Reinhold Niebuhr Speaks to the Trump Age

I think Reinhold did anticipate Donald Trump, but not in a way of despair, by any means, although I know it’s easy to feel that way. Reinhold died slowly, unfortunately. He and Ursula were out in Stockbridge, living in their home there. He occupied a bed in the back and he went through two or three years of very gradually dying from all these strokes. But he did overlap with the presidency of Nixon. There was a time near the very end. The TV was on in the bedroom, and Nixon came on the TV. Reinhold raised himself up on his elbows, which was not easy at that time, and he looked at the TV and he said, “That…bastard!”

—story told by Gustav Niebuhr

Is a Niebuhr revival coming? Has it already begun? Was he ever really forgotten? Jimmy Carter seems to have been a fan. Barack Obama, before he became president, identified him as an influential person for his political philosophy, surprising journalist David Brooks with his quick and ready summary of the usefulness of Niebuhr’s ideas during an interview.

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. (Obama, 2007)

Brooks recounts that he went on to give a perfect, twenty minute, summation of Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History.

Recently, I learned that former FBI directory James Comey had written his undergraduate thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr and that his reading of Moral Man and Immoral Society was a catalyst to public service. Some have rightly noticed the irony in this, given the fact that the FBI under Hoover had been looking for ways to tag Niebuhr as a communist for decades, especially after his criticisms of the Vietnam war.t1larg.reinhold.union

A new documentary film was released this year for PBS on the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Commentators on the film, and on Reinhold in general, have all made attempts to answer the question of how he might think about the Trump phenomenon if he were with us. Scott Paeth recently noted that Louis Brandeis, associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a letter to a despondent Niebuhr shortly after the election of Eisenhower. By nearly everyone’s standards, Paeth points out, Eisenhower wasn’t a terrible president. One can only imagine him flipping out over what we have now.

It’s a shame that some other characters have taken their place on the stage today but Reinhold’s role has not been filled. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is playing a grotesque caricature of Billy Graham. Trump is playing a version of Nixon. There is no ‘Niebuhr’ around. Some years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was christened “America’s best theologian”, yet Hauerwas’ project of silently creating alternative communities (i.e. churches), and his well-known pacifism, put him at odds with the gritty “Christian Realism” of Niebuhr. Perhaps a Niebuhr cannot exist in today’s world. For one thing, the world where public theologians (even ones re-descriptive and imaginative, not merely proclaimers) are listened to in any measure has vanished. So we are left to speculate with the ideas and metaphors he used in his own time. What would Niebuhr say about Christians who voted for him, and those who opposed him?

To the evangelical enablers who voted for him in overwhelming numbers (80% of white evangelicals by most polls), I think that his criticism of “personal Jesus” religiosity contained in his 1969 article “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court”  is just as pertinent now as it was then.

The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

But before those of us who voted for Hillary or Bernie congratulate ourselves, there is another side to Niebuhr that reminds us of how we are always implicated, even if only by degrees, in what we criticize. I think that if Niebuhr were with us, he would also agree that we live in our bubbles of identity politics – bubbles where we can live free from sin, where anything we say about our opponents is justified. In his own time, in the height of the Cold War, he saw democracy itself as one such bubble, but one can easily substitute of number of ideologies.

Democracy may be challenged from without by the force of barbarism and the creed of cynicism. But its internal peril lies in the conflict of various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect.  — The Children of Light, Children of Darkness, p.152

This duality explains why Reinhold has been claimed by opposing figures such as Michael Novak and Arthur Schlesinger (Jr.). He will continue to be a counterweight to the effusive, and frequently simplistic, optimism that often characterizes the American spirit whether in conservative or liberal form. He reminds us that the acknowledgement of sin calls for humility and modesty because even our righteousness is like a filthy rag.

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