The Constant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture by
Martin Halliwell (American Intellectual Culture: Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers) In this important new work, Martin Halliwell focuses
on the tensions between the two dimensions of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought: his
political role as a radical social critic and his conservative and largely
private belief in the values of neo-orthodox Christianity. In order to better
examine Niebuhr's philosophy, Halliwell positions him in a series of debates on
political, religious, ethical, and cultural themes with other eminent
intellectuals. In doing so, Halliwell reassesses the important contributions
that Reinhold Niebuhr made to 20th century American culture.
Excerpt: There are many tensions in Niebuhr's work—between thought and action, between faith and hope, between love and justice, between historical and contemporary forces—but the most obvious tension is between religion and politics. His mature theology was conservative, in his belief that order and justice are the only goals to strive toward, given the fallen state of humankind, but his politics ranged from commitment to democratic Marxism in the 1930s, to his liberal anticommunist leanings after World War II, to his resurgent interest in oppositional politics relating to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. This dichotomy may suggest something incomplete and ragged about Niebuhr's overall project, both in its range and in its direction. Indeed, although the editors of Christianity and Crisis wrote in 1971 that Niebuhr's 'personality was as dialectical as his theology', Sidney Hook criticized him because none of his 'social, political and ethical views can be derived from his theology', complaining that his right hand often did not know what his left hand was doing.
Although Hook qualified this criticism in a 1955 letter to Niebuhr's biographer June Bingham, in which he expressed his admiration for Niebuhr as a fellow freedom fighter, his comments are quite damaging to Niebuhr as a socially progressive figure.52 Niebuhr's restlessness as a thinker was sometimes a major strength, and at other times his undoing: as he admitted in the late 1920s, 'I am a coward myself . . . and find it tremendously difficult to run counter to general opinion'. This changeability often meant that the radical aspects of his thought were suspended in favor of more sober and conservative realism.
In fact, the undeniably conservative elements of Niebuhr's thought, which came through in his anticommunist writings and commentary on gender issues, encouraged neoconservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ernest Lefever and Michael Novak, to recruit Niebuhr for their own causes (the Catholic neoconservative Novak had previously been on the Christianity and Crisis editorial board).54 However, studies such as Russell Sizemore's doctoral thesis 'Reinhold Niebuhr and the Rhetoric of Liberal Anti-Communism' (1987) have demonstrated that, although there is a conservative streak running through Niebuhr's postwar writing and through Christian realism more broadly, he has often been held 'responsible for
the excesses and fallacies of his followers and of American intellectual life generally', particularly as he tried to position himself as a nonconformist critic working against received wisdom.55 Indeed, Hook actually misread Niebuhr, in that Niebuhr rarely tried to justify his political views from a theological perspective, offering religious insight on issues that many viewed only with secular eyes.
It is actually this creative mismatch between different elements in Niebuhr's thought that is one of its key structuring principles: in other words, an untidy dialectic that is difficult to recoup as a clear and stable intellectual position. Niebuhr did not want the dialectic to turn into a dogma, but it enabled him to keep the various elements of his thought in dynamic motion. At times he did try to tidy up the dialectic by synthesizing opposites and at other times he seemed to be a straightforward dualist. But against the iron 'historical dialectic' of communism (as he called it in The Irony of American History), Niebuhr contrasted the more subtle and variegated dialectical relationship between love and justice: a relationship that he thought was necessary to prevent cynicism or instrumentalism from taking over. There are risks in this untidy dialectic. Kevin Mattson notes that at times Niebuhr confused an empirical description of this relationship with a normative vision of how things should be: Niebuhr argued that love is the cornerstone of the New Testament but does not always lead to social justice, while justice itself often precludes love in its instrumental approach to social problems.56 Moreover, while the title of Niebuhr's selected shorter writings, Love and Justice (1957), suggests that the terms are interrelated, love and justice often strain in opposite directions in his thought. And, while the relationship between opposing elements was usually expressed with dialectical subtlety, and he was very interested in paradoxes that reveal deeper truths, the danger was that these dualisms could degenerate into the kind of rigid thinking he was keen to avoid.
The mismatch between ideas was particularly apposite after World War II, when the complex relationship between history and ideology was replaced by popular Manichean rhetoric about the conflict between the forces of American democracy and Soviet communism. Some aspects of Niebuhr's thought did rigidify after the war, and it can be argued that his disdain for the excesses of communism adversely impacted on his dialectical thinking, but he continued to probe simple ideological oppositions. The critic Nigel Gibson sees a similar strategy in the thought of the Martinique psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Fanon contested the 'motionless equilibrium' of the colonial situation in North Africa—a `world cut in two' between master and slave, between belonging and exile, between wealth and poverty—with a ragged and untidy dialectic in which the two sets of terms are dialectically related but never come together in a neat synthesis. This method replaces static interpretations and binary opposites with a potentially disruptive dialectic, calling into question that which goes under the name of truth, reality, or righteousness and disturbing the 'spatial ordering' of closed systems.
In his important book The Building of a Protestant Left (1999), the historian Mark Hulsether argues that the journal Christianity and Crisis, especially when it was under Niebuhr's editorship up to 1966, embodied the kind of untidy dialectic that Nigel Gibson identifies in Fanon's thought. Beginning in 1941, Christianity and Crisis grew out of the ferment of World War II as a reaction to the opposition to American involvement in the war promoted by The Christian Century, the leading liberal Christian journal in the 1930s. As a voice-piece for the Social Gospel, The Christian Century represented a distinctive strand of liberal progressivism, but Niebuhr had been struggling for some time to reconcile neo-orthodox theological views with his socialist/liberal politics. For him, The Christian Century embodied the kind of naïveté toward international conflict that he had attacked liberal intellectuals such as John Dewey for holding earlier in the 1930s (see chapter 2). As a 'rebellion from inside' the Christian left, Christianity and Crisis attacked the Anglo-American middle-class consensus of the Social Gospel and treated the complexities of war with much more realism than the Gospel did with its firm belief in America's divine mission.59 Liberal confidence in human goodness and ethical capability had been under attack for some years. However, neither Niebuhr nor many of the other (mainly Protestant) contributors to Christianity and Crisis wanted to abandon liberal social action wholesale, but only when the goals were excessively optimistic, wedded to brash confidence or to an arrogant sense of America's national mission.
Some critics such as Christopher Lasch and Walter LaFeber see Niebuhr as a straightforward liberal anticommunist and cold warrior in the late 1940s, but Hulsether argues that Christianity and Crisis 'kept its bearings in the atmosphere of anticommunist hysteria far better than many of its contemporaries', with its contributors often taking positions 'to the left of actual policy'. Hulsether describes the journal as embodying a dialectical logic of 'X, but at the same time Y', rather than 'either X or Y', with 'the X hand' the journal's 'lesser evil' and 'the Y hand' its weaker counterpart.6' He sees the 'mild reforms' that Christianity and Crisis advocated on civil rights issues as being positive (the journal's X hand), while it was `complacent' about the political status quo from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and 'assumed that white male Protestant experience was the norm' (its Y hand). Niebuhr's own thought often mirrored the editorial direction of the journal, in that his 'X but also Y' logic led to overcautious responses, with statements qualified 'in ways that appeared repressed and lacking in commitment'. This framework may suggest that balance rather than dialectical movement marks Niebuhr's thought, but he was always searching for new combinations of elements within a given historical moment. Even if sometimes his dialectic ossified into balance, this was preferable to the zeal of many ecumenical religious publications of the time.
In addition, Niebuhr cannot be neatly positioned alongside thinkers promoting the 'consensus' view of American history in midcentury such as Richard Hofs‑
tadter and Daniel J. Boorstin. Although he commended Boorstin's Genius of American Politics (1953) for tracing a tradition of American pragmatism from the early Puritans and the Founding Fathers, Boorstin's thesis was too consistent for his liking and did not allow for irony or intellectual play. We will see in chapter 6 how Niebuhr tried to devise a cultural model that was both centrist and pluralist, and he was always aware of cultural difference, from the German Americans of his parish in Detroit in the 1920s (at a time when there were strong arguments to Americanize immigrants as quickly as possible), to African American social problems that he dealt with in his early writings (he was chairman of the Detroit Mayor's Committee on Race Relations in 1926) and returned to in the late 1950s, as well as commenting on the nation's developing relationship with Asia, Africa, and Europe. There were blind spots in his understanding of 'difference', as his brother H. Richard Niebuhr exposed (see chapter 4) and his rather cursory dealing with the women's movement attest (see Conclusion), but Niebuhr himself, and Christianity and Crisis under his editorship, strove for a dialectical view of American culture within a historical framework.
Although not a radical thinker like Fanon, Niebuhr was similar to Fanon in resisting a grand synthesis of ideas. In this respect he followed his early influence William James in allowing the ragged ends of his ideas to come into sometimes creative, and sometimes uneasy, contact with each other. For example, although his 1944 book Children of Light and Children of Darkness promises a Manichean division between blessed 'light' and malign 'darkness', the two modalities are more complex than that. Where the children of light are enlightened rationalists and children of darkness are moral cynics, Niebuhr detected conflicts within each modality, rather than only across the intellectual divide. He suggested that both positions—idealism and cynicism—have their weaknesses and both hinder the development of a creative democracy.65 Niebuhr was not a true pluralist, but the flexibility of his thought lent nuance and subtlety to what might otherwise have been very dogmatic positions. Protestant beliefs anchored his political and ethical views but did not prevent him from affirming the plurality of American religious practices, even as he worried that the separation of state and church created a climate of `secular religiosity, frequently bereft of the dignity and the majesty of the historic religions'.66
Flexibility was integral to the public dimension of Niebuhr's religious project. Robin Lovin comments in his collection Religion and American Public Life (1986) that flexibility is crucial in public religion to allow a broad group of participants to grasp a particular issue without requiring them first to understand the intricacies of hermeneutics, metaphysics, and theology. Such metaphysical grounding may itself have adverse consequences if it serves to confound or alienate others. For this reason, the role of public religion, according to Lovin, is to mediate between `particular communities of identity and the general coercive power of state'. Many
of these communities would not care whether a particular idea is theologically justifiable (as long as it does not seek to browbeat), while others may be alienated by denominational rhetoric or a preacherly tone that seeks to convert through persuasion.
On this level, Larry Rasmussen argues that Niebuhr shied away from an overarching metaphysics and instead attended to shifting historical and public events that facilitated 'his social-ethical critique of them'. Quoting Niebuhr's claim that he did not believe that 'many people are influenced by admonition', but rather in `the levels of human possibilities and of sin', Rasmussen highlights the human dimension that remained core to Niebuhr's thought, despite modifying his opinion on a number of domestic and international matters over the course of his career. Niebuhr was always interested in finding links between different phenomena: between Romantic and classical thought; between religious traditions; between Christianity and humanism; between historical moments; and between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War—even despite the huge economic and political gulf that separated them. This drive to forge connections between different national cultures provides Rasmussen with enough evidence to claim that 'Niebuhr was a theologian of public life, despite his disclaimers and [certain] aspects of his style'.69 Rasmussen is convincing in his central claim, but with the proviso that Niebuhr was at his most interesting when he put his theological insights at the service of his wider social vision, not the other way round. Although he is often classified as a realist (and rightly so on many counts), there was also a strain of idealism in his work that kept alive his hope for meaningful social change and the possibility—if never the actualization—of social justicen This book will explore these tensions in Niebuhr's thought: particularly between realism and idealism and between his M commitment to social justice and his recognition of the unregenerate aspects of human nature.
Niebuhr's outward-looking perspective and role as public thinker are only fully understandable by considering them in relation to the inward-looking aspects of his thought and faith. This is evident in his emphasis on the relationship between an individual's beliefs and the institutional structures and public discourses that give shape to them. While the book discusses some topics that have been considered widely by other scholars of Niebuhr—pragmatism, religion, ethics, and foreign policy—it also focuses on his less well-documented engagement with psychoanalysis, literature, and cultural ideas in order to test his intellectual range. Given his hatred of narrow specialization, Niebuhr's range was sometimes his undoing, with empirical detail often being overlooked in favor of making the larger point. But his attempt to find a path between oppositions without looking for easy compromises meant that, like Marcellus in The Robe, he was a questing figure who was not interested in tidying all the stray directions of his thought into a well-defined synthesis.
Where Niebuhr saw the inward and outward perspectives coming into closest contact was in the vocation of leadership, with the committed Christian being paradoxically both a leader and a follower at the same time. One theme that weaves throughout the book, and is dealt with at length in the conclusion, is the issue of American leadership. Niebuhr was keen to find a religious leader in the 1920s to offset the blind materialism he saw around him. Later on, he sought a political leader who could galvanize the country during the Depression, and a social leader who could sort through the seemingly insurmountable domestic and international problems that beset America after World War II. The ongoing exchanges that he had with prominent intellectuals did not end this search but posed further questions in terms of the relationship between leadership and intellectual life. The speed of national change over the forty years that Niebuhr was most active as a public thinker meant that he had to change his priorities in respect of a leader who could be relevant to the contemporary climate. The opening essay of his 1965 book Man's Nature and His Communities is entitled 'Changing Perspectives', and just as he realized that some aspects of his own thought needed revising in the light of historical change, so he detected a great leader in the 1930s would not necessarily be one in the 1960s.
The Constant Dialogue: Reinhold Niebuhr and American Intellectual Culture mirrors these shifting parameters by staging a series of dialogues with the most prominent intellectuals over Niebuhr's lifetime. The book moves from assessing the major influences on the development of Niebuhr's religious, political, and ethical thought from the 1910s to the 1930s, to examining his inward-looking interest in conceptions of the self and identity in the 1940s and 1950s, and to accounting for his outward-looking engagement through to the late 1960s with foreign policy, the international community, and the civil rights movement. In this way, this book practices a type of intellectual history that discusses specific influences on Niebuhr and the broader cultural patterns with which he engaged. It argues that four key figures—William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, and H. Richard Niebuhr—helped him to develop a framework for his ideas, but it was not until he began to test out their implications on wider social, historical, and cultural trends that he fully developed as a thinker. This resists the drift of Niebuhr scholarship that argues that after his strokes of 1952 he diminished as a thinker. There is some truth in this claim, but this book tries to rescue the later Niebuhr by showing lines of refinement from his earlier work.
In its methodology this book develops the approach of Peter Gibian's recent study, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation (2001), which focuses on Holmes's gift as a public speaker and enthusiasm for engaging in dialogues with his contemporaries. Holmes had written his best work before Niebuhr was born, but both thinkers saw conversations as a progressive form of intellectual inquiry, advancing positions in counterpoint to others. Developing the recent
scholarly interest in oral dialogues (from Mikhail Bakhtin to Jurgen Habermas in Europe, arid from Richard Rorty to Martha Nussbaum in America), Gibian describes this technique as 'a continual alternation between opposing voices, which means that every question opens into a multiplicity of possible responses in a process that unsettles fixed standards': in this respect, Holmes and Niebuhr had `an almost pathological avoidance of direct statements or conclusions'. Both thinkers had a stake in public life as charismatic speakers (and leaders of sorts), but for Niebuhr conversation was sometimes in essay responses or book reviews, occasionally in formal dialogues, and often in correspondence. Holmes and Niebuhr were always in touch with their respective professions of medic and preacher, but they realized that if dialogues were to be open and productive, they should move freely between intellectual registers.
On this theme, in a 1970 essay on the relationship between Marxist and Christian thought, the Italian priest Giulio Girardi called for a shift away from 'doctrinal dialogue' and movement toward a more creative 'operative dialogue, that is, dialogue concerned with pressing human problems' and that may bring about 'a transformation of attitudes'.73 Girardi was aware that there are limits to dialogue, and often halfhearted agreements prematurely close discussions, but he believed that only through a sincere and 'enlarged' conversation between disciplines could this transformation hope to be achieved. This kind of interdisciplinarity was particularly important for Niebuhr in his role as public thinker, both in his desire to challenge the specialization of experts and in his growing sense that America was being run by technocrats and politicians who had a vested interest in obscuring these connections.
From his early years at Yale in the mid-1910s Niebuhr continued to search for an appropriate leader who could embody his spiritual and political beliefs. A number of books on leadership in America were published at the end of the 1910s and in the early 1920s to celebrate victory in World War I. Many were geared toward schoolchildren with a sketchlike and largely uncritical biographical approach to `representative men', as Emerson called them. It is not surprising, then, that Niebuhr was intensely aware of the need for a living American leader, without simply harking back to the historical models of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln (even though he valued highly this pair's attempts to engineer social justice). As we will see, Niebuhr's ideal leader was a 'prophet-poet', linking the role of statesman to an imaginative vision that could contend with modernity without simply retreating from it. Thinkers such as Arthur Schlesinger, Joseph Rauh, and John Bennett actually looked to Niebuhr as such a prophetic figure, deeply immersed in the struggles of his age but striving for 'perspectives beyond them'.76 Joe Rauh, vice chairman of the liberal lobbying organization Americans for Democratic Action, acknowledged ADA's debt to Niebuhr 'for putting and keeping us on the road', but Niebuhr was not content with his own role, and he continued his quest
to find a figure who could mobilize public opinion while remaining committed to the supreme value of justice.77 Perhaps because reality always fell short of this ideal, Niebuhr was drawn to political outsiders such as Norman Thomas in the 1930s and Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, but it was his influence on later leaders—most notably Martin Luther King Jr. and (after Niebuhr's death) Jimmy Carter—that arguably fulfilled, if only briefly, his search for a religious figure of state who was both leader and follower at the same time.
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