Blogs > Cliopatria > Mac McCorkle: Review of Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original, ed. by Daniel Rice with an introduction by Martin E. Marty

Oct 17, 2009 4:08 pm

Mac McCorkle: Review of Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited: Engagements with an American Original, ed. by Daniel Rice with an introduction by Martin E. Marty

[Mac McCorkle is a Democratic political consultant from Durham, N.C. who was a fellow this spring at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J. His essay"On Recent Political Uses of Reinhold Niebuhr" will appear in the forthcoming Reinhold NIebuhr and Contemporary Politics (2010) edited by Richard Harries and Stephen Platten.]

A melodramatic summary of this book could be entitled Revenge of the Liberal Niebuhrians.

Opponents can justifiably complain that it amounts to a conscious effort by remaining elder Niebuhrian eminences -- and some new fellow-travelers -- to secure their mentor's high status in the American canons of liberal intellectual, theological, and political thought. And these Niebuhrians are adept in going about their business.

Since Niebuhr's death in 1971, struggle on two different fronts has raged over his legacy. The ferocity and overlapping nature of the two debates led to quite a murky portrait of the politically-minded theologian.   

On the one hand, a tug-of-war has taken place over the ideological nature of Niebuhr's legacy. In order to justify their break with liberal reform, such neo-conservatives as Catholic theorist Michael Novak have invoked Niebuhr's emphasis on original sin, his relentless critique of progressive utopianism, and his Cold War anti-communism. 

Liberal Niebuhrians have cried foul -- insisting that, despite his constantly dialectical mind, their mentor did not go and would never have gone over to the conservative side. And they have pointed out that Niebuhr specifically testified to "my strong conviction that a realist conception of human nature should be made the servant of an ethic of progressive justice and should not be made into a bastion of conservatism."

The other front, which brewed for a long time but especially caught fire in the 1990s, was not over how Niebuhr legacy's should be preserved but whether Niebuhr's legacy was worth preserving. 

At the end of the decade, during his Gifford Lecture at Scotland's St. Andrews University, the polemically-minded but pacifist Stanley Hauerwas charged that his Gifford Lecture predecessor of 1939 had ended up as little more than a secular establishment toady cloaked in religious garb.  And in the field of intellectual history, younger scholar Eugene McCarraher even dismissed Niebuhr's 1930s radical manifesto Moral Man andImmoral Society as a warm-up for his subsequent role as a "pontifex maximus to Cold War liberals." 

Liberal and neo-con Niebuhrians united in outrage over the charges that he was hardly a Christian and a minor-league thinker to boot. Nevertheless, as the 21st century began, liberal Niebuhrians seemed rather besieged if not beleaguered by their two-front challenge. 

Then as with so many other things big and small, September 11, 2001 changed the intellectual dynamic on Niebuhr's legacy. While the mass-murder terrorist attack on American soil obviously rocked the anti-Niebuhrian pacifist position, soon thereafter the Bush administration's overreach in Iraq discredited the neo-conservative vision of a new global Pax Americana. 

In contrast, the liberal Niebuhrian emphasis on avoiding the extremes of anti-statism and the heavy-handed state in foreign as well as domestic policy again seemed like the sensible intellectual position just as during the Cold War era. A renewed wisdom now seemed to reside in such Niebuhr formulations as "man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." 

And in 2007, while starting his historic ascent to the presidency, Barack Obama affirmed that Niebuhr was one of his favorite political philosophers. The theologian, according to the presidential candidate, understood that "serious evil in the world" had to be combated but could not be eliminated and thus that reform efforts had to avoid "swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."

With all that intellectual momentum in the background,  the essays in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited impressively reconstruct his political theology while also providing specific
analyses of his views on such topics as democracy, pacifism, war, foreign policy, and American politics and culture. Although taking occasional side shots at his prominent critics, the contributors mainly glide through explorations and explications of Niebuhr's thought.

The contributors avoid the suggestion that Niebuhr was flawless -- which would be an odd position for followers of a thinker who emphasized all of humanity's imperfection and constantly acknowledged shortcomings in his own thought. Yet they make a pretty impressive case that Niebuhr cannot be fairly embraced or dismissed as a cheerleader for American civil religion, capitalism, or militarism.

A majority of the book's nineteen essays come from theological scholars. But there is a mix of historians and political scientists as well. And the essay of historian David Noble is a clear sign of the changing times in favor of Niebuhr's liberal legacy.

In his 1985 historiographical study The End of History, Noble expressed mild appreciation for Niebuhr's warnings in such works as The Irony of American History (1952) about American blinders in world affairs. Far more vehemently Noble ripped Niebuhr for becoming "a conservative defender of the American status quo." Noble even seemed to agree with New Left historian William Appleman Williams' proclamation that in religious terms Niebuhr amounted to a "heretic."

Yet Noble in his essay here hails President Obama's embrace of Niebuhr and excuses Niebuhr's "uncharacteristically optimistic" attitude in Irony about American capability to accept limits to its power. He ends his contribution by declaring himself  "grateful" for the continuance of the Niebuhrian tradition's effort "to teach us all to accept irony and limits so we might avoid the inevitable tragedy that will follow any claim to omnipotence."

Not surprisingly, criticisms of Niebuhr in this collection have a certain air-brushed quality to them. The common technique is to historicize Niebuhr's shortcomings by acknowledging that he was, in Noble's words, "a participant in the culture of his generation." That is the main reason given for Niebuhr's political theology not being sympathetic enough to the plight of the Palestinians (Ronald Stone), too apologetic in defense of religious orthodoxy and too hostile toward critics of organized religion (Henry B. Clark), and too harsh on his liberal Social Gospel elders (Gary Dorrien).

Only theologian Robin Lovin directly acknowledges that Niebuhr actually fell behind the times on such an important issue as civil rights for African-Americans. During the 1950s, Reverend Martin Luther King and his lieutenants found great inspiration in the prophetic call for a strategy of non-violent resistance that Niebuhr made two decades before in Moral Man. But when King asked him to sign a petition to President Eisenhower on behalf of federal enforcement of desegregation in Little Rock's public schools, Niebuhr refused.

On the one hand, as Lovin acknowledges, Niebuhr in the 1950s was overly concerned about white backlash. Yet Niebuhr was also too sensitive to the presidential prospects of Democrat Adlai Stevenson and the danger of alienating the Southern wing of the Democratic coalition.   

Niebuhr even criticized Eisenhower for ultimately deciding to send in federal troops to Little Rock. He was not alone among intellectuals -- Hannah Arendt penned an essay in opposition to the federal intervention there. But Niebuhr's position on Little Rock still put him to the right of Republican Eisenhower.

In an inadvertent way, however, the collection as a whole arguably slights Niebhur's legacy by largely stopping with the 1950s. That is understandable because Niebuhr suffered a physically debilitating stroke the year that Irony was published (1952) and his subsequent books do not evidence major changes in his thought.

Yet as historian Mark Hulsether notes in passing, Niebuhr definitely took a "moderate left turn" during the 1960s" in his political journalism and activities. (Contributor Martin Halliwell also emphasized this point a few years ago in his  provocative TheConstant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture but does not repeat it here.)

It appears that the prophetic example of Martin Luther King in particular re-awoke Niebuhr to new openings and possibilities on the political landscape and made him grow less solicitous toward the incrementalism of mainstream statesmen. By 1966 Niebuhr was claiming King to be "the most creative Protestant, white or black." He endorsed  King's opposition to the Vietnam War and even dismissed the significance to his differences with King's pacifism. The exasperated conservative theologian Paul Ramsey remarked that "Reinhold Niebuhr signs petitions and editorials as if Reinhold Niebuhr never existed."           

Recognition of his movement to recapture the prophetic outsider spirit during the 1960s complicates an already complex Niebuhr legacy. But it makes his legacy even richer than is otherwise expertly laid out in Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited.

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Cherine Munkholt - 12/8/2009

The phenomenon of Reinhold Niebuhr is indeed a riddle: from time to time one side or the other in the political sprectrum dusts him off the shelf and uses or abuses him at will.A truly fascinating human being!

Alonzo Hamby - 12/7/2009

Thanks for a fine review article that reminds us of Neibuhr's importance while capturing the complexity of his legacy.

I think it also reminds us that Niebuhr was BOTH a philosopher and a political activist responding to concrete situations and issues--a "moral man" (to borrow from one of his most famous titles) engaged with the world around him. If from time to time that engagement made him seem inconsistent, he was hardly the first intellectual who had to deal with such dilemmas.

That said, his strictures about human nature remain a legacy that liberals today, as in the 1930s and 1940s, ignore at their peril.