Robert Mueller and James Comey: Straight-arrow national prophets for our time?

I’ve been fascinated by media portrayals of James Comey and Robert Mueller, America’s newest heroes or, in the case of Comey, a hero-martyr. To the uninitiated, Comey was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until President Donald Trump fired him on May 9, right when the former was launching an investigation into the Trump team’s Russian connections. 

Mueller is the 72-year-old former FBI head brought in as special counsel a week later to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. Ever since then, the two men have been linked as moral standard bearers in a very partisan town. Mueller’s appointment is one of the few things on which Democrats and many mainstream Republicans agree.

Media folks have been following Mueller around, even covering his graduation address to a small Massachusetts boarding school to see if they can glean any hints of how the investigation may go. CNN talked about how Mueller spotlighted “honesty, integrity” in his speech.

Question: Are there are any religion themes in all of this virtue talk?

The New York Post cut to the chase by endowing Mueller with supernatural powers.

Holy congressional probe!
Former FBI chief Robert Mueller is the hero America needs to investigate Russia’s meddling into the 2016 presidential election, his former second-in-charge said Sunday.
 “A line in New York would be Batman’s back to save Gotham, but I think in this case, Batman is back to save America,” Timothy Murphy told John Catsimatidis during an interview on “The Cats Roundtable.”

Other coverage has done everything from link Comey to the Old Testament prophet Amos to portraying the Trump Administration as something akin to King Richard III

Let's ask where these men are getting their high principles from. I scoured Google and learned that Mueller and his wife, Ann were married in an Episcopal church outside of Pittsburgh; that he was raised Presbyterian but now attends Episcopal churches and that sometime back, he was a regular at St. John’s Episcopal in Lafayette Square. That’s across the street from the White House.

Let’s hope some reporter can figure out which church he’s now attending. Ditto from Comey, who’s a United Methodist

Why do I ask? Because of a very intriguing May 18 Politico magazine piece that hints at the kind of resolve that makes these men tick. 

After detailing a showdown during the George W. Bush Administration between the White House and the FBI, the article continues:

The story of that March 11, 2004, showdown -- how it came to light and what it says about the motivations and the moral compass of the two men now at the heart of a new Washington showdown -- should deeply worry the Trump White House.
Donald Trump, as it turns out, has stumbled into taking on two experienced Washington players on their home turf -- in skirmishes that will play out in public Capitol Hill hearings with Comey even as Mueller slogs along with what is likely to be a quiet, tenacious and by-the-book investigation into the heart of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia…
Robert Mueller might just be America’s straightest arrow -- a respected, nonpartisan and fiercely apolitical public servant whose only lifetime motivation has been the search for justice. … President Trump impulsively fired Comey in the hope that it would shut down the Russia investigation; one week later, though, he finds himself facing not just one esteemed former FBI director but two: the first a wronged martyr for the bureau, and the second a legendary investigator without a hint of politics.

Back to 2004: At one point in the crisis, Comey met privately with Bush and tried to appeal to the latter’s Christian beliefs. Then, according to the article:

In Bush’s private dining room, the president was warm and kind, saying that Comey should let him take the burden of the program’s reauthorization. Comey, a religion major at the College of William & Mary, tried to connect with the religious commander in chief, telling him, “As Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’” They spoke at length, before Comey played the trump card, “I think you should know that Director Mueller is going to resign today.”

How is it that a United Methodist is quoting Luther?

Comey’s religious affiliations have been easy to track. Religion News Service reported almost three weeks ago about Comey’s love of all things connected with Reinhold Niebuhr, starting with a college senior thesis comparing the liberal Protestant writer with independent Baptist pastor Rev. Jerry Falwell. Although it was a low blow to criticize someone on a senior paper they’d written back in 1982 (how many of us would stand behind the material we wrote 35 years ago as undergrads?) the piece does track Comey’s understanding of serving as a public Christian.

Comey apparently has a secret Twitter account named after Niebuhr, according to Gizmodo. Commenting on this, the New Yorker sadly makes no religion connection.

And yet the Niebuhr connection serves as a reminder of the roots of public service -- the compote of ideas, personality, influence, and moral virtue that prompts Comey and people like him to go into government work in the first place. Washington is a swamp: so say its critics, including the one in the White House. And yet thousands of talented people decide to pursue careers in government service, year after year, generation after generation. Sure, they do so for power and influence, the access and the spoils, and yet they do so, too, following the inspiration of people like Niebuhr, who made the hard truths of public life and the hard choices faced by people entrusted with positions of responsibility seem like life itself.

Here at GetReligion, we call that missed opportunity a religion “ghost.” Fortunately, many other outlets, including ThinkProgress.org, made the connection.

Christianity Today didn’t miss a beat in its insightful May 19 essay on how much Niebuhr influenced Comey. After explaining why all manner politicians see Niebuhr as a spiritual compass in pointing the way to a moral decision in gray areas, this piece explains how Comey too saw Niebuhr as a guide for Christians in politics. Then:

At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover. ...
What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27 -- in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians -- he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like (the Hebrew prophet) Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear…

Comey refused to do so, promising Trump only his honesty. Then:

Though there is no way to know what was going through his mind, one wonders whether Niebuhr’s influence was also at work during Comey’s fateful dinner with Trump. This time, if the reports are true, he faced his own moral predicament, asked by the most powerful person in the world to violate what Niebuhr regarded as the core obligation to do justly. Perhaps some day we will find out how Comey viewed his experience in the king’s court.

My colleague Dick Ostling will be writing more about the Niebuhr connection, but it's clear Comey's actions are theologically based. What sort of player will Mueller be and what kind of moral backbone has formed his choices? He has less of a paper trail than Comey does but there’s got to be a story there. 

Trump hasn't been in office six months and already there's a presidency construed like an imperial court, lots of foreign connections, a disgraced court prophet and a Moses-like avenging lawgiver-special counsel. Are there God-talk connections here or what?

Please respect our Commenting Policy