The Irony of American History

Reflections on Lincoln, Bush, and American Leadership
By David R. Cook
From the earliest settlements on the American continent the image of this new nation-to-be was suffused with a providential ethos. Whether it was surviving privations or enjoying the fruits of abundant resources, Americans have tended to equate fortuitous circumstances with the blessings of God.
This is the source of our American exceptionalism. American interests, American actions, American power is always deployed on the side of “good”. Our wars are always moral and we always are fighting on the side of righteousness. As noted, this national sense of ourselves has a very long history which continues unabated in the 21st Century world of global commerce and the threat of terrorism.
That America is a very “religious” nation is an undebateable fact. Unfortunately, this aspect of the American character has too often been expressed without awareness of the ironic situations into which American religiosity so often propels us. The vices which are hidden in our virtues go essentially unnoticed, especially by our leaders. The great exception to this tendency was Abraham Lincoln.
We are now living through the terrible irony that a war which was, in the first instance, going to protect us from the cataclysmic threat of nuclear destruction, yet uncovered no such threat; and next was going to make us more secure by unleashing God-given liberty upon a tyrannized people, yet provoked only more violence; or was going to rid the world of terrorists, only to create the conditions for more terrorists to congregate where our military was concentrated; and where daily, weekly, and monthly progress was constantly being announced while the violence escalated concurrently and our leader became more convinced of the correctness of his policy and strategy.
It would be at least mildly comforting if this sort of mess was something of an aberration in American history. If we could just blame Mr. Bush and his neocon acolytes for their stupidity and incompetence, throw the rascals out and restore sanity to our government and foreign policy, we might all feel a little bit better. Alas, our history offers little comfort that the Iraq War is either an aberration in American history or a tragic mistake from which we are likely to recover fully and renew our pursuit of more modest and realistic goals in the world. We need only look over our shoulders at Vietnam to know that we’ve been there before and may, “god forbid”, go there again following Iraq.
Unless we can repent! There is a way out of the ironic situation, but it requires the religious imagination to see it fully since awareness of irony is an act of faith that there is meaning in the ironic situation that is typically not evident to the actors who are involved in creating the situation. This we will explore with the help of religious historians who cast a remarkable light on our ironic history.
Reinhold Niebuhr and The Irony of American History
This short book by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great Christian theologians of the early 20th Century, was published in 1952 and is now, unfortunately, out of print. The book is remarkable for its prescient analysis of American foreign policy at the early onset of the Cold War. Not only does Niebuhr anticipate the ultimate demise of the Communist “religion”, as he calls it, but his analysis provides an understanding of the two major follies of the past 50 plus years – Vietnam and Iraq.
The context in which Niebuhr analyzes American national power through the lens of “humane irony” is the atomic stand off between the “liberal bourgeois” ideology of America and the “communist religion” of the Soviet Union. Each was prone to fall into the “ironic situation” in which the limits of human nature would be encountered as failures of the exercise of national power.
The limitations of human nature, Niebuhr argues, make it difficult to see the “hidden kinship between the vices of even the most vicious and the virtues of even the most upright.” It is the cumulating of national power, such as was attained by the U.S. following WWII, that makes it so difficult to see this kinship and thus generates our national illusions.
What is “irony” in the Niebuhrian sense? First, it is not “literary irony” in which the intended meaning of words used is the direct opposite of their usual sense, such as describing a stupid plan as “very clever”. The intention, of course, is humorous.
Niebuhr states: “Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic” (emphasis added).
There is something going on here that is deeply embedded in American idealism. It is this which Niebuhr uncovers through the framework of irony. Yet the very understanding of the ironic situation that Niebuhr unpacks requires a religious perspective. Niebuhr locates it in Christianity but it is perhaps more universally rooted in the Biblical tradition of the Hebrew scriptures.
Niebuhr acknowledges that there are elements in current history so obviously ironic that, as on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”, they are patently clear to any observer and helped along by faux news anchor Jon Stewart’s reactions. “Nevertheless,” Niebuhr writes, “the consistency with which the category of the ironic is applied to historical events does finally depend upon a governing faith or world view.”
Such a governing faith rests in part on the image of a “laughing God as revealed in Psalm 2 of the Bible. In verse 4 the Psalmist writes (KJV): “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision.” The first four verses in the contemporary translation of The Message Bible (Eugene H. Peterson, translator) reads:
“Why the big noise, nations?
Why the mean plots, peoples?
Earth-leaders push for position,
Demagogues and delegates meet for summit talks,
The God-deniers, The Messiah-defiers:
‘Let’s get free of God!
Cast loose from Messiah!’
Heaven-throned God breaks out laughing.”
The meaning is plain. There are limits on the use of national power and leaders who lack powers of self-criticism or healthy self-consciousness are prone to stumbling into ironic situations from which they cannot escape without acknowledging their own agency in creating the situation. In short, the leader who cannot admit mistakes will continue the course of folly while God laughs and humans suffer.
Lincoln and Bush: Ironic and Unironic Leadership

One of the great contemporary historians of religion, Martin Marty, wrote a lengthy essay in 2000 in commemoration of the Gettysburg Address on “The War-Time Lincoln and the Ironic Tradition in America” (). Marty draws on Niebuhr’s analysis from The Irony of American History.
While it may seem patently unfair to compare Lincoln and George Bush as “war Presidents”, in the light of irony the differences are compellingly instructive about the quality of American leadership and the pitfalls which await any American President in the 21st century.
Since we are dealing with a generally “religious” context, it is itself ironic to note that this arguably greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln, was also the only president never to have joined a church. At the same time Lincoln has distinguished himself for the ages with some of the most profound Biblically based rhetoric of any American leader.
Marty’s analysis sets the rhetoric and actions of Lincoln during the Civil War against “Niebuhrian irony”. Early in the course of the war the North was in an overwhelmingly more powerful position than was the South. Moreover, the heavy concentration of abolitionists in the North was a set up for moral pretensions in which a fundamental element is to equate the nation’s goals with those of the Almighty. Yet the North’s vaunted advantages over the South did not result in military victories until much later in the war.
Lincoln was more firmly committed to the preservation of the Union than he was to any other goal, including the elimination of slavery. To that end, for example, his suspension of habeas corpus in contested locales where secession threatened proved to be an “ironic display of a defect of the virtue” (which was the preservation of the Union). Marty comments: “The Union, not civil liberties, mattered supremely. Everything else was negotiable.”
By contrast, the supreme rhetorical value to which Bush committed his presidency (at least post 9/11) was security. “The primary job of the President is to keep this country safe” has been repeated over and over. Hence, the suspension of habeas corpus for “terrorists” (the “secessionists” of today) has been done in the name of national security. We have again, the ironic display of a defect of the virtue. Warantless wiretapping is another example of this elevation of security as the supreme good of the nation which justifies these assaults on civil liberties.
Niebuhr evokes the prophets for their warnings against human pretensions. The warning to Babylon in Isaiah that its confidence in the security of its power will be refuted by history. “They (the prophets) regard nothing as absolutely secure in human life and history; and believe that every desperate effort to establish security will lead to heightened insecurity.” Our present pervasive insecurity in America is manifested in the political potency of the fearful threats that Bush warns will follow us “here” if we don’t stop them “there”.
Marty picks up on Niebuhr’s distinction in historical irony between “the ‘irony of fate’ in which the main character is a victim, and what we might call ‘agential irony’, because in it the leading figure remains an agent.”
In the first or fate-full case, Marty writes of Lincoln as commander-in-chief, who “would be seen undertaking actions that did not turn out the way he and supporters hoped they would, and this for a variety of reasons: accident, fate, the fates, the gods, God, or the circumstances, determined the whole situation including the outcome. In such a reading, the actor as victim could not or did not foresee the inescapable, the fateful result….There were many moments in the Civil War when Lincoln did seem to play the role just described and did appear to be a victim of fate, of events.”
What of Bush? Unlike Lincoln, who once wrote that he felt he was “mis-fitted” to be President, Bush is reported to have told friends that he felt God wanted him to be president. There can be no more persuasive role as agent than to be the agent of God’s will. What many Americans view as Bush’s stubborn refusal to face reality in Iraq, many other Americans see as resolute faith in the rightness (or righteousness?) of the cause of bringing stability and freedom to Iraq in the interests of American security. This is hardly the position of a victim, despite the failure of the United States military to prevail thus far over the sectarian and terrorist violence.
In contrast to the irony of fate is the Niebuhrian “humane irony” which can be defined as human action in which we see the consequences of that action as contrary to the original intention of the actor and can “locate a significant part of the reason for the discrepancy in the actor himself or in his intention”.
Marty writes: “The moments that interest us here are those that show how Lincoln, when aware of possibly ironic outcomes, still had to act and therefore summoned others to act responsibly. But here is the important point: they could not, while acting, claim assured knowledge of the will of God as certifying their doings or the way they were doing them.”
“Lincoln,…”, writes Marty, “took actions but interpreted them, especially in his final years, in such a way that he could not so readily suffer derision from a laughing God, or from those who might hear the voice of such a God. Four-foldly, in the course of time, Lincoln pondered the defects of the Union virtue; the weakness that led the putatively superior Northern troops to be all but vanquished on numerous occasions through the first three years of the war; the insecurity of the situation and the bare survival of the Union, even though in 1861 the majority of its citizens had felt secure as they foresaw easy victory; the foolishness in the action of several generals and other leaders, including the president himself, as he came later to acknowledge” (emphasis added).
Marty spells out the details of Lincoln’s ironic awareness in the balance of his essay, including a significant turning point following the death of his son, Willie, after which Lincoln’s rhetoric became more steeped in the “mysterious ways of God” and in his acknowledgement of the fact that both sides prayed to the same God, neither of whose prayers were answered fully, as expressed in the Second Inaugural Address.
By contrast, Bush has shown no capacity to ponder any defects in America’s virtue in bringing freedom to Iraq, or to consider realistically the weakness of our powerful military to quell the sectarian violence of a civil war, or to reflect on the insecurity created for the nation by the increased ability to recruit and train terrorists in Iraq as a result of our occupation, nor does he reveal any capacity to reconsider the wisdom of his decisions in the first place nor to acknowledge the many follies that have followed those decisions. Bush has become a prisoner of the ironic situation of his own making and clings to an unironic faith in the God from whom he takes his vision and relies on to provide the necessary victory. Bush cannot hear the derision for his folly from the laughing God.
Pathos and Tragedy
Niebuhr writes, “The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution.”
Martin Marty adds: “Pathetic people … do not act at all; they are victims, acted upon. Tragic people act heroically but necessity and fate limit them. Lincoln in the decisive leadership roles and expressions that concern us was neither tragic nor pathetic. He acted, and while he considered the ways of the Almighty under whom he would see the Union and its forces to be mysterious, he did not see them as merely necessitarian or simply fate-full.”
It is hard to see Bush as a pathetic victim. He definitely acts. He describes himself as “the decider”. Does the morass in Iraq suggest that Mr. Bush is a tragic figure? Is the war in Iraq a tragedy? Many Americans believe that Bush acted heroically with the best intentions and fate has limited him. There are certainly elements of tragedy in the Iraq situation. How, then, does irony enter into this picture?
Niebuhr states that, “While a pathetic or a tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve, if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony” (emphasis added). But the dissolution of the ironic situation is complex and problematical and it is here that Martin Marty’s analysis of Lincoln’s leadership qualities are helpful.
Humane Ironic Leadership
There is a “victim irony” that can lead to apathy and defeatism, dissolving all belief in the possibility of positive political actions. From the perspective of military actions acting and speaking from such an ironic perspective would lead to disaster. However, a “humane ironic perspective” carries a “special critical sympathy”, and this is what Marty believes Lincoln “evidenced as he viewed the devastations of war and the narrowness of victories.”
As Niebuhr put it, “The knowledge of irony depends upon an observer who is not so hostile to the victim of irony as to deny the element of virtue which must constitute a part of the ironic situation; nor yet so sympathetic as to discount the weakness, the vanity and pretension which constitute another element.”
Marty argues that Lincoln was able to do just that with respect to the “Union’s claimed virtue, strength, security, and wisdom and, paradoxically, as things turned out, also in its defects, weakness, insecurity, and folly, that helps us better understand him, the war, and the nation”.
Marty goes on to ask why this “humane irony” is important to note. His answer bears directly on the questions of leadership during times of crisis, which is as true of our current situation as it was desperately true during the Civil War. “You cannot long lead people into battle at risk and cost of life if, all too aware of the potentially paradoxical outcomes of action, you and they decide that mortals are fools, that others have a right to laugh at them, that everything has been tried and been found lacking. Irony does not carry people into sacrifice, into battle unto death. … The Lincolnian ‘humane’ ironist, has to display a severe view of human limits but not a paralyzing one.”
And how is it, then, that a leader escapes the paralysis that can follow from an honest acknowledgement of the reality of the human situation that eventually reveal defects in virtue, weakness, insecurity, and folly? Niebuhr argued on Biblical grounds that there had to be on the part of agents “an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern of history.”
“Lincoln as president and commander-in-chief”, Marty writes, “acted in ways that showed an awareness of human limits but accompanied these with responsible action. … God laughs because ‘the people imagine a vain thing.’ The vain thing may be the claim that God being on their side renders them virtuous, strong, secure, and wise – until they meet military defeat and national disarray” (emphasis added).
If Mr. Bush was not paralyzed in the military actions he chose to take in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, following 9/11, he seems paralyzed now by the ironic situation in which he has met “military defeat and national disarray” and cannot find a way to dissolve it rather than simply continuing to believe in the virtue and strength of his cause. Dissolving this situation, at the least, requires conscious awareness of the ironic situation. “This realization,” Niebuhr writes, “either must lead to an abatement of the pretension, which means contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil” or “it may be dissolved into pure despair or hatred.”
Returning once more to Marty’s analysis, he quotes from the Second Inaugural Address in which Lincoln says, “but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.” Marty then quotes from a post-Inaugural letter to Thurlow Weed, dated March 15, 1865, in which Lincoln writes: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”
Lincoln’s ability to dissolve the ironies in the historic situation of the Civil War to the point of contrition and a self-expressed humiliation was not a weakness but a great strength of his war time leadership, which lacked no courage and willingness to take necessary actions for the sake of the Union.
With regard to the failing venture in Iraq, the evidence suggests that a conscious awareness of the ironic situation may be widespread in the country, but the leadership under Mr. Bush is unable to abate “our own pretensions of wisdom, virtue or power which have helped to fashion the ironic incongruity.” As a result, the country is mired in a mixture of despair, hatred (of the terrorists on the one hand, or of Mr. Bush on the other), and most unfortunately, “a disposition to evil.” These latter words are from an article on “The National Character” by Earl Shorris in the June, 2007 issue of Harper’s.
The President who has been quick to identify an “axis of evil” and declare that the nations of the world are either “with us or with the terrorists”, is clearly incapable of seeing any vices in our goodness. As Shorris writes in Harper’s, “It is a comfort of sorts to think that the disposition to evil is limited to the Bush Administration and its followers in the legislature, but there is an itch in that idea. Bush and his minions were reelected in 2004.” Indeed, the “pretensions of virtue” from which we now suffer are part of the despair, anger, and fear that is so widespread in our country. As Shorris puts it, “a disposition to evil is not a resolution of fear.” He suggests we ask the question, “Why am I so afraid?”
Reflections on Irony and American Leadership
Niebuhr acknowledges in his book that historical irony is only one of many templates that can be used to interpret the many different events and sequences of history. He asks, “…is an ironic interpretation of current history generally plausible; or does its credibility depend upon a Christian view of history in which the ironic view seems to be particularly grounded?”
Niebuhr continues: “One must answer that question by insisting that there are elements in current history so obviously ironic that they must be patent to any observer who fulfills the conditions required for the detection of irony. Nevertheless, the consistency with which the category of the ironic is applied to historical events does finally depend upon a governing faith or world view.”
Here it is important to acknowledge that the whole issue of religion in American national life and politics is coming under increasing scrutiny and considerable angry denunciation. A number of books recently published by atheist authors have attacked religion as a threat to civilization and implicated in wars and other depredations on reason and science. Unfortunately, most of this literature, as it has been reviewed and as I have read myself, tends to be directed at fundamentalist right wing Christianity, Islamist jihadi fundamentalism, etc. Other Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious practices and beliefs that are in tune with Enlightenment thinking are lumped into this religious cesspool.
Niebuhr was a liberal, progressive Christian theologian who wrote extensively about national morality, as opposed to the overwhelming emphasis in conservative Christianity on individual sin and redemption and on correct or orthodox beliefs. Progressive Christianity focuses on issues of justice and non-violence and on the practice of Christianity as taught by Jesus. Correct beliefs are hardly relevant to this kind of Christian identity.
Fundamentalist Christianity is deeply unironic, as is demonstrated by Mr. Bush’s faith and his Manichean world view that divides people and nations into good and evil. What seems so useful to me in applying “humane irony” to an understanding of the present situation and the near future we face with the next election, is that this interpretation requires empathy for the human condition in which we are all together.
“Irony cannot be directly experienced,” Niebuhr asserts. “The knowledge of it depends upon an observer who is not so hostile to the victim of irony as to deny the element of virtue which must constitute a part of the ironic situation; nor yet so sympathetic as to discount the weakness, the vanity and pretension which constitute another element.”
This means progressive Democrats, at least, need to credit Mr. Bush’s desire to bring freedom to people who have lived under tyranny. There is virtue in this notion and it obviously has a wide appeal to many Americans. It seems worth fighting for. But it is pretty clear that most Democrats and some number of independents and Republicans are not so sympathetic with the administration that they discount the weakness, vanity and pretension, nee arrogance, writ large on the Iraq folly.
American citizens, as well, play an important part in dissolving ironic situations, something we certainly failed to do in 2004. As Niebuhr writes, “Individuals do, of course, have a degree of transcendence over the vicissitudes of their nations and communities, no matter how intimately they are involved in them. They may, therefore, be individual observers of an ironic situation in which they are collectively involved.” As we approach the 2008 elections we can hope that more and more Americans will begin to evaluate the candidates for some degree of ironic sensitivity.
In Search for an Ironic Leader
Ten Republican candidates and eight Democratic candidates have been on display in two early debates. It is possible to tease out the possibilities. These comments are from my own very subjective observations using the ironic template.
With one exception it does not appear that any of the Republican candidates have the least capacity for understanding the historic irony that we are mired in by the arrogant projection of our military power into Iraq to bring freedom to the Iraqis and security to America. To a man, all but libertarian, Ron Paul, Congressman from Texas, would continue the Iraq venture forever and maintain Guantanamo, or even enlarge it (Mitt Romney). Except for McCain, these candidates don’t see much problem with torture if it will enhance our security. The three “front runners”, McCain, Giuliani, and Romney, are essentially committed to continue Mr. Bush’s mission in Iraq in order to “avert catastrophe.” No relief there.
Ron Paul, on the other hand, was against the Iraq war from the beginning and wants us out now. Despite his romantic regard for the “power of markets” to get everything right, Paul understands the irony of national overreach by “big government” power, especially military power. But the unironic Republican base will not vote for Ron Paul. There is too much identification in the Republican “base” with the will of God and the imperial projection of American power around the world. Failure to exercise this power to the end of “victory” or “success” is unacceptable.
Hence, we will only find potentially viable candidates with the ironic sensibility of a Lincoln (though probably not quite in Lincoln’s historic class) among the Democratic candidates.
Of the eight candidates, there are two interesting “outliers”, Senator Mike Gravel and Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Gravel served during the Vietnam folly and has been out of office for over 20 years. But he was apparently seared by Vietnam and seems to have a keen ironic sense. “You fellas scare me,” he said to his compatriots in a recent debate. He accused Barack Obama of threatening to use nuclear weapons because he said “all options were on the table” with regard to Iran. Obama had to respond: “Mike, I don’t intend to nuke anyone.” Though Gravel will obviously not be nominated, it does seem to me that though he may be the most evidently ironic candidate, he does not strike me as someone who could lead the country and take responsible and difficult actions if it seemed legitimately required.
Kucinich, another possible ironist, seems caught up in his idealistic pretensions such as forming a “Department of Peace” and insisting that the beginning place for health care is universal, single payer. He seems unironically devoted to his progressive idealism and unlikely to be ready to bend or compromise to get things done. He has the right progressive message but is the wrong messenger. He sounds like a scolding little boy on the podium.
I’ll go with four “front runners” in Richardson, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Richardson is on the margins, but he has led recently with an ironic advertisement that has him in front of an employment officer who seems singularly unimpressed with Richardson’s obviously impressive credentials for high office. The ironic element is unmistakable, but the effect of this approach is being debated. It is certainly amusing. But I worry that Richardson as candidate may be too caught up in credentials that he may fall victim to unseemly pretensions to power. At this point he is a marginal front runner tinged with a “been there and done that” scold.
Clinton strikes me as the most unironic of the major candidates. I find it immediately ironic that as the first credible female candidate to run for President, she feels required to project a firm grasp of masculine power to meet our national security fears. She will be “tough.” Along with this she projects a kind of cold command of policy issues and the ability to tap into all the leavers of power in Washington, to get things done. She may have the makings of a very effective President, but if you are looking for ironic sensibility in a leader, look elsewhere.
I rate Barack Obama high on the ironic leadership potential meter. His mixed racial identity gives him a very special perspective on human relationships in the exercise of power. His early adult experience as a community organizer in an inner city setting grounds him. He also came to his religious faith in adulthood through his experiences working with churches in the Chicago community organizational work. He belongs to a mainstream black congregation of the United Church of Christ, of which Reinhold Niebuhr was a part in the Congregational branch of the UCC.
John Edwards, however, may have the deepest ironic sensibility of all the Democratic candidates. Just as Lincoln was deeply affected by the death of his son, Willie, in the way that he could grasp the deeper levels of irony in his struggle to keep the Union together, Edwards has suffered the loss of a young son. And now he and his wife face her terminal cancer diagnosis together. Edwards is very much aware of his mortality. He has also chosen to identify much of his politics with a concern for the economic inequality in America that has led to a large increase in poverty in this wealthy country. And he has been through a losing Presidential campaign. One could suppose that his leadership of the nation would be suffused with this sensitivity to the limits of human nature in pretensions of power to force our will on others in the name of righteousness. His progressive Baptist faith buttresses his world view in a way that could allow him to call for sacrifices in a necessary cause while still knowing the pain this may cause.
Senators Dodd and Biden project a basic competence on many issues, including those of concern to progressives. I do not find much evidence in their presentations for an ironic perspective nor is it clear to me what kind of leaders they might be. They deserve their status as “also rans” but they do add intelligence and sincerity to the candidate debates. We need a longer look at them.
A recent piece by Peter Birkenhead in on June 11, “Better to be Hamlet than President George”, focuses on the lack of doubts evident in Bush’s leadership. Birkenhead contrasts this with John F. Kennedy’s doubts, learned from the Bay of Pigs disaster. The lack of doubt in a leader is directly related to the failure to become self-consciously aware of an ironic situation in which the leader was an agent propelling the situation.
Birkenhead writes: “We’ve forgotten how valuable, even vital, it is to be bravely unsure of ourselves. We’ve forgotten that doubt is the hill that hope climbs, that without it our spirits atrophy.”
Taking a look at future leadership capacity for our nation, Birkenhead says, “You’d think that after the past six years we’d want some of JFK’s brand of genuine bravery and capacity for doubt in our leaders, but most of the current candidates for president, with a few exceptions, like Barack Obama, John McCain and John Edwards, again sound like scared little children playing soldier. They puff up their chests and bray in the absolutist style of the guy who got us into the biggest mess of our lifetime.” I would only dissent from including McCain in this mix. He is unquestionably brave but he has no doubts about the presumed catastrophe that would follow from withdrawing from Iraq before “the job is finished.”
On reading The Irony of American History, written 55 years ago, and reading it as a Christian progressive, I was deeply struck by how prescient Niebuhr was in pointing toward the great follies of the last half of the 20th century. The nation did manage to survive and move beyond the nuclear standoff of the cold war, though not without some close calls. Then there was the long and disastrous folly of Vietnam and the angry, painful and chaotic rebellion against that slaughter in which there was so much hostility that we could not even acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifices of the soldiers that survived.
Now we are over four years into a similar folly with different possible catastrophes. Yet there is no rebellion and anger is tempered. Will a new Democratic President and legislature be able to lead the nation in a wiser direction in the world? Or will we remain caught up in our pretensions of imperialism and projections of military power throughout the globe?
The religious nature of Niebuhr’s “humane irony” seems to point the way we must go if we are to “get America right” in the world. In the progressive Christian world view that Niebuhr describes, “The sick are preferred to the healthy, as the sinners are preferred to the righteous, because their lack of health prompts them to an humility which is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement. The poor are blessed and a ‘woe’ is pronounced upon the rich for the same reason. For as wealth and power lead to pride, so weakness and poverty tend to remind men of the limits of human achievement. The ironic success which issues from the various types of failure in Biblical thought is of course not a success which is recorded in history. It belongs to a transcendent divine judgment of Him ‘who resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.’ It is the symbol of the potential contradiction between all historic achievement and the final meaning of life.”
This is a grand vision, not one that all Americans will find meaningful. But I trust that most Americans would agree that we need a tad more wisdom from our government and a lot more national humility, out of which the grandest strengths of our beloved America can emerge.


June 12, 2007 - 11:27am