd ... there's a hole in that young man's heart, a hole that the government alone cannot fix."
Contraception could reduce teen pregnancy rates, he said, but he also talked about faith and guidance, which "help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy." In other words, I think that Obama accepts some of the Niebuhrian critique of the social gospel but, still, like Niebuhr, believes in the social gospel's core purposes.
CROMARTIE: Quick comment? Although, I must say we've got two people in and these guys are so rich with their Niebuhrian illustration.
DIONNE: Or they don't shut up.
MCCLAY: I would only say that one of the things that Niebuhr insisted on, and it was another source of his criticism of the social gospel because it was so completely subservient to the idea of the nation, was the idea that an emphasis upon the collectivity over the individual could easily lend support to a kind of quasi-totalitarianism.
And he says explicitly in his later book The Self and the Dramas of History that you have to have some source of value standing above the values inherent in history in order for those values to have validity.
And even though he was himself very much of a theological liberal, he worried that the social gospel dispensed unwisely with the entire supernatural element of faith, which not only was necessary as a driving force for reform, but kept that balance, serving as a corrective to the tendency of all social aggregates to tyrannize the individual.
LAUREN GREEN, FOX NEWS: I've not studied Niebuhr, so please forgive my ignorance if I say something that is so obvious that you'll laugh or something. But it seems to me that Niebuhr has this incredible understanding of the paradigm of the original sin, the fall, that we live in a broken world; but also of this narrative of redemption that there is definitely hope out there, this understanding that there are two prodigal sons, not just one. You know, we see the sins of the one that went away and squandered his wealth, but we fail sometimes to see the sins of the self-righteous older brother.
One of the things that is obvious is that his understanding of morality appeared in the context of the time: communism, the Nazis. What would he view as the evil today? What would his position be on the economic crisis? But also, is his effect on policy quantifiable? Did he have access to presidents like a Billy Graham did? Is there any quantifiable effect of him on American policy in any kind of administration?
MCCLAY: On the last part, I don't think so. Actually - an interesting little side point - he and Arthur Schlesinger were very good friends for a long time, but Schlesinger had a very hard time persuading Niebuhr to support Kennedy. Niebuhr finally did, but with some reluctance. He was no fan of the family. He hated, he just absolutely loathed and distrusted Bobby. And the father, Joseph Kennedy, of course was awful, in Niebuhr's view. JFK was OK, by comparison, but the thing he really held against JFK - and this is all amply documented in correspondence - were his sexual dalliances -
CROMARTIE: He knew about them?
MCCLAY: Oh, yes. Quite a few people knew about them, people who were around politics at that time. Yes, absolutely. And Niebuhr was very, very concerned not only about the sorts of risks that this would entail in terms of blackmail and national security, which he was very savvy about, but also what it said about the character of the man. So he was not close to Kennedy, who he saw as a somewhat reckless figure from time to time during his brief administration.
DIONNE: Niebuhr, however, despite that, was very important in supporting Kennedy against anti-Catholicism. Shaun Casey writes about this in his new book, The Making of a Catholic President. Not all liberal Protestants were comfortable with having a Catholic president, and within liberal Protestantism, Niebuhr was passionately opposed to bigotry against Catholics, and he played a very important role there. So despite his doubts, he was there.
MCCLAY: That's right.
DIONNE: I think, when you think about his impact on policy over the whole period - his work in the labor movement, his support for the civil rights movement and all the work around Americans for Democratic Action ¬- he was engaged in all of the core social reform movements of the '30s, '40s and '50s. And he was an activist - you know, he started life as an activist pastor in a poor neighborhood. He wasn't a community organizer, but he almost was.
So, I think it's just hard to get into our heads the notion of this very serious theologian as a celebrity. He really was a celebrity in that period, of a certain kind. So I don't know how much he went in and out of the White House. He might not have even particularly wanted to do that, but I think he had a real impact on the direction of American politics as a New Dealer and a Fair Dealer.
MCCLAY: Well, one area in which I think you can document influence is in the way that the doctrine of containment came to be formulated. Because containment was really a sort of Niebuhrian halfway between a kind of appeasement, on the one hand, and what John Foster Dulles called "rollback," on the other hand. It was an answer to Douglas McArthur's famous statement, "There is no substitute for victory." You know, it was this notion that containing - which is actually a very Lincoln-esque strategy - containing the expansion of communism, not rolling it back but containing it, would eventually lead to the destruction, the internal unraveling and destruction of the system.
Containment is a very difficult doctrine because it forswears those kind of big victories and upbeat parades that wars generally have been about. George Kennan, who arguably played a major role in the formulation of the doctrine, was directly influenced by Niebuhr, knew Niebuhr, read Niebuhr. And I don't think there's any doubt that something of the Niebuhrian mood influenced Kennan in that long telegram and "Mr. X" article and these other documents that ended up becoming formative to containment - the way those policies and perspectives became formulated. So that's a big influence.
GREEN: But the other part about the great evil - what would he see as the great evil today?
MCCLAY: That I just don't know. He'd be very concerned about biotechnology, I suspect. He already was. In The Irony of American History there are already passages about it. So I think he'd be very concerned about that.
Naomi Schaefer Riley
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: I'll try to be quick. Writing about religion for The Wall Street Journal, I always look for openings to talk about economics.
So I wanted to press you, E.J., and you, Bill, a little more on his views on economics. It was interesting to me that from the quote you read from Obama, he seemed right away to want to talk about Niebuhr's view of economics, and I think a lot of us tend to think about his views of foreign policy as the most formative ones. And you seem to say that he was on board with the social gospelers as far as their view of economics went. And, if you can clarify that, that would be great.
And then, I guess the second half of that question is, if he saw institutions as so inherently sinful, even more so than individuals, I wonder what he thought about the potential for institutions to solve economic problems like poverty as opposed to individuals sort of bringing themselves out of it.
MCCLAY: I think his instincts were socialist. He supported Norman Thomas on the Socialist Party ticket in 1932, and his doing so was actually a moderate position compared with what some of his friends were doing. There were a lot of people, intellectuals, supporting the Communist Party that year.
However, I do think you can deduce from Niebuhr some support for free market principles, simply because really, by the time he writes The Irony of American History, he's completely sold on the structure and dynamics of the U.S. Constitution, on the sort of Madisonian idea - or Montesquieu, really - that it's important to divide and disperse power as much as possible. But he's clearly sold on all of that. I think economics is one area in which he could be a little formulaic and weak and just kind of go with the journalism of the day rather than thinking and reading deeply into it, and thinking independently.
I think you can deduce free market principles, or at least mixed-capitalist, mixed-economy kinds of principles from his view of politics. But I think it would be anachronistic to go too far with that. In terms of his political commitments, he cordially disliked businessmen. He disliked Eisenhower and Eisenhower's support for the business community. He was much more of an Adlai Stevenson kind of guy.
DIONNE: A quick concrete answer that parallels this. He was either a liberal or a social democrat. This is from Richard Fox's biography. Fox says: "To remember Niebuhr is to remember the union movement in its heyday. For most of his life, the word ‘justice,' a term constantly on his lips, meant justice for workers, especially industrial workers. Only at the very end of his life did ‘justice' come to mean racial justice to the same degree that it meant industrial justice." Although he was still earlier than most in supporting civil rights.
"When Niebuhr tried to give concrete content to his notion of justice, he instinctively thought about equalizing standards of living, reducing job insecurity and enacting social insurance schemes. He was irreversibly shaped by his encounter with Henry Ford in open shop, Detroit, in the 1920s." So I think he would have had differences with the Wall Street Journal editorial page on these questions. (Laughter.)
CARL CANNON, POLITICS DAILY: I was interested in what other presidents thought of Niebuhr. Bill mentioned Jimmy Carter. Three presidents have mentioned Reinhold Niebuhr. Lyndon Johnson gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bill Clinton gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Joseph Rauh and mentioned that he worked for Niebuhr. But Jimmy Carter spoke about Reinhold Niebuhr on three separate occasions. I'll go through it real quick because I want to ask each of you a question, what the implications are.
One was in May of 1978. Carter was talking to the Los Angeles Bar Association and he said, "As a governor and as a president" - and this made me think that he was thinking about Niebuhr even when he was governor - he said that he'd learned that "as Reinhold Niebuhr said, it is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world."
In March 1978, he said, "From the experience of the urban renewal program of the 1950s, we learned to be skeptical about what Reinhold Niebuhr called ‘the doctrine of salvation through bricks' - the idea that we can bulldoze away our urban problems." That was a bit of a straw man. Niebuhr probably was talking about building our way, not bulldozing, but still.
And then, in June, same year, he actually quoted and named Moral Man in Immoral Society, and Carter went on this riff, and he said that Niebuhr "pointed out the difference between a society and people. The expectations and demands on a person are a much higher standard. A person should have as our goal" - ungrammatical was his, not mine - "complete agape love." The sitting president. He just went on this riff. "The most we can expect from a society is to institute simple justice."
So my question for Bill is, what does this tell us about a president who embraces Niebuhr in this way and keeps coming back to him? And then, I would ask you, E.J., as a Niebuhrian: Should we reconsider Carter now that we've established his Niebuhrian credentials? Carter was Mike Gerson's candidate in 1976, it should be pointed out.
CROMARTIE: Carl, what was your source? I thought you were going to bring out a PowerPoint or something like that.
CANNON: No. Trust me on those quotes.
CROMARTIE: Okay. You were just quoting. (Laughter.)
CANNON: From the public papers of the president.
CROMARTIE: You brought them with you?
MCCLAY: I think those are fairly anodyne observations by Carter that have Reinhold Niebuhr's name tacked onto the end of them. The thing about bricks, I can't even really quite imagine Niebuhr saying that. But he wrote so much that it's quite possible he did.
I think Carter may have at some point been a serious student of Niebuhr. I just don't know. But there's a kind of Niebuhr line that you can embrace which is to say, well, you can't expect the same things of institutions that you do of individuals. True, but that seems fairly obvious. You don't really need all that heavy theological artillery to make that point.
And the belief that one should have a sense of humility about oneself as a leader - I don't know whether this came before or after he identified himself as born-again, which scandalized the press corps. Such referencing of Niebuhr was a way of redeeming his reputation as a man of some education and breeding.
I don't want to be too harsh about it. But if you look at Carter's presidency, I think, in fact, many of the criticisms that Niebuhr makes of the children of light - that they have a kind of conviction about their virtuousness and the virtuousness of their cause, and that by being virtuous and showing their virtue they will sway the opinions of others - this just doesn't work in Niebuhr's view. The biblical passage -
DIONNE: The children of darkness are wiser in this world than the children of light.
MCCLAY: In this generation. Yes.
DIONNE: Yes. In this generation.
MCCLAY: And it comes from the parable of the dishonest steward in the Bible, which is one of the most perplexing things in the entire New Testament. I never have known what it means. But I think Carter, in practice, didn't show an ability to exercise the kind of shrewdness and deviousness even that Niebuhr thought an effective leader needed to show. He hadn't really taken in all of Moral Man and Immoral Society. By the way, as we were talking I did think of something else in Niebuhr: that he was a tremendous influence on Martin Luther King.
DIONNE: Yes. I was going to say that. That's really important.
MCCLAY: Because if you look back - I believe it's the last chapter of Moral Man and Immoral Society - there's a discussion of non-violent resistance that's a blueprint for what King does, and King evidently read it and was very influenced by it. King is not an example of a political leader, but an example of a social leader, a movement leader.
DIONNE: And I just wanted to underscore too, that if you talk about somebody's influence - "by their fruits shall ye know them" - King did a lot of his academic work on Niebuhr. Richard Fox says Niebuhr didn't see race as early as he saw the injustice of labor, but he was pretty early in understanding how important racial equality was.
And in terms of Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter was, and is, an intellectually serious believer and he's an intellectually serious believer of a certain age. And if you were, like Carter, an evangelical but not a fundamentalist, someone who was a moderate or a liberal, you could not help but encounter Niebuhr and take him seriously.
You can debate, as Bill suggested, exactly how he applied Niebuhr. But I don't think Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 because he sort of loved Reinhold Niebuhr. I don't think it changes our view of him. I think we knew that he was a thoughtful Christian. He lost because of stagflation and the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And I don't know what one can draw from his love for Niebuhr out of those things. I don't mean to be glib about it. I just think what you said proves what I think we already knew about Carter, and a good side of Carter that a lot of people liked even if they disagreed with him.
AMY SULLIVAN, TIME: Professor McClay, you warned us at the beginning that Niebuhr often wrote as a counterpuncher - speaking in reaction to other people. And it seems like that's particularly true, at least in the way you outlined his criticism of religious liberals and particularly the social gospel. You could be excused for coming away from that thinking that he wasn't that different and that he believed Christians still should be engaged in efforts to make the world a better place and progress in social causes. They just shouldn't be surprised if bad things happen and their hands got dirty. But there must be more to it than that. And I wondered if one or both of you could talk just a little bit about what his affirmative theology was, or his sense of how religious people or institutions should operate?
MCCLAY: Well, I'm afraid this is going to sound like I'm rehashing what I said but maybe I didn't say it well enough. I think that Niebuhr wanted to stress - and yes, he is counterpunching when he does this - that there is no resolution to the problems of politics in this life. You can ameliorate suffering here and there, and you are obliged to try to do so. But the notion that history is somehow moving towards some sort of omega point where frictionless social relations will come into being, where the self-realization of individuals is going to occur in an unimpeded way, that it's possible to imagine that the interests of different individuals and different groups are not going to clash, and clash in a way that's more or less permanent in character, that those interests may shift around in complexion but will not clash - that's an illusion.
DIONNE: He was anti-utopian.
DIONNE: That's a concise word.
MCCLAY: Yes. I don't believe in being concise. They pay me by the word. But you know, I'm trying to unpack what anti-utopian means in this context. It doesn't just mean having moderate expectations. It doesn't mean that perfection can only be approached asymptotically, and is not achievable for us here below. For Niebuhr, it is something much more disturbing. It's the notion that the more we progress, the more we put ourselves in danger. That's a very scary but very powerful principle. And I think that's very different from the kind of progressive view that the social gospelers, by and large, took. But there's an argument to be made that he oversimplifies people like Walter Rauschenbusch, who are not quite as blithe and naïve as he makes them out to be. And John Dewey even.
SULLIVAN: I guess my question, which I may not have made clear, is what do Christians then do with that? That may be the view, but then, how should they proceed?
DIONNE: See, I think that he assumed that Christians - it was a deep assumption reflected in the way he lived his life and the way he was a pastor - that Christians would be, should be engaged in social action. When you were a minister in a poor parish in Detroit - a place you love - at a time of union organizing, low wages and all the struggles going on. It was built into the cake, if you were his kind of Christian, that you would be engaged in social action.
What he was about was trying to think through not only what was the most effective form of social action, but also how should one think about that social action as a Christian. He came to believe - he started out as a socialist, and still maintained some of the socialist aspirations - nonetheless he came to see utopianism as both theoretically flawed and also as ineffectual in politics.
Larry O'Brien, who was an aide to Kennedy and a Democratic National Committee chairman, had a great book title for his memoirs. The book title was No Final Victories. And I think that's an excellent view of democratic - small ‘d' - politics. I suppose, for that matter, capital ‘d' too. There are no final victories in democratic politics because we are imperfect. The world is imperfect. All political systems are imperfect, so you have to just keep fighting. And you shouldn't give up because you don't win a final victory.
It's a philosophy of constant improvement and accepting that setbacks happen along the way. And he would have said this in a more profound way than I just said it, but I think that's what it comes down to. And, at least to me, that is probably the most rational way to approach democratic politics.
MCCLAY: Can I say one other thing? I think I'm getting a better feel for what you're really asking. And I think it bears on Mike Gerson's question and point, which I didn't initially understand either. Niebuhr lived in a time when you could count on Christian culture as a propulsive force, when your real task was how to channel that, how to correct it, how to keep it from its worst excesses and make it more self-aware and self-critical.
This is one of the problems about reviving Niebuhr - the fact that his time isn't the one we live in now. Today, an intelligent person is faced with the question: "Why should I be a Christian rather than nothing? Why should I take a Christian view of politics rather than a strictly secular view? What does the Christian modifier contribute to all of this?" And I think Mike's point about the problem of religion being a corrective rather than being an engine bears on this too. These are questions that Niebuhr didn't really have to face.
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: It struck me that so far, a lot of the conversation about Niebuhr has centered on his enduring, or perhaps not-so-enduring, influence on American politics and on policymakers both current and past.
And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether that influence is discernable at all in American Christianity today, given that that was the realm in which he was operating.
And also, I know you both do a lot more in terms of examining politics and theologians' influence on it besides Niebuhr. Looking at Obama, his public statements, the degree to which he invokes the Bible, or religion, or father, or morality, do you see any other specific figures besides Niebuhr and traditions like the social gospel shining through his words? And I don't know if you'd go so far as to say actions. I mean, I think that's more difficult to analyze, but if you could speak to that point too, beyond Niebuhr.
MCCLAY: Well, let me make one observation to start with, and I think E.J. would be better on Obama than I am. One thing that's curious about all of this, and I think it tells you something about the times we're living in too, is that - I think I mentioned this in passing - if you venture into the seminaries, what you will find is that Niebuhr is almost universally held in low esteem. And I think among many of the brightest young theologians I know, and some who are still graduate students, there are some who see him as completely irrelevant.
CROMARTIE: Is it because they don't like the ambiguity?
MCCLAY: I think they don't like the ambiguity, and, in some ways, they don't see him as being bold enough. He's tailored too much for a secularist worldview. Stanley Hauerwas is -
CROMARTIE: A theologian at Duke University.
MCCLAY: - is, in some ways, far more influential. And Stanley Hauerwas - to talk about a counterpuncher - he has pretty much made a career out of eviscerating Reinhold Niebuhr at every turn, including in his own Gifford lectures. So what's odd is that people in the position of David Brooks and E.J. and others - I suspect E.J. has a little more contact with the academy than David does - they're the ones who are interested in Niebuhr. And people like me. I'm a historian. I'm not even in a theological world. But the theologians, I think they see him as a back number.
Now, what that means, I don't know. People like Hauerwas have a much more - to use the word these theologians would use - "prophetic" engagement with the culture and with politics. One way of translating "prophetic" means without any sort of acknowledgement of the sort of half-measures and compromises and acquiescence that you need to make to be politically effective. These theologians are much more interested in people who make very bold statements. And in that sense, ambiguity is indeed part of the complaint.
CROMARTIE: Let me just ask, Bill, before E.J. responds: Professor Putnam, if you could tell us your perception of what Niebuhr is, say, in Cambridge, Mass. Or at least, if you know, in the divinity school or in the political science world in which you work.
MCCLAY: Well, there is a Reinhold Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary, where he taught. And the guy who occupies it -
DIONNE: He's a great guy. Gary Dorrien.
MCCLAY: Yes. He's a big critic of Niebuhr.
DIONNE: He's an affectionate critic of Niebuhr.
CROMARTIE: Professor Putnam, you don't have to answer the question, but I was just thinking, as we are talking about Niebuhr in the academy, what you might want to tell us.
ROBERT PUTNAM, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: This is what will cause you to withdraw the invitation to me to speak here even tomorrow because actually, I have relatively little contact with the divinity school at Harvard and almost no contact with theologians. It's not a matter of principle. (Laughter.)
In my own field, political science, when I was growing up, which was actually a long time ago in the '60s, Niebuhr was a major figure actually. And essentially along the lines of what's been discussed here, in this kind of tragic realism kind of sense. So, probably, most political scientists of my generation know a little bit about Niebuhr. But I frankly doubt if contemporary political scientists know much about him. And maybe they should, I think, from a political-science point of view, not from a theological point of view.
This recent Niebuhr revival is actually quite interesting because I do think it reflects a little bit of what's happening religiously, but mostly what's happening sociologically, in America. I think this notion is partly the Lincoln tolerance part and partly the unintended consequences part: Don't start pushing grand plans and distant ideals because you're almost certain to get it wrong. That part, along with the hope part. I don't know if that fits theologically or not now, but I think I see it as a little bit of the ethos of our times. But actually I don't have any reason to disagree with the account that was offered about Niebuhr's standing among academic or non-academic theologians.
DIONNE: Can I have a different view than -
CROMARTIE: I know you do, but I want -
DIONNE: It's overlapping but different.
CROMARTIE: Okay. Here it is.
DIONNE: Bill, you may not completely disagree with this. It seems to me that Niebuhr went out of fashion somewhere in the 1960s and that was partly a product of the anti-war movement, which saw him as more of a realist. And, you know, there was a rebellion against realism. He wasn't left-wing enough.
And also, when you think back to some of the theological trends in the late '60s and '70s, the death of God movement, the theology of hope, the theology of liberation - I would love to know what Niebuhr would have made of liberation theology; what he would have agreed with, what he would have critiqued.
I think that the journalistic and political comeback of Niebuhr has some parallels now in the academy. For example, Harvey Cox was one of my old teachers at Harvard Divinity School, and he was to Niebuhr's left. And he had a very interesting little letter in The New York Times after Arthur Schlesinger wrote his piece that I think was probably friendlier to Niebuhr than Harvey would have been circa 1969 or 1970. I want to ask Cox about this. I think it reflects Niebuhr's resurrection - a good theme for a Christian theologian - and the new engagement with Niebuhr that's going on now.
Bill is absolutely right about Hauerwas. Hauerwas, by the way, played a big role in the symposium about Niebuhr I quoted earlier. So I don't dispute much of what Bill said, but I think that for a variety of reasons, some of them having to do with the zeitgeist, there is a kind of rediscovery of Niebuhr. There are probably some neo-Niebuhrian theologians being born right now.
MCCLAY: Just one quick thing. One of the appeals of Hauerwas, and I think one of the concerns - this is a Putnam-esque theme, that's why I'm bringing it up - Niebuhr really was in his heyday in the '30s through the '50s. Living in those years, it is not surprising that individualism and what might be called the sort of defense of the integrity of the individual over against collectivities and groups of any kind became one of his greatest themes.
That is not, it seems to me, so large a concern now. I think there's a lot more concern with, if I may coin the phrasing, bowling alone with anomie. To take it to a theological level, one sees a lot of concern, particularly among the young, that our churches are not organizations in which people really are experiencing community, being bound together. And I think there is a lot more interest, particularly among the younger people, with finding a more vibrant and vital form of community than Niebuhr really has to offer, because Niebuhr is very guarded. He offers a very low level of social trust, Niebuhr. He's always looking out for the ways the individual can be captured and co-opted by groups, and trying to maintain that individual's independence.
DIONNE: Ten seconds - just 10 quick seconds on that. There's a debate over whether the Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society, which is decidedly against the collective - but remember, he's writing in a moment when Hitler and Stalin are rising - whether that emphasis is quite as strong in some of the later work. And I'd argue that there is a greater concern for community in the Niebuhr of the '40s and '50s than there was in that particular book.
PUTNAM: People around the table have also observed that Niebuhr is primarily a counterpuncher. The culture and theology against which he was counterpunching then is just very different from the kind of theology and society in which it would be useful to have counterpunching now. That's my view, and I guess that's close to what you were just saying.
DIONNE: He is more than a counterpuncher. (Laughter.)
LYNN SWEET, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: My question is aimed at you, professor: How did the Holocaust influence Niebuhr? As you said - or as E.J. might have said - he was in his heyday during this period, and I know he certainly was a supporter of the state of Israel and all that, but you know, you often don't get these great figures who are working real-time with one of the great issues of the world happening. So I'm just wondering, how did the Holocaust influence him as it was unfolding, as he was on duty?
MCCLAY: You mean during the'40s? Well, I don't know. I can't answer for that. I think it's not a theme that figures all that prominently in his work, but I think - and this is sort of a cliché, but I think it's true - that it was really after the '67 and '73 wars that the Holocaust as a theme becomes much more prominent in American Jewish consciousness and in American public life. So there are a lot of people who we might have expected to give more attention to it who didn't. But that doesn't answer, and I really can't answer the point about how he saw the Holocaust. I mean, he was very aware of issues like the firebombing of Dresden and strategic bombing in general and the use of nuclear weapons and the moral calculus involved in those things.
DIONNE: He was a very, very strong opponent of anti-Semitism, a very early person in inter-religious dialogue, and one of the reasons he broke with his pacifist friends is because he believed Nazism was evil. And his whole critique of Nazism was rooted in the idea that it was demonic in general, but in particular, demonic in its treatment of the Jews.
So I don't know what he was. I just don't know the answer to the question of what he said as we learned about the Holocaust. But everything in his history - all of his associations with people like Abraham Heschel and lots of other Jewish leaders, and his writing about Nazis, says this was all very important to him. I don't have in front of me more detail than that. But it mattered to him. It mattered to him enormously.
CROMARTIE: How close was he to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Were they close at all?
DIONNE: I don't know if they knew each other. They may well have.
MCCLAY: Someone asked me about that yesterday. I'm going to look it up actually. I have Fox's biography so I'm going to look it up. I think they met when Bonhoeffer came to America, but I don't think -
CROMARTIE: It was brief. It was brief.
DIONNE: Can you pass that?
CROMARTIE: We're moving the Niebuhr library books back and forth. (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: Can I say something? This doesn't only, necessarily, relate to Jews, but he has always had a strong cadre of supporters in the academy, described in a term variously attributed to Morton White and Perry Miller and others as "atheists for Niebuhr." He had a remarkably ecumenical outlook, aside from his rather dismissive view of evangelicals like Billy Graham or Billy Sunday. But he had very good relations with Jews, both religious and secular.
There's a story about the Niebuhr family place in a little town called Heath, near Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, where they spent a lot of time. And Niebuhr's daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, has written a book about the serenity prayer, which also talks a lot about this little town. Felix Frankfurter came out there once and went to a service that Niebuhr conducted where he preached, and as he was leaving, he shook Niebuhr's hand and said, "Thank you for preaching such a wonderful sermon that really warmed the heart of a believing unbeliever." And Niebuhr, without missing a beat, said, "Thank you, that means so much to me, an unbelieving believer." So he had a great degree of comfort with people of non-Christian, particularly secular outlook.
DIONNE: Just to answer the question from Fox's biography: Niebuhr actually wrote a piece for The Nation called "Jews after the War." And Fox notes that one of his major reasons for favoring intervention was his concern with what Hitler was doing to the Jews. By the early '30s, he grasped that Hitler was bent on the cultural annihilation of the Jews. From that time on, he was a firm, though sometimes qualified, backer of the Zionist cause. So it was a big part of him.
FRED BARNES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: What was Niebuhr's objection to Billy Graham?
MCCLAY: I think it was part of this sort of critique that people like Will Herberg made of American religion in the '50s: that it was too culturally complacent, too adapted to American life. I mean, Billy Graham was, in a sense, the quintessence of the emphasis on individual conversion and nothing else, at least in Niebuhr's view. And let me quickly add that this was not at all fair to Billy Graham. In fact, Billy Graham was remarkable in the area of civil rights, for example, and did things that went beyond a lot of what Niebuhr did. But that was Niebuhr's view. And it's true that Graham didn't challenge social structures. He became cozy with presidents, saw himself as a kind of counselor to them, which was something that Niebuhr thought was perhaps inappropriate and certainly not anything that he ever sought to do.
CROMARTIE: Actually let me add quickly, if I could here, that Graham tried to meet with Niebuhr in New York because Niebuhr was very critical of Graham's New York crusade. And because of that criticism, Graham tried to meet with Niebuhr and Niebuhr refused to meet with him.
DIONNE: Mike Gerson will like this. This is from Fox's book: "Niebuhr found himself pushed to a defense of the same liberal social gospel he had been repudiating for decades by Graham. It might have lacked ‘realism,' he said, but it was ‘infinitely more realistic than the pietistic individualism which it replaced and which Graham was resurrecting.' Graham was certainly better, Niebuhr urged, than the popular religious therapists who dispensed with a God of judgment altogether," but Fox quotes Niebuhr - this is about Graham - "‘Evangelism has a blandness which befits the Eisenhower era.'"
ADRIAN WOOLRIDGE, THE ECONOMIST: I'm going to ask two questions. One is about Niebuhr's influence outside the United States. We have a very American-centric view of things. I wonder if he had much influence in Britain or Europe? And the second is about this other character who seems to have suffered the same fate as a lot of people in the politburo when they fell out of favor, sort of being written completely out of history - Jeremiah Wright. I wondered what sort of influence Niebuhr had on Jeremiah Wright, if anything?
MCCLAY: Oh yeah, I wouldn't know about the second one. I mean, my sense of Jeremiah Wright is that he's much more influenced by James Cone and by black liberation theology, although I'm sure he had some contact. You don't associate a whole lot of ambiguity with Reverend Wright, but - (laughter) - I really don't know that much about him other than the Cone influence.
CROMARTIE: What about British influence?
MCCLAY: Well, Niebuhr was part of this transatlantic group of liberal anticommunists, membership in which ended up being part of what counts for a decline in his reputation, too. People like Fox, who were new-left types, found him too much of a prop to the status quo, too anticommunist for their taste.
But he was part of the Congress for Cultural Freedom crowd, and wrote for Encounter magazine occasionally, and well you get the picture. So he was part of that world and was read all over Europe, not just in Great Britain. And there's a bit of a revival of Niebuhr going on in the U.K. now. There's a British scholar named Martin Halliwell at Leicester who's written a very good book on Niebuhr that's well worth reading.
CROMARTIE: Is it a biography or an explication of him?
MCCLAY: It's more of an explication. It has biographical elements.
WOOLRIDGE: Is it more than 700 pages?
MCCLAY: No, I think it's about 400.
DIONNE: You know, I think that's right. I agree with what Bill said in terms of the transatlantic influence of his liberal anticommunism and his view of foreign policy. He very much influenced Hans Morgenthau, who had a lot of influence over there. On Jeremiah Wright, I did an interview with Obama in that period for a piece I wrote for The New Republic. Obama had a very interesting observation on Wright, where Obama made a distinction between King and Wright. He noted that in his early stage King had the combination that was all about - publicly, especially - reconciliation, but that King was angrier toward the end of his life, particularly about the Vietnam War, and that Wright came along in that late stage and was much more influenced by the period of disillusionment at the end of the civil rights years than by the spirit of hope at the beginning of the civil rights years.
And so my hunch is that, just as Bill said, Wright clearly was influenced by James Cone and his black liberation theology, which was part of all those post-liberal theological developments in divinity schools that led to more radical forms of theology. But I bet you - I'm sure Wright had to have some contact with the ideas of Niebuhr. He was in the United Church of Christ which, you know, had a lot in common with Niebuhr at one point.
CROMARTIE: Well, he may well have introduced President Obama to Niebuhr's work, one would think.
DIONNE: That's an interesting question.
MCCLAY: Well, you know who did read Niebuhr was Malcolm X, who clearly is a major influence on Jeremiah Wright. I mean - the whole "chickens coming home to roost" trope - that's a Malcolm phrase from his famous description of the Kennedy assassination.
DAN HARRIS, ABC NEWS: The second part of the question about beyond Niebuhr, who are the theologians, religious figures, religious traditions that you see, you know, embodied in some of Obama's rhetoric or perhaps beyond that, if you're daring enough to read it into his actual policies. Just to kind of get beyond Niebuhr while still on the subject of Obama.
DIONNE: I have tried to figure out who has influenced him. If you read the Sojourners speech, he's clearly spent some time, or somebody has, looking at the whole debate around John Rawls: What are the obligations of the religious person in the public square in making arguments that are accessible to those who do not share the same religious commitments? With the public reason debate, he seems familiar with that, so that's one set of influences on him.
I think the formative influences, both rhetorically and to some degree substantively, are all the traditions of civil rights Christianity. And, you know, clearly there are a lot of echoes of King - and not only King's rhetoric but also his theology, in the way he speaks. And in some ways, what I see in Obama is an effort to go back to civil rights Christianity as part of his way of reformulating a sort of progressive gospel - to make a link between that and Niebuhr, which is quite a natural link since King himself was influenced by Niebuhr in a lot of his language. But beyond that, I don't know. I'd be very curious. It's a good question.
CROMARTIE: Bill, you have anything to add to that?
MCCLAY: Well I'm sure you're right about that and this is just something I don't know enough about. But I've read The Audacity of Hope and the other autobiographical book and I don't think his rhetoric has the kind of yeastiness of a lot of the '60s-era civil rights people who were really coming right out of the black Baptist church. You know that book by David Chappell, A Stone of Hope? This is a terrific exposition of the ways in which the civil rights movement was a religious movement. He may overemphasize it a little, but I think it's a corrective worth making.
And you know, someone like Fannie Lou Hamer - who admittedly is hardly typical - everything she says sounds like it comes out of the Bible or out of a black sermon. And Obama is much more of a guy who went to prep school, who went to elite colleges and universities and wants to kind of draw on that religious language and imagery, but I just don't know that it steers him.
DIONNE: A book that I think is really important in understanding King is Jonathan Rieder's The Word of the Lord is Upon Me, and the subtitle is The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr. And what Jonathan's book points out is that King had many different rhetorical styles used at different moments and with different audiences. And I think it's a really good account of King taken whole. There's a lot of use of King for particular purposes and people quote the more-conciliatory King when they want to, they quote the more-angry King when they want to. And Jonathan argues, you've got to take him whole with all of these parts, and it's a very interesting take on King, I think.
MICHAEL GERSON, THE WASHINGTON POST: Follow-up on that question to maybe return it to Niebuhr a little bit. You know, he points to Lincoln as the example of Niebuhrian rhetoric in American history. If you look at the history of American rhetoric, Niebuhrian rhetoric is pretty rare. I mean, during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt didn't use it - he used The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. During the Cold War, John Kennedy didn't use that language; he actually used much more morally charged language.
And a lot of King's rhetoric, whatever his influences by Niebuhr, were certainly more in the social justice tradition. You know, the kingdom of God on Earth. But I think there's a misinterpretation of Lincoln in a lot of ways. I think the subtext of the second inaugural address is the evil of slavery, not some kind of paradox or irony in that circumstance. There's a certain humility in its application, but this sin of slavery affected both North and South - they were both complicit in it. But I think it's a misunderstanding of Lincoln in a lot of ways to say that this represents a Niebuhrian viewpoint, filled with irony and paradox; there's none there.
But what does it say that when people need to motivate in American history - if you're Franklin Roosevelt and you're engaged in the long twilight struggle, that you don't use Niebuhrian language - that it isn't even a rhetorical option in American history? You call people to grand purposes and moral missions and American exceptionalism and a lot of other things - and how did Niebuhr himself kind of deal with that notion?
DIONNE: Just on Lincoln: I don't think there's any ambiguity in Niebuhr's view about slavery. The paradox and irony around and about slavery - the paradox and irony are that even though you are engaged in a just struggle against slavery, you may nonetheless be inveigled in its evils, as you suggest. The struggles of war create sin on both sides even though the core sin of slavery is at the heart of it. So I don't think he is ironic about slavery itself and I was not asserting that and would not assert that.
GERSON: And I guess my point was not necessarily to assert that. I think, actually, if you look at Lincoln's rhetoric and actions on these issues, it was a fairly extreme course that he took in these situations, insisting essentially on certain views at the cost of the Union and, you know, the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives on moral principle. That had a terrible cost, which he realized. But he was willing to do those things. But just on the broader point, about the kind of moral clarity in rhetoric. I mean, how would he diagnose that? Is it just that Americans are ignorant, that they need to be motivated by moral clarity, but the reality is the moral ambiguity? I'm just curious about the level of rhetoric.
MCCLAY: I think it's worth pointing out that at the time that he gave the second inaugural, there was no doubt about who was going to win and that it was going to happen very soon. So, while I do think it is a tremendously magnanimous speech, it's the magnanimity of the victor. And that's important to note, but the other thing is that there is a different task that the rhetorician is called upon to play in that instance, in calling the nation to a task that has yet to be performed - to heal, to reconcile. Particularly in the case of this particular war, the point is not just to crush the South; it's to bring the South back into the Union, into this sort of family that they had thought to extricate themselves from, for whatever reason.
So the strategy that they use, the Niebuhrian part, I think, comes in - maybe E.J. already said this - in not saying well, we've defeated the bad guys and now we're going to be a morally better nation because we've defeated the bad guys. What he says is, that this is a national sin for which we all bear some responsibility; it is a mark upon all of is, and maybe this war came because of the need to expiate the sin of slavery, and if it has to go on and on and on, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. So he's -
GERSON: Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned Lincoln, because, you know, that's a different debate.
MCCLAY: The point -
GERSON: The point is the difference between Niebuhr's diagnosis of the moral conflicts of the Cold War or World War II. Maybe one of the reasons, to just put it bluntly, that Niebuhr's influence waned in the aftermath of that is that he was talking about the ironies of American history just at the point that America was on the verge of some of the greatest moral achievements in human history. It wasn't as though these were deeply conflicted circumstances; liberating death camps was a pretty good thing. Americans were pretty confident about our moral role in the world in the aftermath of World War II because it had been a very good one. The Cold War was conducted with a language of moral certainty -
DIONNE: Can we go back and forth on this? Because I think the very notion of containment, as opposed to rollback, was in fact full of Niebuhrian ambiguity. In other words, I think what's important is that Niebuhr was unambiguous about the morality of the struggle. And it's good, actually, that you brought up Lincoln, because Niebuhr, just so we get him on the record correctly, said that Lincoln's brooding sense of charity was derived from a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning than that of immediate political conflict.
This combination - a moral resoluteness - about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand, while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle on the other. Niebuhr was at his high tide in the '40s and '50s because he believed in the struggle against the Nazis, the liberation of death camps and anticommunism. But he was not a jingoist. He did not believe America was automatically moral or always right.
And the very idea that he was in favor of containment as opposed to rollback says that we can behave in the world in a way that is responsible in confronting communism but does not carry all the risks that rollback would entail. I think possibly - and we would probably both have to look this up and then we could debate the text - I do think some of Kennedy's rhetoric had some of that in it. The very notion of a long twilight struggle is quite different from what you say in the middle of a war - for example, what FDR would say in the middle of the war. Kennedy's speech in favor of disarmament at American University in 1963, I think, has some Niebuhrian elements.
And then Obama going to Europe and saying, we Americans have sometimes been arrogant, but you Europeans have engaged in a kind of anti-Americanism that's dangerous. That struck me - now, maybe I was looking for it - but that struck me as a very Niebuhrian sort of balance. I thought it was a good thing to say. Others didn't think it was a good thing to say. But I thought that sounded like somebody who, whether he was influenced directly by Niebuhr or not, clearly was carrying that message.
JOHN SINIFF, USA TODAY: Last night there were a few of us who were having a discussion about the office of faith-based initiatives, or whatever it has become under President Obama, and I realized that at the end we came to this unsatisfactory, very Niebuhrian conclusion as to what he's trying to do to with this office. And I wondered, E.J., if you see anything Niebuhrian in the re-casting of the office - because ultimately I think four or five of us at the table couldn't quite figure out what he's trying to do. Maybe that's the purpose. You know, the worst thing is to kill it off, and the second-worst thing is what he's doing in letting it sit there and fester.
DIONNE: As far as I can tell Niebuhr has no direct influence or indirect influence on Obama's thinking on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Laughter.) God knows what Niebuhr would think of this, and he does, but we don't know. (Laughter.) I think what Obama is trying to do is walk a line between not wanting to overturn it and thinking there is good work done here; and in fact, partnerships between government and faith-based groups pre-date President Bush. I think that it distorts the debate on both sides if liberals say, this is a Bush creation and we're against it. Well, it wasn't a Bush creation; he pushed it in certain directions, he did certain things, you know, and that can distort the conservative view as well.
And I think Obama is trying to figure out, "How can I be true to things I say or believe about church-state separation and religious liberty and still keep this thing going?" So I think they're still struggling toward resolving that, and he's clearly kicked down the road the hardest question, which is the religious hiring issue, and he's clearly tried to fudge that for a while, and my impression is that he's going to fudge it for a while longer.
I think he's going to have to confront it, but the shrewd thing I think he did - shrewd because I thought he did the right thing - was to say we don't want this whole effort to get blown up immediately in a debate over this hiring issue when we know there is quite a lot of common ground on these partnerships. Bill Clinton had some of the first faith-based offices at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other parts of the administration. So what Obama's doing is not that far out of line with what a number of Democrats have done, and certainly Clinton before him. And so I think they're still figuring it out, is the short answer.
CROMARTIE: You have anything to add to that, Bill?
MCCLAY: I agree about the continuity with Clinton. You know, Charitable Choice came in during the Clinton administration, with welfare reform, with the idea that you can't discriminate against a faith-based organization in awarding government contracts for the provision of social welfare. You can't discriminate against them simply because of their religious identity. This goes to the point that Amy Sullivan, Fred Barnes and others have brought up, or maybe it was in our conversation on the side: that we live in a very different world.
I mean, at one time in the past correctives seemed to have been needed to protect the secular, to keep the religious realm from overwhelming the secular. Now, it seems to me both Democratic and Republican administrations have seen the need to push back the other way, to some extent. Whether Obama will sustain that or not, I don't know. But I agree with E.J.; this has lasted for a while, even if it hasn't always been so effective.
CROMARTIE: Well, on that note of heated agreement - (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: Raging moderation.
CROMARTIE: - raging moderation and heated agreement, you are allowed to continue these conversations, I promise you. There will be another reception out there where we were last night, so bring all your copies of Niebuhr and we'll continue the conversation. Join me in thanking both these gentlemen for their time.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, spelling and grammar.
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