May 31, 2002 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The War Party's Theologian

President Bush used his European trip to return to a theme that has suffered some hits lately: moral clarity. "If we ignore this threat," he told the German Bundestag in Berlin, referring to al Qaeda's terrorists and their sponsors, "we invite certain blackmail and place millions of our citizens in grave danger."

It is not simply a matter of opposing a hostile force, Mr. Bush argued, but of defending the moral foundations of civilization itself. "Others killed in the name of racial purity," he delicately reminded his German audience. "These enemies kill in the name of a false religious purity." The genocidal impulse is the same.

Many Europeans, of course, decry the president's antiterrorist policy as "cowboy" diplomacy, a gross oversimplification of international politics. And so do at least a few American intellectuals--Noam Chomsky among them. But they are all dreaming of an easy peace, and we've been down that road before. Mr. Bush's World War II reference, in fact, is powerfully confirmed by reading "An End to Illusions," a 1940 essay published in the Nation magazine just as the German army was ripping through Europe.

Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the eminent American theologian, it rocked the liberal establishment of its time. Niebuhr was one of them: a socialist, a public intellectual, a darling of the political left. But he was no longer willing to toe the Socialist Party line, which held that the war was merely a clash of imperalisms.

As a liberal Protestant, Niebuhr was no uncritical apologist for American democracy, much less its foreign policy. And with his notoriously agonized belief in the complexities of the human condition, he admitted that there may not be much difference between nations at war. Yet the differences that remain, he felt, are fatefully important.

"The Socialists are right, of course, in insisting that the civilization which we are called to defend is full of capitalistic and imperialistic injustice," he wrote. "But it is still a civilization." Impaired by their utopian ideals, the detractors, he argued, could not distinguish between German war aims and Western resistance. Remarkably, they failed to see the moral gulf separating a genocidal force and a liberal democracy.

Niebuhr owed his own clarity of vision to a deep belief in the existence of evil. By the 1930s, the concept had fallen out of favor, even among theologians. Most thought of it in abstract terms. But Niebuhr restored some of its biblical meaning: Evil could possess individuals, even entire governments.
Bad politics results, he believed, from ignoring this demonstrable fact about human nature. The rationale for endless diplomacy, Niebuhr observed, is that the "moral force" of the international community can bend the will of tyrants. Nonsense, he concluded: "It fails to explain just how this moral force is to be effective against tanks, flame-throwers, and bombing planes." Sometimes war is necessary.

Niebuhr's "Christian realism" insisted that, even in a world full of sin, civilized nations must strive for justice. In his day that meant waging war on fascism with "ambiguous methods"--unsavory alliances, deception, massive military strikes. It left little room for idealists. "Let those who are revolted by such ambiguities," Niebuhr wrote, "have the decency and consistency to retire to the monastery, where medieval perfectionists found their asylum."

In our day, Niebuhrian realism demands a fierce struggle against Islamic terrorism and its sponsors. What other responsible choice exists? Every reliable piece of intelligence confirms that our enemies are seeking to wreak more havoc and destruction--even with biological and nuclear weapons. The moment they have such weapons, as President Bush put it, "no inner voice of reason, no hint of conscience would prevent their use."

Niebuhr was horrified at the idea of meeting fascism with pacifist hand-wringing. "This culture does not understand historical reality clearly enough to deserve to survive," he wrote angrily. "It has a right to survival only because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate." Today's critics of a strong military response may want to contemplate the horrible alternatives that inaction may bring.

Joseph Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public Radio.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Appeared originally in the Wall Street Journal