October 24, 2007
Niebuhr Wasn’t a Politician
Intellectuals and religious figures who invoke Niebuhr can't separate him from his religion.
Reinhold Niebuhr may not be Bono, but he might come close. Ever since President Bush declared a war on terror in 2001, intellectuals and religious leaders have invoked Niebuhr's politics, Atlantic Monthly reporter Justine Isola writes in her piece "Everybody Loves Reinhold."
"[B]y now a well-turned Niebuhr reference is the speechwriter's equivalent of a photo op with Bono," she quotes Paul Elie.
Niebuhr thus came to be associated in many people's minds as much with the politics of power as with the tenets of Christianity, Isola writes.
But those who invoke Niebuhr tend to ignore his religion and focus on his political concerns, Isola writes after interviewing Paul Elie, author of November Atlantic piece "A Man for All Reasons."
Niebuhr's conclusions, Elie reminds us, were thoroughly informed by what Elie calls a ?biblical perspective' - a long sense of human history as reflected in the stories and lessons of the Bible - and by his view of human nature as ?rooted in human sinfulness.'
For Elie, the brushing aside of Niebuhr's Christian dimensions is symptomatic of a greater problem: our intellectual and political leaders have largely lost touch with the biblical perspective that once guided our country's founders and continues to profoundly influence the lives of most people living in the world today. In an age in which intellectual discourse in this country is increasingly secularized, and religion tends to inform our national politics in only a superficial way, Niebuhr stands out as a man whose Christian beliefs provided a deep well of insight.
Isola asks Elie: What, in your view, are the implications of having politicians in power who lack a biblical perspective?
As Niebuhr characterized it, the biblical tradition brought to America a sense of a long history which our relatively young country lacked, Elie answers.
If you take that biblical sense of history away on both sides, you're left with a fairly ahistorical secular liberalism and a fairly ahistorical religious conservatism, and that's a recipe for shallowness in our political life.
The Atlantic Monthly's piece is a compelling read. Also, consider dipping into New York Times' archives for its 2005 piece "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr":
"In the midst of this religious commotion, the name of the most influential American theologian of the 20th century rarely appears - Reinhold Niebuhr."
Perhaps we should examine Niebuhr's theology more closely if it truly has this impact.
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The Prophet and the Evangelist | The public "conversation" of Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham.
Obama's faith, his pastor, and his foreign policy | The NYT explores the Senator's faith and his pastor, while David Brooks deciphers how it might affect his foreign policy.