Wednesday, December 05, 2018

George Bush and Reinhold Niebuhr: A Kinder, Gentler Immoral Society

Image result for reinhold niebuhr
 Reinhold Niebuhr (1892=1971)

I mourn the passing George Bush, I never thought I would say that,I used to hate him. But I was always aware  of hating him by extension. I always realized he seemed like a nice guy, I say "extension" because it was his place in the Republicans, his place on the ticket with Reagan,  and his role as commander 'n Chief, nothing connected to the man himself. I am going to discuss some of the problems I had with President Bush (note respectful use of his title--which I will never give you know who)-- but not to get in a last word,  not to speak ill of the dead, I have a larger point,  a theological point to make, one that transcends the man himself.

First, now is the time  to praise the man for his spirit and his values,  his dedication  to family,   country, humanity. Not to disrespect that but we do forget it was the Bush campaign that really started the negative campaigning we know today. It wasn't Bush himself but Lee Atwater and Carl Rove. Does anyone remember Willie Horton? [1] Atwater and Rove forged the basis of the ugly negative campaigns we see today. It was so bad Atwater apologized after the knew he was going to die,"In 1988," Mr. Atwater said, "fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not." Reputation as 'Ugly Campaigner'[2]

So you say Bush himself didn't do those things,  but he didn't stop them either. It was his campaign. It was fought in his name. He could have disparaged such tactics had he done so surely the campaign would have been different. Moreover he continued to build upon Reagan policy. He did urge a "kinder gentler nation"[3] but that was a front since his administration pursued the old terrorism in Latin America. That was my major point of contention with him that continued to support the contra war and backed dictatorial regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. There were  1300 terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in Nicaragua's Contra War. One example of the contra brutality was a real incident where they cut off a little girl;s head and put it on a stick to show the people they better not back the Sandinistas.[4] That kind of Brutality by the contra army is well documented. [5] [6] [7]

How do we resolve such a contradiction? Was Bush really not a nice guy with high ideals?  No he was. One way to understand how moral people can support immoral policies is to turn to the works of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, his book Moral Man and Immoral Society.[8] Niebur is one of those great figures whose name is reversed by everyone in the academic theological world yet few remember what he really said. His basic argument is that individuals are capable of being moral on an individual level,and they may live by high ideals personally, but but in groups the class interest of the group  leads one to rationalize  participation immoral policies.[9]

Niebuhr argues that the collective nature of the group ,while inclusive in some ways, a priori, is also a natural block to the moral motions of the individual. To believe that individuation self interest is fulfilled in collective good is a Utopian illusion. His major criticism of liberalism is that they tend to fall for this illusion and to think that they can reform politics. Niebuhr was himself a social democrat or democratic socialist. As criticism of capitalism he makes the point that will to power dominates the will to good.The group as a collective mind lacks the sympathy of the individual.

Does Niebuhr have a solution? are we just doomed to politics as moral abortion? Are Christians better off out of political life? In MMIS Niebuhr offers no solution, In The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol 1 he offers, in lue of a solution, the proper way to deal with the reality for the fallen world , that politics will never be moral. That doesn't mean we can retreat from politics we can't afford to do that. Instead we have to understand the will to power,Niebuhr's theology gave me my first understanding of the fall and sin nature from a liberal theological perspective. That conflict roots sin in anxiety, the anxiety that comes from self transcendence. Through self transcendence we anticipate the consequences of not paying the rent, for example,and the anticipation  of those consequences  causes us to resort to morality to secure our position (for example we might steal). This is amplified in the social dimension. We are dealing with collective anxiety. Rather than rationalize evils patriotically inevitable we have to infuse our goals with  valueless that reflect Godly ends. If all we can do is make the immorality kinder I guess Bush did his part.

[1] "Prison furloughs survive campaign flap over Willie Horton"Milaukee Journal. Associated Press. 6 November 1989.,6682575&dq=willie+horton+life+sentence+without+parole&hl=en
[2]Associated Press, "Gravely Ill Atwater Offers Apology," NY Times, JAN. 13, 1991

[3] Sterpen Knott, "George H.W. Bush,Campaigns and Elections," UVA Milller Cemter

[4] Penny Lernoux , Cry of the people: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America--The Catholic CChurch In Coflikct with U.S. Policy  Nwq York:  Penguin Books1982;

[5]Andreas E Feldmann, Maiju Perälä "Reassessing the Causes of Nongovernmental Terrorism in Latin America". Latin American Politics and Society. 46  (July 2004).  (2): 101–132. doi:10.1111/j.1548-2456.2004.tb00277.x.;

[7]Gary LaFree; Laura Dugan; Erin Miller. Putting Terrorism in Context: Lessons from the Global Terrorism DatabaseRoutledge.2014, 56. ISBN 978-1134712410.

[8]Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.Westminster John Knox Press; 2 edition, 2013, Originally Published Charles Scribner and Sons 1932.

[9] Niebuhr, 257

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