Despite the constant barrage of scandals that have plagued President Donald Trump’s short presidency, many conservatives — lawmakers, pundits, and GOP officials — have been loathe to criticize the business mogul. Even after Trump suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey last week and the administration spent the next few days stumbling from calamity to (possibly impeachable) calamity, many Republican members of Congress have lodged their complaints about the president politely, if at all.
But there is a small group of conservatives who have been relatively steadfast in their criticism of the president, be it in word or in action. This band is diverse, but they do have some things in common, and one name keeps finding its way into discussions about their motivations: 20th century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Niebuhr has long been a beloved intellectual of the Washington political crowd, especially among progressives such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, all of whom have cited him as one of their favorite theologians. But Niebuhr also has a following among prominent conservatives — a disproportionate percentage of whom constitute Trump’s most vocal right-wing critics.
But Niebuhr also has a following among prominent conservatives — a disproportionate percentage of whom constitute Trump’s most vocal right-wing critics.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, Sen. John McCain, and even former FBI head James Comey — who apparently named his Twitter feed after Niebuhr — have all championed his concept of “Christian Realism” as a guiding force in their politics. They have also all challenged Trump in different ways in recent months, with McCain even going so far as to compare the president’s latest scandal to Watergate.
That’s probably not a coincidence. Key aspects of Niebuhr’s teachings appear to be tripping up the Trump administration of late, likely encouraging some Republicans to speak out against the president.
There are caveats here, of course. Most conservative Niebuhr enthusiasts qualify their fandom with various criticisms. His work is infamous in academic circles for being the theologian everyone can embrace, precisely because some of his basic assertions are easily attached on any number of political philosophies. Also, lots of people criticize Trump for reasons that have little or nothing to do with mid-century theologians.
Yet as Washington continues to reel, the specter of Niebuhr keeps rising — and Trump’s greatest “conservative” opponent may turn out to be a man who died more than 45 years ago.
A liberal Protestant with conservative appeal
These days, most Americans — Christian or otherwise — probably haven’t heard of Niebuhr, much less read his works. But he was once unavoidable: beginning in the 1930s and extending into the 1960s, Niebuhr’s various treatises on the intersection of Christianity and public life were at the center of innumerable public debates, and his voice was a constant in conversations about the moral dimensions of war, use of nuclear weapons, and civil rights. An archetypal “public theologian,” his seminal work The Irony of American History is still required reading in many seminaries and political science programs, and his influence was so great that his visage graced a 1948 cover of TIME magazine.
Niebuhr’s climb to fame had several catalysts, such as his influential family (his brother and sister were also religious thinkers in their own right) and a hearty academic pedigree (he was a Yale Divinity School graduate and a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a paragon of Christian intellectualism at the time). But the secret to understanding Niebuhr’s legacy lies in his religious identity; he was ordained in the German Evangelical tradition, which has since been subsumed within the progressive-leaning United Church of Christ (UCC).
“Liberal Protestantism had a cultural influence in Niebuhr’s time that is almost impossible to imagine or remember today, let alone convey to millennial students.”
He was, in effect, a liberal Protestant, and his ascendancy coincided with a historical moment many modern right-wing Christians would rather forget: during the mid-20th century, the dominant religious force in America wasn’t conservative evangelicalism, but liberal Protestantism.
“Liberal Protestantism had a cultural influence in Niebuhr’s time that is almost impossible to imagine or remember today, let alone convey to millennial students,” Gary Dorrien, the current Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, told ThinkProgress in an email.
The modern heirs of this theological legacy are the so-called “mainline Christian” denominations claimed by several of Trump’s detractors: McCain was reared Episcopalian, Obama belonged to a UCC church before becoming president, and both Clinton and Comey are proud Methodists.
Others such as Jimmy Carter and Brooks have found common ground in their mutual appreciation of Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism.” Niebuhr took issue with the raw optimism of the “Social Gospel,” a Christian political movement that championed the unbridled potential of humanity to better the world, helping ignite the spiritual spark that eventually swelled to become the progressive movement. He shared the optimism of thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, who championed human capacity for good and saw the importance of social change, but argued our fragile species is also inescapably sinful, and thus prone to horrific actions.
“The Social Gospel and its offshoots played idealizing roles in politics, and a great deal of religion is obviously conservative or reactionary,” Dorrien wrote. “Niebuhr saw himself as representing a third possibility between these usual options, taking seriously the ethical idealism in Christian teaching and the necessity of gaining, using, and opposing power in a morally responsible fashion.”
The result was a school of liberal Christian thought — constantly amended over the course of his lengthy career but embraced by many progressives of his time — that argued good can sometimes only be achieved through wretched means. Niebuhr heavily endorsed nonviolent methods of change, of course — Martin Luther King described his use of nonviolent protest as “a Niebuhrian stratagem of power.” But his teachings included uncomfortable positions regarding violence that could be considered paradoxes: Niebuhr supported the creation of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the Soviet Union, for example, but described dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “morally indefensible.”
Niebuhr’s influence should scare Trumpians
While Christian Realism sometimes dwells in gray spaces, its broader principles became guideposts for an ever-growing band of admirers. These norms outlived Niebuhr, and provided a space for politicians to reject hardline factions in both parties — not to mention providing a guiding light for aspiring leaders.
Obama, for instance, famously deemed Niebuhr one of his “favorite philosophers” during a 2007 interview with David Brooks.
“I take away [from Niebuhr] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain,” Obama said. “And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
If Obama’s presidency represented the reemergence of Christian Realism, Trump’s rise embodies the opposite.
Brooks and other analysts went on to observe Niebuhrian tendencies in Obama’s presidency, such as his proclivity to avoid moral absolutes in speeches, or his rebuke of tidy narratives regarding Islam by reminding audiences that Christianity also has a violent past.
But if Obama’s presidency represented the reemergence of Christian Realism, Trump’s rise embodies the spiritual opposite. Trump drew cheers from supporters at his rallies by making any number of absolutist claims — moral or otherwise — and embraced the “clash of civilizations” narrative when he declared “Islam hates us.”
Unfortunately for Trump, Niebuhrian sentiment is common among conservatives as well — just not the typically right-wing Christians who flocked to Trump on Election Day. In fact, Niebuhr’s ideology refutes ideas that often drive many Trump supporters (as well as Trump himself), be they right-wing Christians, alt-right disciples, or both.
Comey, for instance, wrote his 1982 undergraduate thesis at the College of William and Mary comparing Niebuhr and Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell. Falwell was the founder of Liberty University (currently run by his son, diehard Trump fan Jerry Falwell Jr.), where Trump not only gave a speech during his campaign, but also delivered a commencement address as president earlier this month infused with Christian nationalism.
Awkward marriages of evangelical Christianity and nationalistic pride were irksome to Niebuhr and his followers. In Comey’s thesis (a copy of which was acquired by ThinkProgress), the future FBI director repeatedly expresses a preference for Niebuhr’s more nuanced approach to scripture, sin, and politics compared to Falwell, saying Niebuhr’s take on the human condition is something “every aspiring world leader should read.”
He also espouses little tolerance for Falwell’s relatively simplistic vision for a “Christian America.”
“What [Falwell] has done — and what a comparison with Niebuhr makes clear — is dilute Christianity to a numbers game,” Comey writes, lambasting Falwell’s emphasis on saving souls above all else. He goes on to challenge the evangelist’s notion of nationalism — which Comey insists is rooted in the idea that America is the “new Israel” — by lifting up Niebuhr’s, which he says decried Falwell and those like him as “false prophets.” Niebuhr, he argues, champions a different kind of civic duty, one that requires “prophetic” criticism of leaders and loyalty to the divine over country.
“For Niebuhr the true prophet is an internationalist who casts all national pretensions in the light of divine judgement,” Comey writes. “The prophet measures all collective human action against the norm of love, and all groups fail to measure up.”
“Niebuhr was a patriotic American nationalist, but Trump’s brand of nationalism would have been repugnant to him on every level.”
It’s not hard to see how this worldview would be anathema to followers of Trumpism, an ideology where devotees chant slogans like “America First” and the President Trump reportedly demands intense loyalty from his staff.
But it’s also not hard to see why Comey, a Niebuhrian, demurred when Trump allegedly demanded his loyalty. Nor is it difficult to imagine why the same man who sparked liberal rage for announcing a probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails 10 days before the election would also aggressively investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Comey, like Niebuhr, is on a very different wavelength than Trump.
The same is true for other conservative critics of the president, such as Brooks and McCain. Along with any number of liberals, they define patriotism in ways that sharply diverge from Trump’s vision of America, and will likely only grow louder as scandals continue to pile up.
“Niebuhr was a patriotic American nationalist, but Trump’s brand of nationalism would have been repugnant to him on every level,” Dorrien told ThinkProgress. “Trump launched his political career by riding the birther movement, which was based on nothing but racism. He launched his campaign by demonizing Mexican immigrants, which lifted him above other Republican candidates, and he made himself unbeatable in the Republican primaries by calling for the Muslim ban — all of which Niebuhr would have reviled.”
Will Niebuhr endure?
Despite his staying power, the longterm legacy of Niebuhr remains in doubt. His most devoted followers — white mainline Protestants — are slowly dwindling, and his “third way” approach is unlikely to catch fire in a political climate mired in tribalism and partisanship.
Meanwhile, few if any of Niebuhr’s conservative fans are purists. McCain, for instance, rejects the “pride” of nationalism, but insists America was “conceived as an example to the world” and has “made [it] a better, more just place.” And many right-wing political thinkers have systemically chipped away at Niebuhr’s influence over the years, dismissing his Christian Realism as antiquated or unfit to address modern-day issues.
But even if Nieburhian thought is on its way out, its exit will be slow, as adherents to Christian Realism still occupy powerful spaces in Washington — and that should worry Trump. Yes, Trump and other wings of the Republican party are keen to belittle Niebuhr’s surviving cadre (or, in Comey’s case, remove them from public service entirely), but they aren’t going quietly. Christian Realism, after all, is predicated on the notion that powerful people will usually do awful things, and that it’s the responsibility of Christian men and women to expose them in the pursuit of justice.
The coming years may be Niebuhr’s last gasp, but he just might take Trumpism with him.