Complete Transcript of Interview with Richard Wrightman Fox

Complete Transcript of Interview with Richard Wrightman Fox

Interview date: December 8, 2004 Listen to the conversation Richard Wightman Fox

Krista Tippett, host: I've read your biography, and I would like to start with just how you encountered him, which sounds like it was when you were-as an undergraduate at Stanford. Is that right?

Dr. Richard Wrightman Fox: That's right. Yes. I was very interested in religious studies from a theological standpoint then, but also simply following American culture and politics…

Ms. Tippett: What were the years then?

Dr. Fox: This was mid-60s. I was taking classes from Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak at Stanford in '64, '65, '66. And in those days, if you just opened The New York Times or any magazine, you saw Reinhold Niebuhr as a major public intellectual. In fact, I think one of the ways to measure his stature is to say that he was one of the big three twentieth-century, public intellectuals. That would mean Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and perhaps a third of that stature would be Margaret Mead. These were people who were always commenting on politics and culture, and the press was relying on them to perform, more or less, as cultural sages. There was really no other religious person who had that kind of crossover stature into the secular community, and that's why you keep hearing his name to this day. There were lots of non-religious people who considered Niebuhr a major figure in helping them figure out where America was politically and culturally.

Ms. Tippett: Although, I wonder if as many people outside religious circles or theological circles now know Niebuhr's name, as many as would, at least, recognize Lippmann or Margaret Mead.

Dr. Fox: Right. Yeah, I keep expecting Reinhold to drop off the map, but then you open the New Republic, for example, this week, and you get a major piece by Peter Beinart, in which he alludes to, or mentions, at least in passing, Niebuhr as one of the people who redefined liberalism in the mid-twentieth century when the ADA was founded-the Americans for Democratic Action. And Beinart's calling for a similar reorientation of liberalism at this moment to confront the post-9/11 world, and in a sense, resuscitate the Democratic party with a more Niebuhrian, realist outlook than we have had, according to Beinart, in the Democratic party lately.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Fox: And that shows that there still is a kind of crossover potential in the use of Niebuhr. I do think, though, that as a theologian, he has somewhat receded compared to even his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, and certainly Paul Tillich, the great liberal theologian of mid century.

Ms. Tippett: Tell me what Niebuhr's ideas meant to you when you were an undergraduate in the 60s. What was relevant and exciting or interesting then?

Dr. Fox: As Niebuhr was mediated to me by both Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak, there was a really large array of ways in which Niebuhr was influential to me. He was influential, first, because, for a young Christian like me — I grew up Catholic, but was in the kind of liberal Christian milieu of academia in the 60s. For somebody like me, Niebuhr kept pushing for the importance of social justice from a religious standpoint as well as a secular standpoint. It was really the social justice appeal that made me gravitate to him, and especially to the early writings, Moral Man and Immoral Society. In effect though, all of his writings from Moral Man for the next 20 years — that was 1932 to 1952 when he published The Irony of American History — everything he wrote in that 20-year period, it struck me as terribly important, because it pushed for social justice, but it kept cautioning everybody against being too utopian about it. Because human beings were sinners, they would naturally invest a kind of self-aggrandizement in everything they did. Even when they pushed for social justice, they would consider themselves really grand examples of morality or something, which was just one more kind of sinfulness. And that hypocrisy and complacency was something that he always preached against. That prophetic element of Niebuhr was very, very appealing to me. It still is. But certainly when I first encountered him, he seemed to be the most articulate exponent of that position which was both-and. It was human beings are made in the image of God, so they can do great things, but they're sinners, so they always undermine their own efforts to do good.

Ms. Tippett: There's a sentence in your biography of Niebuhr that I thought really stated it very simply and with a lovely clarity. You said, "He exhorted his readers and listeners to take responsibility for their world while warning them against the temptation to try to perfect it." It's just other words to what you just said.

Dr. Fox: Right. And the term "responsibility" is really a key, because it connotes — along with taking strong positions for social justice, let's say — it connotes also a kind of reticence and even tentativeness where you do it responsibly. You don't just do it, what he would have said, fanatically. You are always measuring your responsible behavior against, on the one hand, Christ's command to love neighbor, but on the other hand, you're watching out for the fanaticism that he thought always accompanied religiously-inspired social action. And by religion, there, he meant even secular religion like communism, but certainly Christianity, historically, had a great deal of fanaticism about it. And he felt that you had to always walk that fine line: engagement, but self-critical engagement.

Ms. Tippett: Tell me what surprised you after you decided to write a biography of Niebuhr, as you delved into that project, what you learned about him and understood about him and his legacy that you needed the fullness of the context of his life and his times to grasp.

Dr. Fox: Right. Well, I came of age as a historian in the era when great men were sort of suspect as historical influences. We were more or less in a moment there where the idea that great men achieved anything on their own, just because of their genius was looked-

Ms. Tippett: Those 60s and 70s.

Dr. Fox: We were social historians. We thought of there being deeper social forces that were actually causing things to happen, and that individuals were more or less the products of such social forces. But really, working on Niebuhr made me second guess that standard social history perspective, while agreeing, certainly, that even somebody like Niebuhr is the product of social and cultural forces. Still, when you read about him and you read him in his own words, I think you can't help -once you consider his whole career — you can't help concluding that there just are some really, really genius people. And, in his case, he, I think, is absolutely unique. He's the best liberal preacher, certainly, that 20th century America produced. He's one of the best political journalists that 20th century America produced. Walter Lippmann is the only other one of that stature for me. And then you combine all of that with original work in theology, and that just makes him utterly distinctive and in his merely political influence, he was up there with Lippmann as well. So that when we think of people who really changed America, and therefore changed the world in the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr is somebody who cannot be, in a sense, collapsed into social forces that really did the work. Without Niebuhr, certain things might not have happened.

Ms. Tippett: Well, you know, along those lines, your biography of him was very meticulous — just lots of wonderful detail about his family of origin and sort of who he was in growing up. And I was so struck. Here's this person who only in adulthood sort of became completely fluent in English, and it's not that he had some extraordinary education either, right? I mean, he was educated, but then you describe this person, you talk about the powerful range of his thoughts, that nobody rivaled him for his topical range and his aggressive prose, that he moved from domestic politics to foreign policies to ecclesiastical affairs. And did you get a sense of, as you researched him, where did he get that power and that range of ideas?

Dr. Fox: Right. Well, there, too, I think, you are ultimately led to the conclusion that there are just some people who are quicker, wittier and wider ranging than the rest of us. And there were other such people in his lifetime who recognized that about him. I point to the examples in my book of Isaiah Berlin and Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice. So a great philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, and a great legal thinker and Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, and they both regarded Reinhold Niebuhr as one of most talented minds they had ever encountered. That's saying a lot coming from them because they were always venerated for that very feature. I think Niebuhr is — well, another way to put it is that Niebuhr himself venerated Lincoln. And one reason I think he venerated Lincoln so much is that Niebuhr, like Lincoln, came out of very simple circumstances, not utter poverty in either case, really, but utter simplicity of background in the sense that their education wasn't that great.

Ms. Tippett: Nothing really special there.

Dr. Fox: Yeah. And so they really are great American stories in that way in which, in America, it really is a wide open field for talent in some respects, more so than in some more hide bound European societies where you have to pretty much go through the right schools in order to attain the kind of influence that somebody like Niebuhr ultimately reached, or Lincoln.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Tell me some of the special challenges in writing a biography of him.

Dr. Fox: Well, the biggest challenge was to combine an account of his life and all of his myriad activities, because this individual was all over the map.

Ms. Tippett: You get an impression of frenetic energy and activity from the book.

Dr. Fox: Yes. Well, I think that's something that people who knew him well are very articulate about. He was never content merely, let's say, to join every organization in existence. He would found a new one, and get everybody else to join his organizations or work for his magazines. So he was constantly creating new intellectual and social agencies and institutions and magazines and so forth. Just covering all of that stuff was a major challenge. In addition to which, he was a serious thinker. So the biggest challenge for the biographer, I think, of Niebuhr, is to do justice just to that combination of organizer/activist on the one hand, and then original thinker on the other hand. If anything, I think, I under measured the importance and depth and complexity of his thinking out of my concern to cover all of his activities.

Ms. Tippett: To tell the story.

Dr. Fox: Were I to do it again, I think I would just do a separate chapter or an appendix, for example, on the great monument of his thought, The Nature and Destiny of Man, these two volumes which are really a majestic accomplishment for someone who was so overloaded with work during World War II. And so just the absolute limit of his energies, always. But to have written and published those huge volumes in the midst of all that other activity, I think I certainly could have weighted them more heavily by giving them a separate place in my text.

Ms. Tippett: Let me just ask you. Some words that I like very much that I think were critical in Niebuhr's thinking about social and political affairs as well as his theology and how he bound all of that together were words like "irony" and "tragedy" and "paradox." Now just reflect on those words and those qualities of his thought and his approach in terms of what you learned and what was rich for you in getting into this, and what it meant, how you understand those words.

Dr. Fox: Yes. It was elementally important for me in being drawn to Niebuhr in the first place that he was emphasizing paradox and irony so much. The Christian faith, I think, for him and for me when I encountered Niebuhr, was full of paradox and irony, and therefore his harping on those difficulties, and we could say those dialectics in Christian faith, his constantly interpreting phrases of Jesus, such as you have to lose in order to gain, you have to give things up in order to get things. All of these paradoxes were apparent to me as a young person in the Christian faith, but Niebuhr gave them a development that made them relevant to everything we did in ethics, in politics, in spirituality. And really there I think he was, while being what we would call a "liberal Protestant" in the 20th century, and that means on the whole, I would say, pushing for social justice and taking the Christian life into the secular world, and engaging in politics and not just sitting back and preparing for your own salvation. That's, in a way, the liberal emphasis: the stress on ethics and politics. But along with that, I think Niebuhr's whole career is about trying to recapture the idea of a transcendent God. Not just reducing the divine to the natural, but finding ways of making the idea of a sovereign God still meaningful in the modern world. And he had more or less success in doing that, as different theologians would argue. But, for me, it was always very compelling that he kept insisting on the paradox, and the central Christian paradox is simply that God is both divine and human. So making sense of that mystery is what the great Christian theologians have always tried to do, and they always end up — if they're smart enough like Niebuhr — saying ultimately it's a mystery and we can't understand it, but that's what makes it such an important dogma of our faith, that it is a mystery which we will never quite figure out.

Ms. Tippett: And yet, what's so interesting and powerful about Niebuhr is that he not only emphasized that paradox, but he still continually tried to wrestle it to ground in a sense. He still wanted to apply that in the real life, in the most complex conditions.

Dr. Fox: Yes. And I'd just repeat what I said earlier about Niebuhr — and this is relevant to the idea of paradox and irony — it's simply that Niebuhr tried always to promote action in the interest of social justice. But the paradox was that those good people who took up such a challenge would inevitably sin in the process of doing good. So he always thought that a certain amount of evil was going to be produced by the best people. At the very least, they would regard themselves with pride for all their accomplishments, and that pride itself was the inroad for sin. But at worst, they would just overlook the rights, let's say, or even the existence of some people who were getting in their way as they were promoting their so-called good for society. I think the idea of sin is really, if you had to remember one thing about Niebuhr, you would say that all of his efforts on behalf of justice and, one could say, love and justice, were informed by this sense that sinfulness has been de-emphasized too much in liberal theology. We have to bring sin back. And there's the ultimate paradox: that sin accompanies the quest for love and justice.

Ms. Tippett: And I think, in our time, the concept is even more de-emphasized. It's a very awkward word, even. Dr. Fox: I agree. I know. And what's so remarkable today is that even the conservative, evangelical preachers don't talk about sin that much. The "sin" word seems to have dropped out of Christian preaching across the spectrum, where nowadays we get even conservatives emphasizing empowerment as the real Christian message. And one understands why that should be. When there's too much emphasis on sin, people maybe give up on themselves. That's been a constant dialectic in the long past of the Christian church, but I think certainly, in my view anyway, we've gone so far over in the direction of empowerment doctrine now that it's time for another Niebuhr to come along and tell us that the Christian message is actually twofold.

Ms. Tippett: Right. OK. So here's an irony. In my conversations, and on the radio and in what I read and, I'm sure, in what you read, Niebuhr is often invoked and he can be invoked on two sides of any argument, is my finding in a way. I want to ask you about something you write in the biography, I think in the introduction. So you had two teachers Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak at Stanford. Now these are two people who, I think, would be classified as on opposing sides of the political divide in our culture right now, and I think that's interesting. I think Niebuhr has always been this figure that crossed a lot of boundaries. Now, you said — as the split between Brown and Novak, your teachers, between this left liberal, liberation theologian and this right liberal, as you describe Novak, then deepened in the 1970s — you said, "I was drawn back to their teacher in order to clarify the rift between my own teachers." Talk to me about how you came to understand that potential of Niebuhr to appeal to people on different sides. Is that a strength? Is that a problem? How do you make sense of it?

Dr. Fox: I think it's simply an historical fact, first of all, that Reinhold Niebuhr himself changed from the early period when he was, so to speak, more like Robert McAfee Brown into-

Ms. Tippett: More on the left.

Dr. Fox: Yes. Into his later stages where he was more, so to speak, like Michael Novak. That's an oversimplification, because the issues had all changed by the 1970s. But nevertheless, there's some truth to the early Niebuhr/later Niebuhr dichotomy, and the earlier one is the more radical, anti-capitalist Reinhold Niebuhr. Then by the late 1930s, 1940s, he had made his peace with New Deal liberalism, which he had been highly critical of in the early 1930s; he had left socialism behind as an ideal, and therefore one can see the kind of radicalism of his early career having a legacy in contemporary left progressivism. One can see, furthermore, the sidling up to the New Deal, the more centrist Niebuhr of the late 30s and ever after having more to do with a more conservative liberalism. But as I say, the issues themselves had undergone such change by the 1970s and have continued to change ever since, that one really is at a loss trying to predict where Reinhold Niebuhr himself would have ended up if he had encountered those same issues that Brown and Novak encountered by the 1970s.

Ms. Tippett: Right, or if he were encountering the culture that we have now and the particular divisions.

Dr. Fox: Right. We can predict that he would be still very critical of the, in a sense, Billy Graham-style evangelism because he was critical of it. Already Billy Graham was a famous figure in the 1950s and Niebuhr took the lead in attacking what he considered a retrograde evangelicalism that scoffed at science. As a liberal Protestant, Niebuhr was determined to defend reason along with faith. Each had its proper place. Just because you endorsed scientific reason didn't mean that you were taking away from faith. It just meant that you were, in effect, cultivating a double identity — one in which faith and reason co-existed and enriched one another. But you never ever tried to solve problems of science by appealing to the Bible. You just solve them by appealing to science. And so he would be extremely critical — I'm sure of this — of contemporary evangelicalism to the extent that that evangelicalism calls into question modern science.

Ms. Tippett: OK, so that's interesting. There's something where you can look at, in fact, Billy Graham as the precursor of the contemporary, 21st century evangelical leaders. But also, Niebuhr spent a lot of time criticizing liberal theology and liberal Protestantism. I mean, what do you know about how he reacted to those kinds of ideas and behaviors that he might be reacting to negatively now? Do you have an idea about that?

Dr. Fox: Well, I think that that's a much harder call to make, how Niebuhr might have evolved in relation to liberalism of the left sort that developed after the 1970s, because his world was really different from the 1970s and after world. The best way to sum this up is to say that the liberal Catholic and Protestant and Jewish and secular world was unified by certain cultural assumptions. Those assumptions include that women were basically in the background, and that we needed strong male leaders in order to articulate our deepest concerns, and those strong male leaders could stand for the whole community. But by the 1970s, on the liberal left, that basic assumption disintegrated, so that, as I see it, liberalism fragmented into different groups, and they could more or less cooperate on some issues, but on others, they had much more difficulty cooperating. We have not, since the time of Niebuhr, called into existence a white, male, liberal authority figure. We have not wanted such an authority figure. And therefore, even Robert McAfee Brown himself, who, had he come along a generation earlier, would have been a major cultural figure. By the 1970s, he was really a secondary figure. The same goes for William Sloane Coffin. If he'd come along 30 to 50 years earlier, he would have been another potential Reinhold Niebuhr. But we didn't want such spokespeople for our post-1970 liberalism, and therefore, they more or less had secondary roles compared to the earlier generation of titans like Reinhold Niebuhr.

Ms. Tippett: Is Michael Novak still talking about Niebuhr?

Dr. Fox: I think Mike does still consider Niebuhr very important. I haven't followed all of his occasional writing, but I think he would certainly consider the later Niebuhr one of his main inspirations for developing the idea of democratic capitalism. That is the later Niebuhr, the more centrist Niebuhr, would have had some pretty critical things to say about socialism, and therefore Novak would have drawn a great deal on that later period of Niebuhr's thinking. Although, to my mind, that later period was never very well developed in Niebuhr's thought. After he had his horrible stroke in 1952 at the age of 59, he didn't, to my mind, produce work of the same importance that he produced before that. But certainly Novak would consider himself, to this day, and I think rightly so, to be building on the later perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Ms. Tippett: And so we have established that the differences between Robert McAfee Brown and Michael Novak in the 1970s have been — I mean, that the conditions and the differences and the divides are all very different now, but still it is kind of a left-right divide. I want to know if you were able to say, as you hoped, to clarify the rift between your teachers by looking at the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. And then also, by implication, are you able to clarify some of the rift in our culture now by looking at Reinhold Niebuhr?

Dr. Fox: I think I'm certainly, by looking at Niebuhr, aided in my effort to articulate the rift. I don't see Niebuhr or anyone offering a bridge across that rift. I think that the rift is just too deep, and there are real concerns on both sides that cannot be bridged on an issue like abortion, for example. But I think the importance of Niebuhr is that he thought so deeply about all of the issues that came up in his era, and his general perspective on the relation between politics and religion, to my mind, is an important acquisition for all of us even today. And, to some extent, that might be a bridge. I just wrote a book on Jesus in America in which I tried to be kind of a fair listener to both sides across that divide.

Ms. Tippett: The way Jesus is interpreted, right?

Dr. Fox: Yes. And I think the effort to listen to both sides and merely try to understand what each side is saying is a certain kind of a bridge, but I don't think that there's any real bridge across unless it is simply the general perspective that Niebuhr articulated on the relation between religion and politics. Another way to put it would be to say the relation between religion and secularity. And the way to summarize it briefly would be to say that for Niebuhr, religion was always necessary but dangerous. Religion was necessary, because a merely secular outlook in the political world might lead away from social justice. It might lead to just maintaining the peace, so to speak, or just keeping things more or less unperturbed. Niebuhr thought religion was necessary precisely because it did unsettle things and force us, if we were going to listen to Jesus, to think about the poor, for example, and think about inequality. Those kinds of issues were, he thought, driven by a religious sensibility.

OK, so you needed religion, but on the other hand, religion was dangerous, and you had to, therefore, protect the secular arena or the public, political arena against too much religion or religion of the wrong kind, because religious people tended to arrogate to themselves the idea of what was moral and what wasn't moral, and they would try to impose their views of what was moral or not on other people, and not just enter the public world with an attitude of trying to improve things, as best they could, for the least advantaged people. So there was there, too, a paradox that you had to engage in politics, but you had to also discipline politics from a religious standpoint. You had to be secular, you had to try to just solve problems in the most dispassionate and even, he might have said, "scientific" way — in ways that would make sense to everybody whatever their religion — but that was not going to be enough to impel politics towards issues of justice.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And he did stand for positions on moral issues such as war. And he did even run for office and create political organizations. I will say that I was a little bit surprised, as I read your biography, of how very politically active he was.

Dr. Fox: He was a wannabe politician, certainly. He had a strong streak of wanting to be a public servant, but it just never worked out.

Ms. Tippett: So how do you reconcile the theory — and I think it is all reconciled somehow in his thought — but to clarify this, how do you reconcile the idea that you have to protect politics from religion on the one hand and that he was such a forceful political player in his lifetime?

Dr. Fox: Yes, well he tried himself to combine — and this is not unique to him, but it's, in effect, the liberal Protestant commitment ever since the 19th century — to be both religious and secular simultaneously, to always dance that fine line. Therefore, he thought there was no contradiction between being more or less secular in one's political activity and having this strong Christian driving impulse behind that secular activity. In our own world, Mario Cuomo has made a repeated and very articulate statement of this same position, most recently in a book that E. J. Dionne edited called One Electorate Under God? Cuomo has not identified Niebuhr as his source here, but it certainly is a position that's quite comparable to Niebuhr's on politics and religion.

Ms. Tippett: Although, I think Cuomo also draws on strong tradition within Catholicism that has its own backbone.

Dr. Fox: Certainly. Right. And Niebuhr was very admiring of that Catholic tradition, by the way.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, was he?

Dr. Fox: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: That book that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life produced with different contemporary religious and political actors reflecting on Cuomo's remarks, and also the remarks of Congressman Mark Souder, who was in that dialog with Cuomo — a number of them referred to Niebuhr. I mean, eight or ten, and sometimes it was two sentences. It was the question you asked a minute ago: Where's the Niebuhr of our times? But that fascinated me actually.

Dr. Fox: Yeah, I was, in fact, one of those contributors who wrote about Niebuhr, and David Brooks, I remember, also mentioned Niebuhr. So to that extent, there is a consciousness of Niebuhr's position out there in these debates. And I'm, myself, very impressed with Cuomo's response to Mark Souder and the general line that you need religion in politics, and to that extent he agrees with Souder. But he also challenges Souder on the, in effect, reason versus faith distinction that I was making earlier where we can't really bring our faith into politics as a measure of how we ought to proceed explicitly in politics. We can't take our own attitudes towards abortion, for example, and make that part of our political campaign, because that would be to impose one moral viewpoint on people of a different tradition.

Ms. Tippett: I'd like to get into one story that you recount in telling Niebuhr's life that I thought really brought out the irony and difficulty of holding all these things together that he was trying to talk about, I mean being assertive and then also knowing the boundaries. And that was the instance where he was a pastor of a church in Detroit in his early adulthood. Then in 1929 there was a controversy there surrounding his successor, right, the new, young pastor of this church, the Bethel Evangelical Church. Tell that story and what happened, because that seems to me to contain all the difficulty of this.

Dr. Fox: I'm not actually going to remember the details of this, but-

Ms. Tippett: Well, I can sort of tell it. And I don't know all the details either, but that Niebuhr was very much concerned about racial prejudice, even in those early years, and that the pastor took a stand against racial prejudice. I can't remember if it was about allowing black people to be in worship with them or to be members. And that he then in some ways got embroiled in this controversy within the parish where people were upset with the pastor for trying to impose this. He also sort of took the side against the pastor. He said racial prejudice can't be wiped out by preaching about it.

Dr. Fox: Right.

Ms. Tippett: But in the end, the young pastor was driven out and the church voted to bar blacks from their congregation, which is not what Niebuhr wanted.

Dr. Fox: Right, right. Yes, I would have to go back to my own book to be sure of what exactly happened, but I can point out that Niebuhr was very involved in Detroit on racial issues. And there's a new book that just won the National Book Award for nonfiction which treats this Ku Klux Klan attack on the doctor, a black doctor Ossian Sweet. I haven't seen the book yet, so I'm eager to know what the book may say on Niebuhr's role, but Niebuhr himself was very engaged in that racial controversy in defense of the doctor and in defense of the, in effect, black community against the Ku Klux Klan. So he was very clear on racial issues, and yet, as you say, he was a gradualist on trying to get his own church to change its ways.

Ms. Tippett: I think that was sort of his realism, isn't it?

Dr. Fox: Yeah, it is. And it's tailoring the wind to the sheep. It's the idea that you don't try to force people to do what you may think is the moral thing, because they may have to learn something before they're ready for it. He was very beholden to many older, conservative members of his Bethel parish who had helped him in the early days, and he was not going to slap them in the face on this issue. So, as I say, I'd have to go back to the original account in my book and even to some of the documents to go into it in great detail, but I do think it was an example, as you say, of him tempering the wind to the shorn sheep and also just making a strong statement of the general principle of racial equality. I think the more general point is that along with his strong opposition to racial discrimination, he was a member of his own generation of radicals in the labor movement and in the socialist movement for whom racial issues were not the most pressing issues. The most pressing issues were class issues, and he thought that the white working class, and black and white — to the extent that blacks could collaborate with whites in that same labor movement — were going to change the world. And that's what he thought in the early 1930s and even late 1920s. So racial issues didn't really come to the forefront of his consciousness in that period the way they did, let's say, in the 1950s. And then he became a very important figure in prompting Martin Luther King and others to think about how racial equality might actually be brought about in America. King was very articulate about the importance of Niebuhr for King's own thinking.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Here's an analogy that occurred to me when I was reading that anecdote, and it's certainly imperfect. On the issue of gay marriage right now, which is dividing denominations and churches, and I think of a lot of stories I hear from Episcopalians who even were essentially inclined to want to embrace the idea of gay marriage, but are very unhappy with how the Gene Robinson consecration was handled, that it was sort of declared that now this is right, this is moral.

Dr. Fox: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: I think that was a disappointing and difficult episode for Niebuhr, but I thought it was very interesting that what he was emphasizing in the middle of that debate at which he felt that something very important was at stake, and he knew where he stood on it, but he was also trying to talk about how change really happens, and he was saying you can't just impose it; you can't just preach it.

Dr. Fox: That's right.

Ms. Tippett: I think it works both ways because we tend to be critical these days of conservative moral values being imposed, but I think the dynamics are there on both sides.

Dr. Fox: Yes. And what bothered him in his own congregation's case of that racial controversy was as much the — he thought arrogance and complacency of Rev. Helm, the young radical who was going to impose racial equality on the congregation. Niebuhr felt that that kind of wooden, bristling morality coming from the pulpit was just spiritually deficient itself. Therefore, in addition to just being a gradualist on social change, he felt that there were actual spiritual dangers in that kind of moral clear-sightedness of Rev. Helm. It's interesting that you bring up the gay marriage question because, or the ordination of the bishop, because the Niebuhrian position on that would be very hard to identify. Niebuhr himself would have been, in my mind, just as likely to take, in a sense, the Michael Novak path on that issue. I would imagine Mike's position would be against the ordination of — well, it is against the ordination of women within the Catholic church — and I would imagine against the equalization, let's say, of sexuality across gay and straight lines. I think that Niebuhr could quite plausibly have gone that way or the other way.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Fox: His own experience was just not enough for him to have ever thought about it. He was just so traditionalist on such questions. He might have gone a more Robert McAfee Brown direction, which certainly Bob Brown's position, I presume, would have been pretty much in support.

Ms. Tippett: Although, of course it's impossible also to know who Reinhold Niebuhr would be in 2004 because the world has changed so much, but I wonder if it's more interesting, perhaps, to look at what he would say about our process rather than our positions.

Dr. Fox: Yes. I agree with you about that. I think you're very right to identify a qualm that Niebuhr would have had about the process in which the bishop was ordained.

Ms. Tippett: It's a paradigm; you could apply it. You could look at other issues. I did find with this new catchword, this opinion poll-created catchword "moral values," I found those very words in the midst of a very beautiful Niebuhr quote that you have in your book, from his book, Does Civilization Need Religion? "Religions grow out of the real experience in which tragedy mingles with beauty and man learns that the moral values which dignify his life are embattled in his own soul and imperiled in the world."

Dr. Fox: That's wonderful.

Ms. Tippett: Does that quote have anything to say to our current fixation on moral values?

Dr. Fox: Yes. I'm so glad to hear about that quote, because I had forgotten that he identified moral values explicitly in that passage. Yes, I think the very idea of moral values as somehow independent of religious striving and religious aspiration and religious failure would just make Niebuhr laugh, because in his mind it's so much a question of inevitable human sin. The idea that there are just a set of values that float through the air on their own, it's just to him a sign of how Christianized society has really left serious Christianity behind.

Ms. Tippett: I'm curious, since you wrote this biography and you've immersed yourself in Niebuhr and his thought and his life, does that form you as an historian? And in your more recent work, your book Jesus in America, you know, how do you experience the influence of Niebuhr to be in your mind and life?

Dr. Fox: Niebuhr continues to be a major influence on my outlook and certainly on my way of thinking about the history of Jesus in America, which I just spent many, many years working on. In a way, the combination of Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, is the powerful, combined influence for me. I would just say in conclusion that we're going to continue to need somebody like Reinhold Niebuhr to come forward and be a great preacher as well as a great political journalist as well as a great social thinker. We'll need somebody for this era to articulate what I would still call a liberal Christian position — one that takes science seriously along with faith; one that is now informed in a way that Niebuhr himself could not be because of coming along in his own era; one that is now informed by what I would still call a feminist outlook, just to the extent that that means women really are invited to serve religiously or in secular ways on a basis of equality with men, so that this new person would be in that sense a feminist and also open to other world religions in a way that, similarly, Reinhold Niebuhr was not open.

Ms. Tippett: And that encounter was not happening in his time.

Dr. Fox: Right. For him, the Buddhist and Hindu traditions really were beside the point because he thought they turned away from the world and were just interested in some other world. I think that's just dead wrong, but we really need somebody today. I think Martin Luther King, by embracing the Jewish tradition, along with Reinhold Niebuhr, they modeled, in a sense, how to move beyond the strictly speaking Christian tradition and open yourself up to other traditions that they just didn't have a chance, given their own time in the world, to extend that to other world religions. We're going to really venerate a liberal Protestant leader who will do that for us, who will open us up to other traditions, now including Islam, and who will be an egalitarian on gender issues. So maybe the new person, the new liberal Protestant authority, will be a woman. It's just as likely if not more likely because of the number of women who are being trained in seminaries. I think there is no doubt that we need such a person, and my hope is that somebody will come along with the charisma and the wit and the brains of a Reinhold Niebuhr.

Ms. Tippett: You said, early on, that Reinhold Niebuhr was so important that significant things would not have happened had he not existed and his voice had not been there. Describe some of those for me that you think would not have happened.

Dr. Fox: Well, this is a good point to bring up right now because in everything that I've said, I've never mentioned his influence in discussions of foreign affairs, and that's one of the areas in which, truly, had he not come along things might have been very different. I would say there are two main areas: one domestic and one foreign. The first is that the labor movement might never have had the power that it developed in the 1930s if Reinhold Niebuhr had not spoken powerfully in the way that only he could speak, in his writing and in his preaching, about the necessity for religious people to support workers in their struggle against owners. That is, he made liberal Protestants who were very reluctant to embrace struggle, with the potential that that represented for violence, in the labor movement. He said we've got to support striking laborers, unionized laborers; we've got to support boycotts; we've got to support the very things that liberal Protestant preaching has systematically opposed on the grounds that Jesus would not have supported them because Jesus was a pacifist. So Niebuhr pushed many, many liberal Protestants in the first third of the 20th century towards an embrace of a labor movement. Without that, the gains that labor made during the New Deal might not have happened.

In the foreign domain, I think his personal knowledge — from his family background and his trips to Germany in the 1920s — intimate knowledge of German affairs helped to push a lot of liberal Protestants towards finally standing up to Hitler and saying we've got to go to war. We grant that Jesus would not have gone to war, but we're going to go to war because there's something happening that's so bad that we're willing to be violent to oppose it. Niebuhr was just essential to that process of getting a liberal Protestant church out of its pacifism, out of its isolationism, to embrace first lend-lease, the aid to the British in the 1930s, and then finally attacking, after Pearl Harbor, the Nazis and the Japanese.

Ms. Tippett: I also wondered if you would say a little bit more about this idea of how irony and tragedy are always connected, that there's always irony in tragedy and tragedy in irony. It's such an intriguing idea.

Dr. Fox: I know. One way that Niebuhr put this that I like a lot is in his book of what he called "sermonic essays" called Beyond Tragedy, which was published in 1937, and is in some ways the best Niebuhr book for people who want to get an introduction to his whole way of thinking, because it emphasizes his preaching as well as his thought as such. His way of putting it is contained in that title, Beyond Tragedy; that if we just look at human existence it appears to be tragic, but the irony is that human life for a person of faith goes beyond tragedy. That doesn't mean simply that you feel you're sure of some life with God after death — that's not it at all. It's that human life itself takes on ironic complexion rather than a tragic complexion. Irony enables you to distance yourself even from the tragic limitations of human life or the tragic consequences of well-intentioned efforts that often turn out to do evil as well as good. The ironic sensibility allows you to stand back from that and just give gratitude to God. It's a kind of thanksgiving attitude in which you just say, "Wow. Human life is amazing." And it has all of these tragic elements in it, but the very fact that this should exist at all, causes you to give gratitude to God for creating it.

Therefore, I think the ironic outlook for him is associated with the idea of humor and the idea of hope. There is a sustainable hope that comes from this ironic attitude, which is the attitude that takes you beyond mere optimism or mere pessimism. It allows you to sustain efforts. One of his quotations that I like the best, he repeated it many times, is, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in one generation." I think his ironic outlook is the outlook that pushes the idea that you'll keep striving for justice knowing that you'll never achieve it, but it's just what you do because you're grateful for whatever you've been given and you're trying to extend opportunities and advantages to people who don't have them.

Ms. Tippett: Let me just ask you one final question. You spoke a moment ago about how we need another Niebuhr, and that's a sentiment I've heard expressed by different people. Yet when I spoke with Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, she wanted to stress that he was not a celebrity, that in some ways he was not very powerful in his time, that he had many critics, that he experienced himself to be on the sidelines. It's a little bit different picture than the one you've drawn, so maybe you just disagree with that characterization, but that it's only in hindsight that we see his power and influence. And so I wonder if perhaps the Reinhold Niebuhr of today is out there, but the spotlight is just not on them.

Dr. Fox: Well, that may well be. As I was saying before, we have people in our own time like William Sloane Coffin who, if cultural circumstances had been different, might have had much more power in the culture to express widespread feelings and aspirations, but because our culture changed and liberalism fragmented there wasn't a demand for such a unifying liberal figure. But when I think of the comment that Elizabeth Sifton made to you, I think had I been a child of Reinhold Niebuhr, I would have felt, maybe much more powerfully than I now do, that he was just a kind of regular guy. He certainly portrayed himself often in his preaching as a regular guy. He loved the prophet Amos in the Old Testament precisely because Amos kept saying, "I'm just a simple dresser of sycamore trees; I'm not a prophet." And Niebuhr was constantly making that point in order to avoid the complacency and pride that always struck him as the most easily available sin for somebody like him.

But all that said, I think I would really stress that he is a unique, articulate, powerful, influential figure in 20th century America. I would say that we need a person like this, if we can find one, who can preach as a person coming out of this Christian tradition of his, who can keep identifying those paradoxes and ironies of Christian faith, but can also do what is not being done now, I think, by most liberal preachers: have an impact in the wider culture that goes beyond the church in the direction of social justice and responsible activity in foreign and domestic spheres alike. Somebody like that will emerge, I think. We'll have to call such a person into being to some extent culturally, but I think we desperately need somebody who can respond to this highly publicized, conservative movement of the present, which de-emphasizes the importance of reason and science, de-emphasizes the importance of gender equality and de-emphasizes the importance of opening oneself to the wisdom of all world religions. If we can find that articulate, charismatic preacher who can do those things, there will be a big audience. I think the audience is there waiting for the emergence of such a preacher.

Voices on the Radio

Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.

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