In Strange Company

by William Lee Miller | April 21, 1982

If you are an elevated and a complicated thinker, you cannot control what will happen when your ideas rain down upon the lesser mortals below, soaking the just and the unjust alike. One can certainly understand why Marx was exasperated enough to say he wasn't a Marxist, and Freud to have denied he was a Freudian. The twentieth-century Protestant theologian Karl Barth is reported once to have exploded--he was given to explosions--that he wasn't a Barthian. It is particularly difficult to straighten people out if you are dead. Back before monetarism and the sudden sweep to the supply side, when American economists would say, "We are all Keynesians now," one could imagine John Maynard Keynes wanting to say, from his grave across the Atlantic, that he wasn't one. And I have a picture in my mind—the reason for writing this essay—of the American theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr looking in ironic forbearance at the way his name and ideas have lately been invoked by politicians like Jimmy Carter and political prophets like George Gilder.

Niebuhr, who died eleven years ago this year, wrote sermons, speeches, and books, and produced thousands of articles and editorials for every conceivable journal on the religious and political non-Communist left, including this one. He typed away steadily for fifty five years, from World War I through the Vietnam War. He became not only the weightiest American religious thinker since Josiah Royce, or maybe even Jonathan Edwards, but also an important political influence. Yet now, eleven years after his death, you may see in Niebuhr's recent inadvertent role one more irony of American history. In my imagination I hear his ghost wryly denying that he had even so much as mentioned the doctrine of "original sin." Or—particularly—"realism," Or the "immorality," the intensified self-interest, of groups. Or the necessity to balance power with power. Or the "nature of man."

Niebuhr was always a man of the democratic left, and he was also always a critical and complicated thinker, critical not least of his own political side. That was a source both of his importance and of subsequent confusion: he turned much of his fire on the theoretical underpinnings of the political movements with which he was practically allied. He came out of and was the greatest representative of the turn-of-the-century Protestant social gospel movement, but was, typically, its greatest critic. He made his first splash in the 1920s as a critic of the new capitalism of Henry Ford's Detroit—of the Coolidge/Hoover/Andrew Mellon ethos the Reagan entourage is reviving. The only time he ran for office was as a Socialist; he was a founder of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. Norman Thomas once said of that early 1930s period that "people don't realize that Reinie once was a good deal left of me." But although he came close in 1932-1934, he never became a full-fledged Marxist, and he was an early critic—early among the left intelligentsia—of Stalin and Soviet tyranny.

When he shifted from socialism he did not swing to conservatism, neo- or otherwise, but moderated to a pragmatic left-liberalism. He steadily attacked the prevailing Enlightenment presuppositions of that position even as he steadily expanded his practical support of it. He wanted to provide social democratic politics and American social idealism different—many would say sounder—theoretical underpinnings from the ones they grew out of. That's what he did with "democracy" itself in one of his books. He was a founder both of the ADA—its elder statesman, really—and of the Liberal Party of New York, and he had links to a troop of liberal Democrats. Once when he was asked about his voting he answered that the one sure thing was that he never voted Republican.

A preacher, he understood the Christian religion to entail no single clear-cut political pattern, but to be represented best in modern social-political life by democracy and by social justice. He certainly knew politics had "tough choices" and "gray areas"—he was one of the original twentieth-century American tough-choice people—but he was no supporter of tyrannies whether of the right or left, whether called "totalitarian" or "authoritarian." He led the fight in the Protestant churches against the pacifist-isolationist wish that Hitler go away; he was a shaper of the anti-Communist left after the war; his sympathy with refugees from police states was expressed practically as well as theoretically. He had political common sense and flexibility to go with his intellectual power, and that was a source of his attraction to many political people. If you don't have common sense and practical judgment, as he said about Karl Barth's failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, no amount of theory will help you.

He did indeed turn much of his fire on the foolishness, as well as the evil, that came from the left, but he did it not as a conservative or neoconservative but as one who wanted social reform to be more effective. He did say many of the things neoconservatives now say, about the limits of what deliberate social policy can do, about the organic, nonrational bonds of society, about the unintended consequences and side effects of social action, and about the necessity of balances of power. But he said all that not to baptize the status quo and American nationalism, but to encourage a wiser and more persistent pursuit of justice.

Niebuhr was one of the "realists" who developed the ideas about America's international "pattern of responsibility" (the title of a book of speeches by Dean Acheson, a phrase taken from Niebuhr) in the period of 1947 to 1950. When that group changed over the years, however, and splits developed, he did not side with the hardliners. Although many of the Acheson people were supporters—indeed instigators— of the Vietnam War, some of their former intellectual confreres disagreed. Among them were George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Fairly early on Neibuhr wrote articles in The New Republic, the New Leader, and the Progressive attacking the war. Among his last visible political acts was the signing of the appeal for the Washington moratorium against the war.

 

Niebuhr died in 1971. In the mid-1970s, a curious figure appeared at the very top of the American government, a Baptist loner from Georgia, who spoke Niebuhr's name with a reverent Southern accent and mingled it with those of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas at the start of his autobiography; referred to Niebuhr in the extemporaneous passion of his most effective speech, on Law Day at the University of Georgia in 1974; quoted one sentence of Niebuhr's in his speeches; used a Niebuhrian echo in his Inaugural Address, as he told his Sunday school class in Plains the next day; read, underlined, and admired June Bingham's biography of Niebuhr; and may even have read Niebuhr himself. And yet, as to understanding or absorbing Niebuhr—on this as on many other matters, one would have to say that Jimmy Carter, with his tin ear for the music of ideas, could sometimes sound the words but never got the melody.

Carter proved to be an Annapolis engineer with a linear, ungeneralizing, list-making mind (". . . and another point. . . and another point"). He also had that peculiar penchant for the leap to the superlative and the inappropriately absolute: complete confidence in Bert Lance, total competence of the South Korean troops, his Cabinet and everything around him absolutely superb ("superb" got a real workout). Whatever geometric metaphor you would use to describe Niebuhr's mind it certainly wouldn't be a straight line; it also wasn't rigid or static. He generalized inexactly all the time, and in him nothing (almost nothing?) was ever unqualified.

Carter kept pouring unqualified praise on the downright goodness of the American people. This was a most un-Niebuhrian simplicity. Niebuhr's view of "the nature of man" wasn't Hobbesian, but it wasn't Whitmanesque either. It was, as he said, of course "ambivalent," but not symmetrical. It was expressed in theological categories that presented, typically, a combination that was at once a higher and a lower estimate of humankind than alternative views. Whatever you make of that (Father John Courtney Murray, in some ways Niebuhr's Catholic counterpart, once threw up his hands in amusement at its complexity and inexactitude), at least the whole package isn't simple—it is morally as well as intellectually complicated— and it does apply to everybody. It certainly is not Niebuhrian to locate evil in somebody conveniently separated from oneself (criminals. Communists) or to assign some quite special unqualified component of goodness to one's own nation. Pharasaical moral pride, intellectual pride, and religious pride—these were the continual objects of Niebuhr's criticism, and often for him more fundamentally dangerous than the sensuality popularly meant by "sin" or the crimes that people get locked up for.

 

Carter’s brief ripple across history has been followed by a tidal wave not only of the politics of the right but of the politics of religion, including "moral" scorecards and paeans to the divine origins of risk capital and the rapture of exploiting the West before the Lord returns. It is the highest tide of religion in national politics since Eisenhower's moral crusade at least, perhaps since Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan led their bands of believers up separate paths toward Armageddon. In part this period seems a giant illustration of a continual Niebuhrian theme: the confusion religion can cause in politics—confusion, or worse, fanaticism.

In the much broader world of the Reagan right, this side of the Falwell folks, one can find others who have had a brush with Niebuhr. Ernest Lefever read and knew Niebuhr, quoted him often, and has or had a picture of Niebuhr on the wall of his study in Chevy Chase. We learn from the newspapers that David Stockman was so impressed by his reading of Niebuhr in college and by talks about him with his campus pastor at Michigan State that he went to Harvard Divinity School to study him; he found that Niebuhr was regarded there as passé, and the rest, alas, is history. Michael Novak, the erstwhile radical, in an earlier phase of his tour from the left to the right, once wrote an extremely favorable article about Niebuhr in Commentary called "Needing Niebuhr Again." But now, when we need Niebuhr far more than we did then, Novak has moved to the right, voted for Reagan, been appointed to a U.N. post by Reagan, and gone to work at the American Enterprise Institute justifying what seem to me un-Niebuhrian hard-line foreign policies and old-line economics.

 

Then there is the bizarre book by George Gilder called Wealth and Poverty, that Greening of America of the right, which baptizes the feelings of an established constituency with an unalloyed optimism. Mr. Gilder holds that capitalism is a wholly benign expression of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love: faith that your enterprise will prosper; hope that it will make money; love that carefully attends to your neighbor's need, so that the neighbor will buy. At the end of Gilder's long rhapsody to capitalism, as a kind of benedictory summary, there is a well known paragraph on faith, hope, and love by none other than Reinhold Niebuhr: "Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime. Therefore we must be saved by hope. . . . "

That's how the passage begins, in Gilder's slightly altered version, and it goes on to cite the parallel sentences on faith and love. Gilder not only changes a few words but also prints it not as Niebuhr wrote it, simply as a prose paragraph, but indented and arranged in stanzas, like a poem. Moreover, he leaves off the last sentences of the paragraph: "No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of the friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness." Omitting those sentences diminishes the critical and self-critical elements most characteristic of Niebuhr. In the footnotes, Gilder gives as his source, not the book the quotation actually comes from, but: "Reinhold Niebuhr, as quoted by Father Gerald Creedon, Church of the Good Shepherd, Alexandria, Virginia." There's more. After he quotes Father Creedon's version of Niebuhr's paragraph. Gilder adds these spacious sentences as his very last words: "These [the observations just quoted from Niebuhr] are the fundamental laws of economics, business, technology, and life. In them are the secret sources of wealth and poverty." Does that mean there's money in those Christian virtues?

It is astonishing that Gilder should use as his climax a quotation from an author (Niebuhr) and a book (The Irony of American History) so completely at odds with the substance and spirit of his own book. The Irony of American History is a dialectical but thoroughgoing attack on exactly the smug bourgeois complacency of which Gilder's book is so egregious an example. Niebuhr found the real merits of the American nation endangered by the kind of uncritical nationalist and capitalist pride, the assumption of innocence, the neat equation of prosperity with virtue, that Gilder's book exemplifies; Wealth and Poverty is a case study in the American self-deception against which Niebuhr's book was directed.

Religion in America—I mean Protestantism, mainly—has two strong and recurrent spillovers into politics. The one, as nobody needs to be reminded today, is conservative, shaped by the traditional and the socially and morally conservative ingredients that accompany religion everywhere. But the other stream—more peculiar to the United States—is sentimental, reformist, do-goodish, "idealistic," filled with "Why don't we?" and "People everywhere want peace." Usually, of course, these tendencies are found on opposite sides, but not always; sometimes they appear in the same movement (isolationism, 1937-1941) and sometimes in the same person, the sentimentality serving as a sugar-coating for the conservatism. Niebuhr not only was neither of the two, but was an opponent of both and particularly of the mixture.

Niebuhr's progressive-reformist politics rested on unusual theoretical underpinnings—on religious symbols instead of Enlightenment rationalism. It was accompanied by emphases somewhat unusual for that wing of political thought: emphases on the power and self-interest and egotism that constantly stand in resistance to humane social arrangements—egotism certainly in the liberals and the proletariat as well as in the "privileged classes"—and on the naïveté and sentimentality of much do-goodish politics. Niebuhr combined a commitment to social justice characteristic of the left with an attack on "utopian" schemes characteristic of the right. He combined liberal democratic politics with a conservative social philosophy. Therefore the simple representatives of both sides get it wrong.

The New Left of the late 1960s either ignored or attacked him. Even the Protestant religious subsection did: it was as though Niebuhr had never lived, and all the weeds of his youth were suddenly springing up again. The important story, however, is on the right, where some snatched the "Realism," and left behind its critical and primary application to the "ethics of the privileged classes." They chopped apart the combination I have described, tossed overboard any effective commitment to social justice, separated out the "realism," and freeze-dried it into formulas. But since World War II such "realists" have been a dime a dozen, and so have been the hardheaded social democrats who aren't social democrats any more but just hardheaded. It was one of Niebuhr's distinctions that he maintained the combination, one we need now.

But maybe I'm wrong. Therefore I must be saved by hope.

William Lee Miller is the author of Yankee From Georgia: The Emergence of Jimmy Carter.

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