Where has the spirit of Niebuhr gone? Into David Brooks, that’s where.
One of the games people play in the worlds of church and theological education goes, “Where have all the Niebuhrs Gone?” Reinhold Niebuhr was a well-known writer and lecturer in the mid-twentieth century. His influence extended beyond the church to politicians and civic leaders.
Where are such figures today? Do they exist?
Some names that come up include Princeton professor Cornel West, social justice evangelical Jim Wallis, and the Jewish novelist Elie Wiesel.
My own nominee would be the political columnist David Brooks. Brooks is not a professional theologian or a religious leader. But he does bring theological perspective to bear on American life and politics. Sometimes he does this in explicit ways, as in a column headed, “Obama’s Christian Realism.” More often the theological themes tend to be subtle.
There are several regular theological themes or perspectives at work in Brooks’ columns and essays. One is a sense of human finitude. This leads Brooks to be cautious about huge government programs and or promised technological panaceas. In a recent column on the economic stimulus plan, Brooks wrote, “The overall message [to the administration] is: don’t be arrogant. . . Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do. You don’t have the ability to play the economy like a fiddle. You do have the ability to lay some foundations for long-term growth and stability.”
This sense of finitude also leads Brooks to chide Americans who expect too much of government. In the aftermath of last December’s attempted terrorist bombing of an airplane, Brooks commented, “In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, ‘Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.’ But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways.”
A second and related theme that regularly pops up is the classic Christian notion that all humans are sinners. We need temper our own claims to absolute virtue and cut others some slack. This came to the fore in a column on the firing of General Stanley McCrystal, where he argued that “a culture of restraint” has been overtaken by “a culture of exposure.” “During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly—and maybe too gently—on public duties.”
Such an awareness of human fallibility leads to a third theological theme: grace. We’re not completely left to our devices here and we have some reason for hope not grounded in ourselves alone.
Brooks expresses such trust not so much in God but in a basic confidence in a certain American genius. Recently, this has led him to argue for locally based input and solutions to the BP oil spill and not the wisdom of outside experts alone. After the failed bombing attempt he wrote: “It wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them—and the spirit to take the initiative.” This tends to be Brooks’ version of grace. Unexpected people come through. There are forces at work for renewal which experts miss.
These core theological themes together compose a kind of non-systematic public theology that shows this tradition still has considerable life in it.
Why don’t such contributions come forth from professional theologians or from religious leaders?
Professional theologians have largely lost the ability to address wider audiences. Mimicking those in other academic and specialist sub-cultures, they have developed languages that aren’t accessible or even particularly interesting. Religious leaders have tended to mirror the polarization of the culture at-large, preferring to choose sides in the culture and political wars.
But we do continue to have some wise public voices, Brooks among them, keeping alive a tradition that has been a major, positive force in American life and culture. In the African-American church they say, “God will not leave himself without a witness.” I, for one, am grateful with the witness which Brooks offers.
Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.