In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

Niebuhr is cited as the inspiration for a new content-rich quarterly titled “Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.” The magazine is edited by Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, which for 36 years has cast a glum eye upon political pronouncements by Niebuhr’s fellow “mainline” liberal Protestants.

 IRD’s publishing partner is the Philos Project, launched in 2015 to promote “positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.” There might be useful stories in either Philos or "Providence," both generally pro-Israel, anti-Iran, neocon, and hawkish within a “just war” context.

Here’s where Niebuhr fits in. Though once a committed pacifist, he abhorred totalitarians and anti-Semites, and switched sides to preach the moral necessity of American engagement during the leadup to U.S. entry into World War II. (Note that Niebuhr later opposed the U.S. in Vietnam.)  To champion the war cause -- and rebut the influential and dovish Christian Century -- he launched the competing Christianity and Crisis magazine (defunct since 1993 while the Century lives on). The Providence website posts several classic Crisis articles with commentary.

Tooley assembled a solid contributor lineup, including Mark Amstutz (Wheaton College), Nigel Biggar (University of Oxford), Dean Curry (Messiah College), Thomas Farr (Georgetown University), William Inboden (University of Texas), James Turner Johnson (Rutgers University), Paul Marshall (Baylor University religious freedom fellow), Walter Russell Mead (Bard College), and Joshua Mitchell (Georgetown)

In the current issue, Tooley’s #2, Marc LiVecche (a doctoral student of the late Jean Bethke Elstain at the University of Chicago), both praises and criticizes Niebuhr on warfare (.pdf here). He says Niebuhr was correct to shelve both pacifism and sentimental liberal optimism to stress that realism about human sinfulness is a factor in all political calculations.

Niebuhr’s emphasis on the “law of love” stemming from Jesus meant combat remained a guilt-ridden moral evil that should never occur, yet a necessity that’s less evil than not waging war. Instead, LiVecche agrees with Biggar and others who say the moral question isn’t finding “the lesser evil” but “the greatest achievable good” under the circumstances -- which should help unburden combat veterans plagued by moral guilt, trauma and suicide.

The question for reporters is obvious: Will the Niebuhr name be dropped during the Comey hearings? Stay tuned.

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