James Comey read a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr. Did he learn anything?
For a Niebuhrian, the former FBI director doesn't seem to have much self-doubt.
James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty reflects the former FBI director’s intense engagement with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and only by following Comey’s efforts to be a Niebuhrian can we fully understand the book and begin to untangle some of the enigmas in Comey’s behavior.
Comey’s well-documented preoccupation with Niebuhr began in college, where he first read Niebuhr and wrote a senior thesis on how Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell portrayed the Christian’s role in politics. The Catholic-turned-Methodist has idolized Niebuhr ever since, even using Niebuhr’s name on Twitter and Instagram accounts. He was drawn to Niebuhr, perhaps, because of his anxieties about death and the experience of being bullied.
Comey poignantly discusses how being bullied in high school led him to bully a fellow undergraduate. His account echoes Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), with its stress on the amoral behavior of groups as compared with individuals. “I surrendered to the loud laughter and the camaraderie of the group,” Comey writes, “and maybe to a feeling of relief that I wasn’t the target.”