Applying Niebuhr’s ideas tough chore for academics

March 2, 2011

What happens when the contested legacy of America's most famous
20th-century theologian meets the harsh political realities of the 21st?
You end up with questions like whether Reinhold Niebuhr would support
waterboarding.

It's impossible to know what Niebuhr—arguably the
preeminent public intellectual and U.S. theologian from the 1940s to the
1960s—would have said about the practice of torture by the U.S. in
post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan.

But such questions are hardly a surprise at a time when everyone from President Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to New York Times col­umnist David Brooks sees themselves as Niebuhr's acolytes.

Nor
are they a surprise when academics come together, as they did recently
at Princeton University, and debate the long-term legacy of a figure
claimed by both the political left and right, by religious and
nonreligious alike.

A man who died in 1971 but has been heralded
in recent years as "the man of the hour" deserves his praise, speakers
agreed, but also has his limits.

Shaun Casey, who advised Obama on
religious outreach during the 2008 campaign, believes that the
pragmatic Niebuhr who's become so popular since 9/11 is often viewed as a
straightforward disciple of realpolitik rather than a Christian
theologian who wrestled with questions of transcendence.

The
richness of Niebuhr's worldview—one that acknowledges the tragedy and
limits of humanity while embracing a call for social justice—has been
lost in the contemporary world, said Casey, who is writing a book on
those he calls "Niebuhr's children."

"Today, you're either Glenn
Beck or Dennis Kucinich," said Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological
Seminary who spoke February 24 at the Princeton event.

Gary
Dorrien, who teaches at New York's Union Theological Seminary, where
Niebuhr held court for more than three decades, said the problem in
interpreting Niebuhr is that he "seemed to revel in dispiriting
proclamations, such as, 'The possibilities of evil grow with the
possibilities of good.'"

What is often overlooked, Dorrien said,
is that Niebuhr was "a passionate type who took his own Christ-following
passion for justice for granted. For him, the love ethic was always the
point, the motive and the end."

Niebuhr's contributions to modern
Chris­tian thought include a sense of "irony and paradox," Dorrien
said, as well as a well-honed sense of the "complex ambiguities inherent
in all human choices."

The trouble with Niebuhr's famed
"Christian realism," however, is that "it dropped the ball on economic
justice after World War II. It left progressive Christianity without
enough to say or do in its own language, in its own way and for its own
reasons," Dorrien said.

Given Obama's own professed em­brace of
Niebuhr, it was inevitable that the president's record would be viewed
through several Niebuhrian lenses.

Though Princeton scholar
Jeffrey Stout couldn't attend the conference, his paper delivered at the
event was sharply critical of Obama and the president's embrace of the
politically pragmatic Niebuhr. Stout said Obama "isn't a principled
opponent of anything.

"The current president came to national
attention as a candidate enunciating principles of justice for the
conduct of warfare, statecraft, the domestic economy and political
change," Stout said in his paper. "As soon as he described himself to an
interviewer as a Niebuhrian, we should have known that the principles
were nothing more than mushy sentiments to be thrown overboard at the
first sign of rough weather."

Stout later added that he has
studied Niebuhr and voted for Obama, but it's more complex than that.
"It's time to start thinking seriously," he said, "about what they leave
out."

Cornel West, an African-American religious philosopher who
teaches at Princeton, reveres Niebuhr but acknowledged the many ways
that Nie­buhr's thought has been used to undergird political and
religious conformity.

West, who has been critical of Obama on a
number of issues, said Stout was "expressing something that's being felt
more and more. He's on to something." But West said while he has been
disappointed in Obama, "I also know what he's up against. I want to
protect him, respect him and correct him."  —RNS