By Lears, Jackson
Commonweal , Vol. 138, No. 18
Seldom have the man and the moment come together more felicitously than in the life of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). His furrowed brow and intense, arresting gaze were perfectly suited to the midcentury years of world war and Cold War, of mutual assured destruction and agonizing reappraisals. He may have been born with gravitas; certainly he had acquired more than his share by middle age.
Niebuhr was not afraid to make sententious, even oracular pronouncements. Nothing less would have suited his mission in life: to reassert the ethical claims of Augustinian Christianity in public life--the perversity of evil In all of us; Original Sin. This was not the sort of message suitable for Fireside Chats. It had to come from a prophetic figure, but a worldly one who kept company with presidents and prime ministers.
No other theologian can match Niebuhr's influence in American public life. For decades he was the hero of a centrist morality play, warning American leaders against the dangers of sentimental pacifism in the 1930s and hysterical anticommunism in the 1950s, charting a course of "liberal realism" between the abstract ideologies of left and right. During the years after the Vietnam War, when liberal realism revealed itself as little more than a portentous version of Cold War orthodoxy, Niebuhr's reputation lost some luster.
But as the "war on terror" justified new imperial adventures abroad, his shade reappeared to haunt public discourse, animating austere pronouncements from David Brooks's op-ed column to Barack Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The historian John Patrick Diggins was not alive to hear Obama justify sixty years of U.S. military interventions with the announcement that "evil does exist in the world," nor to read Brooks's praise of the president's Niebuhrian realism.
But Diggins would not have been surprised. Well before he died in January 2009, he was already convinced that "Niebuhr's reputation Is undergoing a revival but his ideas are Ignored." Prolific to the end, during the months before his death Diggins produced a brief manuscript exploring Niebuhr's thought and showing why It should matter to us today. The result is the posthumously published Why Niebuhr Now? (University of Chicago Press, $22,127 pp.). The book makes a fitful but finally persuasive case for Niebuhr's continued relevance to our grim post-9/11 era--when the U.S. foreign-policy elite still Imagines an endless war on terror (though the phrase itself may have fallen from fashion), and popular journalists chirp like eight-year-old boys about the latest fight between good guys and bad guys.
Diggins wants to use Niebuhr to challenge this dualism. Writing in the shadow of President George W. Bush's providentialist posturing, Diggins characterizes the differences between the 1930s and the 2000s: 'Tn our time the problem of religion is not its debilitating pacifism but its overbearing militarism." Niebuhr's Augustinian emphasis on the universality of evil should puncture the balloon of American self-righteousness, Diggins complains, but instead the theologian has been appropriated by militarv interventionists. The most egregious, to Diggins, is former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, whose New York Times Magazine piece, "The Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal," featured a full-page photo of Niebuhr and an argument that (as Diggins summarizes) "after 9/11 America needed Niebuhr's wisdom because his example could show liberals how to assert American power, battle evil to win the war on terror, and recapture the glory davs of liberalism." To claim Niebuhr as an ally In the Iraq War is, for Diggins, a preposterous misreading. "One wonders why our neo-Niebuhrians think Niebuhr would have supported the invasion of Iraq, a preemptive war carried out unilaterally and for reasons that require continual revision," he writes. This is a well-placed observation, but one also wonders how Diggins could have overlooked Andrew J. …