Monday, November 22, 2021

Reinhold Niebuhr, Religious Nationalism, and the Appeal of Authoritarianism (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part VII)

When in 1948 Time magazine looked for someone to put on the cover of their 25th Anniversary issue, they could have chosen a Hollywood celebrity, notable politician, or perhaps a decorated WWII veteran. Instead, they chose an ethics professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York: Reinhold Niebuhr. Today, many Americans have not heard of Niebuhr although most are familiar with a prayer he wrote in the 1930s (but for which until recently he seldom received credit):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things that should be changed,
And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Niebuhr did much more, however. He was an activist-scholar who influenced not only his parishioners and students, but others as well, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who drew extensively on his insights on power when crafting strategies during the Civil Rights movement. The State Department also sought Niebuhr's advice on different aspects of U.S. foreign policy, which is ironic since at the same time the FBI had placed Niebuhr on its watch list, suspecting him of un-American activities.

Niebuhr continues to influence people today. Some of his books are still used as texts in political science classes, and former President Barack Obama counts him as one of his favorite philosophers. Obama once remarked that Niebuhr taught him "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.” President Jimmy Carter has expressed similar sentiments, and the philosopher/theologian Cornel West considers Niebuhr to be a "soul mate."

Reinhold Niebuhr and Religious Nationalism

Two interrelated threads seem to lie at the heart of Niebuhr’s thought: One, was his belief that many of us have an overly optimistic view of human nature. Although there is goodness to be found in the human heart, there is also pride and self-deceit. The quest for and access to power and status are ongoing temptations to which we often succumb. Like the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Niebuhr 1937), we are tempted to become god-like, not recognizing our own finitude and limitations. Unlike many liberal theologians of his day, Niebuhr embraced the language of “original sin” and argued that a minimal amount of coercion, although seemingly incompatible with Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God, was an unfortunate necessity (Niebuhr [1929] 1957:193). He also challenged the utopian visions of some secular philosophers, such as John Dewey, who believed that education, coupled with reason, was all we need to make the world more just:
Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the anarchist millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists. (Niebuhr [1932] 1960:3)
A second thread was his extension of the first beyond private morality. Niebuhr argued that although privately, people can, and often do, live morally upright lives, they will often embrace, tolerate, or identify with immoral policies and institutions that harm thousands (e.g., laws that sanction racial segregation, economic policies that heighten inequalities, movements that promote one group over another). Collective pride and self-interest kick in, limiting the impact of reason. Niebuhr believed that because reason was “always, to some degree, the servant of [self-]interest” (Niebuhr [1932] 1960:xiv-xv), collective morality was difficult to attain:
The development of social justice does depend to some degree upon the extension of rationality. But the limits of reason make it inevitable that pure moral action, particularly in the intricate, complex and collective relationships, should be an impossible goal. Men will never be wholly reasonable, and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of individuals to that of social groups, among whom a common mind and purpose is always more or less inchoate and transitory, and who depend therefore upon a common impulse to bind them together. (Niebuhr [1932] 1960:34-35)
Although Niebuhr believed that “at times the proverbial voice of reason can prevent a group from behaving rashly, people can also use the power of intellect to manipulate, cajole, and coerce others. The human will, in other words, can weaponize reason to do harm as well as good, and human relations attest to the fact that self-interest consistently prevails over generosity” (Sabella 2017). If he were alive today, Niebuhr would probably consider intellectuals such as Steven Pinker (2019) as being overly-optimistic about reason's ability to overcome the power of self-interest.

Niebuhr concluded that getting one’s hand dirty in the political process was necessary. “Moral man,” he believed, “had to be willing to engage immoral society on society’s own terms” (Sabella 2017:26). Moreover, although he saw the value of social movements and often worked with them, he believed that in order to bring about genuine social change, one needed “to enlist the power of government” (Ronald H. Stone, quoted in Sabella 2017:45).

Niebuhr’s cynicism was tempered by his faith. He believed Jesus’s life and teachings pull us toward an ideal which although we will never realize in our lifetimes, can lead to us to act in ways that can make the world a better place:
For Niebuhr, the kingdom of God is the state of perfect harmony among human beings. As such, it is an ‘impossible possibility’: although we will never succeed in building the kingdom in this life, we must strive for it nonetheless because we know it is real. And in our striving, we manage to catch glimpses of the kingdom in human life... A vision of the kingdom is key, if not achieving, then at least to ‘approximating the kingdom of God on earth,’ as Andrew Finstuen puts it." (Sabella 2017:126)
Niebuhr held that we are inherently tribal beings, and our tribal tendencies can manifest themselves in religious nationalism, which he saw as highly dangerous. “What makes [religious nationalisms] so dangerous is that they conjoin so many different forms of collective pride—not only spiritual and national pride, but race and class pride as well—and then arm them with the power of the modern state" (Gorski 2017:125).

Niebuhr believed that every nation has its own form of collective pride, and he traced America’s back to the Puritans and Jeffersonians: in particular, the belief that America is God’s “American Israel” (Niebuhr [1952] 2008:24) and that with the founding of the United States, we had turned our “back upon the vices of Europe” (Niebuhr [1952] 2008:28) to “make a new beginning in a corrupt world” (Niebuhr [1952] 2008:25). Moreover, although we initially saw our nation's increasing prosperity as evidence of God’s grace, over time we came to see it as proof of our moral superiority and virtue (Niebuhr [1952] 2008:51). That's why, he argued, we tend to respond poorly to criticism “since we [believe] that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of our actions” (Niebuhr [1952] 2008:25).

In many ways, Niebuhr anticipated how social identity theorists have highlighted our tribal tendencies, in particular, our tendency to see the groups to which we belong as better than others. Not only do we tend to favor members of our own groups, we often pull for them to “win” even if winning leaves us worse off than compromising. A corollary to this is that when members of our groups' are attacked, either verbally or physically, we also feel “attacked.” This often leads groups to close ranks and increase the "distance" between ourselves and others. In practical terms this suggests that if we are truly interested in decreasing the polarization in our society, attacking our opponents (e.g., making fun of them, characterizing them as morally or intellectually inferior than us) isn't the answer.

Nationalism and the Appeal of Authoritarianism

So, what has contributed to the current wave of Christian nationalism? Anne Applebaum's persuasively argues that the rise of authoritarianism in the West lies, at least in part, in the sense among some that a cherished way of life, a sense of national identity, is slipping away. And individuals such as Victor Orbán in Hungary, Boris Johnson in Britain, and Donald Trump in the United States promise to halt this slide. For (some) Americans this means that "any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that's what it takes to get real America, the old America, back" (Applebaum, p. 171). Applebaum notes how for some conservatives, the Reaganite optimism has given way to something akin to apocalyptic despair, and she holds up Laura Ingraham as an example ("Laura Ingraham’s Descent Into Despair").

David Brooks observations from the recent "National Conservatism Conference" ("The Terrifying Future of the American Right") seem to bear this out:

"Conservatives have always inveighed against the cultural elite—the media, the universities, Hollywood. But in the Information Age, the purveyors of culture are now corporate titans... The national conservatives thus describe a world in which the corporate elite, the media elite, the political elite, and the academic elite have all coagulated into one axis of evil, dominating every institution and controlling the channels of thought... "At the heart of this blue oligarchy are the great masters of surveillance capitalism, the Big Tech czars who decide in secret what ideas get promoted, what stories get suppressed... The idea that the left controls absolutely everything—from your smartphone to the money supply to your third grader’s curriculum—explains the apocalyptic tone that was the dominating emotional register of this conference:
'The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging. Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.' (Josh Hawley) 
'The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America. It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.' (Ted Cruz) 
'We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life.' (Marco Rubio)
"My old friend Rod Dreher [an Eastern Orthodox Christian] of The American Conservative argued that because the left controls the commanding heights of the culture and the economy, the only institution the right has a shot at influencing is the state. In these circumstances the right has to use state power to promote its values. 'We need to quit being satisfied with owning the libs, and save our country,' Dreher said. 'We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.'

"This is where Viktor Orbán comes in. It was Dreher who prompted [Tucker] Carlson’s controversial trip to Hungary last summer, and Hungarians were a strong presence at the National Conservatism Conference. Orbán, in Dreher’s view, understands the civilizational stakes of the culture war; he has, for instance, used the power of the state to limit how much transgenderism can be taught to children in schools. 'Our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is,' Dreher said at the conference. 'Orbán actually does something about it.'"

If Applebaum and Brooks are right, it makes no difference to folks like Dreher, Hawley, Cruz, Rubio, and others that Donald Trump is morally challenged. That's because he's willing to do what ever is necessary to get the "real America" back, or at least their idea of the "real America." Thus, appeals to reason and rationality, right and wrong, or simply common sense are not going to change their minds any time soon (if ever).

Previous Posts
  1. Introduction (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part I)
  2. Who are the 81%? (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part II)
  3. The Rural-Urban Divide (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part III)
  4. The Economic Divide (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part IV)
  5. Ideas Matter (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part V)
  6. The Appeal of Christian Nationalism (Why Do So Many Christians Support Trump?, Part VI)

Applebaum, Anne. 2020. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1937. "The Tower of Babel." Pp. 25-46 in Beyond Tragedy. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

____. [1929] 1957. Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. New York, NY: Living Age Books.

____. [1932] 1960. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

____. [1952] 2008. The Irony of American History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2019. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Penguin Books.

Sabella, Jeremy L. 2017. An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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