Complete Transcript of Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain

Complete Transcript of Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain

Interview date: December 8, 2004

Jean Bethke Elshtain

Krista Tippett, host: I would like to start with a general question. As a person living as a political theorist and ethicist living in 2004 what comes to mind when I ask you what you value and work with in Reinhold Niebuhr's legacy and his thought?

Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain: What comes to mind is a person of great seriousness of purpose who ongoingly engaged the struggles of his time, didn't retreat from them, immersed himself fully in them, without becoming entirely reconciled to them. That is, he was engaged with the culture but also enough apart from it as a Christian theologian that he could critically assess what was going on and how his contemporaries were thinking and acting. This came out most tellingly and controversially in the years immediately preceding World War II when he argued that the overwhelming majority of the Christian community, certainly the Protestant Christian community, was really hiding from the harsh facts of the matter where Nazi Germany was concerned. I think that insistence that we confront the harsh realities of our time that we think seriously about them as Christians who are coming to these questions on the basis of Christian understandings and beliefs. That insistence is really the heart of the matter and I would add here also the recognition that human beings are finite, incomplete and frail creatures, and that the politics we create is bound to be marked by our own finitude. So we should never fall into the comfort of ideology or of utopia because we wind up presuming more than we can presume and doing a tremendous amount of damage in the process.

Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you about a statement you made in one of your recent books, if not your most recent, Just War on Terror. You devoted part of a chapter to Reinhold Niebuhr. You said" No doubt Niebuhr would have cautioned us against calling 9/11 a tragedy." What do you mean by that sentence?

Dr. Elshtain: What I meant by that is when we think of tragedy we think of a kind of force that happens. The example I give in my book is a terrible flood that suddenly rushes down a mountain canyon, destroying vacationers in its wake. That's a tragedy. There's no author of it that we can point to. The example there actually is drawn from my own experience as a Coloradoan when there was a terrible flood in the Big Thompson canyon not far from where I grew up. That notion of tragedy is that the agent is unknown. It's the weather. There's nothing you can blame. There's no human willfulness behind it. It strikes me that when many people were talking about 9/11 as a tragedy, what followed from that often, when those who used the term tragedy, was a kind of mistiness about what brought about that event. I think Niebuhr would say, "Look this was an act perpetrated by willful human agents who knowingly wanted to murder as many innocent civilians as they could." So if we're going to use the word tragedy, let's immediately follow that by "some tragedies can't be avoided, some can". 9/11 was something that happened to us almost as suddenly as a flood or an earthquake, but let's understand that this may well happen again. It's not so mysterious who perpetrated it and why, so let's prepare ourselves. For Niebuhr the most important thing we can do politically is to prevent the worst from happening, to punish and restrain evil. I think that's what he would remind us of.

Ms. Tippett: He did use the word "tragedy" in a large sense. That was an important concept for him in the grand scheme of history. So how would his understanding of tragedy provide a context for taking in these kinds of current events?

Dr. Elshtain: Tragedy for him is very closely linked to irony. He wrote a very important book that is not terribly well known at this point on the ironies of American history in which he pointed out that some of our best-laid plans often go astray, that we aim very, very high and that sadly enough, and one might even say tragically enough, the outcome is quite opposite of what we intended, and that perhaps we aimed too high, like Icarus, we flew too high and wound up plummeting into the ocean and to our own doom. I think that for Niebuhr tragedy is always linked to a recognition of our own finitude. There's a human element or dimension to it. It's not just something that happened. It's perhaps something that couldn't have been prevented, but tragedy of that sort having occurred, we have to prepare ourselves, lest we bring about a similar outcome in the future. Tragedy, if you will, means to instruct as the Greek tragedies did. They were public civic events for the people living in the Greek polis. You go to this and you learn a lesson. Often the lesson is about human hubris or human stubbornness or human ambition. I think that's the way Niebuhr would have gone.

Ms. Tippett: As you mentioned, a great deal of what Niebuhr struggled with, and the crucible in which he formed a lot of his great theology had to do with world events and was in war time; a very different kind of war in a very different era in history. Since our military intervention in Iraq started last year, I've heard people who take positions on both sides of that military intervention, invoke Niebuhr's example. But I think what is most interesting to get at is not so much where would Niebuhr come down on this war, but how would he think it through? You obviously have your opinions and positions, but I'd like to start at getting at that by how did you think Niebuhr would have come at this, what ideas and questions he would bring to this current war that we have.

Dr. Elshtain: He would certainly begin with those basic recognitions of human sinfulness, the reality of evil, the need to punish and restrain those who are determined to harm the innocent, the innocent being those in no position to defend themselves. That I think would be the basis of his thinking, together with real concerns about trying to do more than you reasonably can, even in restraining and punishing evil. He would insist that evil be confronted, but at the same time that we not be over ambitious in that confrontation and try to bring about results that are beyond our capacities, and thereby perhaps bringing about an outcome that is quite different from the one we had too optimistically anticipated. I think that he would approach this with a great deal of gravity and solemnity and recognition of the play of forces. People forget that Niebuhr was very much in the mix of figures who were thinking about international relations and about how states behave. He's in that mix. They're looking to him in part as one of their own, someone who brought a particular cluster of recognitions, but was very much a realist in the parlance of that time, and our own realist in several senses of the word but most importantly at this point in recognizing that there are people you cannot negotiate with, there are people who are not open to argumentation and discussion, and there are times when the only way to restrain violence is oneself to deploy it within reasonable limits. I think that's how he would start to think about both the war on terrorism and the current Iraq conflict.

Ms. Tippett: I know that you and I spoke about this right on the eve of the military intervention, just as it was beginning. I know that you at that time, obviously you had the entire span of Just War theory in your mind. You've worked a great deal with the thought of St. Augustine and Niebuhr. You were finding that that action could be reconciled with that tradition. How has your thought progressed — does that conversation continue with Niebuhr as you live through this part of history in this war?

Dr. Elshtain: Certainly when you evoke powerful thinkers like St. Augustine, and Augustine of course is in the background for Niebuhr's own thought, or Reinhold Niebuhr, you really can't use them as a jumping off platform and then forget about them as things go on. You have to ongoingly go back to them and see what cautions, instructions and interpretations they might suggest or offer. It's a very murky picture. That's why I am always loathe to say Niebuhr would be on my side, because I think in the current situation it would depend a great deal on whether he saw the battle against terrorism and to end the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, if he would see those efforts as integrated and as more akin to WWII in some way. Or alternatively would he separate the war against terrorism and the regime change in Iraq, and looking just at the Iraq situation, see that perhaps as more analogous to the Vietnam war which was a war he opposed. You have very strong support for WWII, urging the clergy, who were from the pulpit preaching appeasement and preaching the moral equivalence in many cases. It's not a pretty picture when you go back. The British have an empire and Hitler has an empire, so what's the difference — that kind of thing — arguing strenuously there. But then in the Vietnam situation, cautioning that in fact the theory on which it was based as part of containment, which he favored, against the Soviet Union. He saw the Soviet empire as evil. To link it to that, he thought, was incorrect. The war could only be a drain and indeed a tragedy of human making. I must say I go back and forth on how Niebuhr would finally situate himself, but that's the way he would think about it, seems to me.

Ms. Tippett: Just a moment ago when you were describing his thought, I heard you using words and ideas that would be cautionary for people who take both sides of this war. On the one hand that there is such a thing as evil that sometimes must be confronted, must be named and punished, and on the other hand that there's always this danger of hubris, of 'stubbornness' was the word you used. There's a very compelling quote from Niebuhr. There are so many of them aren't there? "The New Testament does not envisage," again the word evil that has been problematic for people on one side of this war, very powerful on the other side, he says, "The New Testament does not envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history. It sees human history involved in the contradictions of sin to the end."

Dr. Elshtain: Absolutely. What he's really telling us is that whether one thinks that there can be an ultimate triumph through the force of arms against those who embody, if indeed one wants to call them values, of intolerance, of certain kinds of brutality, of a triumphalism, to the end in which one destroys all the infidels. That's obviously beyond the pale for Niebuhr, that kind of approach. It's a brutal kind of idealism in its own way because if you look at Islamist ideology it's the final extension, the triumph of a certain version of Islam over all of humanity. Then there are other idealists who see the final certain triumph of a version of liberal constitutionalism over all of humanity. He would object to both of those visions because of their overreach and their grandiosity, although he would certainly see the liberal internationalist argument as less brutal. But he would fault it as being naïve and sentimental. Sentimental was not a word he used ever with any favor. On the other hand, the hard core realist who sees only a world of states confronting one another and nothing but power and ethics doesn't enter into it, that too he faulted. In a way it too readily reconciles itself to a world in which there is only power. So how do you work out the tension between, and it's a never-ending tension, it will persist until the end of time, between power and the good and how we try to make a world that is less brutal and less evil than the one we are in, with no presupposition that there will be a culminating moment when all will be well.

Ms. Tippett: I guess I have to wonder whether Niebuhr is simply too complex a thinker for our time, whether this kind of nuance and this sense of irony, paradox and attention that you don't try to resolve, but decide to live with and live into. Is there a place for that in American life, in the 21st century?

Dr. Elshtain: We're in very big trouble if there isn't. I should hope that there would be and that there is although I must say the current picture is rather disheartening in that regard, because the way the sides define themselves is often with such rigidity, and without any of the nuance and paradox that Niebuhr located at the heart of this own thinking. One wonders, has the United States changed over the last half century in such a way that a Niebuhrian voice is simply one we can't really hear, or that if we do hear it we have to radically oversimplify it and locate the person as either a conservative or dangerously idealist or something because we want to slot people into categories. The upshot is we don't pay very much attention to the nuances of the thought. I think that's a very typical response nowadays and one that some of us obviously have experienced personally in reactions to our work. I would say that that Niebuhrian voice, that people who locate themselves within it in a broadly construed way, simply have to keep trying to make their arguments. The arguments go to both sides in our current political condition and political discourse.

Ms. Tippett: There's something in itself in flattening out every argument or every grand issue to saying that it has two sides.

Dr. Elshtain: That gets simplistic, that you can say, well, on the one hand and on the other, and present two simplistic alternatives, neither of which reflects any of the complexity that Niebuhr brought to bear in public discussions and wrote about in his columns. He was a regular observer of the American scene. When he died in 1971 he was certainly the best-known public theologian, if that's the way you describe him, of his time. Would such a public theologian today even find a place to issue his or her regular views on the matters of the day? We certainly don't have a Niebuhr writing a regular column that I can think of. I think perhaps we have become a bit less open to that voice. I fault the churches in part for this because it seems to me we have really fallen down on what might be called Christian formation. We have tended to make the world too simple for young people being brought up in the faith, that it's all resurrection and no crucifixion if you will. There's that moment of Christ's triumph over death and sin and evil. That's focused on. Of course that's a great, joyous moment for all Christians, but the overwhelmingly central icon, symbol of the Christian faith is of a bleeding broken body on a cross. It strikes me that one can't forget that image, that crucifixion, that moment where violence seems to have triumphed. One can't forget that in yearning for the world in which it is vanquished. It seems, for reasons that are fully understandable, we don't want to frighten kids, we don't want to say things that are too gloomy or upsetting, and I believe as a result we're really depriving children of a sufficiently complex understanding of their own faith. In that process it is unsurprising that many in the public arena, including Christians, do not bring that to bear because they were never really instructed in it.

Ms. Tippett: Although, you talk to someone like Robert Coles who has worked with children. They all say that children do have a very complex sense of the world and that they pick up so much of what's going on around them.

Dr. Elshtain: They do, but they need categories and symbols in and through which to express it. Otherwise it remains a set of often rather frightening images that threaten to overwhelm the child, unless he or she has a way to convey some of those hard truths. We've done it in so many arenas of our lives, in taking the scary parts out of fairy tales and again, in your words, flattening everything. We don't want to frighten children, and children's own imaginations are more frightening than almost anything in the world. We have to give them some concepts and symbols, and stories, parables if you will, in and through which they can understand the bad stuff. They know it's there. That's one of the points that I've tried to make recently, is that children know that it's there. And now they know if you're a child of a certain age, the rest of your life will be marked by that image of airliners with people in it who are like you being flown into buildings and killing people who are also like you or your mom or your dad or your brothers and sisters and so on. That's there. That's there forever. How do we help them think about that?

Ms. Tippett: Giving them appropriately complex tools to keep that complexity alive.

Dr. Elshtain: So they recognize the reality of evil but aren't overwhelmed by it. That's part of Niebuhr's lesson. The reality is there. Does it overwhelm us? Do we retreat in the face of it and pretend it isn't happening? Or do we overreact and believe that we can eliminate it entirely in which case we unwittingly start to perpetrate harm in our efforts to eradicate or vanquish terrible things.

Ms. Tippett: So one of his favorite words or one of his central concepts was paradox. He used words like paradox and irony. It seems to me that that falls away completely when you reduce everything to black and white, good and evil, and an either/or choice. Talk about what you understand, and how he used and lived with, a concept like paradox and how you might offer that up to our public life.

Dr. Elshtain: I think the paradox begins for a Christian theologian like Niebuhr with the fact that we have Christ and we have culture. That's the first paradox. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a famous book on Christ and culture. One of the possibilities of the relationship of Christ to culture is precisely that paradoxical one because Christ's kingdom is not of this world. The world cannot in any way perfectly reflect the peaceful kingdom imagined by Jesus of Nazareth. And yet Christians are called to achieve some relative justice, some approximation of that kingdom on this earth. So it's bound to be a paradoxical effort because we can never achieve perfect justice. We can never achieve on this earth a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb.

Ms. Tippett: Part of that is not a sense of futility, but knowing that things will go wrong, being realistic about it.

Dr. Elshtain: Absolutely. It's being realistic, being aware of the shortcomings of what we can do. But that is not an invitation to quiescence or to a kind of sectarian retreat of Christianity from engagement with the world, which many Christians actually now advocate, where you create your own perfect community as the body of Christ. The world more or less can go to the devil or has already been overtaken by the devil so to speak. I think that's an attitude Niebuhr would find troubling, even offensive because it neglects the responsibility that is ours to care for others. The question "Who is my brother? Who is my sister" is always a central moving question. In the debate before the US entry into WWII, which came belatedly as far as Niebuhr was concerned, one of the issues he was raising in the late 1930's was "Has no one any responsibility for the fact that the Nazis aim to annihilate the Jews?" He understood that was part of the Nazi agenda. Everybody who paid any attention knew that. "Are they not our brothers and sisters?" if you will. That kind of engagement with the world in and through caritas, Christian love, translates as a kind of responsibility. Then you have to figure out what you can reasonably be responsible for. And that's not an easy task, because again, the danger is to narrow the zone of responsibility too much, or too expand it in a way that makes it simply impossible, thins it out so much that you wind up not being able to coherently and concretely do much good anywhere.

Ms. Tippett: These are some lines of Niebuhr from "The Irony of American History". I think what's so striking about him is he was so aggressive and powerful and could be strident. He could be very critical of others, but then he's also extremely poetic. You used the word love. I'd like to get a little bit more at the complexity of how he would use that word. "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

Dr. Elshtain: It's beautiful writing. Depending on the context it can bring tears to your eyes. The context of course is one in which he is discussing the pitfalls of action in the world. Every time we act it becomes history almost immediately because it's part of the past. It's a very famous passage you've singled out. You can see that he's lifting up the great Christian theological virtues: hope, charity, love, faith, forgiveness. No doubt he sees these, in fact it's very clear that he does, as one of the treasures that Christianity has deeded to the world. The hope he talks about is something very different from optimism. Optimism believes everything is going to be well and fine. Hope has no such basis, assumes that in fact there will always be, as my mother like to remind me all the time, backsliding. But nonetheless, there is hope. What keeps hope alive is in fact faith. The fruits of faith are love and forgiveness, but it's a kind of forgiveness that Niebuhr was always very clear requires in the world of political life that the one being forgiven recognizes his or her guilt. Even the forgiveness part is more complicated than we like to acknowledge. You don't forgive those — I mean the role of forgiveness in political and social life — you don't forgive until there is some recognition of guilt. Otherwise there is a kind of solipsistic forgiveness. One forgives those who have not acknowledged there is anything they need to be forgiven for. Niebuhr is always tacking between what you and I might do as Christians in our relations with one another, and by contrast how statespersons need to behave in relation to other actors and agents in the world. These are not precisely identical. There are analogies between them, so that forgiveness does have a role in politics, but it's a role that cannot precisely replicate the role that it plays in our relations with family and friends and members of our church community and so forth.

Ms. Tippett: Something else that is very striking to me. I was looking at your book on Augustine and the limits of politics that you wrote in the mid 1990's. When I read you writing about Augustine it is clear that Augustine echoed all the way through Niebuhr's thought also. Some of the dynamics that you're wrestling with, in thinking about Augustine and our times, and something that Niebuhr also wrestled with in his time, was Christian realism vis a vis liberal Christianity, liberal Protestantism, which had gone a certain direction, and also the secular world. Now it seems to me, and I'm coming up against this also as I do public speaking, and continue to figure our what this program on religion on public radio is about, that suddenly the dynamics look very different. There are different forces and the dialogue has changed. There's a sense, whether this is true or not, I don't think liberal Christianity is the dominant voice anymore. I want to ask you how you think about the idea of liberal theology and its place, how power and politics and theology have changed from the context in which Niebuhr was writing and how he might have responded to these new dynamics, post election 2004.

Dr. Elshtain: It's a very complicated question, but let me begin with this observation. There's a very interesting collection that has just been published that includes excerpts in the debate before WWII on Niebuhr and the Christian realists on the one hand and liberal theologians on the other. What's interesting in this pairing of the two approaches, one which urged a confrontation with Hitler, and one which urged a kind of isolationism, that the United States should not get involved. The more orthodox the theology, the more determined was the theologian that we needed to do something to confront the evil of Nazism. The more liberal the theology, the less likely was that person to believe that we needed to deploy force in order to confront Nazism. It's important to identify that although Niebuhr is identified as a liberal politically, and his favoring social and political justice and so on, that on the major issues of the use of force, he really was part of that bipartisan consensus that pertained at the time between Democrats and Republicans about the need to confront the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and everyone was finally brought around to the need to confront Nazism. It would be very interesting today to explore whether the same dynamic holds. That is that those whose theology is very liberal and revisionist are perhaps those who are least likely to believe that we do confront an evil that is certainly not identical to Nazism, but the fruits of which are rather similar. Indeed we know that the Nazis and Hitler, mostly because of anti-Semitism, are heroes to contemporary Islamists. What positions you, so that you, from your theological understandings, that yield certain political outcomes — where do you position yourself in relation to that? People forget that Niebuhr was part of a movement called Neo-Orthodoxy. He was a realist in several senses of the word. He was a moral realist, which means he believes there are moral values that are simply there. We don't invent them. We either honor them and articulate them, or we violate them. This is linked in turn in complex ways to theological realism. So the realism goes all the way down, so to speak. It isn't just a form of recognition of the role of power and force in the world.

If you bring that forward into the current moment, do we have a situation, post 9/11, that is in some ways analogous, where there are some who still believe that the United Nations — although I think everyone now recognizes what a weak read the United Nations is in many ways given its inaction in Rwanda and many other places where it was quite clear genocide was going on — but repair to the UN and notions of collective security, that international law will somehow deal with these problems, and that Christians are supposed to forgive their enemies I think Niebuhr would say is that kind of preemptive forgiveness that he didn't believe in, because our enemies don't accept that there is anything they need to be forgiven for, and on the other hand those who believe we have to meet this challenge through the use of force if need be. Can we see differences in their theological orientations of the sort that pertain before the Second World War? That would at least help to orient us when we look at the interplay of forces on the religious front.

One other issue here would be the liberal theology that was undoubtedly in ascendance within mainline Protestantism is a troubled liberal theology at the moment. When you face certain kinds of pressures — we didn't expect the world would be like this. There was that post-Cold War period when it seemed the confrontations that had pertained would really come to an end, that end of history thesis, the Christian version of it. Now we see this awful stuff happening. People who are besieged often don't respond with the charity and complexity one would like, precisely because they feel besieged, because the world as they anticipated it would be is not there. On the other hand I think we have to fret about those for whom something like 9/11 was simply a confirmation that the world is really, really awful, and that we have to create a kind of fortress America that isn't isolationist, however, but nevertheless is going to confront bad guys everywhere and try to bring about the reign of constitutionalism, the fruits of it, wherever it now doesn't exist. Those in that second camp no doubt, and for some good reasons, perceive themselves in a kind of ascendance at this moment. The reaction from the side of liberal theology has tended to be to denounce and lament the ascendance of the folks who spoke very loudly about the election and about the things they were concerned about. One of them obviously was the war against terrorism, but also a whole range of other issues having to do with their perceived sense of the moral flattening out and debasement of American culture in many arenas. That has put liberal Christians, those whose theology is liberal, on the defensive as well because they have signed on to many of these cultural transformations rather than confronting them. It's a very harrowing moment for many for whom the world is sort of turned upside down from what they expected it would look like.

Ms. Tippett: I also wonder what you think Niebuhr's caution might be to religious people who are more orthodox with a small "O", and who suddenly seem to have — I don't think we really know what all the dynamics are, but who seem to be very powerful in a new way. How would Niebuhr speak to that?

Dr. Elshtain: I think the way he would speak to that would be again to worry about a couple of things. One would be triumphalism, overreach, assuming that power can always be used at the behest of good, and that there are no particular perils involved when you resort to the use of power if you are a relatively good and decent nation as they believe we are and as I believe we are. Certainly if you do a comparison with what much of the rest of the world is like he would be cautioned about that. Something else I believe he would caution about is that the Sermon on the Mount is not a public policy agenda. That would be a caution to liberal Christians as well. But also that some of the rules, norms of social and political behavior in the scripture, when you try to legislate them, put them into action, through public policy, are always going to come out differently than you expected. That's the irony that Niebuhr talked about. We can go back for example to the undeniable truth that excessive alcohol consumption is a bad thing. I'm talking about the temperance movement obviously. It devastated many families and there's a good reason for why people favored the temperance amendment and so forth. We can see the unintended consequences of that when we begin to legislate that in a very severe and draconian way. I think the recognition that we need to be straightforward in our articulation of values, but we also need to be charitable and need to understand that human beings are frail creatures. You can't consistently live up every single day of your life to a certain moral standard. The question is should we say those moments of failure violate a law? Or should we say this is human brokenness, human sinfulness, and reminds us of the need for forgiveness? In other word I think Niebuhr would say that not every sin should be illegal. There's a danger when we over legislate morality. I think that would be a cautionary note that he would put in as well.

Ms. Tippett: Here's something he wrote in "Christianity and Crisis", which he wrote in 1952. But again the context of this remark is that he was extremely politically active, directly politically active, running for office. He wrote, "Religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry."

Dr. Elshtain: Absolutely. That's again a pithier way of saying what I was just struggling to say. He reminds us that politics, which is a good and which drew him, drew him to the point of exhaustion. If you read biographies of Niebuhr he was a non-stop activist on many fronts and no doubt foreshortened his life, at least many believe that it did. But he was insistent that politics is not an ultimate value. It is a relative value. It is not the only good. It is one good among many. If we assume a kind of ultimacy in our politics, then that is in fact an idolatry, assuming a kind of perfectionist standard that can never be achieved.

Ms. Tippett: When I ask people about Reinhold Niebuhr, inevitably someone says, "I wonder where the Niebuhr is in our day?" Is that the right question to be asking? Do we know where to look? Would the Niebuhr of today necessarily be a theologian?

Dr. Elshtain: I don't think necessarily. I think there are people that attempt to articulate in non-theological terms many of the hard won truths that Niebuhr articulated on the basis of theology. The examples I can think of are people who are no longer with us. Albert Camus is one such figure, arguing against the political idolatries of his time in the intellectual circles in Paris that were apologetic for Stalinism and the gulags and so on because that was going to be the end of history at some point, and we just ignore the deaths of millions and millions of innocent people because that's the price we pay for ultimate justice. He cautioned against that. Camus himself was an unbeliever, who was nevertheless not an atheist, if that makes sense. He believed the certainties of atheism were a form of arrogance. He was involved in a life-long dialogue with Christianity. He was not himself a Christian. I can imagine a voice like that coming to speak to our current travail and not necessarily being a theological figure. I also think that if we're looking for a new Niebuhr, that perhaps it's a somewhat misconstrued way to think of it, in part because when Niebuhr was working and speaking, the world of communication, journalism, public intellectual life was so simple by comparison to what it is now. You really had an elite, and he was undoubtedly part of that elite. There's no getting around it. An elite men overwhelmingly who had a public arena in a privileged sense. Many of these are giants, like Niebuhr himself. We are thankful they had that arena. Now when you've got the proliferation of talk radio, the Internet, blogging, so many sources of opinions and information, much of it by the way worthless. This is real problem I find with my students, because they rely on inaccurate information, but much of it salutary, as we discovered in the controversy over CBS' use of faked paper, fraudulent papers to make a case against President Bush and his National Guard service. I think that really means that to get the attention of a public the way Niebuhr did assumed a world that we're no longer in. Not just the media world, but the dominance culturally of mainline Christianity, and that dominance is simply no longer there.

Ms. Tippett: Actually, when I was reading your book on Augustine, in there you quote Vaslav Havel, and sounding very Niebuhrian. There's someone, not a theologian — I don't even know if he's religious in a traditional sense — having lived through all the complexity of history and talking about how we will always fail and there will always be new Rwandas until men understand that they will never be in the place of God.

Dr. Elshtain: That's right. In his famous essay, that was a bit of a scandal to some actually, was about what Havel called arrogant anthropocentrism and what happens when people forget they are not God. One of the things — rather remarkable for a political leader — that Havel said to his people after the Velvet or Tender Revolution as the Czechs call it in 1989 when people were so euphoric about what a new day would be, and the way he described it was "We have now entered the tunnel at the end of the light." That is, you have the light first and now we're in the tunnel, rather than the light being at the end of it. That long tunnel is politics, the give and take of politics, the messiness, the compromises, and the fact that that moment of euphoria can simply not last forever. It's great to have those extraordinary revelatory moments, but they don't last forever. People who want them to last forever wind up being cynics and disillusioned when they can't. That's where hope comes in again. It's not only to contrast optimism, but cynicism, and disillusionment. I think that's what Havel was really warning his compatriots about.

Ms. Tippett: Do you think it's fair to call him Niebuhrian?

Dr. Elshtain: In some ways it is. He has been rather ambiguously associated with Catholicism. Although I do know having met him that he has priests who are good friends of his. He's engaged in that dialogue. I do see that Niebuhrian strain. Another way you can see that in Havel's life is the fact that after the Revolution in 1989 he was determined to prevent a kind of bloodletting, a spasm of vengeance, against the former regime and anyone who had anything to do with it. He did not release the names of over 100,000 people who had been in the pay of the regime spying on their neighbors. He thought we could punish the leaders by not permitting them to run for public office for a period of time and so forth. But these ordinary folks had these moments of genuine moral failure doing something that is really dreadful on some level. But now we have to build a new culture and there has to be this moment of forgiveness. In some of the public events in November of 1989 a priest activist who was associated with Havel named Vladislav Mali, actually in some of these huge public demonstrations, had people say "We forgive" in discussing what should happen with the former regime, the collapsing communist regime. It's quite extraordinary stuff. Without Havel as the leader, things could have gone another way.

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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.