Regular readers (and I know there are one or two of you) will be aware that, despite its generally (if sometimes uneasy) secularist outlook, a constant concern of this blog been the apparent disappearance from public view of thoughtful, engaged religious faith. I’ve often bemoaned the tide of militant anti-secularism that seems to have engulfed the religious establishment and tried to do my own humble bit to revive dialogue between faith and the secular. A related concern of mine has been the decline of the Christian Left, in the wake of renascent reaction on the one hand and the capitulation of religious radicals to the manichaeism of the pseudo-left on the other.
Just occasionally, though, I’ll come across signs that all is not lost. Here’s an excellent example: a discussion between the devout Catholic and political liberal E.J.Dionne, and Jewish conservative David Brooks – about the legacy and contemporary relevance of 20th century Protestant theologian and political activist Reinhold Niebuhr. The discussion was prompted in part by the election of Barack Obama, apparently an admirer of Niebuhr. It was recorded some months before Obama’s recent Nobel acceptance speech, in which a number of commentators noticed a distinctly Niebuhrian perspective on war, peace and America’s role in the world. Of additional interest to me was the fact that the recording took place in Georgetown, where we were staying just a couple of months ago: a happy memory in an otherwise difficult and traumatic year.
The conversation ranges over foreign policy, American exceptionalism, the nature of liberalism and conservatism, pluralism, and the role of religion in public life - but without any of the sloganeering and position-taking that characterises so much discussion of these issues. The tone is good-humoured and eminently civilised - to my surprise, I actually found myself warming more to the conservative Brooks than the liberal Dionne.
I have to confess to only a limited acquaintance with Niebuhr’s work – and then only indirectly, initially through his influence on the later Auden (one of the subjects of my long-forgotten PhD thesis), and more recently via the writings of Jean Bethke Elshtain, who has a brief walk-on part in this broadcast. However, since watching this debate, I’ve placed The Irony of American History in my Amazon basket – awaiting a time when when my bank balance is back in credit after the Christmas blow-out.
From what I understand of his theological and philosophical ideas, I'm not sure I'd be a full-throated Niebhurian - temperamentally, I'm probably more of a Thomist optimist than an Augustinian pessimist. But it sounds like his political perspective might have much to contribute to current debates: I like to think that if he were alive today, Niebuhr would be a paid-up Eustonite and member of the decent Left.
(The video sometimes takes a while to load. If you have trouble, you can also view it here).