Family Research Council
REVISITING REINHOLD NIEBUHR'S The Irony of American History

Wilfred M. McClay

I was first scheduled to present this lecture on September 14 on the subject of "the use and abuse of public religion."1 That lecture was cancelled, of course, for reasons you know all too well. And, as you can imagine, even if I had been able to travel here to deliver it, and even if you had been there in the audience to hear it, what I had to say might have seemed crushingly irrelevant. It would have come at the wrong moment-a moment when the fabric of civilization itself seemed threatened, and many of us struggled against successive waves of grief and fury. Even now, two months later, we Americans are not yet at the point where we can resume a lively discussion about renegotiating the boundaries between religion and public life, the discussion in which we were engaged before the mass murders of September 11. God willing, that discussion will resume eventually, and perhaps sooner than we think.
In fact, that discussion is not nearly as irrelevant as it might seem at the moment. There is a strong connection between my former, discarded topic and today's. Both present us with a common theme, and a common problem-the Christian faith's complicated, and often paradoxical, relationship to this world. What I will speak about today is a fifty-year-old book, often dismissed today as a mere artifact of the Cold War, written by a theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, whom I often find reason to regard with suspicion. And yet it seems important to do so, though, because his book The Irony of American History was the very book I pulled down from my shelves on September 11, to help me begin to make sense of what had happened that day. It was a fortunate choice. There is nothing more astonishing than the experience of reading an old book, particularly a profound one, in the heightened light of pressing events. This is one of the great gifts that an acquaintance with great books can bring one over the course of many years. Our education is in part a matter of laying away goods for some future contingency. Niebuhr's book came into my hand at just the right moment, in just such a way-a book that had meant little to me before now helped me to understand some part of how a Christian should look at these events.
What does it mean to interpret current events and history through Christian eyes? This is a very complicated matter, precisely because the Christian faith has such a complicated, often paradoxical, relationship to this world. Christianity is an incarnational faith, which means that it is neither entirely transcendent nor entirely worldly in character. It steadily partakes of both. The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us. And Christianity departs from its true nature when it leans too much in the direction of one or the other polarity, overemphasizing either the transcendent or the worldly. Both deserve to receive their proper weight. And the most influential of the classic Christian heresies are traceable not to wild-eyed distortions of orthodox doctrine but to more subtle errors of imbalance and one-sidedness. Arianism denied Christ's divine nature; Docetism denied his human nature. Each fell short of a full Christian understanding by failing to embrace the entire meaning of the Incarnation.
Christians are to cherish the world, then, and accord it a high degree of respect in keeping with the majesty and dignity of its Maker. This injunction applies not only to the things of nature, which is relatively easy, but also to the things of man, which can be rather more challenging-especially when one is talking about the realm of politics. Yet it is required. It is easy for us to see God's hand in a beautiful sunset, but rather harder to see it operating at meetings of the local Board of Public Works, let alone the United States Congress. Yet Jesus' great saying about the need to distinguish between what is Caesar's and what is God's is, among other things, a remarkable endorsement of the legitimacy of secular political authority. As such, it serves as a basis for one of the great distinguishing marks of Christianity: Caesar is accorded his own proper sphere of influence. We sometimes fail to take in the full significance of that fact, even though it is explicitly confirmed in the language of Romans 13. But Jesus' words also amount to an unyielding declaration, regarding the impassable limits upon Caesar's authority. So the honor and respect accorded the world, and its worldly authorities, are genuine but finite. And they become wrongheaded, sinful, and idolatrous if allowed to extend further than is their due.
The principle is clear enough. But sorting out the specific and practical implications of this position has always been exceedingly difficult. Just what does it mean, practically speaking, to be in the world but not of it? What are we to do when our Caesars turn vicious or corrupt? Why couldn't Jesus have given us more specific details, instead of all those elusive parables? Why didn't he spell out his positions on war, representative democracy, capitalism, the death penalty, term limits, and the Electoral College? But he didn't, and it seems the better part of wisdom to assume that the omission was intentional. Christ did not come to put an end to politics-at least not yet. We are not meant to rest easy in a faith that is reducible to a set of neat and inert propositions. We are meant to wrestle with this tense duality of flesh and spirit through all the days of our earthly lives-as even Jesus himself did in his own-and in the process we will be forced to fall back on the grace and mercy and unfathomable riches of God for guidance. Somehow, mysteriously, the endless wrestling of flesh and spirit is what shapes the character God wants to build in us, a character both humble and resilient.
EVERY DAY IS A GOOD DAY TO BE BORN . . . AND TO DIE
As part of this, we wrestle with the meaning of human history. There is no doubt that Christians and Jews accord singular importance to history, since they believe that God's purposes for humanity are expressed in the unfolding of time. They also believe that God intervenes in human history in ways both large and small-not only, let us say, to decide the fate of great wars, but also to heal the sicknesses of the lowly and bless the marriages of the historically obscure. It is not always clear which of these interventions is the more important, in the context of a faith that constantly delights in ironic reversals of status, and contends that the last shall be first, and the first last; and that the stone that was rejected shall become the cornerstone.
In other words, even for a historical and incarnational religion like Christianity, the meaning of human history must sometimes be sought outside of history, where it is revealed rather than discovered. The entire pageant of human history, painstakingly assembled by generations of historians, with all its glittering panoply of great eras, large events, and major figures, may be no more important in the mind of God than the plight of the single sparrow that falls to the earth. Perhaps even less so. We should remember that, and should accordingly have a keen sense of modesty about our grasp of the ultimate meaning of history-and of history's relation, if any, to the ultimate. We should be diligent in searching for meaning in history, but be modest and skeptical about what we believe we have found therein. After all, we might be wrong. God may have something new and unexpected up his sleeve.
That modesty should extend, I believe, to our efforts to discern rightly the meaning of particular events, such as those that we now denote by the date of September 11, 2001. It may be partly sheer peevishness on my part, but when I hear people like CNN's Larry King refer to September 11 as "the day that changed America forever," and when I hear him proclaim that the horrors of that day constitute "the most important event in the history of the United States," I wince.2 It's partly because such portentous statements seem weightless and implausible coming out of the mouths of people for whom "history" is whatever happened two weeks ago, the same people who will be likely to assure us in their next breath that Britney Spears, or some other confection du jour, is the greatest pop singer "of all time." Imagine that. All time. That term might even span as much as a whole decade.
But more seriously, it seems utterly wrong to say that "everything changed." I don't mean in saying this to minimize the shocking character of what happened. But it is possible to be shocked without being surprised. Did we learn something new about human nature on September 11? Something we did not know before about the darkness of the human heart, the danger of our world, or the fragility of our lives? Surely the answer to all these questions ought to be obvious. No, if there is any emotion or impression that ought to predominate in us at this time, it is the sense of having awakened from a deep sleep. Those of you who have lived only two decades can be forgiven for thinking that the world has changed. For you, it has indeed. But the Larry Kings of the world ought to know better. It is not the world itself, but rather our understanding of the world, that has changed. We woke up.
Christians in particular ought to have the distinct sensation not merely of awakening, but of being reminded of things that they already knew, and might otherwise have preferred to forget. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his splendid 1939 essay, "Learning in War-Time," the coming of war does not transform life in any fundamental way. Instead, he insisted,
it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. . . . We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal.3
War taunts us with overwhelming evidence of our impotence in the face of death-death, both as a reality that each and every one of us faces, and death as a symbol for the ultimate futility of all schemes for earthly perfection and human mastery. For Christians, such a reminder is particularly apropos-even crucial. Lewis well expresses why:
War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.4
Let us leave aside all the pat speculations about the larger meanings of September 11, many of which have been irresponsible and self-serving, the product of foolishness or opportunism rather than wisdom. Here, by contrast, is a meaning that is plain and unmistakable. Nothing we can say or do can justify the carnage, explain it away, or right the wrong that has been done. But we can at least take away from it all an intensified awareness of our real condition-the bad news without which the good news of the Gospel is meaningless. And perhaps with that, we can also take away a fresh awareness that the Christian faith can be tougher, more realistic, and more resilient than we ever thought possible-far more tough, realistic, and resilient than its secular competitors.
Plato's Socrates asserted that the chief aim of philosophy was learning how to die. This is a noble and profound notion, and a challenging one. But it is only a part of the truth. It leans, as all Platonism does, too far to the transcendent side of things. It bespeaks a yearning to escape the pain of impermanence by fleeing the flesh altogether. That is only part of the Christian insight. Even suicide bombers have learned how to die. For us, though, learning how to die must also mean learning how to live. Not only in the heroic moments, when all of the light of life suddenly bears brilliantly upon a single point. And not only in moments of profound renunciation or detachment, when the light of the world grows dim and feeble. But also in the texture of ordinary life, when our duties are humdrum, our passions are mundane, our horizons are diffuse, and no one is watching or keeping score. It also means steadfastly honoring the flesh, not abandoning it, at least not until the appointed time to do so has arrived. Pope John XXIII put it very well, on his deathbed, when he declared that "every day is a good day to be born, every day is a good day to die."5 The Christian should be equally prepared for either one. The Christian life is equal parts life and death, death and life, flesh and spirit, tenderness and steel.
RICH & REALISTIC CHRISTIANITY
Christianity, then, is grounded in a uniquely complex view of our human nature-far more complex, I would argue, than its secular equivalents. And no modern theologian has better captured this tensive complexity, and more compellingly rendered the underlying tough-mindedness of the Christian faith, than Reinhold Niebuhr-arguably the outstanding American public theologian of the twentieth century. Niebuhr had an unusually long and productive career, churning out innumerable books, articles, reviews, sermons, speeches, pamphlets, and other writings in the years between the First World War and the Vietnam War. He was not merely a theologian of great distinction, but a public intellectual of the first order, who addressed himself to the full range of public concerns. He had a mind of enormous scope and ambition, and there is hardly an issue of importance-political, social, economic, cultural, or spiritual-that he did not discuss in his many works. His book The Irony of American History has particular relevance at this historical moment. To understand why we must look into Niebuhr's background.
Born in 1891 in rural Missouri, Niebuhr was the son of a German immigrant pastor affiliated with a tiny Protestant denomination known as the German Evangelical Synod.6 Reinhold inherited from his father not only a strong sense of theological vocation, but a keen interest in social and political concerns. As a consequence of that influence, as well as his two years at Yale Divinity School, Niebuhr began his career as a devotee of the Social Gospel. This was the movement within liberal Protestantism that located the Gospel's meaning in its promise as a blueprint for progressive social reform, rather than in its assertions about the nature of supernatural reality. Social Gospelers were modernists who had largely dismissed the authority of the Bible and the historical creeds. But they insisted that the heart of the Christian gospel could still be preserved by being "socialized," i.e., translated into the language of scientific social reform. As Walter Rauschenbusch, perhaps the leading figure in the Social Gospel movement, once put it, "we have the possibility of so directing religious energy by scientific knowledge that a comprehensive and continuous reconstruction of social life in the name of God is within the bounds of human possibility."7 The Kingdom of God was not reserved for the beyond, but could be created in the here, and now, by social scientists and ministers working hand in hand.
Niebuhr soon grew impatient with this kind of talk. He found the progressive optimism undergirding the Social Gospel to be utterly naive about the intractability of human nature, and therefore inadequate to the task of explaining the nature of power relations in the real world. Sin, he concluded, was not merely a byproduct of bad but correctible social institutions. Sin was something much deeper than that, something inherent in the human condition, something social institutions were powerless to reform. In what was perhaps his single most important book, with the revealing title Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932 in the depths of the Depression, Niebuhr turned the Social Gospelers' emphasis on its head, arguing that there was an inescapable disjuncture between the morality governing the lives of individuals and the morality of groups, and that the latter was generally inferior to the former. Individuals could transcend their self-interest only rarely, but groups of individuals, especially groups such as nation-states, never could. In short, groups generally made individuals morally worse, rather than better, for the work of collectives was inevitably governed by a brutal logic of self-interest.
Niebuhr dismissed as mere sentimentality the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands beside the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.
This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.
But Niebuhr insisted that the Christian life nevertheless requires us to embrace both parts of that formulation. Notwithstanding the more flattering preferences of liberal theologians, the doctrine of original sin was profoundly and essentially true, and its probative value was confirmed empirically every day. Man is a sinner in his deepest nature. But man is not merely a sinner. He is also a splendidly endowed creature formed in God's image, still capable of acts of wisdom, generosity, and truth, and still able to advance the cause of social improvement. All these assertions are true. All have an equivalent claim on the Christian mind and heart. In insisting upon such a complex formulation, Niebuhr was correcting the Social Gospel's erroneous attempt to collapse or resolve the tension at the heart of the Christian vision of things.
SOCIAL HUMILITY IN WARTIME
With The Irony of American History, Niebuhr expanded this same tension into a consideration of America's role in the world. Published in 1952, at the height of the Cold War, The Irony of American History was a stinging attack on Communism-and at the same time, a stinging indictment of American moral complacency, and a warning against the moral failings to which that complacency made America vulnerable. Once again, Niebuhr was fighting on two fronts at once. Indeed, despite his passionate and unyielding opposition to the Communist cause, Niebuhr also believed that the United States resembled its antagonist more than it cared to imagine, and much of the book is devoted to making that case. Americans rightly complained of the Communists' dogmatic commitment to "philosophical materialism," the notion that mind is the fruit of matter, and culture the fruit of economics. But, as Niebuhr pointed out, Americans could be said to be equally committed to materialism in practice. Here is a statement that rings even truer today than in 1952: "Despite the constant emphasis upon 'the dignity of man' in our own liberal culture," Niebuhr contended, "its predominant naturalistic bias frequently results in views of human nature in which the dignity of man is not very clear."8 To which one can only nod assent.
This tendency toward materialism was not the greatest of America's moral dangers. Even more perilous, Niebuhr thought, was one of our principal points of pride: the deeply entrenched idea that America has a providential mission to fulfill in the history of the world, and that our nation is rendered uniquely virtuous and innocent by the blessings of that history.9 Such a conviction permeated the history of the early republic. The Calvinist tradition, exemplified by the Puritans of New England, cast America in the role of a New Zion in the wilderness, a land of spiritual renewal for the entire human race. The Jeffersonian tradition viewed America as nature's nation, a place free of the encumbrances and tyrannies of older civilizations, where the New Man of a democratic future would be forged. At the core of American national vanity was the conviction that it was the nation of the new beginning. Even Abraham Lincoln, who was a political realist, called America "the last, best hope of mankind," words that convey the enormous cosmic consequences thought to be at stake in the American experiment. Even the more purely secular understandings of the national destiny carry much of this same messianic flavor.
Niebuhr did not deny the considerable elements of truth behind these assertions of American virtue and preeminence. And he would have been the last person to embrace a facile argument for the "moral equivalency" of the two sides. He did not deny the greatness of America. But he also insisted that the American nation's belief that it had turned its back on the vices of Europe and made a new beginning for human history was not only naive but dangerous. It laid America wide-open to the worst dangers of spiritual pride, precisely by blinding it to the moral failings that have marked its history, as they do any nation's history. Could a source of strength thus become transformed into a source of weakness? That is what Niebuhr meant by the irony of American history-the tendency of American civilization to allow the decency of its motives and the nobility of its intentions to blind it to the sins and errors to which it is prone, and thereby allow its virtue to become the source of its vice. It was an irony because it was the inadvertent, unconscious, and unanticipated consequence of good intentions, rather than the conscious doing of evil for the sake of a larger good, which he designated as tragedy.10
So, he believed, the nation needs to be more rigorously self-critical in its exercise of its power. If this was all Niebuhr had to say about the matter, though, he would sound no different than any number of vocal critics of American civilization, then and now. But he said something more. He added that America also had to act in the world, and do so effectively. Indeed, it had no choice but to do so. Just as the sinful and imperfect Christian is obliged to work intently for the cause of good, despite his incapacities, so a morally imperfect America was and is obliged to employ its power decisively in the world. Opting-out is not an option; or rather, it is an option that is just as perilous as the alternatives it would avoid. Niebuhr puts it this way:
Our culture knows little of the use and abuse of power; but we [now] have to use power in global terms. Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.11
Needless to say, Niebuhr rejects either of these "idealistic" options, which correspond roughly to attitudes of isolationism and amoral self-righteousness, and continues thus:
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 whereby the exercise of power is legitimatized.12
Be wise as serpents, when needs be, Niebuhr seems to be saying. But know that you are being serpentine when you so act, and never cease to yearn for the purity of the dove.
Niebuhr concluded The Irony of American History by invoking the example of Lincoln, whose Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War exemplifies the doubleness of vision for which a Niebuhrian statesman should strive. Lincoln's great speech was notable for its unwillingness to demonize or diminish the soon-to-be-defeated enemy, and for its tempering of moral resoluteness by a broadly religious sense of a larger, imponderable dimension to the struggle. "Both sides," Lincoln famously declared, "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."13 The vantage-point of a God who loves all his creatures was vastly greater than that envisioned by any fallible human cause.
Nothing in Lincoln's words suggests even a hint of faltering in the ultimate goal of destroying the Confederacy and reuniting the nation. And yet, the speech suggests not only Lincoln's great charity for the enemy, but also his keen awareness of the arrogance, blindness, or triumphalism to which his own side was susceptible, flaws that might beget precisely the ironic effects that Niebuhr feared and deplored. That Lincoln himself may not have been entirely innocent of such flaws, and that his conduct of the war necessarily involved him in inflicting wounds that would be painfully slow to heal, only underscores the truth of his words. There was no morally pure path open to him. There never is.
EVERY HUMAN ENTERPRISE IS DESTINED FOR SHIPWRECK
What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War, though similar in requiring patience, persistence, and firm resolution? First and foremost, it is appropriate for Christians to support this war against global terrorism. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so. Niebuhr was no pacifist, and would not have been one in this case. War is one of the instances in which the use of coercive power to counter coercion is tragic but necessary. I suspect that Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush's remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past two months-though perhaps with one exception. I suspect that he would not have approved of the president's frequent use of the language of pure and unadulterated evil to describe our foe. I suspect he would say this for reasons that have less to do with the justice of our cause or the cowardly contemptibility of our foe, than with us. It is not good, he would say, to call Osama bin Laden "the evil one," a phrase deliberately suggestive of Satan-not so much because our opponent is not evil enough, but because we are not pure enough ourselves, and cannot honestly offer ourselves up as children of light, poised against the children of darkness.
I am not here expressing sympathy for the cheap anti-Americanism of the free-riding intellectual elites who disparage our country even as they benefit from its prosperity and freedom. I am not saying, as former President Clinton seemed to suggest, that the legacy of slavery and Indian removal somehow leaves us morally disarmed to act. I agree that our cause is just, and frankly feel a surge of profound moral assent when I hear our president say so, bluntly and confidently.
But I am saying this. On September 10, there were a number of us here in the United States who had grave, profound, and well-founded misgivings about the moral direction of our great country. The causes of those misgivings did not disappear along with the thousands whose lives were snuffed out on the following day. For all the talk of radical change, there is also a sense in which nothing has changed.
We should not draw the wrong conclusions from the current conflict. We should not imagine that the problems we criticized on September 10 have gone away. We should not imagine that, for example, the problems of the creeping medical and biotechnological degradation of human life-expressed in the seemingly unstoppable momentum of everything from abortion to euthanasia to physician-assisted suicide, to human cloning and embryonic stem-cell experimentation, and interventions beyond imaging that are lining up behind them, waiting only for sufficient funding and a sufficiently desensitized public mood-have disappeared. We cannot blame the Islamic world for these things. We should not imagine that a looming culture of death is what we are fighting for, when we fight to preserve our civilization. We should not fail to see, in fact, that the same prowess by which we will defeat mass murderers a world away is threatening us too, arising out of the very areas we think of as our greatest areas of strength-our scientific knowledge and technological skill.
This is precisely the kind of irony that Niebuhr homed in on, a manifest strength that becomes a dangerous weakness. And it is only one of many examples one could have cited: our immense material wealth, our commercial hegemony, our cultural dominance, our mastery of nature. America's "quest for happiness," he wrote, is suffused in irony, precisely because it has been so triumphant. We "succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life 'comfortable.'" But we have "tried too simply to make sense out of life, striving for harmonies between man and nature and man and society and man and his ultimate destiny, which have provisional but no ultimate validity." This has had an ironic result. "Our very success in this enterprise has hastened the exposure of its final limits."14 The "naturalistic bias" which has produced a condition in which the very genetic foundations of human personhood are viewed as malleable on the deepest level has indeed led to a view of human nature "in which the dignity of man is not very clear." Though we are united for now in striking back at a proximate enemy, there are issues brewing within our own house that should not be forgotten in the process, issues whose consequences may be far greater in the long run.
Nor should we allow ourselves to believe that in vanquishing this fanatical religious foe, what we are doing is striking a comprehensive blow against all forms of what is carelessly labeled "fundamentalism," making the world safe for secularism or for housebroken forms of religion-and for a whole set of values regarding the moral order of society that do not represent the core of our civilization. We should be very careful about permitting this war to be so defined, as a war of pure Enlightenment against the darkness of superstition. Here too Niebuhr, who was no fundamentalist, is extraordinarily valuable. For he understood the doctrine of original sin-or more precisely, the Christian understanding of human nature, with its dualities and tensions-as central to American democracy. As Niebuhr often said, it is man's capacity for reason and cooperation that makes democracy possible-and his susceptibility to sin that makes democracy necessary. Ironically, the doctrine of original sin is the best guarantor of the possibility of the improvement of the human race, since it offers us a truthful and realistic view of the crooked timber of humanity.
Without a broadly Biblical understanding of the sources of the dignity of the human person, it is hard to see how that dignity can continue to have a plausib