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Religious Realism

DURING HIS LIFETIME, John Patrick Diggins produced a seemingly unending stream of books, all of them marked by a rare combination of wide-ranging intellectual history and highly opinionated commentary. It comes as a welcome surprise to learn that the stream did not dry up with his death. His partner (Elizabeth Harlan), his former student (Robert Huberty), and his editor (Doug Mitchell) have combined to put out this slim, intriguing book on Reinhold Niebuhr.

Everyone seems to love Niebuhr these days, but not everyone gets him right. Especially when it comes to matters of foreign policy, where the stakes are often as high as they can be, intellectuals tend to get very serious. Niebuhr was of course serious, at times ponderous, himself. Yet he consistently warned against the kind of seriousness that dismisses the ironies inherent in human existence. Anyone who believes that either making war or making peace is relatively straightforward cannot appreciate the insights that Niebuhr left behind.

Diggins gets Niebuhr right because, like his subject, Diggins was never a person comfortable with the certainties of either anti-war leftism or triumphalist neo-conservatism. Progressivism, as the name implies, drew lines too straight for both men’s liking. At the same time, Diggins admired Ronald Reagan, the hero of many a neoconservative, but only because he believed that this most right-wing of presidents dreamed of a nuclear-free world. Whether or not Diggins was right about Reagan, he certainly writes in the same spirit as Niebuhr. With every rhetorical tool available to him, Niebuhr dismissed not only left-wing idealism but also the simplistic moralizing that passes for conservative foreign policy-making. For Niebuhr, as Diggins writes, “evil must be faced rather than denied”—but those determined to stare it down no matter what the consequences, like all of God’s creatures, suffer from the sin of pride. “Must we not warn victorious nations that they are wrong in regarding their victory as proof of their virtue,” Niebuhr wrote in 1948, “lest they engulf the world in a new chain of evil by their vindictiveness, which is nothing else than the fury of their self-righteousness?”  

Had he lived long enough to witness the American response to September 11, 2001, Niebuhr would have recoiled in shock. Unlike George W. Bush, who was capable of finding God on his side no matter which side he was on, Niebuhr, as Diggins rightly points out, “was a realist because he was religious.” If we need Niebuhr now, it is because that particular combination is no longer with us. Our realists are too cynical and focused on power in this world to acknowledge any higher authority. And all too many of our believers evoke God only to secure more power for the United States.    

Diggins’s chapter on domestic policy is skimpier, and less persuasive, than his reflections on foreign policy. It is true that Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Niebuhr’s influence. It is also the case that Niebuhrian theology upheld the dignity of work: the preacher from Detroit would be as appalled by tax cuts for the already rich as he would be by ringing endorsements of Manifest Destiny. It is not difficult to imagine a contemporary Niebuhr offering a powerful critique of the extraordinary, and extraordinarily immoral, turn the United States has taken toward gross inequality over the past decades.

For all that, however, leftist and liberal politics over the past half century have been primarily preoccupied with questions of identity. One religious writer who has given voice to the claims made by such movements is the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. Niebuhr’s gloomier Protestantism, by contrast, was never fully comfortable with movements inspired by conceptions of individual (and group) recognition. Put another way, Niebuhr, old-fashioned and filled with stiff-backboned integrity, found himself troubled by calls for personal autonomy such as those associated with feminism. Who knows what he would have concluded about gay marriage? There are times when the achievement of equality requires that individuals and groups take matters into their own hands, criticize the social norms and arrangements and even theological ideas that consign them to unequal status, and assert their right to live lives according to their best conception of the moral life. Call that a sinful will to power, as Niebuhr no doubt would have, and you would not be totally wrong—but you would miss the spiritual and material longings implicit in all such movements.

Niebuhr has become so lionized that we often fail to recognize his faults. Diggins is aware of them, but pays them insufficient attention. Although Niebuhr warned against American exceptionalism, he was not above a bit of Protestant triumphalism. In his Gifford lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man between 1941 and 1943, Niebuhr dismissed Catholicism (along with liberal Protestantism) as “semi-Pelagian,” meaning that it allowed too much space for free will. That position was, and is, inaccurate; try telling it to anyone reading Fr. Arnall’s hellfire and damnation sermon in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was also slightly obtuse and offensive: the United States had more than its fair share of anti-Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s, and while Niebuhr was no bigot, he was not especially ecumenical.

There were other examples of the limits of Niebuhr’s religious imagination. Diggins rightly remarks that Niebuhr was uninterested in, and had nothing to say about, Islam. But Diggins is only half-right when he says that “Niebuhr had long admired Jews.” The people, yes; Niebuhr was an unabashed Zionist. But in his support for the creation of Israel, as his lack of interest in Islam suggests, he never pondered the complexities involved in building a Jewish state in the Middle East. As for the religion itself, the picture is more complicated. Niebuhr went out of his way to warn his fellow Christians against concluding that God sent his son to earth in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Hebrews in ways the Hebrews were incapable of doing. Still, there is no denying that nearly all of Niebuhr’s ideas about sin, power, grace, and redemption assume the existence of a savior who died for man’s sins. This is not to condemn Niebuhr as a sectarian; he hated bigotry in all its forms. But there is a danger in political theology that Diggins tends to ignore. When you write as a Christian, which Niebuhr did all his life, you are invariably a particularist.

Life’s greatest mystery is death, and so we will never know what kind of full-throated book John Patrick Diggins would have written about Niebuhr had cancer not ended his life in January, 2009. But there are other existential mysteries as well, including those of human creativity. Hearing the liveliness of Diggins’s voice while knowing the cold reality of his death filled me with a sense of irony that Niebuhr, and Diggins too, would have appreciated.

Alan Wolfe’s Political Evil: What it is And How to Combat it will be published by Knopf in September.