The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict
Image: Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty

Two months before he was fired, FBI director James Comey inadvertently revealed something about his theological leanings that may have pointed to his inevitable fallout with President Donald Trump.

In March, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg followed a string of clues to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of a user named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who she believed to be Comey. Many of the user’s tweets had to do with the FBI, including one linking to a report about a meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and a Russian emissary. But what tipped off this particular account was its user name.

While a student at the College of William and Mary, Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr. The Protestant theologian seems to have left an impression, judging from Comey’s references to him in public speeches and from this apparent pseudonym. Within a few days of Feinberg’s article, the owner shut the accounts down, though not before sending one last tweet that seemed to confirm the identification: a link to—perhaps a job offer to Feinberg—and a quote from the movie Anchorman: “Actually I’m not even mad. That’s Amazing.”

Together with my colleague Sylvester Johnson, I published a book about the FBI and religion a few weeks before Feinberg outed Comey’s social media accounts. Our book traces the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities and addresses the beliefs of some of its leaders and agents. I realized that Comey and Niebuhr were a part of the story we were trying to tell.

Niebuhr’s moral pragmatism

As Gene Zubovich notes, politicians caught trying to balance moral idealism and clear-eyed realism often look to Niebuhr, who’s earned the nickname “Washington’s favorite theologian.” Jimmy Carter said that Niebuhr was “always present in my mind” as he confronted the prospect of nuclear war. John McCain highlighted Niebuhr’s moral quandary in his 2007 book, Hard Call. In an interview with David Brooks, Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers; scholars see Niebuhr’s influence in Obama’s tendency to avoid moral absolutes and willingness to acknowledge America’s sins.

How did this particular theologian become so many politicians’ moral and spiritual compass? Niebuhr developed a view known as Christian realism, believing the human ego would undercut our attempts to better the world. According to Niebuhr, people need to shed their self-righteous illusions and perfectionist pretensions to set their sights on more modest solutions. Niebuhr warned that people should never assume they could eliminate evil. In fact, they should be on guard lest their moral ambitions lead them into a self-deluded and destructive pride.

Such views explain why Niebuhr turned from the pacifism of his youth to embrace violence when undertaken in the pursuit of justice, as manifest in his support for the war against Hitler and for America’s struggle against the Soviet Union. For political leaders on both sides of the aisle, Niebuhr’s theology offers a justification for pragmatism, for the use of force, and for the moral compromises that political action imposes.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Comey mentions Niebuhr and his most important work, Moral Man and Immoral Society, as a formative influence. At first, one might think to connect his invocation of Niebuhr to the renewed interest in the theologian after 9/11 when the War on Terror impelled some to look to him for religious arguments in support of the use of force while others saw in him the model of a prophetic critic.

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The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict