Back in February, I received a phone call from the journalist Paul Elie. I knew his name from a book he published a few years ago, called The Life You Save May Be Your Own , an appealing effort that I reviewed favorably in First Things .
He wanted to talk about an article, for the Atlantic Monthly , on the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in contemporary American politics. Back in November 2001, I had delivered a lecture, later published as an article in the February 2002 First Things , reconsidering Niebuhr’s almost forgotten 1952 book The Irony of American History in the wake of the attacks of September 11, and Elie evidently thought this sufficient basis for calling.
It was a good conversation for the most part, though I came away bothered by Elie’s repeated efforts to force me to discuss my views about specific points of foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq, rather than my views of Niebuhr. Indeed, despite a lengthy conversation, I was not sure he grasped my perspective on Niebuhr, and I emailed him a lengthy follow-up memo, for which he thanked me. Many months passed, and I wondered if the project had died. But now it has finally appeared in the November issue of the Atlantic as " A Man for All Reasons ."
Niebuhr’s enduring influence remains an interesting topic, though somewhat old news by this point. But Elie’s effort is a disappointing muddle¯a confused attempt to categorize the various responses to Niebuhr and discredit them all as erroneous, while offering Elie himself as the final authority on the subject. His advocacy does Niebuhr no favors. Though Elie surely intended to praise Niebuhr, his essay leaves the reader with a weary feeling that any thinker so confusing, and so subject to misreading and misuse, is simply not going to be a reliable guide to anything, and therefore not worth their trouble.
As for myself, I was quite prepared to be criticized but unprepared to find myself set up as a straw man. "Six months after 9/11," Elie writes,
the historian Wilfred McClay set out the argument with special vigor in a talk to the Family Research Council, in Washington, D.C. McClay is a theocon yeoman with a chair at the University of Tennessee. After learning of the attacks, he told his audience, he’d turned to Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History , whose themes he synopsized in such a way that they converged neatly with the preemptive-war and global-responsibility themes coming out of the White House. McClay wholly supported the war on terror ("When the President says, ‘Let’s roll,’ I’m ready"), and he was sure that Niebuhr would have, too. "What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War?" he asked rhetorically. "First and foremost, that it is right and just for Christians to support this war. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so." He went on to say that he suspected "Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush’s remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months." . . . McClay’s Niebuhr was a muscular Christian in a Humvee, ready to roll.
In fact, I gave the lecture on November 9, 2001, less than two months after 9/11 and not the six months he states¯a matter of context that makes a difference in interpreting events. Those who have a moment might look at the text , as it appeared in First Things . What they will see bears no resemblance to the marching-band music conjured by Elie’s willful précis.
It is, instead, a meditation on the relation of Christianity and history, and the complex ways in which the Christian faith may, or may not, have a bearing on the way we read events of the day. It is a call to be "modest and skeptical" about the larger meanings we claim to find in history. It sets forward a Christian understanding of human nature as "uniquely complex" and offers Niebuhr’s work as an exemplary account of that complexity. It restates Niebuhr’s commitment to the doctrine of original sin and his insistence that, while Christians are obliged to work for social improvement, they are to do so without illusions, with full knowledge that any such labors would inevitably involve them in sin and imperfection. Man is a sinner, but he is not merely a sinner. Salvation is not to be had through history, but it is not to be had entirely apart from history either.
In a key quotation, Niebuhr states the tension: "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice whereby the exercise of power is legitimatized."
Niebuhr then talks about the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and its observation that the purposes of the Almighty are greater than ours, about which I added: "Nothing in Lincoln’s words suggests even a hint of faltering in the ultimate goal of destroying the Confederacy and reuniting the nation. And yet, the speech suggests not only Lincoln’s charity for the enemy, but also his keen awareness of the arrogance, blindness, or triumphalism to which his own side was susceptible, flaws that might beget precisely the ironic effects that Niebuhr feared and deplored. That Lincoln himself may not have been entirely innocent of such flaws, and that his conduct of the war necessarily involved him in inflicting wounds that would be painfully slow to heal, only underscores the truth of his words. There was no morally pure path open to him. There never is."
I go on to analogize to the then-present moment, circa November 2001, arguing¯yes¯for the rightness of our resistance to the sources of terror directed at us, words that I spoke at a moment when the invasion of Afghanistan was only a month old and fierce fighting was underway, with the issue far from settled. It was a more united time, when it was quite reasonable, indeed almost completely uncontroversial, to speak approvingly of President Bush’s leadership. The controversies over Iraq that have roiled us in recent years were not even on the horizon. But I was also clear¯very clear¯about the need for American vigilance against the dangers of moral complacency and spiritual pride.
What Elie has culled and spliced from my text, however, are unrepresentative and misleading fragments. Consider his mention of my assent to the words, "Let’s roll." Leave aside the fact that, in the next sentence, I insist that we should not in the process forget about some of the morally troubling aspects of our own country. Concentrate instead on "Let’s roll," which Elie uses to make a wisecrack about Humvees and muscular Christianity.
He has evidently forgotten where those words came from. They did not refer to Humvees. They referred back to Todd Beamer, the man aboard United Airlines Flight 93 who rallied his fellow passengers to wrest control of their plane away from the hijackers and force the plane down into the Pennsylvania countryside, quite possibly saving the Capitol building or the White House from immolation. When the president used those words to conclude his November 8, 2001, speech , he made it clear that he was paying tribute to the courage and sacrifice of Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers, recalling to the nation what they had done for us and connecting remembrance of them with the endeavors that lay ahead. The phrase was in the air everywhere at the time, perhaps most notably in a popular song written by the rocker Neil Young.
Or consider Elie’s use of my line about how Niebuhr "might well have approved" of Bush’s handling of matters, circa November 2001. As I have already said, this was not a controversial statement at the time, but Elie has also chopped off the last part of my sentence, which read: "I suspect that Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush’s remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months¯ though perhaps with one notable exception ." That exception was "the president’s frequent use of the language of evil to describe our foe," which troubled me, and I believed would have troubled Niebuhr, precisely because, as I said, "we are not pure enough ourselves" to pose as "children of light"¯an allusion to another classic Niebuhrian formulation.
In the end, what Elie presents is a caricature, slick with decontextualization and silent elision where readers aren’t likely to check the original. To some extent, he does the same with the other Niebuhr-influenced authors he examines, from Peter Beinart to David Brooks, creating straw men set up solely for the purpose of being knocked down. That is why the article is ultimately so unilluminating; it is more about squeezing authors into artificial journalistic categories and then torpedoing the categories than it is about engagement with their arguments.
And when it finally comes time for Elie to offer his own thoughts, they could hardly be more disappointing. He sees the phoniness of America epitomized in the "fiberglass pillars and aluminum gaslights of a McMansion in the suburbs." He laments that we fail to hear the voices of prophets calling the ruling powers to account¯surely the wrong complaint to be making in the age of Cindy Sheehan¯and claims that our "churches have underwritten the war in Iraq," a charge that will come as a surprise to everyone from Benedict XVI to the National Council of Churches. He prattles about the need to recover our lost "sacred history" as a "biblical people"¯something that we are somehow supposed to do at the same time that we are to acknowledge "that we are just one nation among many." He insists that, although the war in Iraq "has been lost," at the same time "the war in Iraq is far from over." And finally he concludes with this gnomic pronouncement: "As it was in Western Europe, so it is in Iraq." Meaning precisely what?
Whatever one makes of this, it will leave many readers with the feeling that Reinhold Niebuhr does not have much to offer. And maybe we should consider that possibility. Perhaps Paul Elie should have taken his own half-heartedness in defending Niebuhr as a sign that his article needed to take a different direction.
Even Niebuhr’s strongest advocates concede his inadequacies as a theologian. His Christology is weak, his ecclesiology is nonexistent, and in a dozen other areas, he is mediocre or derivative, much the inferior of his brother Richard. His theology can be rendered surprisingly undemanding. There is a reason the informal organization "Atheists for Niebuhr" has never lacked for members and a reason Stanley Hauerwas has asserted that Niebuhr may not even be a Christian. Even in his areas of seeming strength, Niebuhr can be little help in the making of practical moral decisions. How, for example, do his doctrines help us to think more deeply and carefully about the relative justice of different circumstances of warfare or other specific exercises of governments’ coercive power, such as appropriate interrogation techniques to be used against terrorists?
In the end, the value of Niebuhr’s thinking in these matters is, for all his legendary complexity, very simple. He asserted three things: First, we are not innocent, either as individuals or as nations, and are incapable of disinterested action. Second, we must act in the world and do our best to promote what we believe to be right, for we cannot preserve our innocence by refusing to act. And third, we must know that the exercise of power always exposes us to the corruptions of power¯for we will almost certainly sin in whatever actions we take, a realization that should chasten us in whatever we do.
For what it is worth, I think that a fourth factor also has to be present for the Niebuhrian perspective to be fully understood: The moral tensions on which Niebuhr insists are unbearable in the absence of faith in the redemptive power of Christ. A lot of what passes for “Niebuhrian” completely elides that fact and thereby underplays the rigor of Niebuhr’s gloominess and the necessity of his Christianity.
In any event, Paul Elie could have written a far more illuminating essay, not to mention a more honest one, if he had grasped these constants of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought. But that would have forced Elie to admit that he is not quite certain, in the end, what he thinks of his "man for all reasons." Which is a problem for an essay that sets out to advocate the importance of Niebuhr and promote its author’s reading of Niebuhr above all others.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.