Opinion

James Comey: The fall of a Niebuhrian

FBI Director James Comey testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS) Last fall, my students were reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 classic, “The Irony of American History,” when the renowned theologian’s title came alive for them: Soon after FBI Director James Comey announced an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, she lost the presidential election to Donald Trump.

As Comey came under the microscope of national attention, we learned that he had written his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr.

The plot thickened this spring, when cybersleuth Ashley Feinberg discovered that he uses the name “Reinhold Niebuhr” on his private Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Comey’s abrupt dismissal by President Trump this week raises the question anew: What is the significance, if any, of his attachment to the leading political theologian of the 20th century?

Raised in a Catholic family in Yonkers, N.Y., Comey earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and religious studies from William & Mary in 1982. His senior thesis, which compared the thinking of socialist-turned-liberal Niebuhr with that of archconservative Jerry Falwell on the role of the Christian in politics, was the work of a young man in flux.

Niebuhr, who called himself a “Christian realist,” advanced a chastened view of human nature as sinful and an ironic interpretation of history at the height of American power after World War II. Falwell, who created the Moral Majority in 1979, championed the fervent Christian nationalism of the Reagan years.

How did Comey bring together these strange bedfellows?

He argued that Falwell and Niebuhr shared a conviction that the Christian has a duty and a mandate to participate in politics. By taking this tack, Comey placed himself, the would-be Christian politician, at the center of his inquiry.

Although clearly attracted to Falwell’s new religious right, the young Comey found much to admire in Niebuhr’s more complex view of religion and politics. James Livingston, Comey’s thesis adviser, had studied with Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in the 1950s.

“The Irony of American History” by Reinhold Niebuhr.

Comey’s thesis treats Niebuhr’s writings as a kind of wisdom literature for Christian office seekers. “Every aspiring world leader,” he advised, should study “Niebuhr’s classic statement of the human condition.”

Reducing Niebuhr’s corpus to a simple “formula,” Comey declared: “The Christian is to seek justice. Politics holds the power necessary for the establishment of justice. Therefore the Christian must participate in the political process.” According to Comey, Niebuhr believed that “the Christian and politics are made for each other” — indeed, that the Christian is “the perfect political animal.”

This view has long predominated among Niebuhr’s conservative enthusiasts. They read him as urging Christians (or Judeo-Christians) to exert political leadership, despite the moral ambiguities of politics. What they tend to overlook is Niebuhr’s emphasis on sin and human fallibility.

As the recent documentary by Martin Doblmeier, “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” makes clear, Niebuhr was preoccupied with the complex and often unanticipated effects of power in the world. Given the ubiquitous ethical dilemmas that ensnare all of us, even the best Christian was, for him, imperfectly fit for politics.

In his famed book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Niebuhr argued that the most upright individuals could never rise above the conflicts endemic to politics and society. During World War II, he called democracy the morally dubious, albeit necessary, art of “finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”

Did Comey, who became a Methodist and a Sunday school teacher, turn out to be the perfect political animal of his youthful imagining? Not by a long shot. His rise and fall neatly illustrates Niebuhr’s conviction that historical events tend to refute our illusions.

Were Niebuhr alive today, he would surely relish the ironies.

He would connect Trump’s dig at Comey in January (“He’s become more famous than me”) to his current bullying insults (“grandstander” and “showboat”). He would point to Comey’s persistent belief that he could stay above the political fray, and to the way his public moralizing about Hillary Clinton’s emails contributed to his fall.

Niebuhr might even be able to admit an unintended consequence of his own writings — that they enabled a moral man to harbor illusions that, in the end, made him an immoral society’s latest victim.

(K. Healan Gaston is president of the Niebuhr Society and teaches at Harvard Divinity School)

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K. Healan Gaston

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  • Reinhold Niebuhr’s VERY BAD fans that I know of, include: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Madeleine Albright, and John McCain.

    Reinhold Niebuhr’s NOT SO BAD fans that I know of, include: Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Lasch.

    Which means Reinhold Niebuhr must the WORST OF ALL. That’s how look at it, K. Healan Gaston, after I finished reading your article.

  • Food for thought, from Reinhold Niehbur, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribners, 1932), in Gail Kennedy, Ed., Pragmatism and American Culture (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1950):

    The inferiority of the morality of groups to that of individuals is due in part to the difficulty of establishing a rational social force which is powerful enough to cope with the natural impulses by which society achieves its cohesion; …

    Insofar as this treatis has a polemic interest it is directed against the moralists, both religious and secular, who imagine that the egoism of individuals is being progressively checked by the development of rationality or the growth of a religiously inspired good will and that nothing but the continuance of this process is necessary to establish social harmony between all the human societies and collectives. …

    The idea that we cannot be socially intelligent until we begin experimentation in social problems in the way that the physical scientists experimented fails to take account of an important difference between the physical and social sciences. The physical sciences gained their freedom when they overcame the traditionalism based on ignorance, but the traditionalism which the social sciences face is based upon the economic interest of the dominant social classes who are trying to maintain their special privileges in society.

    Teachers of morals who do not see the difference between the problem of charity within the limits of an accepted social system and the problem of justice between economic groups, holding uneven power within modern industrial society, have simply not faced the most obvious differences between the morals of groups and those of individuals.

  • Good, and fair article. As one who studies political ethics, Niebuhr is an indispensable resource. Like all theologians and thinkers – his views can be interpreted in a variety of ways (to address one commenter below, just consider the dozen, or so, categories of interpretations of Augustine’s City of God). If only he were alive today to shed a little light on this. Best lesson, I think is in line with Augustine’s letters – beware the moral injury of working in politics; sure the Christian has a unique opportunity, but it’s a difficult (maybe even impossible) task to be involved in government and not be culpable for some of its structural (or active!) violence. For Comey, I hope that he comes out of all of this and is able to reflect on his earlier studies.

  • Dr. Gaston offers a fair, and I think accurate, application of Niebuhr. Have you read anything of Niebuhr’s to make your judgement? The same author is often read in different ways by different people (as endless examples might indicate). I would have expected a bit deeper set of critical thinking skills from an RNS reader.

  • With regard to your final sentence, don’t bet the ranch on it. Otherwise both of your remarks strike me as well balanced.

  • A succinct summing up of the commentary, and perhaps the best observation in the entire piece is Mr. Gaston’s final comment.

  • As a follow-up to my original comment, here’s why Reinhold Niebuhr is bad, bad, very bad:

    WORLD WAR II & COLD WAR

    – Reinhold Niebuhr supported American efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world.

    – became a supporter of American action in World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons.

    – supported interventionism and power politics.

    – supported the execution of the Rosenbergs.

    PRAGMATISM

    – Reinhold Niebuhr was a pragmatist.

    BLACKS

    – Reinhold Niebuhr adopted a conservative position on segregation.

    – doubted that racial equality for Blacks was attainable.

    JEWS

    – Reinhold Niebuhr argued it was inappropriate for Christians to seek to convert Jews to their faith.

    – supported Zionism.

    – advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine.

    CHRISTIANS

    – Reinhold Niebuhr considered Christianity a pious fiction covering up a secular agenda.

    – God is just an unavoidable aspect of our consciousness and domestication embedded in a naturalistic view of the world.

    – was into the ethics of Jesus but without any original Christological baggages still attached to it.

    – presumed that the subject matter of his theology is God, when in fact abused it as a disguised way to talk about humanity, always the preferred subject matter.

    – didn’t have an adequate Christology to recognize the reality of the living, self-revealing, working Lord, Jesus Christ in all the subject matter Reinhold Niebuhr had been discussing.

    DUPES

    – Reinhold Niebuhr’s VERY BAD fans that I know of, include: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, James Comey, Madeleine Albright, and John McCain.

    – Reinhold Niebuhr’s NOT SO BAD fans that I know of, include: Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Lasch.

  • So, J. S. Owens, that means you exonerate, vindicate Reinhold Niebuhr’s attitudes, precepts and advocacies in dark matters concerning World War II, the Cold War, pragmatism, Blacks, Jews, Christians and dupes. (Points expanded in my 2nd comment elsewhere.)

    Good on you. Me? No thanks. This guy scares me, actually. When globalists love this guy, I better be scared. just now. again. Better go. <shiver…

  • “conservative enthusiasts” Will Herberg https://academic.oup.com/jah/article-abstract/99/4/1133/929757/The-Cold-War-Romance-of-Religious-Authenticity Know of Herberg from https://www.amazon.com/Christians-Jews-Encounter-JAKOB-JOCZ/dp/B0000CMU85/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494699029&sr=1-10&refinements=p_27%3AJakob+Jocz given to me by Jewish convert to Christianity.

    http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/redeeming-relevance-in-the-bible-francis-nataf/redeeming-relevance-parshat-pekudei-fragmentation-and-the-divine-presence/2016/03/09/ See comment there

    Herberg says: “So thoroughly secularist has American religion become…” p 18 Jocz. Think unholy alliance between medical “religion” and “government–501c3” churches.

    Often say “@DMRegister,churches @ELCA etc, and govt have conspired to lock up the poor”

    Peter Berger, Urbanity as a Vortex of Pluralism in The American Interest from @francisnataf commentary. Had commented there, but since removed. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/03/urbanity-as-a-vortex-of-pluralism/
    Found here https://disqus.com/home/discussion/americaninterest/urbanity_as_a_vortex_of_pluralism_the_american_interest/

    Hope to post more of Jakob Jocz’ reflections on Niehbuhr.

  • See other comment below.

    “In confrontation with the Synagogue, she can be the Church only if she is whole-heartedly a missionary Church. The subject we are dealing with is more than a theological pastime and bears in upon situation in three-fold manner: …3. In view of the recent controversy evoked by Reinhold Niebuhr’s statement about the inadvisibility, even the harmful effect of Jewish missions, such a confrontation between Church and Synagogue opens up the very nerve of the raison d’etre of the Church.” Introduction viii https://www.amazon.com/Christians-Jews-Encounter-JAKOB-JOCZ/dp/B0000CMU85/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494699029&sr=1-10&refinements=p_27%3AJakob+Jocz

    Lordship of Jesus Christ is “central issue”. “…temptation to by-pass the central issue for the sake of common ground and in the name of goodwill. Professor Niebuhr, great theologian that he is, fell into the temptation. As a Christian his position is untenable and without a shred of justification, but as an American, as a gentleman,and as a ‘cultural theologian’ he show a generosity which is both disarming and appealing to the un-bigoted mind. To avoid misstatement here are his own words: “The two great faiths [he means Judaism and Christianity] are sufficiently alike for the Jew to find God more easily in terms of his own religious heritage.” ibid p 8

    Jesus the Way to the Father
    5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
    From Gospel yesterday https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+14.1-14&version=NIV

    Think of liberal, atheistic, secular, Jews. Replace “Jews” with “Christians” and you might find place for Reinhold Niehbuhr and his like-minded followers.

    Peter Berger, Urbanity as a Vortex of Pluralism in The American Interest from @francisnataf commentary. Had commented there, but since removed. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/03/urbanity-as-a-vortex-of-pluralism/

    “I believe correctly, point out that “our culture has always been Protestant to the bone and still is. Catholics and Jews [who participate in it] have been Protestantized for a long time…”
    http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/redeeming-relevance-in-the-bible-francis-nataf/redeeming-relevance-parshat-pekudei-fragmentation-and-the-divine-presence/2016/03/09/
    https://www.amazon.com/Soul-American-University-Establishment-Established/dp/0195106504

  • “Reducing Niebuhr’s corpus to a simple “formula,” Comey declared: “The Christian is to seek justice. Politics holds the power necessary for the establishment of justice. Therefore the Christian must participate in the political process.” According to Comey, Niebuhr believed that “the
    Christian and politics are made for each other” — indeed, that the Christian is “the perfect political animal.”

    Comey’s take on the Christian’s obligation to seek justice and participate in the political process is right on target. He goes astray when he advances the idea that “the Christian and politics are made for each other.” It’s too easy to imterpret that statement as meaning that Christian leaders holding political power should exercise that power for the establishment (and maintenance) of justice. To do so would be one HORRENDOUS breach of our U.S. Constitution’s principle of the eparation of church and state. As a Socialist at that time, Neibuhr started many seminarians on the road of mixing their Christian faith with liberal politics, This has been the main cause of the growth of liberal churches’ political influence on behald of liberal political candidates and causes. It was the principal cause of the demise of his adherent, James Comey.

    Comey was, no doubt, a good FBI director when he stuck to the important job of conducting investigations to determine if a serious crime had been committed that justified prosecution. He seriously overstepped that mandate when he attempted to integrate Neibur’s liberal thinking with his Christian beliefs in support of Hilliary Clinton’s bid to become president. First he delayed a much-warrented investigation into her authorized use of a personal email server to avoid detection of her corrupt influence peddling on behalf of the Clinton Foundation. He then saw the need to appear impartial to maintain a fascade of political neutrality. He then made some noises about beginning such an investigation only a few weeks before the presidential election!

    Allow me to offer a smoewhat different take on Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be,” I would simply say “play politics, or don’t play politics.” When you do a half-assed job of it, you will always lose!

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