Magazine article The Christian Century

The Irony of James Comey: Did Comey Learn Anything from Reading Niebuhr?

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Irony of James Comey: Did Comey Learn Anything from Reading Niebuhr?

Article excerpt

JAMES COMEY'S memoir A Higher Loyalty reflects the former FBI director's intense engagement with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and only by following Comey's efforts to be a Niebuhrian can we fully understand the book and begin to untangle some of the enigmas in Comey's behavior.

Comey's well-documented preoccupation with Niebuhr began in college, where he first read Niebuhr and wrote a senior thesis on how Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell portrayed the Christian's role in politics. The Catholic-turned-Methodist has idolized Niebuhr ever since, even using Niebuhr's name on Twitter and Instagram accounts. He was drawn to Niebuhr, perhaps, because of his anxieties about death and the experience of being bullied.

Comey poignantly discusses how being bullied in high school led him to bully a fellow undergraduate. His account echoes Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), with its stress on the amoral behavior of groups as compared with individuals. "I surrendered to the loud laughter and the camaraderie of the group," Comey writes, "and maybe to a feeling of relief that I wasn't the target."

Understanding Niebuhr likely helped him decipher President Trump's psychology. He grasps the psychology of bullies such as Trump, especially how Trump targets the shortcomings of others in order to deflect attention from his own. He understands that because bullies project onto others traits they most fear in themselves, they view self-reflection as a weakness.

At one point, Comey tries to sum up Niebuhr's thought with a line from a country song: "God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy." It's a clever line, but it ignores the fact that for Niebuhr, human "craziness" follows a distinct pattern, one expressed in the Christian view of human nature and characterized by sin, anxiety, guilt, hubris, tragedy, blindness, power, pretension, rationalization, and, above all, irony.

Comey begins the book in what seems like Niebuhrian fashion by acknowledging his own lifelong tendency to be "stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego." He goes on to identify doubt as the essence of wisdom. Yet neither in this memoir nor in his interviews does Comey come across as the doubting type. There's even a hint of pride in his confession of egotism.

Comey makes plain his devotion to justice and frames the book with Niebuhr's observation, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. …

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