Greg Garrett: A Conversation with Tim Beach-Verhey on H. Richard Neibuhr

Taken with author's permission from

Timothy A. Beach-Verhey is co-pastor, with his wife, Kathy, of Faison Presbyterian Church, in Faison, NC. He also teaches at Mount Olive College and is the author of [Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Political Life]( from Baylor University Press. Here, he discusses H. Richard Niebuhr, one of the 20th century's most significant theologians, Richard's even more-famous brother Reinhold, and how the Niebuhrs shaped consideration of religion and politics in their day and might shape it in our own.

Greg: Some folks would say that the term "liberal" is at best, out of fashion, and at worst, perceived as a negative. Yet in Robust Liberalism, you seem intent on reclaiming liberalism as a theological option. Why is this an important project for you? 

Tim: Greg, you are right that the term "liberal" has all sorts of negative associations today. Both theological and social critics have presented it as an invidious source of social fragmentation and moral relativism. They trace liberalism's pedigree to Enlightenment philosophy and condemn it as inextricably bound to the worst features of Modernity-namely secularism, materialism, and radical individualism. Longing for a greater sense of community and more stable moral norms, liberalism seems to many as at best dangerous and at worst a dead-end.

I resist this approach for two reasons. First, it is not historically accurate. Liberalism has a much richer and more varied history than much of the present discourse suggests. It is neither simply the product of the Enlightenment nor necessarily bound to anti-religious secularism and self-interested individualism. So, part of what I want to do is rehabilitate liberalism by describing a theologically and socially robust alternative to the secular, individualistic form it so often takes in current social and theological discourse. H. Richard Niebuhr provided me with a perfect exemplar of this position. So, I put his more theologically profound and historically nuanced version of liberalism in conversation with both critics and defenders of contemporary liberalism, showing that the debate in most social and religious circles is stunted and inadequate.

Second, I resist this simplistic account of liberalism because it threatens to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Radical individualism and anti-religious secularism are real dangers in contemporary society and they must be resisted. But by imagining that these are inextricably bound to liberalism, we are also in danger of jettisoning some of its more laudable features. Liberalism has always been about freedom, as its name denotes. American democracy is liberal in form. In other words, our system and the ideals behind it have always protected the rights and freedoms of minority groups from the will of the majority. Thus dissenters of every stripe-religious, political, and cultural-have had a place in American society. It is quite popular today to say that freedom of religion is the "first freedom." And I genuinely believe this is true. Freedom of conscience and all the freedoms that grow from it in American society reflect James Madison's conviction that the authority of the state and of the majority must be limited. In his Memorial and Remonstrance Concerning Religious Liberty, Madison wrote: "It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order and time, and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society." We in the United States refuse to simply allow the majority to have its way in all things because the majority is not God!

Liberalism is important because it protects the rights of individuals and groups to love and obey God above any and every worldly authority. I believe Christians and others need to recognize the religious roots at the heart of American liberalism and offer to others, including those of other religions and no religion at all, the same liberties we claim for ourselves. Otherwise, we are in danger of putting ourselves in the place of God! This was the original sin and it is still with us. I believe liberalism, properly understood, is not so much permission to sin, but a hedge against sin.

In this book, I try to describe a liberalism that is religiously motivated and theologically profound because I believe it is socially appropriate, given the diversity of contemporary culture, historically accurate, given the heritage of this nation, and religiously faithful, given that God alone is the ruler of the universe and the Lord of the conscience. I am convinced that genuine public discourse and social cooperation in American political life requires just this sort of liberalism.

Greg: Richard Niebuhr's brother Reinhold is probably better known these days, and the favorite theologian of President Obama. I've told my students I thought it would be fun to be a fly on the wall at a Niebuhr Thanksgiving dinner. How would you contrast the two brothers and their beliefs?

Tim: Like you, I would love to have been present at a Niebuhr family gathering. What conversations they may have had! But, I suppose their conversations, like the ones around most of our Thanksgiving tables, may not have focused on deep theological debates so much as on the family matters of parents, children, and their various accomplishments and challenges. Nevertheless, it is clear that Reinhold and Richard had plenty to talk about in the theological realm. They rarely aired their disagreements in public, however, which makes me wonder about how open they were about them in private as well.

One of the few places where they debated in public was an exchange in 1932 on the pages of the Christian Century. Ostensibly it was a discussion of the American response to current events in Asia. But, in fact, it was a debate about the nature of God and the limits of human agency. Reinhold had turned his back on the optimism of liberal theology, but remained indebted to its idealism. For him, God was the ideal toward which humans must strive, though they could never reach it. Richard, however, rejected liberal idealism more radically and embraced an even more profound realism. God, for him, was not a transcendental ideal, which depends upon human effort for its (partial) fulfillment, but the ultimate reality that resists, limits, destroys, and remakes all human ideas and ideals, projects, and practices. Unlike his brother, he embraced what he called, "the well-nigh obsolete faith that there is a God-a real God." God is the reality that confronts us, all of us.

The difference in their theology, ethics, and conception of political life had to do with this fundamental difference. Reinhold emphasized the struggle to achieve higher and higher realizations of the ideal of love in the midst of a world that resisted it. H. Richard, on the other hand, emphasized the historically conditioned interpretation of the reality that confronts us, so that we can respond appropriately to it. Thus, one perceived politics as a struggle for the power to realize moral ideals and the other as a contested discourse about how best to interpret and respond to the realities confronting us. I am convinced that, while Reinhold's insights are important, H. Richard provides a vision that is especially needed in this day and age. He points us toward the possibility of genuinely productive public discourse in a culturally and religiously diverse context and provides Christians with a theologically profound motivation to become full participants in it.

Greg: Richard is something of an anachronism-there are real distinctions between his time and ours. Yet you argue throughout your book that he remains a useful figure. How do you think his work speaks into our current situation? 

Tim: When I first started working on this project, several people asked me what a theologian from the middle of the 20th century could possibly have to say to Church and society in the early 21st century. Isn't he simply an artifact of the lost age of American Christendom and therefore unaware of and unsympathetic toward the cultural fragmentation and religious diversity of our own times? But, H. Richard Niebuhr spent his whole career thinking about what he called moral "relativism." He was aware of the historical contingency and diversity of human orientations toward the world in ways that are quite appropriate to our own day and age. In many ways, his viewpoint seems to fit our time better than they did his own. What Niebuhr contributes to our age, however, is a theological and epistemological defense of genuine, constructive moral discourse in the midst of a pluralistic society that has lost all sense of a shared moral universe.

Niebuhr is well aware of the way moral viewpoints are shaped by diverse religious and cultural traditions. People see the world differently and thus respond to it differently. But he is nonetheless convinced that those people do not live in different worlds, as some post-modern thinkers like to say. The corollary to his theological conviction that "there is a God-a real God" is the epistemic conviction that we are confronted by a real world that limits, judges, and reforms our moral imagination.

This is embodied in his triadic (covenantal) model of responsibility. We respond to what is happening to us in the light of our interpretation of events based upon particular traditions and symbols. But we are not completely ensconced within and thereby at the mercy of these traditions and symbols. We cannot interpret the world apart from these traditions and symbols, but we are also find ourselves in relationship to a world that does not passively conform itself to them.

The faith that there is one God who is sovereign over the whole universe entails a conviction that we are all participants in one world, despite our various understandings of it, and are all in relationship to one reality, whether we call it God or something else. Constructive moral discourse, therefore, is not a consequence of a common tradition but of a shared reality, which confronts us and all of our particular moral visions with its singular and unavoidable character. In fact, this reality destroys all our provincial loyalties and hopes (even Christian ones) and calls us to faithfulness to the reality toward which all these traditions and symbols point (in more and less adequate ways).

Radically monotheistic Christian faith, as Niebuhr describes it, contributes some important virtues to contemporary liberal democratic public discourse-virtues that have corollaries in other forms of radically monotheistic faith, whether they are religious or otherwise, whether they use the language of God or not. For example, a sense that God is truly sovereign leads to humility regarding the limitations of one's own viewpoint and a readiness to acknowledge that it might need to be reformed in order to conform more truthfully to God and God's ways. Similarly, acknowledging that God is the source of all truth produces a readiness to be open to new insights whatever their origin, including other religions, cultures, and political orientations. Finally, trusting God provokes the courage of one's convictions and the hope in God's good future required to participate fully and openly in a moral discourse the outcome of which one cannot completely control.

Greg: You write in the book about the distinction between the two primary perspectives in public life, Christian traditionalists and political liberals. How do you define these groups, and how does Richard Niebuhr offer a chance to move beyond them?

Tim: For the last couple of decades, two diametrically opposed views about religion in public life seem to have dominated both academic and popular discourse. On the one hand, many forms of contemporary liberalism seem committed to a secular public realm from which religious perspectives are excluded. They see religious voices as inherently destructive to public moral discourse because they represent the particular views of a segment of the citizenry, which are not accessible to the public at large. On the other hand, many contemporary Christians feel that their most fundamental convictions are at odds with the prevailing liberal democratic ethos of their society and therefore envision themselves as engaged in a fundamental struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness-to borrow a phrase from H. Richard's older brother. In my book, John Rawls represents the former, while Stanley Hauerwas represents the latter.

What H. Richard Niebuhr helps us see, I believe, is just how much these two opposed positions share in common. They both see religious faith and political liberalism as diametrically opposed-despite a much more complex historical interdependence. Moreover, they each go to great lengths to exclude anyone who does not share their particular perspective from participation in meaningful moral discourse. In effect, it is a culture war between two diametrically opposed moral visions and communities. H. Richard Niebuhr shows how each of these perspectives represents a henotheistic form of faith that demands absolute trust and loyalty to its own historically contingent tradition, practices, and community.

What is more, he shows how both liberal democracy and Christianity fall prey to inner contradictions when they descend into such limited loyalties and closed communities. Each in its own way depends on a more universal sensibility and inclusive loyalties. A form of liberal democracy that excludes certain perspectives and has its own survival as its highest goal ends up being illiberal and undemocratic. And a Christian church that sees itself as a righteous alternative to a fallen world beyond redemption is in danger of worshipping its own traditions, practices, and community rather than the universal God, who is the salvation of both the church and the world. H. Richard Niebuhr's theology, in other words, not only provides a model for constructive public discourse, but also helps show that both Christian churches and liberal democratic institutions require this sort of openness to a reality that transcends them both in order to become most truly what they are.

Greg: If Niebuhr were alive today, what do you imagine he'd have to say about our political life and the 2012 election? What would you most want to ask him?

Tim: In 1940, in an essay entitled "The Relation of Christianity and Democracy," H. Richard wrote, "We can be certain only that God will do his will despite us if not through us. We and our democracies may be broken if we fail in loyalty to his Kingdom. But his salvation will come nigh to those who seek neither Christianity nor democracy but his Kingdom and its righteousness." I think he might say something quite similar to us today. We are divided by fundamentally different moral visions, material interests, and religious orientations. What is more, we seem to spend all our time trying to defeat each other rather than to find common solutions to shared problems. This is a destructive situation in which there are unlikely to be any long-term winners, only losers. I imagine Niebuhr would ask us to look up from our fixation upon our own individual and group interests long enough to ask what God is trying to communicate to us through the circumstances we currently face domestically and internationally. And by asking such a question, we might have our eyes opened to a whole new way of seeing the world, and ourselves, and our relationships to one another.

If I were given a chance to ask Niebuhr something about political life today, I would ask him about how he sees the first term of Barack Obama. Barack Obama appreciates the work of H. Richard's brother, Reinhold, and a minor cottage industry has grown out of interpreting Obama's first term through the lens of Reinhold Niebuhr. But I wonder what new insights H. Richard's thought might provide for interpreting Obama's approach to public policy and political negotiations. Sometimes Obama has been accused of being too professorial, too dialogic-as though politics were about dialogue and persuasion. This is thought by many to be naïve. On the other hand, he is sometimes accused of political machinations and manipulations. And thus he is accused of being excessively Machiavellian. What light might H. Richard's conception of responsibility and his covenantal vision of American liberal democracy shed on the strengths and weaknesses of Barack Obama as a president? That is one of the many things I would like to ask him.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday at on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.