Deliverance from Republican rule in 2008 was heralded at home and abroad as the end of America’s darkest hour of reaction. In one respect, the change was undeniable. As the face of us power, it might be hard to imagine a more striking contrast to Bush and his Vulcans than the serene and visionary Obama, personifying in the eyes of many a moral heritage squandered by the outrages of unilateralism. Once again, the city on a hill had adjusted to a new historical situation, earning the credit of a world that had recently been blown off course by the arrogance and greed of ‘the other America’. In Servius et la Fortune, Georges Dumézil claimed that in archaic Rome and Vedic India such reversals were scripted according to a fixed mythological formula in which a barely legitimate ‘regime-changer’ is deposed by a providentially elected outsider, a mediator who magically restores the façades of civic tradition, but otherwise sticks to the course. America, of course, looks elsewhere for its constitutional parables. Liberal pundits were inclined to see the result in nearly providential terms, as a sign of the country’s untapped capacities to ward off imperial decline, financial catastrophe and the inherited racial divisions of the body politic. Naturally, a change of this magnitude would be accompanied by a realignment of policy ideals and precepts, to set the tone for the advent of a more introspective, less strident brand of leadership.
Where did American liberalism’s intellectual centre of gravity now lie? After a long season on the defensive, its leading minds had come to chalk up some of their political misfortunes in Middle America to the off-putting secularism of their ‘core values’. Finally, in 08, they were able to fight back and win with celebrity ministers of their own. On the campaign trail, Obama let it be known that he was a great admirer of the once-renowned Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhrfootnote1. The imprimatur was widely noted and educated opinion, from public radio’s Democracy Now to the Wall Street Journal, was inundated with profiles of this pastor, a luminary of America’s early Cold War middlebrow intellectual scene. Reviewers concurred that Niebuhr was an eloquent critic of Manichean worldviews, while also a steadfast proponent of vigilance in the face of a global nemesis. Most agreed that his writings from the Truman era offered a tonic remedy for post 9/11 hangover; thoughtful reflections on the national penchant for crusades. Of course, the influence attributed to such intellectual favourites can mislead, as with the more fabulous accounts of Leo Strauss’s impact on the circle around the younger Bush. But candidate Obama’s distillation of Niebuhr indicated an actual familiarity with the writer, from whom, he explained, we can get ‘the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world’, and the sense that ‘we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism’.
What light can a German-American theologian of the mid-20th century shed on the current predicaments of us foreign and domestic politics, at the onset of a period of downsized capacities and ambitions? After all, Niebuhr’s 1948 appearance on the cover of Time magazine occurred at the all-time peak of American power, when it enjoyed nearly half the world’s gdp, and openly brandished its nuclear supremacy before a clearly defined international enemy. Reflections on the moral ambiguity of such unprecedented wealth and power were meant to prompt a sense of responsibility and measure amongst the rulers of the free world. Beneath the portrait of the brooding clergyman, Time’s caption read ‘Man’s Story is not a Success Story’; within, a feature interview conducted by Whittaker Chambers, ‘Faith for a Lenten Age’, presented the ex-pacifist as a prophet for a new age of atomic anxiety. Niebuhr’s path from founder of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in America in 1928 to ardent Cold Warrior had brought him into the midst of what C. Wright Mills called ‘the power elite’, whose outlook he now essentially shared, albeit with the sort of troubled afterthoughts that one might expect from those who minister to the great and good.
It was his regional ethnic background, as with many Americans of the time, that had once predisposed him to socialism, although thereafter he showed no special attachment to these roots. Born in Wright City, Missouri in 1892, he was the son of a first-generation German immigrant from Lippe-Detmold, southwest of Hanover, who had carved a place for himself within the Deutsche Evangelische Synode von Nord-Amerika, then numbering some 200,000 Mid-Western souls. The young Niebuhr followed in his father’s footsteps: after a mainly German-language schooling and seminary, topped off by a short stint at Yale Divinity School, he was posted by the Synod to a small church in the leafy northwestern suburbs of Detroit. An ambitious, hard-up 25-year-old, Niebuhr was frustrated at being limited to his own tiny denomination, and leapt at the chance to do war work in 1917—‘American entrance into the war has given the conflict new meaning’. In an Atlantic article, he denounced the German-American community for a neutralism just then coming under broad attack, as Wilson mobilized for a campaign to turn back the Hun and bring democracy to the Old World. Through the 20s Niebuhr poured out muscular, social-gospel op-eds on issues of the day for the Evangelical Herald and Christian Century, occasionally for the Atlantic, Nation and New Republic as well. He was soon a keynote speaker on student Christian circuits, cultivating, according to his biographer Richard Wightman Fox, a charismatic-preacherly style: shouts, whispers, flailing arms; pacing the platform under the influence of God. His youthful notion of Christianity as the religion of the individual was replaced by sonorous rejection of liberal-rationalist claims for man’s perfectibility—‘the evil in man is at the centre of the self, and involves all his unique capacities of freedom’—and insistence on Biblical ontology: ‘The human self can only be understood in a dramatic-historical environment.’
The British Labour Party had become his model for ‘the successful application of Christianity to politics’ after hearing Ramsay MacDonald lecturing at Toynbee Hall, on a 1923 trip to Europe with the ymca’s Sherwood Eddy. Back home, the Princetonian Norman Thomas, a former Presbyterian minister, struck him as a plausible American MacDonald, ‘radical and responsible’. Niebuhr joined Thomas’s Socialist Party in 1929, shortly after taking up a chair at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, part-funded by Eddy. In 1931 Time magazine judged him ‘one of socialism’s ablest, most trustworthy advocates’. Two years later, Moral Man and Immoral Society struck a more apocalyptic note: faith-based proletarian mobilization was necessary to overcome—by violence if necessary—the social inertia of consumer society; this brought castigation from his Socialist Party comrades, and in the later 30s Niebuhr shifted to the safer ground of the Christian interpretation of history.