Shallow Christians don't admire Reinhold Niebuhr

I confess I had no idea what Reinhold Niebuhr's position was until I was puzzled by the following citation where Obama describes him as one of his favorite philosophers during an interview with David Brooks (it might help to know this was pre-president Obama, back when he was the idealist who hadn't yet broken any of the idealistic and inspiring promises he made on his way to the White House):

Out of the blue I asked, "Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?" Obama's tone changed. "I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers." So I asked, "What do you take away from him?" "I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. 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."

Fascinatingly deep in a very concise way, this quote definitely drew me in! I wanted to know more.

Upon searching, pretty quickly I found Niebuhr to be wonderful, compelling, someone I want to understand well. He developed a mature and deep philosophy around how Christians ought to behave regarding certain kinds of political issues. In short, "love" alone is not enough when it comes to injustice, and thus a Christian has an imperative to act in a manner restoring justice when the opportunity arises.

This is a pretty radical statement which is embodied by people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, even anti-war activists, and today's pro-indigenous rights or anti-secret-globalism protesters. Thus Niebuhr was an early opponent of Nazism -- meaning, when most in his church still thought it was a good idea, he was opposed to it. Likewise, later, when he stood up to the FBI by publicly opposing their persecution of Martin Luther King, Jr., he openly criticized Hoover -- not an easy thing to do against someone whose method of building dossiers on people so he could control them.

So that's admirable, but I felt compelled to dig deeper. In the tabs I had opened on this subject, one of the links pointed out how James Comey's private Twitter handle was "Reinhold Niebuhr," and Comey wrote his college thesis on Niebuhr. Digging in to that article, I discovered evidence that Comey's position was both ironic (i.e. director of FBI admiring someone who famously publicly opposed injustice at the FBI) and genuinely motivated by the very principles by which he appears on the surface to be motivated.

Quite a puzzle arises out of the confluence of Obama, Comey, and Niebuhr, a puzzle which stands in direct opposition to much open hatred of Obama and Comey from people who feel that both men arefakes, who only pretend to be Christian. In short, it's hard to fake a belief in Christ which operates at the level of being a deep admirer of Niebuhr. Why? Well, for starters, there is no need to admire Niebuhr in order to be "a good Christian" in the eyes of the world. Therefore admiring Niebuhr is something only truer-to-Jesus-Christ's-actual-teaching-sorts-of-Christians would do. For an example of what I mean here, in Comey's thesis, he analyzes how Jerry Falwell (an early precursor of today's not-very-christian Christian televangelists) was basically the exact opposite of Reinhold Niebuhr -- Niebuhr was "a true Christian," clearly motivated by the principles of actual love taught by Christ, whereas Falwell was arguably motivated by a quest for power and other easily-corrupted desires which are the hallmark of hypocritical Christians (who famously profess Christ but do not actually live by his example and teaching.)

Well I find myself more fascinated by all three characters now (Obama, Comey, and Niebuhr), and will read more Niebuhr when I get time, because it looks like he has already worked out some of the philosophy of where I want to be found. It looks like he also has some insight on overcoming cynicism, apathy, and a workable response to the Problem of Evil which is used by most non-religious people to justify their position.

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