Tippett, Brooks, and Dionne Discuss Religion and Politics


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.


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.

More on the Obama-Niebuhr Connection

LOAOne of these reasons that New York Times columnist David Brooks likes Barack Obama so much (despite the fact that he disagrees with him more than he agrees with him) is because both he and Obama are fans of the mid-twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Edmund Santurri, a professor of religion and philosophy at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, is also Niebuhr fan.  Over at the blog of the Library of America, Santurri talks about his St. Olaf course on Niebuhr, “Obama’s Theologian.”

Here is a taste:

For me the principal attraction of Niebuhr’s work is its anthropological vision. That vision is traditionally Pauline or Augustinian in casting the world as fallen, but it’s also one that Niebuhr imaginatively rearticulated in trenchant observations of signature twentieth-century political events. According to Niebuhr, human beings generally are confronted with two persistent temptations: (1) the temptation to overreach, to ignore human limits, to indulge in Messianic delusions—what Niebuhr calls the sin of pride, and (2) the temptation to underachieve, to surrender prematurely, to evade responsibility for action in the world—what Niebuhr calls the sin of sensuality.

Read the rest of this post here.

History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki‘s excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:


Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates’s Atlantic piece, “Hope and the Historians.”  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.

Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki’s essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.

A couple thoughts/questions:

1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He “worries” that Coates’s narrative will inevitably lead to an “approach to politics” that “falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.

2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to “imagination” and “hope?”  Again, here is Wirzbicki, “I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”

OK–I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki’s provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.

Ross Douthat and Mark Silk: Differing Opinions on Obama at the Prayer Breakfast, Niebuhr, and Eisenhower

I am in self-imposed exile today–working on my American Bible Society book.  But this whole Obama Prayer Breakfast stuff (see my original piece here) keeps drawing me away from my writing and back to the blog.

Did you see Ross Douthat’s column in Sunday’s New York Times

I like some it.  He acknowledges, for example, that Obama’s “disenchanted view of America’s role in the world contains more wisdom than his Republican critics acknowledge.”

I also think Douthat is correct when he suggests that history is complex:

The first problem is that presidents are not historians or theologians, and in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam … and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. To be persuasive, a reckoning with history’s complexities has to actually reckon with them, and a tossed-off Godfrey of Bouillon reference just pits a new straw man against the one you think you’re knocking down.

But after his short lesson in complexity, Douthat ignores it in his remarks about Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address:

Here a counterexample is useful: The most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history was probably Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against the dangers of “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.

I think Douthat is probably correct about Obama’s over-simplification of the Islam-Crusades comparison.  (Interesting, everyone is talking about the Crusades–what about Obama’s slavery analogy?)  And I don’t blame Douthat for failing to nuance the Eisenhower material.  As a someone who often writes in short spaces, I realize that the complexity of history rarely conforms to the genres in which it is presented in a digital age. That is why books are still important to the advancement of good history in the world. 

Keeping in mind all of these limitations, I now give you a taste of Mark Silk’s response to Douthat’s op-ed.  Silk is a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and he blogs at Religion News Service:

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great political theologian of the last century, liked to warn against the failure to see the mote in our own eye — urging that, as Douthat puts it, “Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection.” Obama, however, was not really being self-critical when he called attention to Christianity’s less admirable past.
Which leads Douthat to contrast Obama’s remarks unfavorably with what he claims was “probably” the most Niebuhrian presidential speech in modern American history — Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, which famously warned against “the military-industrial complex” and “a scientific-technological elite.” Writes Douthat, “It was powerful precisely because Eisenhower was criticizing his own party’s perennial temptations, acknowledging some of his own policies’ potential downsides (he had just created NASA and Darpa) and drawing on moral authority forged by his own military career.”
That’s got it exactly wrong. Through the 1960s, the Republican Party’s perennial temptation was not war-making but its opposite. The party’s Whig progenitor opposed the Mexican War of the 1840s, and isolationism had its home in the GOP through the first half of the 20th century. In the just completed presidential campaign, JFK had been the hawk, attacking the Eisenhower Administration for allowing a (bogus) “missile gap” to develop between the U.S. and Soviet Russia and generally spending too little on defense.
Three days after Eisenhower’s farewell, Kennedy famously declared in his inaugural address,”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Less famously, he went on to say, “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
Talk about making the case for the military-industrial complex! Contra Douthat, Eisenhower was not being self-critical in his farewell address but warning against the incoming Democrats.
Read Silk’s entire piece here.  I am not an Eisenhower scholar, but I always understood Eisenhower’s speech to be more dove than it was hawk.

The Niebuhr Brothers and Syria

H. Richard Niebuhr

Diana Butler Bass has a very interesting piece at the Huffington Post on how the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, might have responded to the crisis in Syria if they were alive today.  You may recall that Barack Obama is on record saying that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers.

Here is a taste of Bass’s piece:

Reinhold Niebuhr, whose career spanned the mid-twentieth century, was an influential theologian when public theology mattered to a largely Protestant church-going population. Niebuhr taught at New York’s Union Theological Seminary and articulated a theological and political position known as Christian Realism. In 1932, his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, argued that when collective powers (such as a tyrannical state) harm the weak, then other states (especially states indebted to Christian religion) can or must use force to combat them. 

When it comes to Syria, President Obama seems to be channeling Reinhold Niebuhr as he presses for U.S. military action to punish the atrocity of a nation gassing its own citizens. Syrian violence must be met with forceful coercion from moral nations, and America must use its military power toward the ethical goal of eliminating chemical weapons. This echoes Niebuhr’s assertion, “As long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.” Thus, violence is justified to end violence.

If President Obama had fully followed Reinhold Niebuhr, the strike would have surely commenced by now. However, something odd happened on the way to retaliation — a pause. To talk, argue, reflect, and vote? Our politics-obsessed culture depicts this as waffling or weakness or presidential second thoughts based on bad polling numbers.

But what if something else is at work?

There was another Niebuhr, Reinhold’s younger brother H. Richard, who taught at Yale. In 1932, the year Moral Man was published, the two brothers held a debate in the pages of the Christian Century on an important political question of the day — whether or not the United States should intervene on behalf of China in light of atrocities inflicted on them by a Japanese invasion. 

The elder Niebuhr argued to “dissuade Japan from her military venture” by whatever means necessary. Contra his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that doing nothing was the way toward peace. H. Richard outlined a theology of moral “inactivity.” Against the rush of events, an ethical nation must reflect upon the causes of the problem, form potential courses of action, and discern self-interest in the conflict — all within a framework of God’s intentions in history. This constructive inactivity is the moral opposite of immediate reaction, a response akin to what H. Richard compared to an angry parent who corrects bad behavior with a “verbal, physical, or economic spanking.” Unlike his brother, H. Richard thought that violence could not be reconciled with any sort of meaningful faith or “radical trust” in God.

Andrew Bacevich Defines Conservativism

After blasting the type of conservatism found on the pages of The National Review and The Weekly Standard, Andrew Bacevich, writing in The American Conservative, offers a conservative alternative.  He calls it “Counterculture Conservatism.”  Here are some its characteristics:

  • Counterculture conservatism is NOT the “conservatism” of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, Ron Paul, Robert Murdoch, Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, or Grover Norquist.
  • Counterculture conservatism IS the “conservatism” of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Lasch, Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, William Appleman Williams, and Frank Capra.
  • Counterculture conservatism protects things of lasting value.  It discriminates “between what is permanent and what is transient.”
  • Counterculture conservatism is skeptical of utopianism.
  • Counterculture conservatism celebrates community and “little platoons” (Burke) over individualism, appetite, and ambition.
  • Counterculture conservatism upholds a belief in Original Sin.
  • Counterculture conservatism favors the “local” over the “distance.”
  • Counterculture conservatism is patriotic, but does not “confuse country with state.”  America is not the military.
  • Counterculture conservatism favors change through “incremental” and “thoughtful” action.
  • Counterculture conservatism knows that it will be virtually impossible to dismantle the welfare state, outlaw abortion and gay marriage, and stop the “sexual revolution.”
  • Counterculture conservatism subordinates economic growth to the well-being of “planet Earth.”  (Bacevich: “conservatives should make common cause with tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals”).  Sounds a lot like Rod Dreher here.
  • Counterculture conservatism opposes “the excesses of American militarism and the futility of neo-imperialistic impulses.” No neo-conservatism here.
  • Counterculture conservatism preaches fiscal responsibility
  • Counterculture conservatism believes children should be raised by traditional families.
  • Counterculture conservatism defends the health of churches and religious freedom

There is a lot here that I can embrace, if not champion.  Does that mean I am a conservative?

Jackson Lears on the "Uses & Abuses of Reinhold Niebuhr"

Yesterday I received a review copy of John Patrick Diggins’s last book, Why Niebuhr Now.  Here is a taste of the blurb on the cover jacket:

Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.

Why Niebuhr Now? acclaimed historian John Patrick Diggins tackles the complicated question of why, at a time of great uncertainty about America’s proper role in the world, leading politicians and thinkers are turning to Niebuhr for answers. Diggins begins by clearly and carefully working through Niebuhr’s theology, which focuses less on God’s presence than his absence—and the ways that absence abets the all-too-human sin of pride. He then shows how that theology informed Niebuhr’s worldview, leading him to be at the same time a strong opponent of fascism and communism and a leading advocate for humility and caution in foreign policy.

Turning to the present, Diggins highlights what he argues is a misuse of Niebuhr’s legacy on both the right and the left: while neoconservatives distort Niebuhr’s arguments to support their call for an endless war on terror in the name of stopping evil, many liberal interventionists conveniently ignore Niebuhr’s fundamental doubts about power. Ultimately, Niebuhr’s greatest lesson is that, while it is our duty to struggle for good, we must at the same time be wary of hubris, remembering the limits of our understanding.
I am looking forward to reading this book.  Stay tuned.  But in the meantime,  I want to call your attention to Jackson Lears’s recent Commonweal review article entitled “American Oracle: The Uses & Abuses of Reinhold Niebuhr.”

I have posted a small snippet below, but if you are Niebuhr fan you should definitely read the entire review.

Niebuhr’s religious sensibility, rather than his policy views, remains his most enduring legacy. He challenged the cheery song of the self at the core of the American creed. From Aristotle to Jonathan Edwards, Diggins observes, the self had been “a battleground of reason and passion left bloody with unsatisfied cravings.” But from the early nineteenth century on (beginning, perhaps, with Emerson), the self became “less a riddle and more a resource.” As Diggins writes, the developing lexicon of self—self-reliance, self-determination, self-esteem, etc.—assumed “that freedom depends on the strengths of the self. These are the very tendencies Niebuhr identified with sin”—above all the sin of pride. Rejecting the pragmatist notion of an empty “social self,” shaped by interaction with other people and institutions, Niebuhr continued to insist that an inner self torn by warring impulses was the source of civilization and its discontents.

Conor Williams on Obama’s Tucson Speech

Yesterday I made the brief argument that Obama’s Tucson speech echoed many of the ideas of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Today I read Conor Williams’s take on it. He nails it.

Williams is on the mark when he says: “But the magnitude of the national crisis involved isn’t what matters in evaluating Obama’s speech.  What matters is the depth of the wisdom behind it.  What matters is the understanding of humans that this speech implies.”

Williams continues:

Taking the podium in front of thousands (but really, millions) of scared, confused citizens, the President made a case for a deeply theological understanding of human beings. Start with sin. Obama repeatedly stressed that crises like the Arizona shooting are inexorable proof of the presence of evil in the world. For many of us—and perhaps progressives are particularly susceptible to this disease—we too-easily imagine that with one more legal or institutional tweak, we might solve many of our political problems for good. Americans are a can-do people (a truism, I know) which leads us to think of politics the way that we think of vaccines: with a change in strategy, we might end racism just like we ended smallpox. The President refused to indulge the audience in these sorts of illusions. This is not our final national tragedy. We will hurt and be hurt again.

But there is actually something reassuring about this, about recognizing that evil and tragedy are always with us, and are always part of us. Humans are proud, they are destructive, they are suffering creatures. Admitting this only leads to despair if we imagine that evil can be excised from life—that sin can be overcome and eliminated from human life. If we accept that evil is always with us, any happiness we achieve will be that much more secure. (As a sidebar, it’s worth noting that this message has long been a consistent thread in Obama’s public rhetoric.)

And more:

If this sounds deeply Christian, that’s because it is. When Obama listed Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher, that was an honest and revealing choice. Last night, Obama took it upon himself to remind us of the beauty and possibility of our condition. 

Tea Parties, Reinhold Niebuhr, Barack Obama, and Gordon Wood

This week’s edition of the History News Network has several good articles that might be of interested to our readers.

Jim Sleeper’s article ,”How the Modern Day Tea Partiers Missed the Message of 1773,” reminds us that the Boston Tea Party was not as much a the colonial protest against the Tea Act as it was a protest against England’s decision to give only a few merchants the right to sell East India tea, thus creating a monopoly.

Bryan DuBose Peery, in “Obama Niebuhr, and Partisanship,” defends Obama against the charge, recently put forward by John Danforth, that he does not exemplify Niebuhrian humility.

Jill O’Neill interviews Gordon Wood. When asked what he wanted his students to understand about history, Wood answered: “History is the Queen of the humanities. It teaches wisdom and humility, and it tells us how things change over time. A novel such as The Leopard can do that too, but history is the ultimate humanist discipline.”

Is First Things Reponsible for the Obama Doctrine?

Reinhold Niebuhr influenced Wilfred McClay who wrote an essay in First Things that influenced David Brooks who urged Barack Obama to run for president and embrace a view of foreign policy that might be called “Christian Realism” or the “Obama Doctrine

Or so goes the conspiracy theory suggested by First Things blogger Joe Carter. (An alternative theory is offered by former First Things editor James Nuechterlein).

What would Neuhaus think? (He would probably love it!).

Is There are a Barack Obama-David Brooks Bromance?

“A bromance or ‘man-crush’ is a close but non-sexual relationship between two men, a form of homosocial intimacy. “–Wikipedia

Check out Gabriel Sherman’s essay “The Courtship: The Story Behind the Obama-Brooks Bromance” on The New Republic website. Brooks is a conservative columnist that even liberals can love. Though he is often critical of the Obama administration, he seems to have fallen head-over-heels for a president who can go toe to toe with him on the intricacies of political philosophy.

Sherman does not mention this in his article, but you may remember that Brooks was the first reporter to call attention to Obama’s fascination with Reinhold Niebuhr. (Brooks and E.J. Dionne recently discussed Obama and Niebuhr with Krista Tippett, the host of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith.”). Though Niebuhr would not have recognized the term “bromance,” he was clearly the cupid who brought the columnist and the president together.

Brooks’s Obama-love is not lost on the president or his staff. As Sherman points out, a pro-administration column from Brooks provides proof that Obama is “fundamentally post-partisan.” David Axelrod even comes to meetings with Brooks carrying a copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Meanwhile Brooks has said: “I used to think conservatives were right about the big things–the Soviet Union, economic growth…Now, on a lot of issues, I think liberals have been right about some big things, like rising inequality….”

Three cheers for the independent thinking of conservative David Brooks.