This is our second program on Reinhold Niebuhr's fascinating thought and legacy. And as I prepared to discuss Niebuhr again with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne — in a whole new era of American politics, foreign policy, and economics — I was stunned by how resonantly Niebuhr's writing speaks to our common present. These lines from his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, are a good example, "… we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy." Later on he elaborated:
"Yet the price which American culture has paid for this amelioration of social tensions through constantly expanding production has been considerable. It has created moral illusions about the ease with which the adjustment of interests to interests can be made in human society. These have imparted a quality of sentimentality to both our religious and our secular, social and political theories. It has also created a culture which makes "living standards" the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as every social-moral value."
David Brooks was widely cited in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign when he reported how a weary Barack Obama brightened at the invocation of the very name of Niebuhr, delivering a 20-minute, ad-lib summation of Niebuhr's complex view of politics, religion, and life. And as I delved into Niebuhr's words and Obama's words in tandem in preparation for this conversation, I was struck by the echoes. Consider, for example, this classic Niebuhrian injunction: "We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimatized [emphasis mine]." And hear then the concise, more pointed reasoning with which Obama has ended torture as a policy and promised to close Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons abroad: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said at his recent inaugural address. Later he said, "We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our own terms." Brooks, Dionne, and I discuss these parallels between Niebuhr and Obama, and others. My two guests are often set up to present contrasting points of view on NPR's All Things Considered, but this evening at Georgetown was not a point-counterpoint between a liberal and a conservative. It was more of a shared inquiry that ranged from politics and the new administration to the economy and even to recent events in Gaza. Niebuhr's way of thinking tends to deepen analysis and temper sectarian stridency. This evening was no exception. Brooks suggests that Niebuhr himself may have been unnerved by Obama's idealistic campaign catch words of "hope" and "change." Yet Dionne finds a Niebuhrian influence in Obama's careful distinction between "hope" and "optimism" — the one more focused, pragmatic, and theologically resonant; the other more soupy, idealistic, and culturally defined. And while Obama ran on hope, he has inherited calamity — a situation that embodies the kind of irony writ large that Niebuhr urged Americans of his day to expect. The humility that Obama invoked three times in his inaugural address is, like Niebuhr's, an active stance, not a passive one, in the face of vast and risk-filled challenges. Obama's pre-election and pre-recession paraphrase of Niebuhr, as reported by David Brooks, seems all the more poignant now. From Niebuhr, Obama said, "I take away … the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."
I Recommend Viewing:
Brooks and Dionne, Live with Krista [video, 82:56] With one video camera remaining, we filmed my public conversation with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, including the invocation by Jean Bethke Elshtain. You can stream or download the complete, unedited event at Georgetown University. For good introductions to Reinhold Niebuhr and his writings, I recommend Robert McAfee Brown's book, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Letters. It is an excellent place to begin exploring the breadth of Niebuhr's thought. And, The Irony of American History set a critique of communism against a critique of virtues of American culture which, untempered by realism about history and human nature, might be its triumph but also its undoing. Yet much of this analysis speaks with uncanny aptness to the economic ideology that has so calamitously hit its limits in 2009.