A Theologian for Empire

In a Foreign Policy in Focus article by Ira Chernus (Prof. of Religious Studies, Univ. of Colorado), “The Theology of American Empire,” he correctly discusses the enormous influence that Reinhold Niebuhr has had on developing political “realism” in U.S. foreign policy doctrine (i.e., doctrines not based on universal moral principles or a consistent rule of law, but instead on the situational ethics of utilitarianism).

However in claiming that “American foreign policy is built on a deep foundation of Christian theology,” Chernus leaves off the fact that Niebuhr, a friend and colleague of Paul Tillich, was a Marxist until about 1940 who then became a welfare/warfare-state liberal and opposed the Christian natural law tradition of Thomas Aquinas (also see for example the work of Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, John Finnis, and Harold Berman), and instead supported activist government measures both domestically and internationally.

As Gabriel Fackre noted earlier in First Things, theological conservatives correctly took Niebuhr’s talk about Christian “myth” to be a sign that he considered Christianity a pious fiction covering up a secular agenda. The clique of Harvard faculty that described themselves as “atheists for Niebuhr” seemed to lend credence to the charge. Questions about Niebuhr’s ultimate naturalist views were addressed in Stanley Hauerwas’s Gifford lectures: “Do we have anything more in Niebuhr than a complex humanism disguised in the language of the Christian faith?” For Hauerwas, “It is hard to think that Niebuhr’s God is anything more or less than an unavoidable aspect of our consciousness.” Hauerwas then questions whether Niebuhr’s theology is merely a “naturalistic view of the world,” the worship of “a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie”?

In other words, Niebuhr’s views were only nominally Christian in any traditional sense and as such were rooted in the same Benthamite and Machiavellian utilitarian calculus that “the end justifies the means” that has dominated modern secular thought since the Enlightenment. And such views run exactly contrary to the teachings of Jesus and Christian natural law and natural rights theory. What Niebuhr contributed was a convenient faux-Christian veneer for power brokers to mask the utilitarian, amoral, materialist dogma of modern thinking and make it more saleable to an unwitting public.

As with both contemporary neoconservatives and liberals, Niebuhr supported imposing hegemons, originally based on socialism and then on a New Deal mantra, but all in the name of a utilitarian “social justice.” For example, in the 1930s, Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America, even leading military drill exercises for younger members. Later, he was also a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action.

The myth is that his ethical views fundamentally changed. As was the case with neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and others, most of whom were Trotskyists at the time, what did change was their conversion of a collectivist creed for world socialist revolution against the U.S. into one using the post-WW II concentrated welfare/warfare-state power of the U.S. to impose a “pro-U.S.” hegemony abroad. Niebuhr, like Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ, and now Bush, Cheney, McCain, Clinton, and Obama are all cut from the same cloth. Obama has even recently cited Niebuhr as “one of his favorite philosophers.”

The bottom line here is that Niebuhr’s views were utilitarian and statist, and just as John Maynard Keynes’s deeply flawed economic views (see Robert Higgs‘s critique in Depression, War and Cold War) received such easy reception in the West in the 20th century, Niebuhr’s views conveniently fit right in with the same Zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, the bedrock critique of such utilitarian folly, warmongering and tyranny remains none other than Judeo-Christian natural law and natural rights theory.

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute.
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