On Being with Krista Tippett

David Brooks + E.J. Dionne

Obama's Theologian: Reinhold Niebuhr and the American Present

Last Updated

October 20, 2016

Original Air Date

August 13, 2009

President Obama has cited Reinhold Niebuhr’s teachings as significant in shaping his ideas about politics and governance. In a public conversation, we discuss the great public theologian’s legacy and ideas — and what influence they may play in the future of American politics.

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David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times as well as a weekly commentator on PBS Newshourand NPR. His books include The Social Animal and The Road to Character.

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E.J. Dionne is a commentator for NPR and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University. His books include Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith in Politics after the Religious Right and Why The Right Went Wrong.


August 13, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Obama’s Theologian.” In a public conversation with political commentators David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, we explore how Reinhold Niebuhr’s merger of intellect, faith, and realism might be speaking to a new era of American turmoil and American power.

MR. E.J. DIONNE: Basically Reinhold Niebuhr is the Michael Jordan of theology. And what I have been struck by over the years is how all of God’s children claim Reinhold Niebuhr.

MR. DAVID BROOKS: Niebuhr warns us of a lot of useful things about humility, about tragedy, about sin. As Americans, we have a counter-tradition, which counsels optimism, daringness, risk-taking. And reconciling the two, staying American in the most optimistic ebullient sense of that word while being conscious of Niebuhr is the central challenge.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Barack Obama has cited the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, an influence on his understanding of the world, of religion, and of politics. This hour with David Brooks and E.J. Dionne we explore how Niebuhr’s merger of intellect, faith, and realism might be speaking to a new era of American turmoil and American power.

“Democracy,” Reinhold Niebuhr famously said, “is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.”

From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, “Obama’s Theologian: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne on Reinhold Niebuhr and the American present.

David Brooks is a conservative commentator for The New York Times and other media. E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a liberal columnist for The Washington Post. The two of them often discuss current events from contrasting points of view on NPR’s All Things Considered. And on the icy night of January 29th, a standing-room-only crowd — young and old — filled an auditorium at Georgetown University to hear them discuss one of the leading public intellectuals at the 20th century whose star is rising again. We were there at the invitation of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

A little background about Reinhold Niebuhr before we delve in. He was born in 1892 and died in 1971. As a pastor and then professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Niebuhr was an authoritative voice on the defining events of the 20th century: World War II, the Great Depression, Civil Rights, the Cold War, and the debate over Vietnam. He was on the cover of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary issue. Martin Luther King Jr. cited him in his letter from Birmingham City Jail.

But Niebuhr’s complex reasoning about the world, God, and human nature made him hard to classify politically. He identified for many years as a pacifist and then vigorously argued for American entry into World War II. He became a staunch Cold Warrior, but he opposed the war in Vietnam. “The exercise of power is necessary,” Niebuhr insisted, “and so is humility, because human nature is imperfect, sinful. That is to say, we are always prone to excess and mistakes, to doing real damage, even with our best intentions and actions.”

So what influence might Niebuhr’s brand of Christian realism have now in the White House and beyond? That question framed this public conversation.

MS. TIPPETT: Hello. I am pleased to have David Brooks on my left and E.J. Dionne on my right. And I don’t think that this discussion tonight could be more relevant or more provocative. It’s not just that President Barack Obama has called Reinhold Niebuhr his favorite philosopher, it is that Niebuhr’s favorite words and ideas, words like “irony” and “paradox” and “tragedy” are gaining new resonance in this historical moment. I even think that Americans, due to the pressure of historical circumstances, may be acquainting themselves again with the term “ambiguity,” uncharacteristically.

Here’s one of the many paragraphs that I thought could not speak more directly to the present from his book The Irony of American History. And I speak to the economic present as much as the political present, although that was not his focus.

He wrote: “In one sense the opulence of American life has served to perpetuate Jeffersonian illusions about human nature. For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy. This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice.”

I’d like to begin by asking the two of you to say a little bit about your exposure to Niebuhr, how you discovered him, and if he’s been on your mind lately, what it is about him that has impressed you or shaped you. Do you want to start, David?

MR. BROOKS: I’ll go first because I actually had the Niebuhr scoop. I’m the guy who asked Barack Obama if he ever read Reinhold Niebuhr I think first among journalists this cycle. I was interviewing Obama about a year ago over the phone and it was a long day and I got to him at the end of the day. And finally we were talking about something, I think AIDS policies in Africa and then some minor economic policy and then political stuff. And the interview was going nowhere. Obama was tired, he was a little cranky, or maybe it was just I was annoying him, and so I’m getting nothing out of this interview. So I, out of the blue, say, “You ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?” And we were talking about nothing related and he said, “Yeah, I do.” And so I said, “Well, what does he mean to you?” And he proceeded to give a 20 minute summation of The Irony of American History in perfect paragraph form.

Now, I was trying to count as he was talking the number of U.S. senators who could talk 20 minutes about Reinhold Niebuhr and the answer is one, or was one. Now probably zero. Although maybe Lieberman. And so, you know, I was really struck by that and, of course, as Chris Matthews would say, I felt a tingle up my leg.

You know, there are a lot of serious things, which we’ll get into, but just the one I’ll mention immediately — well the two I’ll mention, one, the inaugural address. The thing that really struck me about that address was it was such a joyous occasion here in Washington whether you voted for Obama or not. The atmosphere was truly joyous. And yet I thought in that inaugural address there was a wintry spine to it. That it was “we must put away childish things. We’ve been greedy. Times are tough.” And so that’s one thing.

And then the second thing, and this is really my central tension about Niebuhr and goes to your point about the economy: Niebuhr warns us of a lot of useful things about humility, about tragedy, about sin, about modesty. As Americans we have a counter-tradition, which counsels optimism, daringness, risk-taking. And reconciling the two, staying American in the most optimistic, ebullient sense of that word while being conscious of Niebuhr is the central challenge.

And so as we think about this stimulus package, spending $890 billion on a process we basically don’t understand is a risky endeavor. And so proceeding while being conscious of modesty is a perfect example of a Niebuhrian challenge.


MR. DIONNE: Only my friend David Brooks is skillful enough to give a learned commentary on Reinhold Niebuhr and end with a shot at the Democrat’s stimulus plan.


MR. DIONNE: It was very impressive.

MS. TIPPETT: But it was a Niebuhrian style shot.

MR. BROOKS: It was not a shot; it was a realistic appraisal.



MR. DIONNE: As I said, a shot at the stimulus plan. And the thing I just want to say about Niebuhr — Georgetown is a basketball school, I can say this and people will know how serious this comparison is: basically Reinhold Niebuhr is the Michael Jordan of theology. I first ran across Niebuhr in an article by Michael Novak in 1972 in commentary called “Needing Niebuhr Again.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah.

MR. DIONNE: And what I have been struck by over the years is how all of God’s children claim Reinhold Niebuhr. Mike claimed him as the first neo-conservative, because of his Cold War position and his skepticism of totalitarianism and so on. This was anathema to another of his best friends who’s written powerfully on him, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was very close to Niebuhr and who would always argue that he was a Schlesinger-style liberal. There is something extraordinary about this, and I don’t think it’s because Niebuhr is unclear.

It seems to me that — I’m sort of taking what David said and turning it on its head a little bit — the joy of a progressive worldview or a liberal worldview is indeed its hopefulness, its optimism, its sense of human possibility, but the core weakness of that worldview, as Niebuhr always understood, was a lack of awareness of human frailty, the human capacity to sin. And at that moment in the early ’70s, he struck me as an excellent corrective to what is going on. And I think perhaps we all quote Niebuhr because he’s always an excellent corrective to everyone’s enthusiasms at a given moment.

MS. TIPPETT: Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media, today with a public conversation held recently at Georgetown University, “Obama’s Theologian: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne on Reinhold Niebuhr and the American Present.” You can have a seat in the audience. Watch the video of this conversation at speakingofaith.org.

MS. TIPPETT: So here’s Reinhold Niebuhr saying, “In the liberal world, the evils of human nature and history were ascribed to social institutions or ignorance or some manageable defect in human nature and environment.” Barack Obama, then I find him talking about inner-city problems and talking about — at the same time that he’s talking about programs that will address this, he describes speaking with a young man and about seeing holes in hearts that government alone cannot fix. Now, what we have right now in the first weeks of the administration is an $819 billion stimulus package that is government programs and money, but I just wonder if either one of you have any sense of how this insight about there being something about human nature that needs to be addressed as well as government programs, how that might find expression in the Obama administration in and beyond the stimulus package.

MR. BROOKS: You know, to me faith plays in politics, because it embodies a view of human nature. If you, as you just suggested, have a view of human nature that human beings are born innocent and are made corrupt by institutions then a series of policies flow from that.

MS. TIPPETT: And can’t be fixed by institutions.

MR. BROOKS: Right. And some of those policies will involve liberating the individual from the oppression of phonics, you know, or other educational things, or the liberation from the traditional family. If, however, you have a view of human nature that is people are born with certain tragic qualities, you could be religious or not. You know, I’ve always thought one of the presidents who learned the most from Niebuhr was Abraham Lincoln who must’ve read Niebuhr quite a lot.


MR. BROOKS: They are thinking —

MR. DIONNE: He quoted him on television.

MR. BROOKS: I think he did. Well, I was actually interviewing Lincoln one afternoon …


MR. BROOKS: And so — but if you have a more tragic view, as Lincoln did, as I think Niebuhr did, and as I think Obama did, then that implies a different set of policies. And basically what it implies — and I think this is completely borne out by evolutionary theory as exemplified by E.O. Wilson and others — which is that people are born with certain naturally nasty proclivities and therefore you need institutions to civilize them, tame them, uplift them. And therefore, it’s not a question of are you using government or not using government; it’s what are you using it for.

And if you are using government to surround individuals with institutions, whether it’s a two-parent family or, as Obama wants to do, spread something called the Harlem Children’s Zone around the country. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a project run by a guy name Geoffrey Canada in Harlem and basically he said, ‘Education alone won’t solve the problems of the kids in my area of Harlem, family policies alone, income policies alone, food stamp policies alone, aftercare, pre-K, none of that stuff alone will work. You have to do it all.’ And so what the Harlem Children’s Zone is, is an intense all-purpose 360-degree effort to surround kids with responsible bourgeois adult institutions. And during the campaign Obama was very drawn to this model and said, ‘I want to create something like this in a lot of cities around the country.’ And I think that desire to create institutions, structures, around individuals rather than letting them be free to be you and me grows out of a certain view of human nature.


MR. DIONNE: You know, what I was thinking is that in some ways, because Obama is a post-’60s liberal he is in some ways a ’30s and ’40s liberal.


MR. DIONNE: Which is why there may be a natural fit between him and Niebuhr, also why he is proposing a New Deal program to spend $819 billion on a lot of good things.


MR. DIONNE: But I think that’s consistent and I think we should sort of be candid. He’s a very good politician. He’s good at appealing to particular groups, you know, feminists and union members and young people, and he knows how to pander to that large group represented here on this stage of Niebuhr lovers.

MR. BROOKS: Right.

MR. DIONNE: I remember after David’s investigative reporting outed him as a lover of Niebuhr, I was interviewing him, and he said something — it was during the Jeremiah Wright thing — and he said, “And if that isn’t Niebuhrian I don’t know what is.” So he’s very conscious of this. And I think that he is in so many ways a Niebuhrian realist. Indeed, in a lot of ways I think that this foreign policy we are about to get will be much closer to the first President Bush’s foreign policy than his son’s was. And that’s a realism about the U.S. power, both why it’s important and why we shouldn’t be arrogant about it. You know, there’s a line in Obama’s interview with Al-Arabiya about our not telling the world what to do. I mean, there are some very Niebuhrian lines in that interview. And so I think that it will be a kind of realism tinged with a certain moral commitment. There’s a tension in Niebuhr. Christian realism itself is not an oxymoron, but, boy, that’s a concept that’s in tension. And I think that will describe the Obama foreign policy. I don’t think a tension in a foreign policy is a bad thing.

MR. BROOKS: Can I just say, I mean, you mentioned he’s a politician. I mean, the big speech that launched him that he wrote was a Jefferson-Jackson Day speech in, I guess, November/December of ’07 in Iowa, and it was about as un-Niebuhrian a speech as one could possibly imagine. It was all about history begins anew, hope. I mean, it was pure American idealistic Whitman-esque theology. I mean, it was ‘Everything is going to be different. The history — we are not dragged down by anything.’ And that was really the chorus that he rode through Iowa. So he can play many different strings, like all politicians.

MR. DIONNE: Although, you know, he has been at great pains to distinguish between hope and optimism. And he had that great riff in the early primaries where, you know, he’d say, “They’re calling me terrible things. They’re calling me a hope-monger.” And then he would say that hope does not mean — and it didn’t mean a soupy kind of optimism where you expect everything is going to go right. Hope knows that things will be hard, et cetera, et cetera.

I don’t disagree with the point you made but I’ve always found fascinating the way he dealt with the word “hope.” I don’t know if that makes him a Niebuhrian.

MR. BROOKS: He’s even hedging his hope.


MR. BROOKS: You know, John Judis in The New Republic wrote a great piece, I thought a great piece, called “Barack Obama and the Adamic Tradition,” linking Obama to Billy Budd and to all series of figures in American literature that are purely innocent. And I thought Obama was playing on those strings. Now, as it relates to foreign policy, you know, there’s this thing trait psychology and situational psychology. Some people believe your traits determine how you behave through life. Most psychologists, I believe, think the situation determines. And when you’re in office, you’ve got the power. You want to use it. You become a lot more idealistic. And the history of American foreign policy is of realistic people getting into office and turning into Wilson or George W. Bush, whether smartly or not. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened to him.

MR. DIONNE: I will make a prediction that whatever he does, Barack Obama will not turn into George W. Bush.


[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Here again is an echo. This is Reinhold Niebuhr. “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 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.”

Those are long sentences, but I was very fascinated to see how Obama talked about the action he took on torture in Guantanamo. You know, he said, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. We intend to win this fight. We will win it on our own terms.” That’s a moral statement.

MR. BROOKS: Well, that is my favorite Niebuhr quotation, and the phrase “morally hazardous action” …

MS. TIPPETT: It’s great.

MR. BROOKS: …is a very complicated phrase. I actually once used it in a column arguing for the Iraq war. Without even citing Niebuhr, I said “morally hazardous action.” And then the hate mail I got for using that phrase was really striking. This was before we knew what would happen. And of course the question is how morally hazardous?

And I thought — in this case, to get back to Obama, I thought he handled it in the way you would expect him to if he’d read all this stuff, which is to say there are certain things we will not do and the conscience was clear. On the other hand, he didn’t just close Guantanamo.


MR. BROOKS: He said, “I’ll close it in a year. I’ll figure out somehow how to do it.” And who knows what he’ll decide. I mean, he’s known he wanted to close Guantanamo for a year. I don’t know what took him so long. But he left himself open, which I felt was morally the right thing to do but also prudential. And the same with torture. We are not going to torture. We are not going to waterboard. On the other hand, we will have a taskforce so if we need to get rougher than the Army manual, we’ll do it. So clearly shifting moral directions, but leaving himself prudentially an out. And that’s a reasonably moral but also cold-minded, or I shouldn’t say cold-minded — cool-minded way of looking at the problem.

MR. DIONNE: You know, one of the Niebuhr quotes I brought with me is very similar to that one, also from The Irony of American History: “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would only be the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

So, you know, the notion that you can believe that American power can be used for good and have no illusions about ourselves, about American power, and be fearful that it might be used for ill is, I think, what Niebuhr taught us. And I think the notion that Obama did what he did on torture in Guantanamo, both in the prudential way he did it, but the fact that he did it, was certainly consistent with this view.

MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne. In many ways the program you’re listening to now is an entry point to understanding Reinhold Niebuhr’s vast influence on diverse thinkers like E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, and President Obama. We produced another in-depth program exploring Niebuhr’s analysis of human nature and his perspectives on war, nation-building, religion, and politics. Download free MP3s of both programs through our podcast and Web site.

And while you’re at speakingoffaith.org, browse a dynamic interactive timeline containing photos and letters from Niebuhr’s personal archives at the Library of Congress. We combed boxes of his personal correspondence with seminal public figures, like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the poet W.H. Auden, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and many others. Find links to all this and more at speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, more conversation with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, including what Christian realism can and should look like in a pluralistic 21st-century culture and what Niebuhr got wrong.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Obama’s Theologian.” We’re presenting a live public conversation I had on January 29th with David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

We’re analyzing current economic and political challenges through the thinking of the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and we’re exploring his influence on the new president.

Reinhold Niebuhr was not merely a religious figure but a public intellectual who wrote widely on foreign policy and the conduct of war. He coined the term “Christian realism” to describe a middle way between arrogance and idealism in social action and foreign affairs.

This conversation with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks was held at Georgetown University.

MS. TIPPETT: This is another place where the analogy is very difficult with Niebuhr’s time and our time. I mean, for him part of what he was speaking to was a clash between a secular worldview and a religious worldview, and it was Communism versus the West. And you really can’t translate that into our dynamics. Yet, in our time in the 21st century, we have a secularized culture to an extent that Niebuhr couldn’t have imagined. And we have a plural, a religiously plural, society. And there was a lot of attention paid to the fact that at the inauguration, Barack Obama spoke of this as a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. That’s actually not new language for him; he’s spoken that way before. But it is interesting for me to wonder how Niebuhr’s worldview might speak to the challenge of pluralism in our time and how Christian realism now can take account of religious and cultural pluralism. So, yeah, what do you think about that?

MR. BROOKS: I guess my main thought, and I don’t know what Niebuhr would think of this, is that there’s cause for worry about the extent of pluralism. Henry Steele Commager had a line “In the 19th century, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt.” And what he meant by that is that we are not a doctrinal people. We’re not a particularly theological people.

And in 2004, I actually counted up the number of presidential candidates who had switched denominations at some point in their lives, and it was most of them. Howard Dean switched because of a fight about a bike path. I think Wes Clark switched a number of times. A whole series of them had switched, and a lot of them for reasons one might not necessarily think were deeply philosophical.

In fact, when Barack Obama was looking for a church —


MR. BROOKS: — it was not theological, the decision.

MR. DIONNE: Right.

MR. BROOKS: And so the pluralism in America is what many people have called shopping for faith and all that sort of stuff. And to me, it blends into sort of a good news sort of religion, which I think maybe he would’ve found a little nervous-making. I mean, some of the soft-core evangelicalism is pretty sunny and uplifting, and if you feel down, well, we’ve got a Bible study group for that too.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you’re talking about a Christian phenomenon, and there is just this demographic fact of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists.

MR. DIONNE: I share David’s general view there but I — and I think Niebuhr would have been very skeptical of a kind of therapeutic faith. I’m not sure that is exactly the same as belief in pluralism or religious tolerance. In other words, I think there is sort of a hard, if you will, a theologically hard argument that can be respectful and also mindful of the importance of toleration of differences about religion and still be quite serious.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, here’s another way — and this is coming at it from a slightly different angle — in which Niebuhr stands very much, although he was a deeply religious person, a theologian and public intellectual, very much in contrast to, say, the 1980s religious right. And here again I found an interesting parallel. So this is something I found that Ronald Stone, his last teaching assistant, described about him. That “he had a deep personal religiosity, but disdained discussion of personal beliefs in the public square.” This is by Ronald Stone. “He said that far better to have good political ideas and a way to carry them out pragmatically than to win votes through pious protestations. Religious language should be inspired by love, but translated through the vocabulary of justice into the political realm.”

And here’s Barack Obama in 2006. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason.” “In other words,” he says, “I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

MR. BROOKS: Well, the first thing I would say is if you look at George Bush’s speeches, the recent ones, you will find a) only appeals to universal values; then the second thing, the objection to personal protestations of faith. This really is another area where he is distinct.

MR. DIONNE: He, Niebuhr?

MR. BROOKS: He, Niebuhr, is distinct from mainstream American culture, where personal protestations of faith are deeply moving to people and deeply mobilizing. And if you look at every movement that is mobilizing, it may have a Niebuhrian element, but is also deeply inspiring and vaguely Utopian. Whether it’s John F. Kennedy or even Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. And this is where the limitations of Niebuhr — he did not know how to mobilize people.

MR. DIONNE: Well, he organized some — he was actually an organizer and an activist. But let me — it seems to me you can make a case that we have gone through many cycles in the public expression of religion. And I think, for example, if you go back to the 1928 election, two major issues in that election — David and I covered it together …


MR. DIONNE: … were Prohibition and whether Al Smith should be the first Roman Catholic president. This is a culture war election.

Then something intervenes: the Great Crash, the Great Depression. By 1932, a lot of people may have needed a drink, but the issue of whether they could buy it legally or not was not really that important compared to whether you could afford it. In other words, suddenly the culture of politics went away and we began a long relatively secular period. Not secular in the sense that presidents didn’t invoke God, but the kind of Niebuhr you describe was a typical figure of that period, 1932 to 1980. Then you had the rise of religious conservatism and the mobilization of the religious right

And then we entered a different period. I think that we are going to date this 1980 to 2008. And I think we’re at the end of that particular, you know, stretch partly because again we face such serious secular problems that these other issues will still be important to people, but they’ll recede from the public square. So maybe your whole theory that Barack Obama is really just the reincarnation of Reinhold Niebuhr will be proven true because the …

MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] I don’t think I said that.

MR. DIONNE: … Niebuhrian approach will again relevant to this post-2008 period even more than he was 1980 to 2008.

MS. TIPPETT: Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Obama’s Theologian: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne on Reinhold Niebuhr and the American Present.” We’re presenting a live public conversation I had on January 29th with these two political columnists on how Niebuhr’s merger of intellect, faith, and realism might be speaking to a new era of American turmoil and American power. You can stream or download the video of this complete conversation at speakingoffaith.org.

Next, Michael Kessler, assistant director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown, moderated written questions from the audience.

MR. MICHAEL KESSLER: Well, the first is rhetorically flourishing so I will read it. “OK, OK. So Obama is channeling Niebuhr. But what did Niebuhr get wrong? What shouldn’t Obama channel from Niebuhr?”


MR. DIONNE: Nothing. Niebuhr got nothing wrong.

Nothing. Niebuhr got nothing wrong.

MR. DIONNE: It’s possible that he didn’t resolve the tensions in his own thoughts well enough that there is, you know, he got hit at various moments in history. He got hit by the left a fair amount in the ’60s and ’70s for being excessively pessimistic, too much of a realist, therefore, too willing in their view to become a Cold Warrior and all that. And I don’t object to all that as much as some of my friends did in those years. You know, I think the anti-totalitarian Niebuhr was broadly right in the end. But I think there is sort of tension between his sort of hopeful Christianity and his realism and maybe it’s the very thing is Obama that’s so close to Niebuhr that is the thing he’s going to have to struggle with.

MR. BROOKS: I guess I would say — I’ve hinted at this — but he did get the meaning of America wrong, and he took a highly offensive hyper-patriotism, his distaste for that, and I would say he let that bleed over into a complete dismissal of the idea that America has a unique mission in the world. And in my view, America does have a unique mission in the world. It was borne into our history and that if we’re unconscious of this mission, man’s last best hope and all that stuff, then we wouldn’t be America. I thought Niebuhr was too quick to dismiss American exceptionalism.

MR. KESSLER: The next question is about the international arena. “Much of Niebuhr’s writings were a reflection on Communism. How do you think he might revise his worldview in the face of the threat of radical Islam?”

MR. DIONNE: I don’t agree with that, by the way, with the premise of the question. I mean, Communism was clearly very important to him at a certain stage in the Cold War, but his original Christian realism came out of a fight with the social gospel movement, an argument with the social gospel movement. So while Communism was important in a very important public period in his life, I don’t think it was the animating passion. He just was agin it.

MR. BROOKS: I believe in The Irony of American History, he uses a phrase ‘akin to Satanic’ to describe Communism. Something like that, if I’m not mistaken.

MR. DIONNE: Well, no, he was anti-Communist.

MR. BROOKS: Yeah, he was.

MR. DIONNE: I just don’t see it as the dominant …

MR. BROOKS: Well, he’s not sort of hedging his bets on that.


MR. BROOKS: And so the question is would he see Islamic extremism as the same thing and, again, I don’t know, but I think it’s completely consistent. And, in fact, as we were talking about taking morally hazardous action, as E.J. was talking, I was thinking about the Israeli incursion into Gaza, which I think is one of those actions, while horrible in its effect, is one of those morally hazardous but justified actions — justified by the complete evilness of the Hamas leadership. And that’s the sort of issue that he takes you into.

MS. TIPPETT: How does he take you into that?

MR. BROOKS: Well, you’re saying, ‘Look, they’re bombing schools.’ And do you say, ‘I will not bomb schools, but I will therefore tolerate Hamas and what Hamas is doing’? Or do you say, ‘I need to take action against Hamas. Taking action against Hamas will involve bombing schools’?

Now, I think there is no firm universal rule to apply how you apply that, but this is the vocabulary he supplies you as you’re wrestling with that question.

MR. DIONNE: I could imagine his saying that, but couldn’t you also imagine his asking questions such as ‘Does this intervention have the effect in the long run of strengthening Hamas, of begging the two-state solution even more difficult, of weakening Fatah?’ I mean, I could imagine his kind of analysis being complicated in that way and raising questions about the intervention. Again, I have no clue as to …

MR. BROOKS: Right. But I mentioned that satanic about the Soviet Union because he does introduce the idea there are some foes, which are uniquely and totally hostile to you in moral value.

MR. DIONNE: But he was against the Vietnam War.

MR. BROOKS: Right. Right.

MR. DIONNE: And so, again, he was anti-Communist, but believed that that war was wrong and counter-productive.

MR. BROOKS: Right.

MR. BROOKS: So that’s kind of Niebuhr …

MS. TIPPETT: He looks closely at the particular circumstances of each crisis.


MS. TIPPETT: There’s this line from Irony of American History, “We are drawn into a historic situation in which the paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a here of global insecurity.” I mean, that could apply as much to global terrorism as to Communism.

MR. KESSLER: “In writing the Constitution, Madison was sensitive to the fact that men are not angels. How would you compare this idea to Niebuhr’s approach?”

MR. BROOKS: Again, it’s a group of people — and I made this crack about Lincoln — it’s a group of people who have this tragic view of human nature. I was actually, for something else I was working on, I was running across an exchange of letters that Madison had with Jefferson. I think I’ve got this right. And Jefferson wanted the U.S. Constitution to be repealed every 19 years on the grounds that no generation should bind another generation. And now I’m beginning to doubt whether it was Madison or Adams. But anyway, the opposing view, which is the darker view, is that are you crazy?


MR. BROOKS: We do no create our own lives. We are the inheritors and must be the inheritors of vast reservoirs of institutions, because we are simply not capable of it. And that’s a humility that grows out of a tragic condition. And then what’s always struck me is that out of that humility you get a guy who writes a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man, my favorite book title of all time. Because after you’ve written that book what else is left to say?


MR. BROOKS: But I do think that Madison and Adams, if we want to throw him in, and Lincoln and I would say Burke and others and even a contemporary, Isaiah Berlin, you see this strain that runs across many people, the Utopianism that was floating around those days with this idea that the whole world doesn’t go together, that all good values don’t go together.

MR. DIONNE: Just very quickly on the Madison point. I like to do this every so often because it makes me sound more intelligent. I like to read a great passage from Lincoln’s second inaugural, because it goes to this Madisonian-Niebuhr point. Many of you know it. “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” He’s speaking of the North and the South. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.” And Niebuhr said that this passage, and I’m quoting Niebuhr now, “puts the relation of our moral commitments in history to our religious reservations about the partiality of our own moral commitments more precisely than I think any statesman or theologian has put them.” And I think this is that Madison-Lincoln-Niebuhr marriage. Or, I guess that’s polygamy, isn’t it?


MS. TIPPETT: E.J. Dionne in conversation with David Brooks before a live audience last month at Georgetown University.

Michael Kessler of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown is moderating questions from the audience.

MR. KESSLER: “Is there anyone in current American political discourse in thought and culture who might be compared to Niebuhr, who might be the next person with influence like Niebuhr?”


MR. DIONNE: Oh, god. Not so. David. Krista Tippett.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right.

MR. BROOKS: Well, I have one quick answer about that, which is that my favorite period of American social science is the period roughly between ’55 and ’65. And this was a period when you had a series of public intellectuals who were not lost in academic disciplines, but who are much higher-brow than your average journalist. And there was a whole community of people like this and whether it was Reisman or Digby Baltzell, or you know even Irving Kristol, there are a whole group of people. And Niebuhr was writing for this audience. And in this audience, you could title a book called The Nature and Destiny of Man and people wouldn’t laugh at you because they were used to certain big daring thoughts. And so, in my view, he came out of that sort of tradition. In my view, people like that today are either lost to the academy, and I didn’t mean lost in a negative way …


MR. BROOKS: … but they’re writing books like “Heart and Soul, Indian Basketweaving in 1624,” which are specialized. Or they’re lost to journalism and, you know, we cover the stimulus package and what Keith Olbermann said last night. Or they’re doing something else. So I just think the milieu that created these big daring public intellectuals just isn’t there right now.

MR. DIONNE: But it’s also, I wonder, how we sort of receive these folks. You know, I can think of thinkers that are important to me, people like Michael Walzer, Mike Sandel, Jean. You know, they are public intellectuals of a very high caliber who think, I think, in a serious moral way, who are accessible. And yet you wonder about the nature of the media at the time because it did seem that in — I mean, Niebuhr was on the cover of Timemagazine. Paul Tillich was on the cover of Time magazine. I don’t know if Heschel was ever on the cover of Time.

MR. BROOKS: No. Time had a weekly theology page.


MR. BROOKS: Every week they had a theology page.

MR. DIONNE: And we have had serious theologians in our time. We could probably go through a significant list. And I’m wondering what it is about the public culture, because I don’t think it’s that those folks don’t exist. I think, in fact, the tendency toward narrow specialization that you described over a period, I think the academy is breaking out of that again. But it would be very hard to be Reinhold Niebuhr right now.

MS. TIPPETT: I also think that the question who is the Niebuhr of our day may not be the most interesting question. I mean, you could not and should not have a white male Midwestern Protestant theologian who had such a privileged voice. You know, even if media was receptive to that kind of discussion. But isn’t it fascinating that we have an African-American, in fact biracial, president whose parents were Muslim and atheist who is a Christian realist? I mean, I think that is what we need to look at to open our imaginations about what the Niebuhr of our day will look like, and I think it’s going to be a very multiply-articulated diverse thing.

MR. DIONNE: But I think he could be white, Protestant Midwestern. He could be that or he could be African-American. I mean, Martin Luther King’s religious writings and some of his sermons have, partly because he was a student of Niebuhr, partly because he had his own thoughts from his struggle, he was this kind of public intellectual who is also an activist. So I think you could reproduce Niebuhr, but it could also be someone else. It could be an Indian immigrant.

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t think it’s going to be one person in one place. You know, I think there are going to be many Niebuhrs in different communities.

MR. DIONNE: But there were at the time. I mean, in fairness we are Niebuhr obsessed. I mean, there are people here who were Tillich obsessed. There were John Courtney Murray, who in Catholic school was a pretty important world-changing public figure in certain ways. Heschel. But I think we’re just talking about someone who played a very particular role.

MR. BROOKS: But it is true there was authority granted to people like that because of the publicly understood role of the intellectual, whether as Lionel Trilling or Niebuhr or somebody like that. No one has that authority today.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think the relative homogeneity of the culture as well compared to now.

MR. DIONNE: Maybe. Or maybe it’s just Time magazine.


MS. TIPPETT: I am going to let Reinhold Niebuhr have the last word from this sweet battered library book, The Irony of American History.

“We cannot expect even the wisest of nations to escape every peril of moral and spiritual complacency for nations have always been constitutionally self-righteous. But it will make a difference whether the culture in which the policies of nations are formed is only as deep and as high as the nation’s highest ideals, or whether there is a dimension in the culture from the standpoint of which the element of vanity and all human ambitions and achievements is discerned. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning and the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”

Well, I think this has been a thrilling discussion. Thank you, E.J. Thank you, David.


MS. TIPPETT: David Brooks is a biweekly op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His most recent book is On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now and Always Have in the Future Tense.

E.J. Dionne is an op-ed columnist with The Washington Post, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His recent book is Sold Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right.

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MS. TIPPETT: We captured this live event on film for you to watch. Download audio or video of our unedited 90-minute conversation for free as well as this produced program through our podcast, e-mail newsletter, and Web site, speakingoffaith.org.

Also, our “Repossessing Virtue” series, exploring the moral and spiritual aspects of economic downturn, continues with novelist Anchee Min. She grew up during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. Listen to her challenging assessment of American reactions to these times. Look for links to this pioneering project with many other wise voices on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.

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MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, and with help from Amara Hark-Weber and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. A special thanks for this program to Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, especially Michael Kessler and Amanda Gant. Thanks also go to Jean Bethke Elshtain, Randall Newman, and Marc Zielinski. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith.

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