This post first appeared on July 14 as an op-ed article on the opinion page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Race and gender may have been the most visible currents in the 2008 presidential primaries, but what really unsettled the political waters was a riptide of religion. Beginning in March, a maelstrom encircled Barack Obama’s relationship with his pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
It started when ABC News discovered some of Wright’s old sermons. Cable news channels were soon repeatedly running video clips of the pastor’s most racially inflammatory and anti-American remarks. Given this negative coverage and a subsequent dip in the polls, Obama had little choice but to condemn Wright’s “incendiary language” but he refused to disown the man.
Just as this political firestorm was about to burn out, the recently retired pastor embarked on a five-day publicity tour, concluding on April 28 with an appearance before the National Press Club. In a performance described by a Newsweek columnist as a “public murder-suicide attempt,” Wright seemed as intent on damaging Obama as he was in defending himself.
Obama reacted with uncharacteristic anger. Within a month, Barack and Michelle Obama had resigned from Trinity. In their resignation letter they wrote, “Our faith remains strong and we will find another church home for our family.” On Father’s Day, Obama gave the sermon at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God.
Wright may have been Barack’s pastor for nearly two decades, but it is now obvious that he’s never been Obama’s theologian.
David Brooks of The New York Times interviewed Obama last year. The columnist asked the candidate if he had ever read Reinhold Niebuhr. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers,” he said. Brooks asked what Obama took away from Niebuhr:
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 from naïve ideaism to bitter realism.
“My first impression was . . . that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History,” wrote Brooks. “My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle.”
Who was Reinhold Niebuhr? From the 1930s through the 1960s, he was arguably the nation’s most influential theologian and political theorist. For three decades after his death in 1971, Niebuhr’s influence steadily declined in both ecclesiastical and civic circles. Nearly all of his books had gone out of print.
This was quite a tumble in status for a public intellectual who in 1948 graced the cover of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary edition as America’s “No. 1 Theologian.” His crossover popularity was so great that a Harvard critic once joked about “atheists for Niebuhr” clubs.
It’s ironic that it took the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent debate over terrorism to resurrect Niebuhr—Paul Elie argues that he has become “a man for all reasons.” New acolytes include a Noah’s Ark of ideological warriors: neoconservatives, liberal hawks, military revisionists, anti-war leftists, theoconservatives and religious liberals.
Each of these factions claims him as their own. Regrettably, most of these latter-day disciples are seeking sound bites rather than subtlety. “Niebuhr was always finding troubling questions,” wrote one scholar, “where even his friends found easy answers.”
No single work of Niebuhr’s does justice to the range and depth of his unique fusion of religious faith and power politics. Nevertheless, if you are among those many readers of the past two generations who have never made the acquaintance of Pastor Niebuhr, The Irony of American History is the place to start.
As an interpretation of our national heritage, Irony stands alongside the masterpieces of Beard, Du Bois, Miller, Hofstadter and Williams. Even so, portions of a book written early in the Cold War are unavoidably seasonal.
What is perennial about Niebuhr is a style of thought—and his ironic mind is most evident in the first and last chapters. In the alpha and the omega, he sketches an existential drama that is born of the human condition. Niebuhr appropriates the ideas of tragedy, pathos and irony to portray three enduring theories of human nature and destiny. With Abraham Lincoln as his exemplar, the preacher casts his lot with irony:
The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capacities. The wrong use is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but also a creature.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The two omnipresent parties of History, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, divide society today as of old.”
The literary critic R.W.B. Lewis has argued that these polarized perspectives don’t account for those thinkers who “seemed skeptically sympathetic toward both parties and managed to be confined by neither.”
To accommodate those intellectual innovators who periodically challenge our taken-for-granted beliefs, Lewis suggested creating a third party. Like Lincoln, Niebuhr and Martin Luther King before him, Barack Obama is today’s standard-bearer for Lewis’s “party of Irony.”