WRITTEN BY JOSEPH LOCONTE
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, where he writes widely about the role of religion in promoting democracy, human rights, and social justice. He is the editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm."
Many conservatives had been hoping that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—the cranky, conspiracy-minded minister long admired and then discarded by Barack Obama—would resurface and cause the Democratic candidate trouble in the final days of the presidential campaign. That didn't happen. Nevertheless, the time is ripe to direct attention to another minister, a Christian theologian who Senator Obama recently called “one of my favorite philosophers.”
Senator Obama’s new favorite pastor is Reinhold Niebuhr, a public intellectual who began his career in the 1920s as a social-gospel minister and pacifist—but became a democratic hawk as his leftist dreams collided with the demonic realities of the Third Reich. No religious leader, in fact, offered more withering criticism of the naïve politics of modern liberalism that had infected American public life in the build-up to the Second World War.
What, exactly, does Senator Obama find so appealing about Reinhold Niebuhr? Niebuhr’s legacy has been extolled by the political left in recent years because of his “Christian realism,” a public theology that rejected the “utopian illusions” of well-intended politicians. In works such as The Irony of American History—reprinted in paperback this year with Obama’s book-jacket endorsement—Niebuhr denied that America’s democratic idealism allows the United States to fully escape the compromises and corruptions that attend the exercise of power. Many have seized on his analysis as the remedy for American “arrogance” and “imperialism” under the Bush administration.
It is true that Niebuhr offered a searching critique of the vices and temptations to hubris that tend to afflict American democracy. The United States is not always on the side of the angels. Yet Niebuhr’s liberal admirers, Senator Obama included, neglect the fact that he excoriated those who refused to make sharp moral distinctions between flawed democracies and soul-destroying tyrannies. The left-leaning base of the Democratic Party, for example, regards U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan no differently than the sadistic butchery of Osama bin Laden: One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
It is not hard to imagine Reinhold Niebuhr identifying this view, as he did with similar claims in his own day, as “sheer moral perversity” that offers succor to the forces of totalitarianism. “We do not find it particularly impressive to celebrate one’s sensitive conscience by enlarging upon all the well-known evils of our western world and equating them with the evils of the totalitarian systems,” he wrote in early 1941. “When the mind is not confused by utopian illusions, it is not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice.”
Niebuhr’s realism cut both ways: America will get its hands dirty as it exerts global leadership. But the moral costs of passivity and appeasement, born of flaccid idealism, will prove more grievous. The willingness to use deception, unsavory alliances, and deadly force to stop the onrush of barbarism—tough choices like these must be made if any semblance of a humane society is to be preserved. “Ambiguous methods are required for the ambiguities of history,” Niebuhr warned. “Let those who are revolted by such ambiguities have the decency and consistency to retire to the monastery, where medieval perfectionists found their asylum.”
Barack Obama’s campaign offers the proposition that his idealism will somehow allow the United States to transcend these difficult decisions, that he will “restore America’s image in the world.” His foreign policy advisors sometimes talk as if U.N.-style diplomacy and “multilateralism” hold the promise of a global harmonic convergence.
Reinhold Niebuhr might reply that the diplomatic delusions of the “international community” pose the greatest threat to peace and security. Unlike his liberal colleagues, he quickly recognized the supreme malevolence of the two great totalitarian forces of the 20th century, German fascism and Soviet communism. While others cried out for peace conferences and economic summits to assuage Hitler’s demands, Niebuhr called for a coalition of the willing to defeat him. “If anyone believes that the peace of such a tyranny is morally more tolerable than war,” he wrote after the Battle for Britain, “I can only admire and pity the resolute dogmatism which makes such convictions possible.” Likewise, throughout the Cold War, few thinkers defended America’s democratic institutions against the “noxious virulence” of communism with more vigor or moral clarity.
The deepest source of Niebuhr’s political realism was a religious belief: a profound sense of the tragedy of human nature. He labored relentlessly—some would say obsessively—to apply the doctrine of original sin to international politics. Senator Obama, in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks, praised Niebuhr for “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.” But the evidence is strong that Obama endorses a chronic liberal fallacy: that “economic injustice” and “political institutions” are the root causes of poverty, social conflict, and aggression.
The “serious evil” of which Niebuhr warned, however, was not merely in the structures of the world system. It was, and is, located deep within every human soul. This fact alone shreds the notion of a smooth political path to end poverty, stop genocide, or defeat international terrorism. Leaders who believe otherwise understand neither their own limits, nor the limits of politics. “Individuals may be saved by repentance, which is the gateway to grace,” Niebuhr wrote. “But the collective life of mankind promises no such hope of salvation.”
Of all the risks of an Obama presidency, this false hope may be the one closest at hand.