Prophets, Sages, and the Halls of Power

Dallas J. Gingles, Ph.D.
John Wesley Scholar and Assistant Chaplain
University of Evansville

26 April 2017

According to biographer Richard Fox, Niebuhr was so frail by 1968 that he followed the election campaign mostly from his bed—where the “Humphrey and McCarthy organizations both approached him for endorsements.”


But despite a long friendship with Humphrey, Niebuhr would not—“could not”—endorse any “candidate who is bound to the present futile policy in Vietnam.” “Had Rockefeller been nominated, he would have voted for a Republican for the first time in his life,” but eventually “he reluctantly backed Humphrey as the lesser evil” (288).  It is within this context that we should read “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court.”

For decades Niebuhr had argued that, if left untended and unchecked, the fragility of human nature—in its tendency toward both pride and sensuality—inevitably brings about the fragmentation of political life. The best way to tend and check human nature is the challenging, ongoing work of delicately—and realistically—balancing power against power, with an eye always trained on the goal of justice. What roused Niebuhr from his own frail state in 1969 was a threat he saw looming over an already fraying political order. And rouse him it did. Like an aging heavyweight, Niebuhr’s famous rhetorical skills—which had lain dormant for some time—came out for one final uppercut in this essay. And the sheer force of the rhetoric makes it easy to mistake his incisive criticism for partisan bitterness at a Republican administration. The looming threat he sees is the toxic cocktail of Nixonian politics mixed with the religion of Billy Graham—a “domesticated and tailored leftover from the wild and woolly frontier evangelistic campaigns.”

As Jeremy Sabella has already helpfully argued in this series of posts, Niebuhr condemns both Nixon and Graham for the naïve belief that personal conversion solves political problems. The more realistic solution to political problems is the balance of powers built into the first article of the Bill of Rights. Religious naivety infused with Machiavellianism is a cocktail that threatens both the non-establishment and the free exercise clauses. By undermining the former this cocktail threatens the existence of “radical religious protest” (as Niebuhr famously puts it, “It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical facilities”). By undermining the latter, it threatens the continuation of decent political order. Niebuhr’s rhetoric causes us to concentrate on the threat to “the prophetic radical aspect of religious life.” From this vantage point, Graham traded the birthright of his God-given call for some soup served in White House china. Read this way the solution to the problem is simply to find real prophets of the old guard—those who are more like bulls in china closets than sippers of White House soup.

There is something to that reading. Again, as Sabella has pointed out, Graham himself seems to have received Niebuhr’s critique. But allowing Niebuhr’s rhetoric to overwhelm us also means we will likely misread him. Niebuhr inveighs against “the conservative bent of established religion” because it defends the status quo “uncritically” (emphasis added). What Niebuhr wants is someone—anyone—Republican or Democrat—to defend the status quo critically. Because for Niebuhr, the status quo is the balance of powers established in the Establishment Clause of Article I. Freely exercised religion can restrain the hubris of the state. By refusing to establish a state-sponsored church, the state gives the church its own ground to stand on. These are ironic and ambiguous ways that church and state help constitute each other. The threat that Niebuhr perceives then is this: in their attempt to “establish” a “non-establishment” religion, Nixon and Graham seek to do away with the ironic and ambiguous ways church and state mutually form one another. But, ironically, and tragically, to do away with that ambiguity and irony by doing away with the critical status quo of the first amendment threatens the existence of both church and state.

What does this mean for us? There is no one-to-one parallel. We might see in this or that figure a Nixon, a Graham, or even a Niebuhr. But there will surely be as many dissimilarities between them as there are similarities. Or we might be tempted to call for more or better “prophetic religion.” Judging from the sheer volume of moral denunciations on social media, there have never been a greater number of would-be prophets in the world. But if we want to recover something from Niebuhr, we might well pay attention to the years leading up to 1969 rather than a single publication in it. In true Niebuhrian fashion, even as he became frail, Niebuhr continued to let his own thought on human fragility and political fragmentation be challenged, changed, debunked, and deployed in multiple ways across multiple disciplines in conversation with multiple friends and enemies. This way of working within his own fragility and limitations demonstrates what it might mean to call Niebuhr a pragmatist. And this pragmatism, in turn, bears a striking resemblance to the Wisdom tradition of Judaism and Christianity. As Fox puts it, in Niebuhr’s later life he was still a “powerful political presence because his name itself summoned up an image of hard earned wisdom and deep-seated commitment” (276). Maybe what we need to recover from Niebuhr is not an image of the prophet calling down fire on the status quo just because it is the status quo, but instead, an image of the sage who can do the hard work of delicately and realistically holding the ambiguity of the status quo to the demands of justice, and teaching us how to live with both.

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