Dreams of innocence & Dreams of a Godly America


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Niebuhr and Graham publically explicated evil and sin, finding receptive audiences and serving similar cold war masters. Ceaseless talk of Christian pessimism actually bloodied their hands, implicating them in certain crimes of American policy abroad and distancing them from the moral drama of segregation and desegregation at home. In a sense, the counter-culture believed that much of America had indeed lost its innocence, for childhood could be recovered only outside of the corrupted society, in the precultural phases of human development … or among romantic Others, such as the Indian, and in romanticized spaces, such as the pastoral, the road, the ethnic ghetto, or inner space.

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By stepping to the side of political economy, of right and left classically construed, Stevens has found a new angle of historical vision. His alertness to religious symbols and to the Christian resonance of modern American prose — one is tempted to say of modern American life — lends his book an uncommon profundity.

Stevens never treats religion as a dry analogue to secularism. Instead, he illustrates an unending, enlivening dialogue between the secular and the religious in American culture, by looking deeply into important American texts. In addition to its sweep and its reckoning with the Protestant tradition, God-Fearing and Free illustrates one other classic attribute of American studies.

This is a tendency toward normative-political judgment. Here the canonical work is C. Indeed, both Bush and Osama bin Laden believed that, with God on their side, they could remake the Middle East; and history has proven both wrong. The exercise of our immense economic and military power since World War II has led to the erosion of our security and now, in the midst of a war on terror, the abridgement of our rights. Perhaps the fact that he has read The Irony of American History contributes to this inability. This synopsis shows a clear affinity with Niebuhr. Obama understands that no ideology, including American exceptionalism, lets us know the course of history in advance, and no policy can succeed at managing that course.

The senator who voted against the war in Iraq became the president who believed he was required by circumstances to order a significant escalation of that same war. These ironies are bitter. Moreover, Niebuhr realized that our inability to manage history makes acting in history inevitably ironic. In his life, Niebuhr moved from progressivism and the Social Gospel to pacifism and socialism. Then an encounter with evil in Germany forced him to reevaluate his past and mount a strident criticism of the idealism of his former friends. In the process he came to believe that ideologies—whether American exceptionalism or Marxist-Leninism—are primarily lies we embrace in order to protect ourselves from the burden of having to act in the face of history and its unmanageable outcomes.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

In the end, Niebuhr did not allow himself the luxury of an illusion. He acted in history knowing that he did not understand its course and could not control its outcome. Would Niebuhr view terrorism with the same moral urgency he expressed over the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the s? Or would he condemn the use of drones as he did the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

In May the president gave a major policy address on this topic, and Niebuhr would have found much to admire in it.

American Innocence | Commonweal Magazine

The speech made clear that Obama has considered every tactic, weighing the alternatives and doing the dreadful moral calculus such a weighing requires. He is well aware that, even after taking all precautions—which he outlined at great length—a president ordering the use of drones may well end up destroying innocent lives.


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To dismiss Niebuhr as inconsistent or merely pragmatic, as some have done, is to miss both the point and the power of the moral scrutiny he applied to the dilemmas of political action. Today, though Islamic extremism has replaced Soviet communism in the minds of many as the principal threat to Western democracy, the need to recognize the moral ambiguities of our cause has not abated.

It is my contention, however, that we are being led by a president who understands these dimensions. In its place he stated a difficult truth. As a source of insight into the wellsprings of U. As a policy handbook, however, Irony is all but devoid of value. To the statesman beset with problems, Niebuhr may offer warnings, but he provides little by way of actionable guidance. Go, says the light, but proceed very, very carefully. As to the really crucial judgments—Go when? How fast? How far? In which direction? The statesman who heeds Niebuhr may avoid a certain category of egregious mistakes.

Barack Obama offers a case in point. Obama may well possess a Niebuhrean temperament, but the president has yet to demonstrate any particular aptitude for crafting foreign policy. To be sure, he has avoided the reckless misjudgments of his pedal-to-the-metal predecessor.

For this, all Americans should be grateful. Yet as a basis for evaluating statesmanship, better-than-Bush can hardly suffice. In rankings where the Franklin Roosevelt of —45 not the FDR of —39 represents the gold standard, Obama languishes as an also-ran. As Niebuhr himself recognized, international politics is a competition for power, the possession of power translating however imperfectly into security, prosperity, and the ability to influence.

Granted, like Nixon in , he inherited a weak hand. But unlike Nixon, whose opening to China had transformative strategic implications, Obama has demonstrated little by way of vision and almost none of the dexterity required to translate vision into reality. Note that none of these successes qualifies as conclusive. The laughably premature verdict of the Nobel Prize Committee notwithstanding, the world was not quite ready to confer on Obama the laurel wreath of global savior-emperor. Everything was going to be different. Burn after Writing by Sharon Jones , Paperback 2.

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