Last week I expressed my disappointment in Paul Elie's essay for The Atlantic on various efforts to claim the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr. Wilfred McClay -- who was one target of Elie's essay and a friend of this blog before this blog even existed (i.e., a friend of mine through email) -- dropped me a note to express his dismay about Elie's treatment of his remarks. On Monday he posted a withering rejoinder at On the Square, the weblog of First Things. McClay describes receiving a call from Elie in February:
It was a good conversation for the most part, though I came away bothered by Elie's repeated efforts to force me to discuss my views about specific points of foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq, rather than my views of Niebuhr. Indeed, despite a lengthy conversation, I was not sure he grasped my perspective on Niebuhr, and I emailed him a lengthy follow-up memo, for which he thanked me. Many months passed, and I wondered if the project had died. But now it has finally appeared in the November issue of the Atlantic as "A Man for All Reasons."
McClay especially takes issue with this passage:
McClay wholly supported the war on terror ("When the President says, 'Let's roll,' I'm ready"), and he was sure that Niebuhr would have, too. "What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War?" he asked rhetorically. "First and foremost, that it is right and just for Christians to support this war. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so." He went on to say that he suspected "Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush's remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months." . . . McClay's Niebuhr was a muscular Christian in a Humvee, ready to roll.
McClay writes, in response:
What Elie has culled and spliced from my text, however, are unrepresentative and misleading fragments. Consider his mention of my assent to the words, "Let's roll." Leave aside the fact that, in the next sentence, I insist that we should not in the process forget about some of the morally troubling aspects of our own country. Concentrate instead on "Let's roll," which Elie uses to make a wisecrack about Humvees and muscular Christianity.
It's not a good sign for a journalist when the subject of a story, even a critical report, believes his remarks have been subjected to misrepresentation. Some level of protest may be expected in an expose of a crime or some other scandal, but this is a report about ideological and political disagreements. I will be eager to see if Elie responds to McClay's protest. Considering McClay's vigorous defense, and the link to the text from which Elie drew his conclusions, McClay appears to have a valid complaint.
Finally, in the same email, McClay pointed out that though Stanley Hauerwas has resigned from the First Things board, "he has continued to publish and get a hearing at FT, and indeed, an article of his appears on the cover of the October 2007 issue."
This is encouraging news about Hauerwas and his long-term dialogue with First Things.