During the last few days, I have been reading Reinhold Niebuhr's acclaimed classic, The Irony of American History, and have been re-thinking his criticism of American foreign policy. His portrait is on the right. He was a brilliant analyst, whose insights into Christian thought and politics continue to be as profound as they are prophetic.  Although the book was published in 1952 and was primarily occupied with the stalemate of terror existing between the United States and the Soviet Union, Niebuhr's wisdom is starkly relevant to our own time and, specifically, to our policy in the Middle East.  He warned us about the sin of American exceptionalism, about our inability to understand the fullness of events in history (including whatever the future may come to hold), about being beguiled by simple solutions and, lastly, about the need to recognize the limits of power.

Prior to our invasion of Iraq, it would have been comforting to realize that the neoconservative architects of George W. Bush's foreign policy had read and digested this volume, which one commentator has unreservedly called "the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." (And by a Christian theologian no less!)  There is, unfortunately, no evidence that anyone in the current administration has ever read it, much less taken it seriously. The sacrifice of American blood and treasure in the vainglorious attempt of World War I to "make the world safe for democracy" seems, in retrospect, outrageously presumptuous and misguided.  But the stated goal of what Europeans call "the Great War" pales beside President Bush's policy of actually attempting to democratize the primitive and troubled country of Iraq.  One can only wonder how our progeny will view this effort.

At this point my critic hastens to point out that I have argued in my own book, America Unraveling, in favor of a public faith, according to which America is understood as having been endowed by God with a mission of freedom to the rest of the world.  Does the thesis of a divinely bestowed national calling not lend itself to demonstrations of hubris in American foreign policy, like the one we have seen in our invasion of Iraq?  It is tempting to correlate the one with the other and, from there, to draw the conclusion that the argument I have made in behalf of public faith is essentially idolatrous.  Niebuhr would certainly have counted anyone a charlatan, and perhaps even a dangerous one at that, who advocates for American public faith as I do.  Not in The Irony of American History, but elsewhere, he states, "The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry."  Although I do not think that my book lies within the circumference of this statement, I suspect that Niebuhr would have been willing to place it there.

While I do not disagree with Niebuhr that the combination of religion and politics can be problematic and often is, what choice do we have? The combination, as I have often emphasized, is unavoidable.  The attempt to separate the two serves only to make core religious values irrelevant to the exercise of political power on the one hand, while divesting from the political sphere the dimension of transcendence and rendering politics otiose on the other.  The risk on Niebuhr's side is not so much the sin of idolatry as that of cynicism. That, in turn, gives way to the short-sighted world of one-dimensional government bureaucrats and strategists, of crass politicians who confess behind closed-doors that "money talks and bulls—t walks," and of Supreme Court justices who are hard-pressed to find in America's religious heritage anything but "ceremonial deism" and secular, solemnizing ritual.

Just because a nation and its leaders believe that God has blessed them and collectively given them missionary responsibilities to others, it does not necessarily follow that such a nation must succumb to its imperialistic inclinations by initiating a pre-emptive strike against another nation, invading it, and then imposing upon it a democratic ideology. That public faith is conducive to reckless stupidity is not an ironclad certainty.  To argue against this truth runs the risk of overlooking the rich possibilities of history, and is this not one of Niebuhr's most crucial points?

The unique challenge for our time, it appears to me, is to honor a prophetic public faith and to allow it to transform consciousness in every sector of American public life without, at the same time, falling prey to national pride and self-righteousness.  This is always a tenuous effort at best, which should provoke within us a grave sense of humility.  Whether the effort results in moral success or failure depends ultimately upon the redemptive hand of God.

November 13, 2008