Karl Barth memorably described original sin as “the doctrine which emerges from all honest study of human history.” In God-Fearing and Free, Jason Stevens shows that that claim could have stood as the rallying cry for American Cold War culture. Drawing connections between foreign policy and film noir, between neofundamentalist evangelicalism and Southern Gothic literature, Stevens argues that figures from James Baldwin to George Kennan imagined midcentury America through the lens of a particular, Augustinian strand of theology. This strand, associated most closely with Reinhold Niebuhr, emphasized man’s fallen nature and the terrible gap between the City of God and the City of Man. Its influence permeated Cold War film, literature, and politics. Stevens’s wide-ranging account reminds us of a surprising fact: any cultural history of this anxious time must also be, to a remarkable degree, a theological history.
Stevens, a professor of English at Harvard, begins his history with an account of what he calls “Protestant theological countermodernism,” the critique of liberal Protestantism first offered by Barth and then adopted and modified by Niebuhr. Hoping to recover a God of judgment and to reemphasize Kierke-gaard’s “infinite qualitative difference” between creator and creation, Niebuhr preached humility and an awareness of the ironic gap between human intention and consequence. He argued for a tragic sense of life: man was not the perfectible being envisioned by Protestant liberalism, but rather a sinner in need of God’s unmerited, saving grace.
Niebuhr trained his ironic vision not just on the individual, but also on the state. America, long imagined a new Eden, was in reality corrupted by original sin; it was a nation much like any other, morally ambiguous and self-deceiving. Niebuhr advocated a nonidealistic foreign policy and the realistic appraisal of national self-interest. If this sometimes meant allying oneself with deeply flawed regimes, then so be it—foreign policy was not a practicing of perfect justice but a choice between “lesser evils.” Niebuhr’s views held great sway in the world of Cold War foreign policy: George Kennan, author of the famous “Long Telegram” and leading advocate for the containment strategy against the Soviets, supposedly called the theologian “the father of us all.”
In an unexpected move, Stevens draws out the similarities between Niebuhr and the popular Protestant evangelical preacher Billy Graham. At first glance, this seems an odd pairing. President Barack Obama has called Niebuhr, a political liberal and onetime socialist, one of his “favorite philosophers,” while many have traced a lineage from Graham to the Christian right. Stevens pairs the two for polemical purposes, arguing that they shared a number of theological presuppositions: the centrality of original sin, antagonism to religious liberalism, and a sense of the deeply Christian roots of American history.
Rhetorically, Niebuhr was the liberal to Graham’s conservative; substantively, Stevens claims, there wasn’t much space between the two. Niebuhr’s cozy relationship with the Cold War establishment, coupled with his pessimistic view of the possibilities for political change, resulted in his downplaying the pernicious effects of unfettered capitalism as well as the sins of colonialism and racism. By arguing against the “purity of idealism” and in favor of a tough-minded, pragmatic politics of consensus, Niebuhr effectively foreclosed serious engagement with social inequality at home and offered an excuse for American imperialism abroad. Niebuhr, Stevens writes, “was less a critic of the establishment than he was a public-relations man for it.” This advocate of the ironic, self-critical vision was, in the end, not ironic or self-critical enough.
The real strength of Stevens’s study lies in his careful tracing of the themes of Protestant theological countermodernism (original sin, guilt, expiation) in Cold War film and literature. He argues, for instance, that The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 thriller starring Robert Mitchum, is a profound examination of the evil that lurked within McCarthy-era America. The movie, which couples noir’s sense of pervasive, all-encompassing guilt with sentimental melodrama’s wish for childhood innocence, centers around Harry Powell, a charismatic preacher and serial killer whom Mitchum plays “like a silent-movie villain traveling through a sound film.” Though the movie ends with Powell’s defeat and the hopeful restoration of order, the America it envisions—violent and corrupt—is far from innocent.
In the book’s most compelling chapter, Stevens considers the prophetic voice of James Baldwin. In his fiction and essays, Baldwin drew attention to the self-deceptions of white America. He thought that only when the nation had come to grips with its history of racial oppression could a true American identity be achieved: “A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem,” Baldwin wrote in his blistering The Fire Next Time, “is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is.” In this assertion of the need to see things as they really are, Baldwin sounds a Niebuhrian note. But Baldwin’s vision, Stevens argues, was even more severely self-critical than Niebuhr’s: “Niebuhr…chides Americans for fantasies of do-gooding that obscure the nature of the good they have actually accomplished, whereas Baldwin asks white Americans to lose their fantasies so that they might confront the repugnance of their actual deeds.”
Baldwin was raised in the Pentecostal faith, and one can see its traces in the final paragraph of The Fire Next Time. There, Baldwin remembers Noah’s flood, fearfully envisions the consuming fire of the apocalypse, and dreams of a possible reconciliation between white and black America. Stevens admiringly contrasts Baldwin’s millennial vision of “an as yet undiscovered America” with Niebuhr’s abiding anti-utopianism and his lack of an eschatology. Jürgen Moltmann has written that eschatology is “the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.” Steven argues that, in refusing to make this expected new day the key to, or even a significant part of, his theology, Niebuhr fundamentally failed as a prophetic thinker. (And, Stevens suggests, Niebuhr’s disciplined avoidance of eschatology prepared the way for the popularity of Graham, whose millennialism manifested itself in his vision of America as a vehicle for God’s providence.)
The Cold War focus on fallenness has bequeathed to us a mixed legacy. Stevens shows, for instance, how Flannery O’Connor’s Christ-haunted fiction is powerful precisely in its ruthless vision of how humans are, in Sabbath Lily’s words from Wise Blood, “pure filthy right down to the guts” (and how both religious liberals and modern secularists try to wish this fact away). This debunking of blithe innocence, however, has also had troubling consequences. Take the Iraq War. In the aftermath of September 11, Paul Wolfowitz and others appealed to us, as Stevens writes, “to ward off national innocence, accept our responsibility, and face hard, tragic facts,” justifying our disastrous intervention in Niebuhrian terms. Pragmatic realism mobilized in support of neoconservatives’ bellicose idealism? This ironic gap between intention and consequence is something that Niebuhr would have expected, if not hoped for. And this is perhaps the greatest irony of all: in charting the problematic afterlife of Niebuhr’s thought, Stevens has written a study that the theologian couldn’t help but admire.