Like many sensible Americans, Dick Cavett is horrified by the crude expressions of bigotry and political opportunism unleashed by what the pundits are calling the “Ground Zero Mosque controversy”.
A woman tells the news guy on the street, “I have absolutely no prejudice against the Muslim people. My cousin is married to one. I just don’t see why they have to be here.” A man complains that his opposition to the mosque is “painting me like I hate the whole Arab world.” (Perhaps he dislikes them all as individuals?)
I remain amazed and really, sincerely, want to understand this. What can it be that is faulty in so many people’s thought processes, their ethics, their education, their experience of life, their understanding of their country, their what-have-you that blinds them to the fact that you can’t simultaneously maintain that you have nothing against members of any religion but are willing to penalize members of this one? Can you help me with this?
I’m not sure I can, but a voice from the mid-twentieth century might be of assistance.
Reinhold Niebuhr spent most of his life teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but before entering the academic life he served as a Protestant pastor in Detroit for many years. Many of his sharpest insights are rooted in the nitty-gritty of pastoral experience. The young Niebuhr championed the cause of Detroit assembly line workers, many of them African Americans migrating north in search of work and opportunity. His struggles and frequent setbacks taught him how intractable the sins of avarice and racial bigotry can be.
In a 1945 essay called “The Race Problem,” Niebuhr criticized the evangelical churches of the South for selling out completely to the racist frenzy of the day. Northern liberals talked a better game, he admitted, but the platitudes emanating from prominent pulpits were rooted in the false assumption that bigotry is primarily a matter of ignorance. A little moral education, the liberal preachers seemed to say, and all will be well.
Let the church, in dealing with the race issue, avail itself of every measure of enlightenment that modern science, anthropological and psychological, can contribute to the issue. But let it not forget its own resources, or rather the resources of its gospel. The Church knows, or ought to know, that though men may be incredibly stupid, the hatred and contempt that they exhibit in their lives springs from a deeper source than stupidity. It is the consequences of the corruption of a greater spiritual freedom in man than those understand who speak of man as ‘rational’. Both the dignity and the misery of man are greater than modern culture understands. The misery of man is derived from his idolatry, from his partly conscious and partly unconscious effort to make himself, his race, and his culture God. This idolatry is not broken until man is confronted with the real God, and finds his pride broken by the divine judgment, and learns that from this crucifixion of the old proud self a new self may arise, and that this new self has the “fruits of the spirit,” which are “love, joy, and peace.”
Niebuhr had little confidence that the churches would follow the wisdom of the Christian gospel. He accused American churches, orthodox and liberal, of being “in perfect flight” from the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin. The principle cause of injustice, he believed, wasn’t ignorance, it was “our predatory self-interest.”
“Increasing racial tension is due,” Niebuhr wrote “to increasing fear among the proponents of ‘white supremacy’ who feel their privileged position in a caste society imperiled and who become more and more desperate in seeking to ward off further concessions of justice. This is why certain reactionary white Southerners express themselves more and more hysterically in their attitude toward the race question.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, incidentally, had a profound influence on the practical theology of Martin Luther King. In the first book of his trilogy on the King years, Taylor Branch devotes an entire chapter to King’s discovery of Niebuhr during his years at Crozer seminary. “After Niebuhr,” Branch writes, “King experienced for the first time a loss of confidence in his own chosen ideas rather than inherited ones. The Social Gospel lost a good deal of its glow for him almost overnight, and he never again fell so completely under the spell of any school of thought, including Niebuhr’s.”
Niebuhr taught King that dispensing pleasant bromides from the liberal pulpit would change nothing. If “the race problem” was as deeply rooted as the Union Seminary professor suggested, it would take radical measures to overcome it.
The current agitation over the Ground Zero mosque isn’t an isolated moment of corporate madness. The mosque issue is just a contemporary version of “never in a thousand years” resistance to the civil rights movement or, a generation later, the Republican “southern strategy” that parlayed fear and bigotry into amazing success at the ballot box.
Niebuhr is dead right. We despise and reject the “other” because we have transformed our privileged place in America into an idol. We seethe with racial resentment because, deep down, we know we stand indicted before a God who is satisfied with nothing short of perfect justice.
Will we ever learn a better way? Not if Reinhold Niebuhr is to be believed. They don’t call it “original” sin for nothing. Like “the oldest profession”, “predatory self-interest” lies at the heart of the human condition and can only be overcome (even partially) through confession and repentance.
Does anyone in American public life have the courage to call sin by its proper name?
Barack Obama (another disciple of Reinhold Niebuhr) came close when he defended the right of the Muslim community to build a place of worship two blocks from ground zero. Then the president appeared to backtrack. The fact that the Muslim community had the right to build the mosque, he said, didn’t necessarily make this a wise decision.
Obama made an important and valid distinction, but this is no time for philosophical nuance. The American people need moral clarity from leaders who are willing to lose the world (and an election) to save their own souls.