Even More on the Niebuhr-Comey Connection

COmeyWe have done a few posts over the past year about James Comey’s undergraduate thesis at The College of William and Mary.  The thesis compared the political theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.

Over at Christianity Today, University of Pennsylvania religion professor Steven Weitzman probes deeper into the Comey-Niebuhr connection, especially in light of very current events.

Here is a taste of his piece “The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict“: 

Many Christian theologians in Niebuhr’s day embraced love as the solution to the world’s problems. As Comey explains in the thesis, Niebuhr rejected that view. Since human selfishness gets in the way of perfectly emulating Jesus’ sacrificial love, they must instead inject love into the world through justice.

Reading Comey’s description of Niebuhr’s views suggests a theological-moral logic at work in his career as FBI director. A Christian has an obligation to seek justice, the theologian argued, and this means entering the political sphere because that is the realm where one can find the power necessary to establish whatever justice is possible in the world. Comey’s decision to work for the FBI can be understood as a way of fulfilling Niebuhr’s vision of Christianity as a defender of justice.

At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.

By the late 1960s, Niebuhr had cofounded an anti-war clergy group deemed suspicious by the FBI, and one of his cofounders, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, had been the subject of an FBI manhunt, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. Niebuhr, a subject of FBI surveillance himself, was no fan of the bureau and felt moved to speak out against it.35ad1-niebuhr

In an essay called “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” published in 1969, Niebuhr rebuked Hoover himself, comparing his spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. to the actions of the biblical Amaziah, a priest who abused the prophet Amos in an effort to suppress his critique.

It is ironic that Comey admires a figure who felt he had to denounce a previous FBI director. What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27—in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians—he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear.

It is tempting to read Comey’s thesis as an explanation for how has conducted himself as FBI director over the last year.

Niebuhr’s writings supply a moral argument for Comey’s aggressive assertion of the FBI’s power—some describe him as the most aggressive FBI director since Hoover himself. His influence also sheds light on another side of Comey’s conduct as FBI director. Niebuhr noted that while humans can’t change the animal nature that makes them so selfish, they can achieve a kind of freedom from their situation by becoming self-conscious, by recognizing the truth about themselves. Comey has sought to institutionalize such self-awareness in the FBI through programs that encourage FBI trainees to learn about Hoover’s mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the complicity of law enforcement in the Holocaust.

But the theologian’s influence potentially sheds light on yet another side of Comey’s conduct as well. For a student of Niebuhr, justice is about using power to balance the power of those not predisposed to recognize any limits on their self-interest. Perhaps this helps to explain why Comey felt he had to criticize Clinton even though he found no reason to pursue a legal case against her. At that time she seemed to be on her way to becoming the most powerful person in the world, and her email troubles suggested someone who did not sufficiently respect limits.

Read the rest here.