Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Not To Talk About Niebuhr

I have been thinking for quite a while about the appropriation of the name, if not the actual thought, of Reinhold Niebuhr, in our public discourse (he emerged back in the early 1990's when Hillary Clinton, then just the wife of the then Governor of Arkansas, revealed that he and his Union Theological Seminary colleague Paul Tillich had been on her reading list in high school and college) when I ran across an interview with E. J. Dionne and David Brooks (two towering theologians) by Krista Tippett on the NPR program "Speaking of Faith".

All things considered, attempting to discuss the relevance of a theologian as nuanced and complicated as Niebuhr with any journalist is a difficult proposition. In this case, considering the intellects involved, the discussion spans the gamut from A to C. It is also disappointing to consider how many serious commentators on Niebuhr there are that Ms. Tippett could have interviewed, even on a subject as relatively fluffy as whether or not Obama "gets" Niebuhr, or whether or not Niebuhr is still relevant.

Just an example of how truly stupid the discussion really is, Brooks chimes in very early by insisting that Niebuhr would opposed the then-still-a-bill stimulus package before Congress, due to his skepticism concerning the beneficial effects of social engineering. The problems with Brooks' statement are manifold, not the least of them being mischaracterizing the stimulus' goal - fiscal economic stimulus rather than social engineering - but I would prefer to focus on the way Brooks turns Niebuhr's skepticism toward social improvement on its head. For some reason, conservatives love to trot out that old bugaboo "the law of unintended consequences", which in some respects exists in germ in many of Niebuhr's statements concerning the limited benefit that comes from any attempt at social engineering via institutions. While his criticism of the then-regnant liberal belief that social tinkering might just eliminate various ills, whether they are poverty or war or ignorance, certainly seems like the kind of nonsense one reads in modern conservative writings, in fact, his position was far more nuanced.

He viewed with skepticism the seeming utopian claims of liberals concerning the efficacy of reform via social institutions (thus his first major work, a criticism from the left of social engineering and the optimism of a previous generation of liberals is entitled Moral Man and Immoral Society). Yet, he never doubted that social tinkering was not only necessary, but indeed enjoined by what he called, in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, the "love ethic", or variously the "love commandment". In other words, as Christians, we are never to succumb to the false prophecy that this or that social program, or even social organization (capitalism, communism, what-have-you) will bring in the reign of peace and justice. Yet, we are not, precisely because we are enjoined to love our neighbors unconditionally, supposed to oppose any action whatsoever. Indeed, we must strive after justice always with the understanding the results will fail to live up to the Divine justice we encounter in the resurrected Christ.

This far more nuanced approach to the question, it seems to me, shows that if Brooks has actually read Niebuhr, he has only read one book. Even then, I get the sense he really didn't understand what he was reading.

Virtual Tin Cup

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