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The Irony of American History
The Irony of American History
Reinhold Niebuhr
University of Chicago Press, 2008
198 pp., $22.00

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by Joseph Loconte

The Irony of American Politics

A reissued Reinhold Niebuhr classic sheds light on current follies.

Among other treasures, the Palazzo Pitti, the most massive palace in Florence, offers an artistic tribute to the human spirit from the 18th century onward. The more than 2,000 paintings and sculptures housed in its Gallery of Modern Art (one of six museums in the palace) include works of Italian naturalism, neoclassicism, and impressionism. The art is impressive. But something is missing: the religious works that populate the city's other venues.

This absence leaves the visitor unprepared for Antonio Ciseri's Ecce Homo, an immense canvas re-creating a scene from the Gospel of John. Catching the gallery stroller unawares, it instantly threatens to seize the heart. Pontius Pilate is garbed in a long, extravagant robe, his back turned toward the viewer. Pilate leans into the crowd, left arm extended, hand open, pointing to his prisoner. It is Jesus of Nazareth. He is stripped to the waist and his hands are bound behind his back. On his face is a look of condemnation mingled with deep sadness and resolve.

The claims of Christianity have a way of intruding into our modern lives, like paintings that don't seem to fit the mood of a gallery. Christian leaders can have a similar effect on the societies in which they live: They can be compelling and controversial at the same time.

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the 20th century's leading public theologians, was such a figure. A one-time pacifist, he became a prominent hawk on the eve of World War II. A man of the Left, he nevertheless defended democratic capitalism on Christian grounds. What is surprising is how often this Protestant intellectual has been cited of late by politicians, commentators, and academics of all kinds.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks invokes the spirit of Niebuhr to recommend a "humble hawkishness" in American foreign policy. Peter Beinart calls Niebuhr "the hero" of his book The Good Fight, an effort to breathe life into a moribund liberalism. E. J. Dionne, in Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and ...

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