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.
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.”
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SOURCE: Religion News Service
K. Healan Gaston