Needing Niebuhr Still?

By Mark Edwards

The immediate occasion for this post is a shameless plug. Among the many panels put together for the 2013 AHA and its affiliates on the subject of religion, I want to highlight The Christian Origins of the American Century, which will feature papers by Cara Burnidge, Caitlin Carenen, and myself, and commentary by Malcolm Magee and Andrew Preston.  It’s a bit early in the morning, but Darren Dochuk has offered to buy attendees coffee and a scone, so it’s all good.  In the meantime, and to cover my shameless plug in robes of serious historical inquiry, I thought I’d revisit a question that Randall Stephens took up a few years ago: After all these years, why is Reinhold Niebuhr still America’s premier public theologian and, more importantly, what does that say about us?

In The Right of the Protestant Left, I tried to restore Niebuhr to his precarious place within what I called the “old ecumenical Protestant left.”  The reality is, the more Niebuhr’s celebrity rose among those outside of the church, the more marginal I found that he became to the main currents of liberal American Protestantism.  I’m not referring here to the pacifist circles that Niebuhr turned his prophetic pen on.  Rather, his friends, colleagues, and younger brother were so frustrated by Niebuhr’s indifference toward building a inter-Protestant world community—their chief interest—that they even considered leaving him out of their project altogether.  Niebuhr was eventually reconciled to the ecumenical movement by his critique of “secularism” and his analysis of national and world problems through the lens of original sin.  Still, those closest to Niebuhr continued to deride him as the “sackcloth and ashes man,” the “sin-snooping” saint who was fundamentally out of touch with the Christian hope. 

This is how I introduce Niebuhr and Christian power politics in my AHA essay:

Who would Jesus nuke?  That’s a question that comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “Christian power politics.”  And the solution is Reinhold Niebuhr.  At least, looking lately across the American political spectrum, it seems Niebuhr still knows whom Jesus would waste.  Niebuhr’s official foray into realpolitik began in 1932 with the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society.  Niebuhr therein drew a sharp line between religious and political morality.  It was one thing to preach “love thy neighbor” when that neighbor was a person or family; but how could labor love management?  How could America love Japan, especially in 1932, or vice versa?  In other words, Jesus’s personal morality, however noble, had little relevance for social and diplomatic problems which were always collective in nature.  Niebuhr scored anti-pacifist points in service of an independent and aggressive farm-labor movement, unafraid to use violence to achieve social justice.  Niebuhr would soon after reframe his arguments to justify American intervention into World War II and against Soviet expansion. Niebuhr’s thought remains prized today by the left, right, and center.  One would think the entire scope of political theology could be reduced to the question, What Would Niebuhr Do—although the answers to that question have given rise to a host of unholy contradiction.  But what was “Christian” about Niebuhr’s power politics?  Sure, he talked a lot about needing to control the effects of original sin, but his closest friends (including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) found Niebuhr’s whole theological superstructure irrelevant to his base Machiavellianism.  No wonder that Barak Obama has deployed Niebuhr in defense of a nation with the soul of a predator drone.

The paper then proceeds as one more of my feeble attempts to exalt World ‘s Student Christian Federation chairman Francis Pickens Miller as a co-founder of post-World War I Christian Realism.  The irony of this American historian, though, is that I ask myself all the time, What Niebuhr Would Do?  The potential of Niebuhrian realism to moderate and, when necessary, frustrate groupthink is indispensable.  I’ve found that to be as true of faculty-administration clashes as of political partisanship and imperial rivalries.

And I’m not the only one who still looks up to “the modern Socrates of sin” (as one student once lionized Niebuhr in a poem).  During and after his lifetime, Niebuhr was the subject of literally thousands of short and lengthy investigations.  Richard Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985) reigns supreme among comprehensive Niebuhr studies despite several notable efforts by Ronald Stone and others to topple it.  Fox was sensitive to the “great man” history charge as well as to the need to evade presentism; but was it an accident that the biography appeared in the midst of the Reagan administration’s re-ideologizing of the Cold War?  In any case, it seems Niebuhr resurfaces whenever someone feels that America needs a kick to its exceptional head.  Three recent Niebuhr studies—Martin Halliwell’s The Constant Dialogue (2005), Charles Lemert’s Why Niebuhr Matters (2011), and John Patrick Diggins’s Why Niebuhr Now? (2011)—testify to an abiding zeal for explaining and updating Niebuhr for future generations.  However, as Paul Elie has noted, everyone today wants to claim a piece of the Niebuhrian realist legacy.  Those viewing Niebuhr as a pre-critic of the war on terror—including Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power (2008), Eric Patterson’s edited collection, Christianity and Power Politics Today (2008), and Ray Haberski’s God and War (2012)—are winning the day over assumed neo-and theocons. 

Yet my question is: what questions aren’t we asking when we’re wondering what Niebuhr would do?  Was Francis Miller right when he complained in 1933 that Niebuhr "had no theory of the church"—that Niebuhr’s devout faith in the nation-state was ultimately a betrayal of the transnational forms of community that Christians should be trading in?  Was and is Niebuhr and his followers addicts of what Stanley Hauerwas once christened “Constantinian power?”  Is it finally time to admit with James Cone that “God cannot be white”—that the only “Christian” politics worth investing in should seek liberation for those crushed by coercive structures such as whiteness?  To do so would not necessarily be to repudiate Niebuhr as much as re-read and re-utilize him.  While Bacevich has proclaimed Niebuhr’s Irony of American History (1952) the most important work in American foreign policy, the radical theologians of the 1960s, as well as Niebuhr’s colleague and confidant John Bennett, tried to point people back to Moral Man.

With all that said, do you find Niebuhr more of an asset or liability to current political theology?  Should he be dethroned?  If not, why not?  If so, replaced by who or what?

(PS  I just discovered that Elesha Coffman’s The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline, Oxford, May 2013, is available for preorder.  It joins a number of new studies promising to move study of ecumenical Protestantism beyond the “history of theology” approach—which Niebuhr, too, has dominated.)    


David True said…
Thanks, Mark. We'd welcome your posting something about this over at "There is Power in the Blog," the blog for the journal "Political Theology."

Thanks again,
Dave True,
Editor, Political Theology
Edward J. Blum said…
looks like a great panel!!!
Hi Mark: I will be in the audience for your panel--looks great! Let's hope for a beer later on in the day.

The question that I have wrestled with, like you, is the attempt to find an alternative to Niebuhr. For me, one episode that revealed the contours of that attempt was the debate between Richard John Neuhaus and Stan Hauerwas over the first Gulf War. I wrote about it at S-USIH:

What struck me as significant was the reductionism on both sides of the debate. Niebuhr responded to world affairs in his own time and of course did not imagine he was writing for American theologians of other times, much less those facing the Gulf War. But more than that, as you point out, while Niebuhr had offered a profound theological reflection in Moral Man, he wrote so much more that there is a seemingly a Niebuhr for any given situation. For his moment, when mainline Protestantism reigned in America, his voice could make a thumping difference. Neuhaus harkened back to that kind of authority; Hauerwas antagonized it. I think the debate taken up in many of the book you refer to is over whether the history since Niebuhr is a declension narrative or a something much more positive.

In other words, Niebuhr will always be interesting to read because he wrote so much, but our use of him says more about us than him.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for your thoughtful response, Ray. Engaging lately with Coffman's arguments about the Christian Century and Matt Hedstrom's THE RISE OF LIBERAL RELIGION, I'm beginning to think of "mainline Protestantism" as more of an elusive aspiration than ever a finished fact. Yet, it is remarkable how easily ecumenical church leaders found access to halls of power between 1920-1960; Niebuhr, I think, earned his influence through his writing while many of his associates (Henry Van Dusen, Francis Miller, Henry Sloane Coffin) seemed to inherit it. Was this generation of church leaders simply addicted to their small tastes of power, and were subsequently manipulated by the warfare state, or was their conviction that Christians must pursue justice through the state of some lasting significance?
Elesha said…
Darren, I will take a half-caf latte, and any flavor of scone is OK. Mark, great panel. I'd like to think that your second possibility--that mid-century mainline leaders truly believed in pursuing justice through the state--is closer to the truth. But "justice" might be too narrow a label for their goals. The state got deeper into all kinds of areas in the 1920-1960 period, in many cases taking over what had previously been largely church territory. So Christians who had previously felt a strong interest in--or, in the more specifically mainline mindset, responsibility for--anything from foreign policy (previously a missionary concern) to care for the poor to higher education to public morality, etc., pretty much had to either work through the state or try to carve out space apart from it. Bottom line, I guess I don't see mainliners trying to play politics with the big boys so much as them trying to figure out what roles they could still play as the game changed dramatically.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Elesha,

Your point is certainly well taken as far as the development of the welfare state is concerned. I still tend to marvel with Owen Chadwick, Andrew Preston, Heather Warren, Dianne Kirby, Phillip Coupland, among others, at how mainliners involved themselves in foreign policy inner circles around World War II. I mean less Niebuhr here and more Henry Van Dusen and Francis Miller. My second book looks to explore the connections between ecumenical Protestants and foreign policy thinktanks like the Council on Foreign Relations. Miller's relationship with Henry Wallace as one example of this close connection. The question is: When did that "special relationship" end? I'm thinking when the John Foster Dulles types (aristocrats) were replaced by JFK's "whiz kids" and Rumsfeld types (technocrats).
Elesha said…

Granted, mainline thinkers were remarkably involved in mid 20th century foreign policy, and it's a topic I should know more about. I still have to wonder, though, how different this was from the days of Josiah Strong and Albert Beveridge and Alfred Mahan, of missionaries and the sons of missionaries steering affairs in Hawaii, of Sheldon Jackson running Alaska, even, considering relations with Indian nations as a foreign policy matter, of U.S. Grant's outsourcing of Indian affairs to churches. It seems that the scale of U.S. foreign policy and the relationship between "religious" and "political" leaders had changed more between the 19th and mid-20th century than had Protestant involvement in policy discussions. The contrast between the Niebuhr era and the technocrat era seems much sharper than the shifts that went before it, and seems like a bigger deal (to me) when the long history is taken into consideration. If Niebuhr et al were not anomalously influential, but the apotheosis of a long and deep tradition, the sudden (though hardly complete, given Niebuhr's remaining stature) repudiation of that tradition is shocking indeed. I look forward to learning from the panel!
Mark T. Edwards said…
Great point about continuity, Elesha, and I entirely agree. It's probably only surprising if we accept some sort of "secularization thesis" which resilient Protestant involvement in foreign policy defied. But I don't think we have to go there. I'm more interested in how my subjects tried to offer a more participatory democratic alternative to the "American Century" narrative of Henry Luce that did largely win out after WWII.

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