Thursday, 24 December 2009

Brooks and Dionne on Niebuhr and Obama

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).


Martin Meenagh said...

Thanks for the video--it will certainly fill up a slow afternoon for me! I would add a little caveat to your excellent piece, which is that many list Augustine as an optimist rather than a pessimist; he writes pessimistically only about a world without faith.

A very merry Christmas to you. I have been busy lately and have neglected blogland, but I always try and read your thoughts. Have the best of New Years.

Minnie said...

Depends what the faith in question is engaged with, with what degree of sincerity and to what or which end(s)...
Whatever happened to F D Maurice & Co? They appear to have sunk in our intellectual history almost without trace.
But bless you (?!) for raising the question in general and in more specific terms on this post. Am now off to have a look through the video, a read of Niebuhr (about whom I know very little) and a good think - for all of which, many thanks in advance.

Martin said...

Martin and Minnie - Thanks for these comments, which I've just come across, in this limbo time between Christmas and N Year festivities. An early Happy New Year to both of you, and thanks for continuing to read and comment on my blog - much appreciated.

Martin - I have to admit my knowledge of Augustine is pretty limited - I've never finished the Confessions - but I suppose I meant pessimism about human nature - that sense of all-pervasive sin and human limitation which the Lutherans and the Calvinists returned to in Augustine - and which modern protestant 'realists' like Niebuhr and Elshtain take up.

Minnie - I'm assuming the reference to F D Maurice was a response to my moan about the decline of the Christian Left. In my youth I was greatly influenced by Christian socialism, and mourn its passing. But I also remain interested (as does the other Martin - who posted the above comment) in the legacy of Distributism (another hangover from my dead and buried PhD thesis), whose time may yet come again...