Complete transcript of Interview with Elisabeth Sifton
Interview date: December 7, 2004
LISTEN to the conversation.
Tippett: Would you describe your father to me as a human being, as a father, and as a person; how he looked, how he sounded, what it was like to grow up with him.
Ms. Elisabeth Sifton: My father was very much a German-American from the Middle West. That's what he sounded like, and that's what he looked like. He was a big, tall bald man he went bald quite early in his adulthood very strong, very energetic, decisive looking, and decisive sounding. He had the coloring and the build of what he was by inheritance, that is to say, a sort of a German farmer. Like many people in the lower Middle West he had a slightly southern sound to his voice, which comes from Missouri and southern Illinois I think. He was very lively. He was also this I want to stress because it was a characteristic not just of him, but of his whole family, his siblings, his mother, everybody in the Niebuhr family I felt he was an immensely courteous and modest person also. Therefore I find it difficult to answer the question you've just asked me. When I was young and growing up and he was quite famous, people would assume that a famous person like that has a big aura. When he walks into the room he's a big shot and so on. My father never had that aura, never behaved that way. In his social manner he was completely egalitarian, friendly and straightforward to whomever he was speaking and had no attitude no big shot attitude. I stress this because all of his students felt this and all of his friends felt it.
Tippett: When you read that his students called him "Reinie," that is somehow surprising given what he wrote and the stature he had. Maybe you're explaining that a bit.
Sifton: Yes, I'm trying to. The town and the Niebuhr household when I was growing up was extremely high-spirited and lively. This was also a contribution of my mother who was completely different, she was very, very English, very correct and elegant in her manner, not at all easygoing. She frowned always when my father started slopping the soup fast at the beginning of the meal before everybody else had started. So there were differences of style and tone, also theological. We can get to that. But the tone was always very high-spirited and lively and friendly. That's the positive way of putting it. The slightly more negative way of putting it is that my father was also driving himself incredibly hard, working too hard and too fast, doing too much, writing too many books, preaching too many sermons, giving too many lectures. When I was only 13 he suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes that eventually killed him. After his strokes everything changed a lot because he was then housebound.
Tippett: For you, from your perspective also as his child.
Sifton: Yes, but hugely from his. In 1952 things changed. But what I have tried to describe to you is the pre-illness Niebuhrian tone, which I remember was extremely amiable.
Tippett: It's striking, especially I think reading Richard Fox's Biography. It's breathless the pace at which he worked and all the things he did. And then he married your mother quite late. It doesn't sound like he even made room for a private life.
Sifton: That's exactly the way it seems. He was working incredibly hard. On the other hand, when he did marry, it was unusually late in that epoch but not so much now I think. He was almost 40 when he got married and she was only 23, but it was a great love match. They adored each other and did to the end of their days. They were very, very happy together. Two more different people you cannot imagine, except intellectually perhaps they were congruent. But they were tremendously happy together and had a wonderful life together.
Tippett: Was it a difficult balancing act for him having lived at that pace? It seems like he to some extent kept it up after he was married and had children. How did he juggle the fact that he was a sort of prophet, and was so driven and had that incredible energy and so many invitations, and yet also had a wife whom he loved and children? Was that uncomfortable or hard?
Sifton: I think it was. The traditions of family behavior from which he came and from which my mother came were standard in that time and are no longer standard would be that you wouldn't talk about these difficulties, or only very privately either to friends or to one another. I don't remember discussions about the difficulties. I never remember my parents fighting about it or arguing about it. I don't remember my mother saying "I wish you'd spend more time with us" or anything like that. She also was very busy, A, in helping him and, B, in her own teaching career. I don't think he changed much. He just kept on going. I think his model was his own pastor father, who in his own different world worked very hard on behalf of his parish and his church, but also had four children, and a wife and looked after the family. I don't believe he found it difficult to make the balances. I don't think he thought about it very much. I mean that to be slightly critical I think he could have thought about it a bit more than he did, because he wasn't around very much, and it was kind of whirl-windy. I once said to him after he was sick and when he had been in the house, and he was also very depressed then as many people who've had a stroke are. It's a physiological kind of depression. I told him cheerfully that I thought he was a better father then than he had been in the past. He was sort of appalled. But it was true.
Tippett: I read the essay that Robert McAfee Brown put as the epilogue of his "Selected: The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr" (sic), "A View of Life From the Sidelines," that was never published in your father's lifetime, in which he really does reflect on exactly that I thought with incredible humility.
Sifton: Yes, I'm very touched by that essay. But as I did the research for my own book about his most active life in the 20's, 30's and 40's and 50's, especially the 1930's, I was struck by that tone of humility that comes through even in the big public work and in the prayers he wrote in the 30's and 40's. It strikes a kind of constant bell-like tone through all of his work. But certainly toward the end, and in that essay, he spoke to his friends and wrote in that essay about his recognition that you strive and strive to do what you think may be the right and the best thing, but of course you cannot be the judge of this. You may have directed your efforts in the wrong direction. But the spiritual humility I think was genuine. This is the quality I think so many people remember about him the most in a way, that the extremely strong critique of American behavior, policy, of American churches is accompanied by real humility and not with strident holier than though tones.
Tippett: That's actually the contrast I wanted to draw, because most people who are reading him now obviously did not experience him personally. There is a great deal of critique. I'll use that word "prophetic". He was standing up and saying what he felt was wrong and formulating alternatives. It's interesting that what you're stressing still is this quality of humility, which also makes sense in terms of the authority he had, that he did attain.
Sifton: It also makes sense, as it were, theologically. The whole point, he would say over and over again, of the absolutely pure instructions concerning love and justice which were annunciated in the New Testament are absolutely bound up with the absolute requirement of humility and penitence as you strive for goodness; striving which will always, always fall short. It made theological sense for him to say if you mount a critique of social behavior or conduct or public policy or ecclesiastical behavior, you can have all the righteous indignation you wish, but you must never forget the final injunctions of humility.
Tippett: You say at one point in your book that politics and liberal theology were inevitable the mealtime topics at the Niebuhr dinner table. Give me some memories. What would happen at dinnertime?
Sifton: Oh my goodness, that could be anything and everything. Because we lived in New York City and Union Seminary was a very, very lively and liberal theological school, and because I'm thinking now of the 1940's and 50's there were many, many visitors and many of them were ?igr? or refugees from war-torn Europe. So there was a constant influx of people coming and going. In addition to that there was my father's very active political life, which drew him into work in establishing, which was new then, the Liberal party of New York City. He was extremely active in the foundation of Americans for Democratic Action, which was founded in 1947 on the basis of an earlier war-time organization called Union for Democratic Action. Visitors and friends who would come to New York for these meetings would often be at the table. But even if they weren't, we would be gossiping and talking about what so and so had just said about such and such. The politics I'm now thinking the late 1940's would be about the efforts to persuade the Democratic party that it was time to adopt a civil rights platform, that it was time to get Congress to pass the Fair Employment Practices Act. In other words it was talk about specific legislative or policy plans, which progressives in America wished to see enacted. There would be that kind of gossip. And then there would be theological gossip or church gossip. That would have to do, as it does in any family. "Did you hear what so and so said when he gave a talk last night about such and such? Wasn't that absurd?" That kind of thing. I don't want to make it sound fancy. It was what I think any family does. They talk about what they've just heard or just seen. But in my family, what we had just heard and seen that mattered most were these political or theological issues.
Tippett: The people, the particular actors who were among your family friends would lend themselves to big discussions.
Sifton: Everybody was opinionated. I don't remember shy people prevailing at the Niebuhr dinner table. One of the most interesting and important friends my parents made in the 1940's, who certainly participated in all this talk when he was there, and that was often, was an unusual friend and the one I cherish the memory of most. That was W. H. Auden, the great poet. He was a wonderful talker and he loved talking about everything. Auden would come often to our house as a single man with no family. I think he enjoyed the family ruckus of the Niebuhr household. He always had a lot to say or report or ask about. He would argue or ask questions of my father about some sermon Pa had just preached, or he would have recently seen Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker offices and he would talk to him about that. Or he would discuss the theological issues he was attempting to solve, attempting to grapple with in a lecture that he himself might be giving. Sometimes he gave lectures for my mother's courses in religion at Barnard College. Sometimes he would talk about the artistic work he was doing. He often had long conversations with my mother about extremely complex and deep issues, spiritual and theological issues that are embodied in the poems. Those I can't bring up right now in the middle of this conversation, but he would also talk about his excitement at being asked by Stravinsky to write the libretto for "The Rake's Progress." He would ask what we thought of a given editorial in The New York Times, all that kind of stuff. He was a very affectionate, lively, and witty friend, and interested in all the things my parents were interested in, so there was that kind of a person.
And then there were visitors from afar. I mentioned in my book when Alan Paton came to the United States in the early 1950's he came to visit my father because they admired each other from afar. That was a meeting that was fraught because he had been held he had been detained by Immigration and Naturalization Services as a suspicious and disruptive left-wing character, can you imagine? The author of "Cry the Beloved Country"? He had been detained in some cell in New Jersey for several days. So the meeting had been postponed. When he came it was supposed to be for tea, but I remember that he left late at night. There were many lively and interesting people which my father always thought was a great privilege to be able to work with and talk with such characters of great liveliness. When I was writing my book, Arthur Schlesinger, who is an old friend of the family, whom my father had gotten to know at the founding meetings of the ADA in 1947. Arthur read an early draft of my book and he said "I don't think you've made it clear enough that your father liked to hang out with politicians because so many clerics bored him." He enjoyed meetings at the ADA. He enjoyed his friendship with Hubert Humphrey, Joseph Rauh, and Walter Ruther, because these were lively, dynamic, and energetic, never-say-die people, whereas the sanctimonious, self-congratulatory tone of the average American minister wearied him. He never spoke ill of such people, but it didn't interest him.
Tippett: Let's talk about his political activity. I knew that he was a thoroughly political person, that his theology was about the real world and life including politics. But until I got into some of the details of his history I didn't realize quite how directly politically active he was. I mean he even ran for office at a certain point, right?
Sifton: He ran for the State Assembly in New York State in the height of the Depression in 1936, long before I was born. I hasten to assure you and anybody who finds this shocking for a minister to do this, that he assured Henry Sloane Coffin, then the president of Union Seminary that there was absolutely no chance of his winning. He had accepted to do this simply to give himself a platform from which he could say a few things he thought needed to be said at a time when the United States, New York City and New York State were suffering hugely at the height of the Depression.
Tippett: In our time I think the role of religion in politics and religious actors in the political sphere is very fraught and controversial. I wonder how you are thinking about the legacy or the instruction of the life your father lead as that would apply to our current context. Specifically on this point of political activity by religious thinkers and actors.
Sifton: I think about this a lot. And I think about it with real anger to tell you the truth. When I think that my father expended a great deal of exasperated scorn and unhappiness and grief over what he thought was the misconduct of many American pastors and the church, he hadn't seen the half of it. I don't know what he would make of what is going on now. I am reinforced in my distress by the many letters and e-mails and phone calls I get from people who have read my book or students of my father or people who knew him. These many e-mails and letters and phone calls that I get from people talking about the current crisis in religion and politics in America today always end with a note saying "I can't imagine what Reinhold would say about this", or "what would Reinie think?" or "Oh my lord, isn't it a good thing that he doesn't have to live through this?"
Tippett: Describe to me the nature of the difference. Is it that politics are so different? Is it that theology is being used in such a different way?
Sifton: I don't think the theology is being used in any way whatsoever. The fundamentalist right wing of the American church is using god-talk to advance a very cold-eyed, secular, public drive for power and money, may I say? I don't believe it's theological at all. I think it's deeply hypocritical. The hypocrisy is the theme my father and his allies he was not alone in this as I say in my book Henry Emerson Fosdick (sic) started in on this in the 1920s with the fundamentalists. The hypocrisy of the public god-talk is offensive to many millions of devout Christians, Muslims, and Jews who themselves respect a deeply felt spiritual faith, but who find this public insistence on a singular view of what the Christian church is to be very offensive. I find it so and I know millions of other Americans find it so. I don't think it's the theology that's used. Theology doesn't come into this, in my opinion.
Tippett: Here's where I wanted to push this. His example, his model, in his time and we always have to remember that the context was so very different, I mean I think that's actually hard for Americans to remember the dynamics of that age and how different they are from ours in his context he threw himself as passionately as completely and directly into the political realm, right? What would his legacy say about how people who are disturbed, let's say, who are theological thinkers might be actors in this new climate, in this new context?
Sifton: I see the point of your question. Let me quickly clarify something. It is true that he was political in the sense that he cared about social issues that have to be solved at a political level that cannot be solved simply by praying for the redemption of a single soul. There are problems in American life as there are in any community life that need to be addressed at a political level. Pastors and preachers and theologians cannot avoid, therefore, looking at these problems.
Tippett: And for him those issues had to do with civil rights?
Sifton: They had to do with fundamental social justice. They had to do with the scriptural injunctions to look after the poor, the needy, the sick, and the forgotten. The poor, the needy, the sick, and the forgotten certainly included Blacks as they still do in the United States. That was the animating impulse of his social concerns, which developed when he was a young pastor only in his 20's in Detroit, which was a city rife then as it has been for many decades since with enormous social and economic problems. The problems of what was then called industrial democracy, how do you establish industrial democracy the way we talk about establishing fairness in the post-industrial world, these were the things that animated him, but he never took these political actions he took from a position of power and prestige with institutional backing. I stress again and again to many of his admirers who talk about him as a leader of the Protestant church in the mid 20th Century that this is nonsense. It's absolutely not true. He was a highly criticized, marginalized, person who was teaching at an often derided and criticized liberal theological school in New York. The great body of the American Protestant church ignored him and objected to him, either ignored him or objected to him. I say in my book that there were only two or three churches in the United States who asked him to preach, ever, and only one or two in New York. He was famous as a preacher because he preached so often in colleges and universities, so lots and lots of kids heard him and remembered him. But the American church then and now would disapprove of him, and they did then. You have to remember that in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s the church was by and large rather inactive. That is from the Niebuhrian perspective, however, equally political. To bolster the status quo, to say "We can't do anything to change this." This is why I was interested in the Serenity Prayer because it precisely addresses the question of praying for courage to change what has to be changed. But through my father's working life he felt that the American church and the American clergy, Roman Catholic and Protestant, were not doing anything to change what had to be changed.
Tippett: This is very interesting isn't it? There's something here about someone having an effect, a very strong powerful effect that then resonates beyond death and through time. I suppose you could say this of another contemporary of your father, which is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in fact was executed, who died, and yet continues to be a huge theological force as I think your father is also.
Sifton: But that is a very different kind of political force or spiritual force than the kind of political force one is now seeing used by American churchmen to lobby for money and federal power to angle to be present at the signing of important legislation, important to you, maybe not to anybody else. These are activities of churchmen my father would have deplored. To use institutional and local political power on behalf of a divisive agenda, this is not what he thought of as appropriate behavior for the church, never did, never would.
Tippett: He lived through a lot of historical changes, where in the beginning of the 20th Century he was really urging Christians and Americans to face the realities of the world, and in fact to consider going to war for the sake of a greater good. During a later war, the war in Vietnam, near the end of his life, he found himself taking a different position I think. I don't know if that's too simple. I wonder if you think his thoughts on politics and theology and religion and politics changed in the course of his lifetime and as he experienced these different historical circumstances.
Sifton: Certainly. I would slightly correct you to say that to begin with he was a pacifist. That is to say I think anybody sane would want to be somewhat pacifist after witnessing or learning about or experiencing the carnage of the First World War ten million people dead in four years. There wasn't a pastor that I've ever known of who was not a pacifist by 1918. My father retained his pacifist views well into the 1930's. It was only with the threat of war being waged by Hitler, by an extremely aggressive, militaristic, expansive, expanding invading power in Europe that was in my father's view threatening civilization itself, that he felt one had to go back to war to defend civilization itself. He was then nominally a socialist. The socialists chided him for his interventionist position in the years in the run up to the Second World War. He resigned from the party saying that the socialists say this is not a battle worth fighting because it's a battle between two competitive, imperialist systems a pox on both their houses. America should stay out of it. My father said there's one way of looking at it where that's true, but there's another way of looking at, to say one of these imperialisms, filled with injustice and unfairness as it is, meaning the western one, is nonetheless a civilization and it's worth defending, filled with error and sin as it may be. So he became an interventionist in the Second World War. He fought very vigorously and hard against Hitler and against the many millions of Americans who felt America should have nothing to do with the insipient battle with Hitler. His position on nuclear weapons was also extremely anguished because he couldn't bring himself to think this was an acceptable way to end the war. But on the other hand he was interested in making sure they would never ever be used again. It's not so much that his position evolved, but life required you, history required you, developments in the public sphere required you to adjust your views of these things to take into account new circumstances.
If you asked me this morning what was his position on the Korean war, I'd have to tell you that I don't know except that I would imagine that he supported it on roughly the same grounds that he supported the allied opposition to Hitler. His opposition to the Vietnam War has everything to do with his critique of Americans and what they think they can do in the world and American power wielded abroad for insufficiently clarified policy purposes. That was not after all a world war. That was a very specific war, waged under what he thought were deceptive, confused, and wrong-headed labels and had the greatest sin of all which he talked about constantly in his secular writing about American foreign policy, which was the terrible sin of Americans imagining that they could go about the world fixing what they want to fix, because they are better, stronger, wiser and more democratically inclined than anybody else which is never true.
Tippett: German character the intellectual vibrancy that can be so wonderful, which has turned against itself in history. I see that in him, the German-ness, and for me that has a whole rich palate of associations.
Sifton: I couldn't agree with you more.
Tippett: And the real sense of public life, and public good, of social life, and not just an individual consciousness, which Americans tend to have. Even knowing that, I had wondered what it was that made this individual, this theologian, so distinctly powerful and passionate and engaged, and able to see not just theology but events in the world in the largest possible way and speak to that so eloquently. And I really only focused on his German-ness again then in that context. That in a way he was, although estranged from his own German relatives, that he was personally connected to those largest events of the early 20th Century. How much did that have to do with that authority that he had?
Sifton: Oh, a lot. I would think a lot. I have mused about this connection, too. I am married to a historian who comes from Germany. The subject of German-American relations is as lively in the Stern-Sifton household as liberal politics and theology. In any case, I think a lot about this German quality in my father's public life. It is something recognizable and very hard to put your finger on. There is a kind of strength and energy with which Germans can pour their whole inner heart into public work.
Tippett: And an intellect.
Sifton: And the brains too. Very well trained and very well articulated that I think is remarkable. Many of the most impressive politicians in the last 20 or 30 years have been German ones. If you hear and he speaks perfect almost unaccented English if you hear Helmut Schmidt or Willie Brandt, my father's friend, or any of these people, they have a kind of clarity and power with which they articulate complex, interesting and hopeful ideas about the political world that I find breathtaking. It does seem to me to be rather German. I think in the case of my father it has to have come from someone who died many decades before I was born, so I never knew him, and that's my grandfather who was himself a pastor of some renown and who produced this amazing family. I think the German training, the German upbringing, the German respect for bildung, for the building, creation, formation of character and intellect, to which they devote so much attention for their children's first decades, pays off.
Tippett: Coupled with this quality of humility, coupled with that, that is a very powerful and unusual combination.
Sifton: And very effective, as you put it. But I should say that it was a quality that many Americans knew first hand. In the mid 20th Century, 50 years ago Germans represented the largest immigrant pool in America. There were more German Americans than there were any other kinds of Americans, more than any other hyphenated Americans, including Scotts, Irish, and English. This tone of German-American life was well known, certainly in the Middle West. You might be amused to know that this is a subject I've discussed with a writer whom I published and had a wonderful time publishing. We became good friends: Susan Eisenhower. There's another one. The Eisenhower family is a very German-American family, no question.
Tippett: This is something that just got buried and covered up after the World Wars. It's true in Minnesota. Minnesota has defined itself as a place of Swedish heritage. In fact, it's very German.
ES: I think a great deal of it disappeared even after the First World War when the vile Hun was so deprecated. Certainly after two World Wars, German-Americans of all immigrant groups were most eager to assimilate. The other fact is that the very large component of German-Americans are divided as no other group is, between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Each of them did not identify with each other. So there was already a vociferous quality about them.
Tippett: Do you have any connection now with the German Niebuhr family?
Sifton: No. My cousin has been in touch with them, my cousin Gustav Niebuhr. I have never been in touch with them.
Tippett: What part of Germany are they in?
Sifton: They're in Lippe Dettmold, which is a district. It was once a tiny principality near Hanover in western Germany.
Tippett: Let me ask you about an observation you make about the church and about Christians in the time in which your father was so active, also again his history that Americans have trouble imagining. You say how you savored the differences between the various protestant denominations. You say the inadequate short-hand used to label a church as merely fundamentalist, reform, evangelical, or orthodox doesn't get the half of it. Say some more about that.
Sifton: Well, I think to a degree there's still some of this flavor around, but mass media and mass culture has encouraged the flattening out of it, not to mention lack of funds and a lack of direction recently in many of the Protestant denominations. Fifty years ago the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians and the others were distinctively different. Everyone knew their differences. There were stylistic differences. There were class differences. And there were important theological differences which still divide then, which is many of the reasons these churches don't get together is they still don't agree about certain fundamental meanings of acts in the liturgy, which they would have to share if they shared church services. But those tones, I found them I'm a pluralist by heart. I'm a New Yorker. What can I say? I have a lot of enthusiasm for looking at how people think of life and different perspectives and in different ways, in the same way that we know that one family talks one way and sets their table in a certain way and other families do it other ways. Neither of these ways is right or wrong, they're just different. In that same way I liked the differences that were stoutly maintained and defended by Methodists or Baptists or Lutherans. I also enjoyed the fun of it, in that one could be critical in a good-tempered way. And say "Well that's so Methodist of them to say that thing" or "Lutherans are always like that" in this kind of way which was always benign and not intended to be harsh. That kind of talk is now considered politically incorrect, of course, and is being lost. I would think that, as I said in my book, the forms of worship, which these churches devised for themselves over the centuries, often against tremendous hostility or at great risk to themselves, they ought to take some pride in, and not just give up or forget about. I think their giving up and forgetting about some of it contributes then to a lack of energy and pride in going into the future. In many communities all across America where there used to be five or six different churches there are now maybe only one or two because those congregations have dwindled and there isn't money to maintain a full-scale congregation, so they have to make some compromises. There becomes a Union church somewhere. That's fine and that's good and that should happen. But you don't want to water it down so that some of the great Protestant traditions and the vigor are lost. It shouldn't be.
Tippett: You mentioned earlier that you had known of anti-apartheid activists who cited your father, and also you were aware there were white supremacists who had quotes of him of their wall. I'll tell you about a program we had the week the American intervention in Iraq began last year. I had three voices in that program. One was a conservative, Just War theorist who was supporting that action and looking to Just War theory. Then I had someone who is a war correspondent and very critical of war, and a person who was saying this war, this action is antithetical to the message of the gospel all three of these people quoted Reinhold Niebuhr at me on every side of our intervention in the war in Iraq! I'm curious how you understand and think through the fact that your father I want to put this in positive terms that people who find themselves passionately engaged, all very intelligent and good people, on different sides of an issue, including these large issues of war and peace find nourishment in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr.
Sifton: I'm grateful for it, of course. I also find it interesting and curious. I think it's also possible to say I didn't read any one of the three remarks so I can't speak to it but somewhere here somebody has to be wrong because it's just not possible. It's not as if the words that he used and what he said about things could be cut any which way to cut any kind of clothe. I really don't think that's likely. The words of his that my friend found in antithetical places in South Africa were the Serenity Prayer. It wasn't something else. I can explain the reason for that disparity because the prayer is exactly about praying to have the wisdom to know the difference between the times when you have to change something and the times when you can't or shouldn't. The disputes among well-meaning intelligent people come on this issue. Is this a time when we should not change?
In the case of the war in Iraq I feel that this is not so much Niebuhr's theology or philosophy which is an issue here, the wide-ranging influence he had over how people thought, but a very specific concern he had as an American watching his country emerge from WWII as the most powerful country, the richest, the biggest and the most powerful in every respect, militarily, economically and in sheer life-force, let us face it in 1945. How would we behave when we were like this? A lot of his writing about American foreign policy and American behavior in the world addressed itself to this question, this unprecedented world historical question: when you have just one country that can dominate the world in this way, how should we behave? How should the United States behave in the world with this unprecedented aggregation of power? Over and over again he wrote that he feared that we were arrogant and proud, and that arrogance and pride were not the qualities a great power can use successfully and effectively in the world. In the end you are doomed if these are your defining qualities. The great empires of the past and the great political powers that have lasted no empire lasts very long but the ones that sustain themselves sustain themselves by a certain modesty and prudence and skillfulness of political behavior that encouraged them to make alliances, to negotiate, to understand facts on the ground and to understand the importance of local knowledge, not to barge in where they didn't know enough. The American predisposition to imagine that we are nicer and better and smarter and gooder (sic) than others was a fatal flaw. He had written about that flaw a lot before. After the war he became really, really concerned with this. For this reason I tend to agree with a student of his who wrote to me at the same time you were speaking of, March 2003. A student of my father's who now teaches at a big Middle Western university wrote to me and said a lot of his students asked him "What is the best book to read about the background to the war in Iraq?" He said, "The best book to read is Reinhold Niebuhr's 'The Irony of American History'" which was written in 1952. But this was the reason: he felt that the most important thing to understand, the most important thing to study was the record of and the meaning of American behavior when we assert that we know better than anyone else what should be done to promote democracy and to ensure our way of life. This was political and spiritual pride that my father deplored.
Tippett: I will say that when his name is invoked in my conversations, even on two sides of the war in Iraq, that the effect is to put some struggle in peoples' positions, whatever their position is, actually to deepen their sense, to keep the sense before them of the complexity and the potential tragedy, and the fact that there may be no clean options and no clean outcomes.
Sifton: I'm so glad you said that. Because that is an integral part of my father's work and message. First of all I think he believed in democratic procedure and much discussion and debate in arriving at any major policy, because that's the democratic way to do things. Policies arrived at in secret and massively imposed upon a society or world have not engaged, as you say, with all the complexities and difficulties. But the second thing is even more important as you just said. The second thing is to understand that we are all operating in morally complex and compromised situations. In many ways you have to go into them understanding that there will be a tragic outcome. This is not the same as saying, "Well, stuff happens". Yes, indeed stuff happens, but it's all the more important because stuff happens that the morally aware and the vigilant Christian pay attention to every nuance of what the stuff is bringing to you so that you can behave appropriately and decently in a very messy situation. Yes, that's a very important part of it.
Tippett: Tell me, if you think about your own life, personally and as a citizen, what pieces of your father's theology are especially real to you? What has grown for you over time in your understanding? What comes to mind.
ES: Two things I think. One is that I do think that I ingested early on and perhaps not even consciously (but I certainly ingested it and tried to make it conscious) a real awareness that there is sin in the heart of all of us, that we all make errors, that we all are prone to failure. Therefore as a personal matter the kind of person I tend not to like is a person who is absolutely sure of his own salvation or is sure she is a nice person. We all know such characters. They are just convinced of their goodness. I find that I myself have a short patience or outright impatience with such characters. I think that must be an inheritance from my family. Every secular friend of mine know, Christian or Jewish friends who in their piety insist that they understand the world and are better and humbler and nicer than others.
Tippett: I think that your father, in his time, was also concerned with Christians who knew secular people who were very convinced of their rightness.
Sifton: Exactly, the secular rationalists who believed that if you just applied reason to everything it would come out nifty in the end, so people of every stripe, secular or pious "Pious and Secular America" was the title of one of his books. The other thing I think it took me much longer to understand, and I tried to write about this in my book, too. Bonhoeffer was a person who expressed this beautifully, and I quoted my mother as doing so. It's a concept that is deep in the heart of Christian doctrine and very hard to articulate. I felt that the Serenity Prayer, spoken as it is daily by so many millions of people, was a way that I could get at this. That is the notion that really the big spiritual effort must be to live your life as best you can every single day, to live fully in the present every day. To do this requires you to give up a great deal, but it also give you immense strength and purpose if you keep yourself focused on that. That was what allowed Bonhoeffer to face the hangman's noose. It was what made my mother say to me as I said in my book, that she thought one of the greatest instructions in the New Testament was "consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither spin?". In other words, what you do, what you think you're contributing, what you're spinning or reaping, this is not what matters. What matters is the condition of your soul as you move through life, in every human transaction, everything you do. That requires, as every devout person of every faith knows, it requires a humility of facing your inadequacies to do this every single day, which is why every religion has schemes, liturgies, prayers, spiritual practices to encourage you to keep up the strength to do this every day.
Tippett: That also brings us back to a place you started in the very beginning, I think, a surprising place. The one character of your father's theology you wanted to stress was his humility.
Sifton: Yes, you asked me what he was like as a person. I don't know if I would have said that the theology was that. The theology is more complex and I might have answered it differently, but for him as a person?
Tippett: I've heard many people say, especially in this time that our country is at war it's very clear once again that we live in complicated times. I've heard people say "Where is Reinhold Niebuhr now?" Or "Will there be a new Reinhold Niebuhr in our time"? Do you look around and ask yourself that question?
Sifton: I don't put it quite like that but I think we are all looking for leadership, whether spiritual, political or social that gives us some sense of direction and purpose and gives us hope. One of the things that is most distressing about the current public talk in America, both punditry and political of every kind is that it is so fearful. I believe the present administration gains political power by insisting on the fear, by reminding us constantly that we are in a constant war, that things must change and be different because we are at war. This is fear-mongering pure and simple. It is, to my mind, denigrating and offensive to strong and well-intentioned Americans who would like to construe their life work and their country's life work in a more positive fashion. I think that's the kind of voice we're looking for. It could come from the church, it could come from politicians, it could come from teachers, community activists of all kinds.
Tippett: I've wondered if in fact in our time that voice would come from a theologian. Would it come from someone in journalism or publishing or a lawyer?
Sifton: All of these are possible. I think in fact, that although the "mainstream" media like to say the liberals and progressives in the church have not been heard from, I think actually they've been ignored by the mainstream media. There are many millions of them out there who are speaking this kind of messages strongly and energetically to their parishes and their parishioners every week. But we don't hear about it so much and it's not magnified as much as it might have been. The reason my father got to be well known in the 30's, 40's and 50's was that he wrote for a handful of magazines that got by what are now called the "opinion making classes". That, and the fact that Henry Luce, who was the founder of the "Time-Life" and "Fortune" empire, was himself the son of missionaries who took theology and theological thought very seriously. A patronage I don't mean literal money patronage but an intellectual patronage that my father was a little alarmed by, the idea that Luce was in his favor sort of perplexed him. The equivalent magazine and newspaper publishers of today have no interest whatsoever in spiritual life, or not enough interest. So the magnification, the megaphone effect that my father's work benefited from is not around so much, but that could change too. I think, as you say, it could come from other sources as well. It could come from American lawyers, the constitutional issues of freedom of religion and freedom of thought and freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and freedom of dissent. These are issues that are now front and center. Lawyers will have a lot to say about them. Certainly I think that teachers will be heard from.
Tippett: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that feels important to you that came to mind that you'd like to say?
Sifton: One thing I'd like to say more clearly is that as grateful as I am for the attention given to my father's work now, 30 years and more after his death I want to emphasize that he felt himself to be one of but many others who worked on the same problems with the same energy and the same zeal. He loved and respected and greatly admired many of his collaborators on these issues of fighting for social justice and for economic equality and for spiritual clarity in American life. His friends and colleagues whom I talk about in the book, from Myles Horton, who founded the first interracial school in the South to Walter Ruther at the United Automobile Workers or pastors of New England churches that he came to know in the summertime. Wherever they were, he felt very strongly that they were heroes. Just as heroic in their way as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his student in Germany, or Tillich, another heroic figure.
Tippett: That may be a very interesting answer to the question "Where is Reinhold Niebuhr now?" that the answer is in fact that he was a strong voice but that he was part of a much larger collection of people.
Sifton: Yes, that's part of the answer. The other part of the answer is that we have to keep our ear to the ground for voices like this as you did then. As I said before, he was very much in the minority. He was not respected or liked by a large part of the American establishment. When we look for voices today we shouldn't expect to find them at the heart of the establishment.
Tippett: I love that phrase you used a minute ago "spiritual clarity". That's a nice combination of two words.
Sifton: It's hard to find.