Why Niebuhr Matters
by Charles Lemertyale
Yale University Press, 272 pages, $26
The current Reinhold Niebuhr revival provides a good opportunity to reflect on the many gifts that constitute his legacy. He gave atheist political theorists the opportunity to talk about human nature without having to bother with natural law. He gave mainline Protestants the impression that you can do theology while dedicating yourself exclusively to social issues. And, speaking from personal experience, he gave burgeoning young conservatives the tools to get away with criticizing liberalism in a room full of liberals. Niebuhr delivered his gifts—theological analyses of social problems—with unsurpassable sincerity, but wrapped tightly in irony. Good ironies are hard to interpret, which is why he can be read with such passion by the people whose beliefs he is trying to skewer.
Although he wrote most of his books long before conservative-minded liberals felt comfortable accepting the conservative label, most of his ironies were directed against the kind of idealistic ambition typically associated with modern liberalism. He was a connoisseur of detecting overconfidence in any system of thought—he could detect overreach (one of his favorite words) even in understatements—but he never suspected that most of those responsible for his revival would be more liberal than he ever was.
Liberals have latched onto Niebuhr not just because President Obama drops his name now and then. The main reason for the Niebuhr revival, as demonstrated by Charles Lemert’s new book, Why Niebuhr Matters, is that liberals started rereading The Irony of American History during the Gulf Wars. They found what they were looking for. “Niebuhr believed that America’s exceptional religiosity grew out of its messianic faith in itself,” and “the excess of this extreme nationalism was what Niebuhr called, early in the Cold War, the irony of the American situation.” Niebuhr could be vague and ambiguous, but his ironies were never this flat-footed. Niebuhr saw something good (America’s high ideals) going unintentionally awry, while Lemert, a Senior Fellow of Yale’s Center for Comparative Research, sees only something bad (nationalism) getting steadily worse.
Nationalism for Niebuhr was not a by-product of religious zealotry. It was an inevitable but not necessary manifestation of what we can call Niebuhr’s collective epistemology: Groups have power but they lack a moral center. That was the point of 1932’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Lemert, by contrast, believes nationalism corrupts nation-states, which can easily do without it. He holds up Europe as an example of how easy it is for nations to quit the nationalistic habit: “Europe is ready at least to put nationalism behind.” Asia and Russia too are flexible in their use of power, and “only the United States totters uneasily in an ideological stupor.”
Lemert might be speaking with intentional hyperbole, but there are no traces of irony here. He argues that America is arrogant and aggressive to its core. “In the Cold War the United States was not even sophomoric. . . . To be sophomoric is to talk too much without knowing how stupid you sound.” Inspired by his own speculations, Lemert even suggests that “had America had (or taken) time, it might have called Stalin’s bluff without exciting too much its trigger-happy self-regard.” He thus succeeds in turning Niebuhr’s irony into farce.
Acknowledging that Niebuhr was a bold Cold Warrior, Lemert pauses to wonder how a good liberal ended up writing a book defending him. “How can anyone of even vaguely left commitments recommend Niebuhr’s ideas, given that in the last years of his life he was such a Cold Warrior?” The answer is that Niebuhr’s realism “chastens all political judgments,” which gives Lemert the opening to chasten Niebuhr himself for “denouncing not only Soviet Communism but communism of all brands.”
In other words, chastening is good as long as conservative views are the target. “American conservatives have, time and again, shown themselves bereft of any perceptible values other than those useful to the acquisition and holding of power.” As for liberals, their only flaw is that they “do not trust power and thus lose it as soon as they gain it.” Conservatives are vicious in the pursuit of power while liberals are victims of their own virtues.
One quotation will suffice to show that Lemert is no better with theology than politics: “Christian belief depends on the story of Jesus of Nazareth. That story has been described by the literary critic Harold Bloom (himself not the least Christian) as one of the great stories in world literature.” That sentence has a footnote so that you can verify that Bloom indeed ranks the gospels right up there with a good Russian novel. It is as if Lemert is writing for an audience so removed from Christianity that they might as well be from another planet.
I learned my Niebuhr from Langdon Gilkey, whose booming voice, resonating with crackling and rattling overtones, gave Niebuhr’s books an appropriate auditory depth. Gilkey’s students could make no mistake that Niebuhr sermonized in prophetic tones. Lemert criticizes Gilkey for calling Niebuhr a neo-liberal, although Gilkey uses that term only as a description of Niebuhr’s theology, suggesting that it is more appropriate than neo-orthodox. For Gilkey, the “neo” of his orthodoxy is precisely where he remained most liberal—not just his penchant for talking about biblical symbols and myths but also his conviction that the problem of historical consciousness is the context for all modern theology. Lemert bristles at Gilkey’s suggestion because he is anxious to deny that Niebuhr would have supported “a renewal of market principles on a global scale.” Lemert does not much care how to identify Niebuhr’s theology, but he is passionate in insisting that politically he was “European in his understanding of liberal values.”
Of course he was a liberal in some deep-seated way. What choice did he have, especially given his growing aversion, beginning with Moral Man and Immoral Society, to any form of Marxism? (That book demonstrates just how much he learned from Marx, but it also provides a crucial clue for his heavy reliance on irony. Irony helped Niebuhr extricate himself from Marxist certainties.) Perhaps Niebuhr’s true heirs are those who call themselves postliberals without being able or willing to specify what the “post” is supposed to mean.
Lemert thinks that Niebuhr should be considered the ancestor of the “social justice evangelicals who began to assert themselves early in the 2000s.” He finds in Niebuhr the resources to assess America’s “chronic inability to adjust its thinking to the realities of global power.”
This is just the opposite of Stanley Hauerwas’ critique of the great man. Hauerwas thinks that Niebuhr “may well be the greatest representative of a theology shaped to make America work.” Hauerwas and Lemert both belong to the liberal left—both judge America with little sense of irony—but they read Niebuhr in opposite ways. Neither is very sensitive to his irony, but Lemert’s portrait makes Hauerwas’ look like a masterpiece. Hauerwas thinks that Niebuhr treated America as his church—that he loved America too much—and that analysis has more merit than Lemert’s attempt to associate Niebuhr with the anti-American left.
Hauerwas is most critical of Niebuhr for not making the Church the site of substantial ethical and social action, but Niebuhr thought the institutions of civil society, not the Church, should mediate religious values and politics. For all of his theological limitations, Niebuhr epitomized a heroic age when men thought that the best political gestures were neither partisan nor ecclesial. The untamed cynicism shared by both Hauerwas and Lemert toward the idea that Christians have a stake in the American version of democracy helped bring that era to an end. That is the tragedy of Niebuhr’s sense of irony.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College.