I won't apologize for the depth of this post or the detail.
Obama's Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Niebuhr
Monday, May 4, 2009
Some of the nation's leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2009 for the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.
Ever since then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr in a 2007 interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, there has been speculation about the extent to which the 20th-century theologian has influenced Obama's views on faith, politics and social change. Wilfred McClay, a historian specializing in American intellectual history and author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award in intellectual history, offered an overview of Niebuhr's unique form of progressive Christianity and addressed ongoing debates about the influence of Niebuhr's work on 20th-century American politics and international affairs. E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post, remarked on the recent revival of interest in Niebuhrian thought and spoke about the role Niebuhr played as a public intellectual active during the worldwide political upheavals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
Speaker: Wilfred M. McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Respondent: E.J. Dionne Jr., Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Advisor, Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life
Moderator: Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life
Navigate this transcript:
Obama Calls Niebuhr One of His Favorite Philosophers
Niebuhr and the Decline of Public Theologians
Niebuhr and the Social Gospel Movement
Niebuhr's Unique Form of Progressive Christianity
The Nature and Destiny of Man and Niebuhr's View of History
Niebuhr on America's Role in World Affairs
The Niebuhr Revival; What Is a Niebuhrian?
Niebuhr's Impact on Other Liberal Intellectuals
Niebuhr and Torture
Niebuhr as Critic and Activist; Obama's Sojourners Speech
Niebuhr and JFK
Containment as a Niebuhrian Doctrine
Niebuhr on Economics
Jimmy Carter's Use of Niebuhr in Political Speeches
What Does Niebuhr Say About Christians Acting in the World?
Niebuhr's Reputation in Academia; Niebuhr vs. Hauerwas
The Influence of the Holocaust on Niebuhr's Thought and Work
Niebuhr's Objection to Billy Graham
Niebuhr's International Reach
Niebuhr in the Language of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Niebuhrian Rhetoric in Presidential Speeches
A Niebuhrian Vision for the Faith-Based Initiative?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: For our session this afternoon, you may be wondering: "Why Reinhold Niebuhr?" And here's the answer: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, for three or four years, have been saying we must do a session on Reinhold Niebuhr. But we didn't have a hook. We used to say we think you all should know about Niebuhr. But then David had an interview with Barack Obama and toward the end of the interview something wasn't clicking. And David said, "Well, what do you think of Reinhold Niebuhr?" That just followed. (Laughter.)
And Obama went on for 25 minutes about his admiration for Reinhold Niebuhr. And then David did a column on Niebuhr and then we got an excuse to do Niebuhr. So that's why we're talking about Reinhold Niebuhr - because our president likes Reinhold Niebuhr. But we thought you wanted to know about him anyway. So our session is really not about President Obama; it's about Reinhold Niebuhr. But we used that teaser "Obama's Favorite Theologian?" just to get your attention. And I'm sure the president's name will come up in our conversation.
Bill McClay is an intellectual historian who's taught at Tulane and Georgetown universities and now is an endowed chair at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Bill has, if you look at his bio, written some very important books. One is called The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which was the winner of a best-book award - the Merle Curti Award in intellectual history - in 1995. Remind me, Bill, who was Merle Curti?
WILFRED MCCLAY: He was a great intellectual historian.
CROMARTIE: Okay. (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: From the University of Wisconsin.
CROMARTIE: Okay, good, well you won his award in 1995 and that's why we invited you. Now ladies and gentlemen, we're going to hear from Bill McClay and then E.J. Dionne is going to read to us from about five different books by Niebuhr that he has stacked over here.
E.J. DIONNE: Even a thriller. How do you like that? I have a thriller on my list.
CROMARTIE: And you're going to do all that in 15 minutes?
DIONNE: Twenty, you gave me.
CROMARTIE: Twenty, okay.
DIONNE: I'll probably do it in 15.
CROMARTIE: Okay. Bill, we look forward. Thank you.
MCCLAY: Thanks. This is really quite a change. I think Francis Collins and Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a sort of uplifting, hopeful subject. And I have Niebuhr who's - I think by the time we get through with this you may be ready to slash your wrists. (Laughter.) But I hope not. I hope not.
CROMARTIE: Do you have a song about that - suicide? (Laughter.)
MCCLAY: "Stormy Weather." I'm leaning with "Stormy Weather." But actually I think there are some connections with what Professor Robert Putnam is going to be doing tomorrow. So I think you will see some linkages. Niebuhr is a theologian. He's also a student of power politics and a great admirer of the saying of Lord Acton, that the power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. (Laughter.)
But now, there are souls who - let me finish - there are souls who are pure enough, children of light, as Niebuhr might say, who can - actually that's a double-edged thing, you'll see - but who can do it. But I'm not one of them. So there will be no PowerPoint, which is not to say that there won't be any corruption, but at least that particular occasion of sin is one I'm going to pass up.
Mike's right: The occasion for this - the hook - is this discussion between David Brooks and then-Senator Obama, which was in 2007, actually. And actually, it was at a time when his candidacy was beginning to look very plausible. And it's interesting - this may or may not be significant - but he said that Niebuhr was one of his favorite philosophers, according to David's transcription - not one of his favorite theologians.
So that may or may not have any significance. And of course, David did say that Obama gave a sort of perfect description of the book in perfect sentences and perfect paragraph structure for 20 minutes, which does suggest that he knew the book in question, The Irony of American History, which is one of the books I'm going to talk about.
Obama's not the first American president to declare his fondness for Niebuhr. Jimmy Carter notably did, and both before and after his election. Some people think that the famous "malaise" speech had some Niebuhrian input, and certainly it was influenced by Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism, although in ways that Lasch didn't particularly like. It always tends to happen, when politicians use your books in speeches - all of a sudden you're not so thrilled to see it happening. And I think Niebuhr would have been, probably, no exception.
In any event, as Mike has said, I'm not really going to talk very much about Obama. I have a feeling you all would want to, and between E.J. and myself, we may have some thoughts. And certainly, I'm not going to get into the question of whether his interest - Obama's interest in Niebuhr - is genuine or not, whether he really understands Niebuhr or not. That's unrelated to my pay grade. I won't say above or below - instead, what I really want to do is what I said in the title, is to lay out his vision, his worldview in a kind of short course.
And obviously, if there's an agenda here, it's simply to indicate that his thinking, although it does develop - and whose doesn't - has a core of consistency. There is a core to Niebuhr that seems to me carries through some three decades of concentrated work. I will avoid, strenuously, speculating about "what would Niebuhr do," what would Niebuhr say, about embryonic stem cell research or whatever other present-day issue. I think there's plenty to talk about, just with respect to what he did say and think. And I'll lay that out and then we can speculate.
Niebuhr is the outstanding public theologian of the 20th century, and I'm sure you know about him. You may not know much about him. He has become a figure of obscurity in recent decades, and that's partly because the term "public theologian" has come to represent something of a null set in recent times. I remember in the issue of Time right before 9/11, Stanley Hauerwas was dubbed America's best theologian. But he's not really a theologian who, whatever his other virtues, has much of practical import to say about political life.
But Niebuhr had an unusually long and productive career. He turned out many books, many articles; wrote journalistically; wrote highly, densely scholarly works. He was engaged. He was involved in the politics of the day, from World War I all the way to the Vietnam War. So he was not only a theologian of great distinction, but also a public intellectual who addressed himself to the full range of public concerns and had an enormously capacious mind that really could take in all kinds of issues that he wouldn't necessarily have discussed in his books.
His importance in his time tells you something about his time. It was a time when theologians were important people. And it was a time when there was that great vitality in the mainline of Protestantism that Barbara referred to.
It's an indication of the severe attenuation of that influence that the closest thing to Niebuhr in recent years has been the late Father Richard John Neuhaus - who converted to Catholicism (laughs) - and who had very low regard for the Protestant mainline. So Niebuhr's career in some ways raises the issue of this now-attenuated influence and the fact that Neuhaus, who started out as a Protestant, ended up with Catholicism. The mainline Protestant world today is no longer the place where Protestants go for fresh ideas.
Also, as a general observation, Niebuhr is something of a counterpuncher as an intellectual, and what I mean by that term I think will become evident; but in short, it's hard to know what he thinks about somebody or about some subject unless he's reacting to them. That's when he truly discloses himself: in taking exception to or responding to other thinkers, which is why I think it's very important to see him in context and be very careful about what we can extract and use for all occasions.
One thing about the context is, I think it's impossible to imagine him operating in anything other than a modern, Western, liberal environment, where there's a strong tradition of science, of belief in the idea of progress - a society that is in some ways poised on the cusp of a transformation into secularity, or at any rate a world in which a secular option exists. He was very much a creature of that historical moment and a critic of liberalism from within liberalism, a breed that flourished particularly in the late '40s and '50s - and doesn't seem to exist, at least in the same form, today.
The issues that he struggled with are quintessentially related to problems of advanced modernity, and science is one of them. I wouldn't necessarily have emphasized this - but with Francis Collins here - his talk made me think again and again about how his own perspective on science represents an advance over the dilemma that Niebuhr saw us in.
Niebuhr upholds the idea of progress and remorselessly critiques it at the same time. I might add something else that you may know Niebuhr for - what's called the "serenity prayer," which goes something like "God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things that can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other." I'm reciting from memory. But the interesting thing is what - to me anyway, as someone of conservative disposition - is what he leaves out, and that is preserving the things that need to be preserved. (Laughter.) It's a striking omission! But it shows how thoroughgoing a progressive he was. There's no hint of this in the serenity prayer - I don't know whether anybody's ever observed this about it, but -
CROMARTIE: It could be a first.
MCCLAY: It's a first and last. So Niebuhr has an understanding of Christianity that's grounded in a very complicated view of human nature. Actually, a lot of his persuasiveness derives from the fact that this view is more complicated and adequate than its secular equivalents. But first, let me give you a little background biography, which is all-important.
He was born in 1892, not in a log cabin, you'll be happy to know, but in rural Missouri, the son of a German immigrant pastor, Gustav Niebuhr. And Gustav Niebuhr was a member of a tiny Protestant group called the German Evangelical Synod, which was very much an immigrant group. He really grew up in a German-speaking enclave, which was actually rather common in that part of the Midwest - Missouri and Illinois in late 19th- or early 20th-century farm communities.
By the way, an interesting side point: The German Evangelical Synod eventually became part of the United Church of Christ, which is the same Protestant denomination that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright belongs to. So there's a sort of odd little connection there.
Reinhold inherited from his father this sense of pastoral vocation and a keen interest in social and political affairs. He built on this with two years at Yale Divinity School, and so he began his career as a theologian and pastor as an advocate of what was called the "social gospel." The social gospel was a movement within liberal Protestantism which located the meaning of the Christian Gospel in its promise as a blueprint for progressive social reform, rather than its assertions about supernatural reality.
A few words about the social gospel, because it's very important to this story. It arose out of a crisis within, particularly, Protestantism - although Catholicism had its own version of this - in response to industrialization and urbanization. In the Protestant case, particularly salient were the challenges to biblical authority rising out of these things, but more so out of Darwinism - Darwin and Darwinism.
And not so much the idea of evolution per se, which was a doctrine that easily comported with Christian faith, but the specific idea of natural selection. It was the randomness of the process of natural selection that was viewed as particularly threatening. And an equally powerful threat came from the so-called "higher criticism" of the Bible, which deconstructed the Bible, for all intents and purposes, into a collection of redactions of successive texts by multiple authors over long periods of time, and therefore not a text that should be regarded as having any kind of organic or authorial unity.
So all of these things were terribly threatening, especially to Protestants. Why Protestants? Because the whole basis of the Protestant Reformation, to oversimplify grandly, was to see the authority of the Bible as overriding - as superseding - the authority of the historical institutional church. There are some qualifications you'd need to make to that statement, but basically that is a fair assessment. So that tremendous weight is placed on the authority of that text, and if its authority falls into question, then the entire foundation of Protestantism is threatened.
So the social gospel was one way of responding to this problem. Social gospelers were modernists. They had dismissed the notion that the Bible should be read authoritatively in the way that, say, fundamentalists - the fundamentalist movement was just getting going at this time - read the Bible, or even the historical creeds. But the social gospelers insisted that what they thought of as the heart of the Christian Gospel was very much valid and alive and worth preserving. It could be preserved by dispensing with these supernatural problematic elements and instead socializing the Gospel, i.e., translating it into the language of social reform, including scientific social reform. They saw very little sense of antagonism between science and reform. And in the general optimism of the period, there were seen to be very few limits on what could be achieved.
Walter Rauschenbusch, who was perhaps the leading figure in the social gospel movement, put it this way - and forgive me, I'm going to have to read more quotes than I would normally read to give you a sense of these thinkers. But here's Rauschenbusch: "We have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility." So this idea of progress, the idea of perfectibility of the human condition, of man himself, to use that term in a generic sense, is very much at the core of it all.
By the way, one of the ways American sociology differed dramatically from, say, German sociology is that from the very beginning it had an astonishingly religious content to it. Albion Small, who was the chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago, the founder of the first sociology journal in the United States, the president of the American Sociological Association, and so on and so forth, wrote the following: "Sociology is a science ... of God's image ... a moral philosophy conscious of its task," which was nothing less than "an approximation of the ideal of social life contained in the Gospels." Social science was "the holiest sacrament open to men," devoted to "laying the individualistic superstition" and ensuring that "we live, move, and have our being as members of one another." In other words, the kingdom of God is not reserved for the beyond or the end of time, but can be created in the here and now by social scientists and ministers working hand-in-hand together.
Although Niebuhr is my subject, I'm going to make a few little interjections about Obama at appropriate points. And I think that certainly one of the things that one could speculate on is the degree to which Obama has been influenced by the social gospel, as I think his pastor Jeremiah Wright very clearly was. There is a lot of evidence that he has been. For example, there was the famous speech that Obama gave in South Carolina, during the campaign, in which he declared his desire to be an "instrument of God" - and declared, quote, "I am confident that we can create a kingdom right here on Earth." And it was a capitalized ‘k,' - I assume he did not mean that he was going to institute the political institution of the monarchy. So definitely, echoes of the social gospel were there.
So Niebuhr initially bought into this. He bought into the social gospel movement. It fit with his upbringing. It fit with his reformist inclinations. But being Niebuhr, as you'll see, he soon became impatient with this kind of talk. He became uneasy with the progressive movement. He found it and the social gospel to be utterly naïve about human nature, about the intractability of human nature, and inadequate to the task of explaining the nature of power relations as they existed in the real world.
Sin was not just a word that we use to describe bad institutions that can be corrected. Sin, he thought, was something much deeper, an intrinsic part of the human condition, something that social reform was powerless to do much, if anything, about. And - I just had to throw this in for E.J. - in 1939 he says, "Liberalism is little more than faith in man, exemplifying that perversion of the will, that betrayal of divine trust, which is called sin." Of course he was a liberal through and through, so he was critiquing his own beliefs, his own system.
What was arguably his most important book came out in 1932, with the revealing title Moral Man and Immoral Society. Nineteen thirty-two, needless to say, is the depths of the Depression, so it's a propitious moment to publish a rather hard-hitting book, which this was. Niebuhr turned the social gospelers' view on its head or on its feet - whichever Marxian analogy you like - and argued that in fact there was a disjuncture between the morality of individuals and the morality of groups. And the latter - the morality of groups - that morality was generally inferior to the morality of individuals. I'll explain that in a moment.
This was, he thought, a fixed condition, a fixed dynamic of human life. Individuals could, once in a while, in rare instances, transcend their self-interest for the sake of a larger good. But groups of individuals, especially groups like nations, never could. So in fact, groups made individuals worse rather than better because the work of collectives was invariably governed by a logic of self-interest.
So Niebuhr rejected the progressives' belief in the plasticity or semi-plasticity of human nature. He thought sin was a better explanation. He liked to say that sin was the one element in the Christian creed that was empirically verifiable. (Laughter.) And he also took aim - and I think this is more radical than people appreciate - he took aim at the very concept of socialization, which for the progressives was so central.
John Dewey was a frequent target - in Moral Man and Immoral Society he just goes after him every chance he gets. John Dewey argued that "The lost individual will re-find inner wholeness ... by subduing himself to the forces of organization at work in externals." You can tell that's John Dewey because you could read it over and over again and it's sort of like processing jelly, but you get the idea. (Laughter.) Niebuhr thought almost the opposite was true. As I said before, men have little enough goodness in themselves and socialization makes them worse because the reason for being, for all social groups, is to pursue the shared self-interest of the members. So that self-interest is triumphant.
He dismissed as sentimentality the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome by intelligent reform and that there we could transform into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades holding hands beside the campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arenas of national and international politics had to take full account of the un-loveliness of human nature, and the un-loveliness of power. The implications for Christians who wanted to do good in the world were fairly stark in his view. They had to be willing to get their hands dirty - very dirty, for existing social relations were held together by coercion and only counter-coercion could change them.
Social change was brought about not by persuasion, diplomacy, pedagogy, intelligence or sweetness, but by - to use a term that he uses repeatedly in the book - "emotionally potent oversimplifications." Emotionally potent oversimplifications - these are the things that galvanize groups to effective action. You see why I say this is a rather depressing outlook - (laughs) - and it doesn't get any better.
A quotation: "Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations." So the idea of solidarity - the campfire - is an illusion. Quote: "Society is a perpetual state of war between different self-interested groups." Jesus Christ, meet Thomas Hobbes. Quote: "The only way a society can maintain itself is by the coercion of dominant groups who go on to invent romantic and moral interpretations of the facts, and the peace lasts only as long as the underdogs are kept down. Then when they are able to successfully challenge and coerce a new peace, they impose another set of romantic and moral interpretations of the facts."
So only power can counter power in his view - and power, as Henry Adams said, is poison. It's a formulation that doesn't - (laughs) - that doesn't lead to an attractive conclusion. His conclusion was that the exercise of power was always morally dangerous, but also always morally necessary. You had to act in the world. You couldn't take the option of opting out. Hence, the need for a dualism in morals, since - and I quote again - "The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability and can only be countered by competing assertions of interests." So that's James Madison - (laughs) - along with Hobbes. But in none of this is there a release from the moral requirements of Christianity. I'll come back to that.
This rather stark view extends very much to the nation-state. And this was a response on his part to the social gospel, to the progressive movement and to a rather long strain in American ideas - progressive ideas - about solidarity. Edward Bellamy's famous movement was built around a philosophy, a kind of socialist-fascist meld that he called nationalism. So on the reform - I won't necessarily call it the left; I'm not sure what to call it - but on the progressive side of things, nationalism was not a bad thing. But to Niebuhr it was.