David Blight on Reinhold Niebuhr, Theology, and a Bunch of Other Things

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Over at Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight about history, memory, Reinhold Niebuhr and history as theology.  Here is a taste:

You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?

Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.

Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?

Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.

Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.

Do you consideRace and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?

Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.

I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.

However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.

Read the rest the entire interview here.

 

James Comey and Reinhold Niebuhr

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A lot has been made of James Comey’s interest in the public theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.  We have written about it here and here and here and here.

Over at The Conversation, Penn State’s Christopher Beem continues to explore Niebuhr’s influence on Comey.  Here is a taste of his piece, “What Comey learned from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about ethical leadership“:

Of course, many will find all this beside the point. Many Republicans and Democrats are deeply angry with Comey.

For all their disagreements, both sides believe that while Comey paints himself as a person of moral rectitude, when confronted with extremely hard choices, he handled them badly, and our nation is still reeling from the effects.

For these Americans, Comey’s book not surprisingly conveys an air of sanctimony. But even if that’s true, it serves only to bring home a very Niebuhrian point: that while we humans strive to make the world a better place, and while we must, in Jesus’s words, look first for the mote in our own eye, we will not always succeed. We cannot always escape the worst parts of ourselves.

That decidedly Niebuhrian point is worth remembering. More to the point, at this particularly contentious moment in American political history, we, as Americans, can and should take from it this equally Niebuhrian reminder: that in this regard, Comey is not one jot different from any one of us.

Read the entire piece here.

Original Sin Liberalism

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Reinhold Niebuhr might be described as an “original sin liberal”

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes about it in relation to gun control at Commonweal:

Here is a taste:

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature is prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Read the entire piece here.  And yes, Dionne mentions Reinhold Niebuhr.

Reinhold Niebuhr on the Court Evangelicals

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Niebuhr died in 1971, but he certainly understood the court evangelical phenomenon.  In 1969, the 77-year-old theologian and cultural critic was appalled at the way religious leaders flocked to the court of Richard Nixon.  Billy Graham led the way.

Here is Niebuhr’s Christianity and Crisis piece “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court“:

The founding fathers ordained in the first article of the Bill of Rights that “Congress shall pass no laws respecting the establishment of religion or the suppression thereof.” This constitutional disestablishment of all churches embodied the wisdom of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson — the one from his experience with the Massachusetts theocracy and the other from his experience with the less dangerous Anglican establishment in Virginia — which knew that a combination of religious sanctity and political power represents a heady mixture for status quo conservatism.

What Jefferson defined, rather extravagantly, as “the absolute wall of separation between church and state” has been a creative but also dangerous characteristic of our national culture. It solved two problems: (1) it prevented the conservative bent of established religion from defending any status quo uncritically, and (2) it made our high degree of religious pluralism compatible with our national unity. By implication it encouraged the prophetic radical aspect of religious life, which insisted on criticizing any defective and unjust social order. It brought to bear a higher judgment, as did the prophet Amos, who spoke of the “judges” and “rulers of Israel” who “trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end (Amos 8:4).

As with most prophets, Amos was particularly critical of the comfortable classes. He warned: “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp “(Amos 6:4—5). It is significant that Amaziah, a court priest of Amos’s time also saw the contrast between critical and conforming types of religion. However, he preferred the conventional conforming faith for the king’s court and, as the king’s chaplain, he feared and abhorred Amos’s critical radicalism.

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jeroboam, King of Israel saying: “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to hear all his words. For thus Amos saith: Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land.’” Also Amaziah said unto Amos ‘ 0 thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there. But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel and it is the king’s court” (Amos 7:10—13).

We do not know the architectural proportions of Bethel. But we do know that it is, metaphorically, the description of the East Room of the White House, which President Nixon has turned into a kind of sanctuary. By a curious combination of innocence and guile, he has circumvented the Bill of Rights’ first article. Thus, he has established a conforming religion by semiofficially inviting representatives of all the disestablished religions, of whose moral criticism we were naturally so proud. Some bizarre aspects have developed from this new form of conformity in these weekly services. Most of this tamed religion seems even more extravagantly appreciative of official policy than any historic establishment feared by our Founding Fathers. A Jewish rabbi, forgetting Amos, declared: I hope it is not presumptuous for me. in the presence of the president of the United States, to pray that future historians, looking back on our generation may say that in a period of great trial and tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and opening the way for our country to realize the good that the century offered mankind.

It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers. The warnings of Amos are forgotten, and the chief current foreign policy problem of our day is bypassed. The apprehension of millions is evaded so that our ABM policy may escalate, rather than conciliate, the nuclear balance of terror.

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When we consider the difference between the Old World’s establishment of religion and our quiet unofficial establishment in the East Room, our great evangelist Billy Graham comes to mind. A domesticated and tailored leftover from the wild and woolly frontier evangelistic campaigns, Mr. Graham is a key figure in relating the established character of this ecumenical religion to the sectarian radicalism of our evangelical religion. The president and Mr. Graham have been intimate friends for two decades and have many convictions in common, not least of all the importance of religion.

Mr. Nixon told the press that he had established these services in order to further the cause of “religion,” with particular regard to the youth of the nation. He did not specify that there would have to be a particular quality in that religion if it were to help them. For they are disenchanted with a culture that neglects human problems while priding itself on its two achievements of technical efficiency and affluence. The younger generation is too realistic and idealistic to be taken in by barbarism, even on the technological level.

Naturally, Mr. Graham was the first preacher in this modern version of the king’s chapel and the king’s court. He quoted with approval the president’s inaugural sentiment that “all our problems are spiritual and must, therefore, have a spiritual solution.” But here rises the essential question about our newly tamed establishment. Is religion per se really a source of solution for any deeply spiritual problem? Indeed, our cold war with the Russians, with whom we wrestle on the edge of the abyss of a nuclear catastrophe, must be solved spiritually, but by what specific political methods? Will our antiballistic defense system escalate or conciliate the cold war and the nuclear dilemma?

The Nixon-Graham doctrine of the relation of religion to public morality and policy, as revealed in the White House services, has two defects: (1) It regards all religion as virtuous in guaranteeing public justice. It seems indifferent to the radical distinction between conventional religion — which throws the aura of sanctity on contemporary public policy, whether morally inferior or outrageously unjust — and radical religious protest — which subjects all historical reality (including economic, social and radical injustice) to the “word of the Lord,’ i.e., absolute standards of justice. It was this type of complacent conformity that the Founding Fathers feared and sought to eliminate in the First Amendment.

(2) 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.

If we consult Amos as our classical type of radical nonconformist religion, we find that he like his contemporary Isaiah, was critical of all religion that was not creative in seeking a just social policy. Their words provide a sharp contrast with the East Room’s current quasi-conformity. Thus Amos declared: I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21, 23—4).

Amos’ last phrase was a favorite text of the late Martin Luther King. He used it in his “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands at the March on Washington. It is unfortunate that he was murdered before he could be invited to that famous ecumenical congregation in the White House. But on second thought, the question arises: would he have been invited? Perhaps the FBI, which spied on him, had the same opinion of him as Amaziah had of Amos. Established religion, with or without legal sanction, is always chary of criticism, especially if it is relevant to public policy. Thus J. Edgar Hoover and Amaziah are seen as quaintly different versions of the same vocation — high priests in the cult of complacency and self-sufficiency.

Perhaps those who accept invitations to preach in the White House should reflect on this, for they stand in danger of joining the same company.

I learned about Niebuhr’s piece from Richard Fox’s excellent biography of Niebuhr.  Kevin Kruse also has a nice piece on Nixon’s church service here.

Is Teaching a Gift?

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I am reading Richard Wightman Fox’s excellent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.  During the 1920s, as a young man in his early thirties, Niebuhr was the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.  Fox describes his pulpit presence:

Niebuhr’s preaching was the chief magnet that drew people to Bethel.  By the early 1920s he was an accomplished pulpit performer, the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him lunge, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake.  He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward.  His whole lanky frame in motion.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote–sometime shouted, sometime whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood–demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.  Adelaide Buettner, who joined Bethel in 1924, remembers the dizzying experience of hearing Niebuhr for the first time.  She understood only part of what he said, and ran home to look up in her dictionary some of the words he had used.  Like the rest of the congregation she was firmly hooked by Niebuhr’s charisma; in the pulpit he was fired, inspired with the Word, yet thoroughly rational, “intellectual.”  To here and her young adult friends he was “a hero,” a “father figure,” although he was only in his thirties himself.

Niebuhr’s preaching was by no means just an act.  It was a well-crafted blend of drama and arrangement, a constant dialectic of comfort and challenge….

Niebuhr was a natural.  He had charisma.  His ability to communicate this way was a gift.  But if I read historian Erin Bartram correctly, his gift did not necessarily make him a good teacher.  (I don’t know what his classes were like at Union Theological Seminary.  I am still reading!).

In a very thoughtful piece at the Teaching United States History blog, Bartram reminds us that good teaching takes work–hard work.  It is not a gift.  I read this piece a few weeks ago, but it came back to mind today as I encountered Fox on Niebuhr.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Anyone regularly reading this site already knows how dangerous it is to think of good teaching as a gift. Often those recognized as having a gift for teaching are those who embody charisma in particular ways that our culture recognizes. They hold the attention of an audience, they have a recognizable scholarly pedigree, or they look like a Google Images search for “historian,” and so are afforded some measure of respect, attention, and even deference before they open their mouths.

All those who teach history know that it isn’t a gift, including those who are seen as naturals at it by their colleagues and students. But at this time of year, when evaluations have rolled in and we’re thinking ahead to next semester, it can be tough to remember that.

Student expectations, informed by these broader cultural ideas of what a teacher should be, often conflict with what we try to do in the classroom. We explain what we’re doing, and why, but when that doesn’t work with some students – or worse, with an entire class – we fear that it’s not the methods, it’s us. We just don’t have the gift, and there’s no fixing that.

But teaching isn’t a gift, and good pedagogy – including confronting, absorbing, and managing student expectations – is a set of skills we accumulate, experiment with, and refine. This coming semester, as I teach a historical methods class for the first time, I’m going to try to remember that my struggles don’t mean I’m lacking some gift, they just mean I’m facing a new challenge in my craft.

Just as I try to remember that my teaching is a skill, not a gift, I must also remember that my teaching is labor, not a gift.

Read the entire piece here.  This is definitely something that I tried to get through to my “Teaching History” class last Fall.

Identity-Politics “rips fault and guilt…from their Christian theological context”

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Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University joins the anti-identity politics chorus.  Here is a taste of his piece “The Identity-Politics Death Grip” at City Journal:

Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context, and instead conceives them in worldly terms alone: as a relationship between the source of fault and guilt (white male heterosexuals) and those (women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on) whose innocence is measured by their distance from that source. In this framework, there is one original sinner: white male heterosexuals—either alive or haunting us from the grave in the form of the Dead White Men studied in old Western civilization courses. Everyone else gets to sigh with relief; whatever their guilt may be, at least they are not that.

King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a rebalancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.

Identity politics is only quasi-Christian. It begins from the observation that there is worldly fault and debt. That, every Christian sees. But identity politics stops there, content that we need go no further than call out fault and debt and use political power—worldly power—to settle the score. I doubt that this quasi-Christian viewpoint, which refuses reconciliation, is a stable one. Without straining our imagination, we can discern that we are either going to return to some variant of King’s Christian account, in which fault and debt are overcome through repentance and forgiveness, or we are going to move to a truly post-Christian world in which we no longer care about fault and debt. In such a world, the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” will cease to have any meaning, and historical wounds—American slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German aggression in the first half of the twentieth century—will be met with the cruel words: “and we would do it again, for the world is nothing but force and fraud and the will to power.” That is the world that Nietzsche staked out in the late nineteenth century, in the hope that we would find the courage to move beyond Christian guilt. It is no small irony that today’s political Left, which owes more to Nietzsche than to Marx, has so badly understood him: the fault-and-debt points that identity politics tallies are precisely what Nietzsche wanted post-Christian man to repudiate. Our post-Christian Left, however, wants it both ways: it wishes to destroy Christianity by using the battering ram of (white male heterosexual) fault and debt.

Read the entire piece here.

It’s Official: Jim Comey is Tweeting Under the Name Reinhold Niebuhr

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We reported on this back in March.  It now looks to be confirmed.  Comey is tweeting.

From Slate:

James Comey has quietly been on Twitter since 2014, but since that time, the former FBI director had only tweeted once—and it was only after Gizmodo blew up his spot. Then last week, as though suddenly possessed, he started tweeting, posting five times in six days, a fairly rapid rate for someone whose previous output was a single Will Ferrell joke. Still using the name Reinhold Niebuhr, for the theologian he wrote his college thesis on (and still not bothering to change the default profile picture), Comey decided to allow us a peek into his post-FBI, country-spanning, decidedly Under the Tuscan Sun–like journey of self-reflection, which has taken him from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Iowa. Yes, Iowa—the very place you go to kick the tires of a presidential run. (Comey’s wife is from Iowa, but c’mon, we all have “relatives from Iowa.”) Whether Comey is trying to lay that particular groundwork or simply feels inspired to connect with regular Americans (who can one day buy his book, which is conveniently forthcoming) is anybody’s guess. For now, all we have to go on is the tweets themselves. Let’s review them, with the forensic attentiveness Comey would no doubt demand, one by one.

Read the rest here.

Comey Channels Reinhold Niebuhr

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James Comey and Reinhold Niebuhr (from The Episcopal Cafe)

We have done some posts this year on the James Comey-Reinhold Niebuhr connection. You can read them here and here and here.  I have followed Comey on Twitter @projectexile7, but his tweets are protected and he hasn’t accepted my follow request yet.  Stay tuned!

Comey is a big Neibuhr fan.  He wrote about Niebuhr in his senior thesis at The College of William and Mary. Frankly, I really wish I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with Comey.  I would love to talk with him about how and if Niebuhr’s still shapes his thinking about public life.

So was Niebuhr’s ghost present during Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee?  Yes.

1. Niebuhr valued humility.  It was clear to me that Comey does too.

When asked “do you want to say anything as to why we should believe you?”  Comey responded with this:

My mother raised me not to say things like this about myself so I’m not going to. I think people should look at the whole body of my testimony. As I used to say to juries, when I talked about a witness, you can’t cherry pick it.

2.  Niebuhr loved irony.  Though historian Julian Zelizer‘s tweet does not apply directly to Comey, it is still worth noting.

3.  Niebuhr was pessimistic about human nature.

When Mark Warner asked Comey what led him to take notes after his first meeting with Trump, Comey replied:

A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first — I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president.

The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president — the president-elect personally — and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.

4.  Niebuhr spoke truth to power.

Here is a taste of Comey’s opening remarks:

And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.

I only wish he would have been more Niebuhrian to Trump’s face during their meetings. But I guess that’s where the humility comes in.  Reinhold is smiling.

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.

More Reinhold Niebuhr

0354c-niebuhr2Over at Religion & Politics, Gene Zubovich, a post-doctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, has a nice piece on Washington D.C.’s love-affair with Reinhold Niebuhr.

Unfamiliar with Niebuhr?  We talk to documentary film-maker Martin Doblmeier in episode 19 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The recent release of Doblmeier’s An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story seems to have inspired Zubovich’s essay.

Here is a taste:

Niebuhr’s popularity began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s. Liberation theology overtook Niebuhr’s Christian realism in seminaries, while popular commentators became suspicious of endorsements of America’s military muscle at a moment when it was being flexed in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Millions of mainline Protestants stopped going to church while evangelicals cared little for Niebuhr’s liberal theology. Niebuhr was losing his audience.

By the 1980s, academics—who had never taken Niebuhr seriously—deconstructed the very foundations of Niebuhrian thought. Niebuhr spoke of the sinful nature of man. But academics showed that “human nature” was a fiction. The world is radically pluralistic. There is no singular, universal person but a variety of people divided by culture, nationality, and gender. And what seems natural to us is usually “constructed” through historical and political forces, often times for nefarious ends. Niebuhr’s ideas started to seem misguided at best.

It took the tragic events of September 11, 2001, to revive Niebuhr. Sin, irony, and tragedy had returned to the American vocabulary. Those fighting the war on terror—Obama the most famous among them—turned to Niebuhr. But Niebuhr’s revival begs the question: Why does a theologian who reached the height of his popularity in the atomic age speak clearly to so many in the age of terror?

Read the rest here.

More on James Comey and Reinhold Niebuhr

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FBI Director James Comey wrote his senior thesis at the College of William and Mary on Reinhold Niebuhr.  It is also likely that he is tweeting under Niebuhr’s name.  It is also interesting, as we learn from Martin Doblmeier in Episode 19 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, that the FBI had a very large file on Niebuhr.

Over at The New Yorker, Georgetown University scholar Paul Elie offers a few reasons for why Comey’s twitter name is “Reinhold Niebuhr.”

Here is a taste:

To see Niebuhr’s story with Comey in mind is to gain a deeper appreciation of the hard choices Comey has faced—and the perils of going it alone, as he has seemed to do at several points. In the final months of the 2016 Presidential campaign, Comey faced two moral dilemmas of profound import. In the first, as Newsweek has reported, by last July the agency held evidence that Russia sought to interfere in the election—and presumably to swing the result in favor of Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. Comey, seeing clear wrongdoing, was eager to take action. During a meeting in the White House Situation Room with top Administration officials, Comey proposed to set out the intelligence in an opinion piece for, say, the Times. “He had a draft of it or an outline. He held up a piece of paper . . .” a source told Newsweek, “and said, ‘I want to go forward. What do people think of this?’ ” The Administration rejected the idea, on the grounds that there should be a “coordinated message,” not a piece of journalism by a single official, and also possibly out of a disinclination to be seen as interfering in the campaign.

The second time, Comey took matters into his own hands. In late October, the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer—containing a large number of e-mail exchanges between Hillary Clinton and his wife, the Clinton aide Huma Abedin—was seized in an investigation into Weiner’s sexting involvement with a teen-age girl. Comey announced in a letter to Congress that an F.B.I. investigation into Clinton’s e-mails (one he had declared closed in July) was open again. For this, Comey himself was seen as interfering in the campaign. The two incidents together form an object lesson in the unanticipated consequences of human action. One set of intelligence was held back out of high-minded principle; the other set was put forward by questionable means—and Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, was elected President.

It may be of no great significance that a Twitter account likely associated with James Comey has Reinhold Niebuhr’s name affixed to it. And yet the Niebuhr connection serves as a reminder of the roots of public service—the compote of ideas, personality, influence, and moral virtue that prompts Comey and people like him to go into government work in the first place. Washington is a swamp: so say its critics, including the one in the White House. And yet thousands of talented people decide to pursue careers in government service, year after year, generation after generation. Sure, they do so for power and influence, the access and the spoils, and yet they do so, too, following the inspiration of people like Niebuhr, who made the hard truths of public life and the hard choices faced by people entrusted with positions of responsibility seem like life itself.

Read the entire piece here.

Is James Comey Tweeting as Reinhold Niebuhr?

COmey

Could this really be true? (Let’s also remember that we just dropped Episode 19 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  It focuses on Niebuhr.).

From The New York Daily News:

A Twitter account named after a prominent theologian has amassed a huge number of followers after a report suggested that it belongs to FBI Director James Comey.

The handle @Projectexile7, which goes by the name Reinhold Niebuhr, is “almost certainly” the secret account that Comey recently referenced, according to Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg.

Feinberg stops short of saying that the account, which had only a handful of followers before she published her story Thursday afternoon, definitely belongs to the FBI head.

Despite a lack of verification about @Projectexile7’s origin, the account had become a phenomenon of its own, with more than 5,000 followers about an hour after the possible Comey connection was alleged.

Though it has not been proven to be anything other than a random barely active account on Twitter, it was soon deluged with comments joking about his supposed uncovering or wishing him luck in investigations.

Its follower count had ballooned to more than 8,000 by Thursday evening, when it issued what seemed to be a response to the report.

“Actually I’m not even mad. That’s amazing,” Reinhold Neibuhr posted with a picture of the movie “Anchorman” and a link to the FBI jobs website….

Evidence presented by Feinberg includes the fact that Reinhold Niebuhr, the famed Union Theological Seminary professor, was the reported subject of Comey’s senior thesis at the College of William and Mary.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Delivered for Evangelicals

gorsuchHere is what I wrote in a Religion News Service piece back in August:

(RNS) The most important day of Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency was May 18, 2016.

On that day, the soon-to-be GOP nominee released the names of 11 judges he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court. The list was put together with input from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank known for defending traditional marriage, opposing abortion and fighting for the right of religious institutions to follow their conscience on these matters (and others) without government interference.

By suggesting that he would appoint conservative justices, and actually naming their names, Trump made huge inroads among evangelical voters. This is because many of Trump’s evangelical supporters are still using the 40-year-old political playbook written by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other founders of the so-called Christian right.

Trump’s promise to promote a conservative justice probably won him the presidency.  And now he is keeping his promise to the 81% of evangelical voters who pulled the level for him last November.

I don’t know much about Neil Gorsuch, but he looks like a solid pick.  Liberals are not going to like him, but let’s face it–they lost the election.   Gorsuch is the kind of choice that any conservative POTUS would have chosen.

Right now the liberal press is making it sound like Gorsuch is some kind of extreme conservative pick unlike anything they have ever seen before.  Not true.  Gorsuch is really no different than Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito, Antonin Scalia, and John Roberts.  It is telling that Trump picked someone who respects the institution of the Supreme Court and did not go with a more extreme pro-life crusader like William Pryor Jr.

It will be interesting to see how the Democrats respond, especially since Mitch McConnell’s decision to block Merrick Garland is still fresh in their minds.  I lost nearly all respect for McConnell and the GOP when they threw the Constitution out the window and refused to give Garland a hearing.  I wrote about it last March in a piece at Fox News. Frankly, McConnell turns my stomach every time I see him on television.  I never want to hear him and his GOP cronies talk again about their reverence for the Constitution.  In fact, as I type this I am watching conservative commentary Sean Hannity on Fox News.  He keeps praising Gorsuch as a “constitutionalist” and talking about his own love of the Constitution.  I assume that a “constitutionalist” follows the Constitution.  Hannity and his friends in the Senate did not do this with the Garland nomination.

So what will the Senate Democrats do with Gorsuch?  Will they play the “eye for an eye” card.  Probably.

Will they practice what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “spiritual resistance against resentment?”  I doubt it.   This is about revenge.  The political sphere is a dark, hateful, and angry place.

The Democrats will try to block the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.  It will be a long shot, but they will try.  It is going to be very ugly.  If they do manage to succeed, Donald Trump will simply appoint another nominee that they will not like and the circus will begin again.

When will it end?  When will our national open wound start to heal?  Not anytime soon.

Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

dickinson_college_18_college_classroom

Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.

The Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment

moral-manThis is what I am thinking about today.

From Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p.248-249:

“One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it.  Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolise.  If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation.  William Lloyd Garrison solidified the south in support of slavery by the vehemence of his attacks against slave-owners.  Many of them were, with the terms of their inherited prejudices and traditions, good men; and the violence of Mr. Garrison’s attack upon them was felt by many to be an evidence of moral perversity in him.  Mr. Gandhi never tires of making a distinction between individual Englishmen and the system of imperialism which they maintain. “An Englishman in office,” he declares, “is different from an Englishman outside.  Similarly an Englishman in India is different from an Englishman in England.  Here in India you belong to a system that is vile beyond description.  It is possible, therefore, for me to condemn the system in the strongest terms, without considering you to be bad and without imputing bad motives to every Englishman.”  It is impossible completely to disassociate an evil social system from the personal moral responsibilities of the individuals who maintain it. An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt.  But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so.  Any benefit of the doubt which he is able to give his opponent is certain to reduce animosities and preserve rational objectivity in assessing the issues under dispute.”

Tippett, Brooks, and Dionne Discuss Religion and Politics

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Check  out On Being host Krista Tippett’s interview with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne about the role of religion in American political life.  The event was hosted by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Tippett: OK, let’s talk about sin. This is a word you have both used. I find it remarkable. So let’s go there. David, you’ve been talking about, as you quote Saint Augustine around the country, Saint Augustine’s notion of “disordered loves.” That’s a definition of sin, and also—but how that is also a way to diagnose us and the political state of our soul.

Brooks: Yes, somebody—it might have been C.S. Lewis said, “Sin—” or maybe Chesterton—“Original sin is the only concept with scientifically variable proof.” That we are…

Tippett: I think Niebuhr said…

Dionne: I’d attribute it to Niebuhr, and he got it from somebody else.

Tippett: Well, didn’t Niebuhr say, “You just have to read today’s newspaper to know there’s something to it?”

Brooks: Yeah, or look in the mirror.

Dionne: “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church.” Yeah, it’s one of my favorite lines.

Brooks: And so the question is—and for me, the challenge was how to express it in a secular audience. I’m a secular writer. I don’t write for religious audiences. I write for The New York Times. How secular can you get? My joke—I can’t help inserting my joke of being a conservative columnist at The New York Times is like being Chief Rabbi at Mecca.

[laughter]

Brooks: Not totally fair, but it’s a joke. So I wrote this book, and Augustine was central to it, and I think the awareness of sin is central to Niebuhr—that we are more sinful than we think even when we think we’re taking the purest action, and we have to be aware of that sinfulness. But how do you talk about sin in modern America? And I had gone on the Charlie Rose show, my closest encounter to heaven until recently—no, I’m kidding—and I had talked about my book before it came out, and I had talked about the word “sin.”

And I got an email from an editor in New York at a different publishing house, and he said, “I love the way you were talking about your book, but I didn’t like the way you used that word ‘sin.’ It’s a downer. Use the word ‘insensitive’ instead.” And so I forwarded his email to my editor at Random House—it was sort of a test of him—and he said, “Well, that’s why you’re writing the book, to redeem sin.” But then how do you talk about it?

You really can’t talk about “original sin.” People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of “disordered loves,” which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them.

Tippett: Right, right. Or it’s a downer. And E.J., you wrote this: “I believe a serious embrace of Christianity inevitably leads one into politics, since sin is social as well as individual.”

Dionne: It’s been one of the classic arguments between more progressive and more conservative Christians about where is the emphasis on social sin versus individual sin? And one area, for example, where that often comes out is in our discussion of family life. Because, on the one hand, if you care about family values, you’ve got to care about social justice. Because one of the reasons the family is under such pressure is the way in which the economy is a battering ram at times against the family, particularly among folks who have lost jobs that once supported families.

So you cannot look at family breakup without looking at the economic factors. On the other hand—and this is really the theme of Bob Putnam’s Our Kids—we also know that, as a practical matter, most of the time, two parents are better than one, and that kids who grow up in sort of stable, intact families are likely to do better. Conservatives want to talk about one-half of that truth. Progressives want to focus on the other half of that truth. And yet, they are really part of one truth that we need to discuss.

Read a transcript of the entire conversation here.