Parochialism and arrogance


Why Reinhold Niebuhr matters now

By , Thursday 21 July 2011 12.45 BST

In the US, a Reinhold Niebuhr revival is underway. It received a boost a few years ago when Senator John McCain and then Senator Barack Obama both cited the theologian as an important thinker on the role of the United States in world affairs. Several of Niebuhr’s books have recently been re-issued, including An Interpretation of Christian Ethics and The Irony of American History

The individual perhaps most responsible for the renewed interest is Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Bacevich has emerged as one of the most effective and outspoken critics of American foreign policy, a role he relates to his own discovery of Niebuhr’s work. For several years, in speeches and in writings, Bacevich has been claiming that Niebuhr is the single most important critic of American foreign policy. 

What necessary lessons does Bacevich, a former US army officer and self-described “Catholic conservative,” see in Reinhold Niebuhr, a somewhat tortured Calvinist intellectual who had socialist proclivities? This, in essence, is the question a book by the late historian John Patrick Diggins attempts to answer. It is called Why Niebuhr Now?

Niebuhr began his career, in 1915, as pastor of the German Protestant Bethel Evangelical Church, in Detroit, Michigan. In the 1920s, Niebuhr came to prominence for speaking out against racism and the Ford motor company’s labour policies. He denounced the “drudgery” and “slavery” suffered by modern factory workers as “part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run”. In part because he hated communism, Niebuhr turned to socialism and became a strong advocate of organised labour. 

In 1928, Niebuhr accepted an appointment at the Union Theological Seminary, in New York, where he wrote a series of books. Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), and several other works won him an international audience. In fact, from the 1930s through to the 1960s, at the height of US power and prosperity, Niebuhr served as a kind of honoured national prophet. 

The new left, however, felt little affinity with this anti-utopian seminary professor who wore a suit and talked about man’s natural depravity and capacity for self-delusion. Niebuhr’s opposition to the Vietnam war did not win him any friends on the right, and so in the 1970s, Reinhold Niebuhr fell out of fashion. His books even went out of print. 

To ask why Niebuhr now is also to ask why Niebuhr at all, for an eclectic group of admirers has always been part of the Niebuhr phenomenon. During Niebuhr’s lifetime his admirers included the literary critic Lionel Trilling, the associate justice of the US supreme court Felix Frankfurter, the English economic historian RH Tawney, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others. Niebuhr’s energy and ambition compelled WH Auden, another appreciative reader, to call him “an ecclesiastical Orson Welles”.

The philosopher Sidney Hook, an atheist, captured a feature of Niebuhr’s identity as a thinker when he wrote that there was “something extremely paradoxical in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, to make so many who are so far apart in their own allegiances feel so akin to him”. His ability to attract disparate followers persists, and proponents of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also cite Niebuhr. 

The fact that things are not going well in the American wars, and that neither political party seems to have a solution, helps create a space for Niebuhr. In moments where the political options all seem unsatisfactory, Niebuhr does well. His books are jeremiads, public exhortations linking spiritual renewal to social reform. Like their author, they are consumed with the challenge of pressing religion into worldly service, of applying the moral authority and insights of theology and religion to social and political problems. 

But his work also emphasises the dangers that accompany the use of power, the limitations of human foresight, and the chance that good intentions may bring bad results. Human imperfection and the dangers of power were his main themes. Because it inculcated a false sense of virtue and goodness, Niebuhr wrote, power was more likely to transgress God’s laws than do God’s work. 

Niebuhr was never an original theologian, nor a systematic thinker. His reputation as a liberal cold warrior, however, does not do justice to the challenge that his blend of Calvinism and historical awareness offers to American political culture. Democratic nation states were better than totalitarian ones, Niebuhr acknowledged, but that did not mean they represented a higher stage in a divine plan. 

For Niebuhr, God was inscrutable, and so were God’s plans. On this matter, he is closer to some 17th-century puritans than to the 20th- and 21st-century fundamentalists who claim to represent a divinely sanctioned people or nation or party. 

For Niebuhr the Calvinist, claims to represent God, or to speak on behalf of God, instead of merely talking about God, were howling sins. Of course, speaking of political and geopolitical “sins” is also a theological act. One could describe the same things in logical, psychological, or legal language; speaking instead of mistakes, delusions or crimes, for example. 

Niebuhr’s theological idiom is part of his appeal to the American political class, part of what enables him to challenge some of the enduring conceits of American imperialism. Importantly, Niebuhr saw these conceits as having historical, not theological, causes. He thought, for example, that America’s lack of any effective neighbouring enemy, as Germany had been to France, or France had been to Britain, contributed to a certain mix of parochialism and arrogance. 

In a memorable phrase, he wrote of how the lack of a territorial rival had helped keep “America rocking in the cradle of its continental security”. In Niebuhr’s view, it was this good fortune, combined with hard work, ruthlessness, and the material wealth of the continent, that explained US power. God was simply irrelevant, except to the extent that mistaking earthly power for divine favour led to sin and destruction. or or

Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, Jan 01, 1955.

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