In an essay called “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court” published in 1969, Niebuhr rebuked Hoover himself, comparing his spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. to the actions of the biblical Amaziah, a priest who abused the prophet Amos in an effort to suppress his critique.
It is ironic that Comey admires a figure who felt he had to denounce a previous FBI director. What is even more ironic, however, is that the essay anticipates the predicament Comey himself faced when, on January 27—in the midst of the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn for his contacts with the Russians—he was invited to dinner with Trump and asked to declare his loyalty. At the time he wrote his thesis, Comey could have had no idea that he would one day be summoned to the court of the king and then, like Amos, driven out for not saying what the king wanted to hear.
Niebuhr and the politics of our era
It is tempting to read Comey’s thesis as an explanation for how has conducted himself as FBI director over the last year.
Niebuhr’s writings supply a moral argument for Comey’s aggressive assertion of the FBI’s power—some describe him as the most aggressive FBI director since Hoover himself. His influence also sheds light on another side of Comey’s conduct as FBI director. Niebuhr noted that while humans can’t change the animal nature that makes them so selfish, they can achieve a kind of freedom from their situation by becoming self-conscious, by recognizing the truth about themselves. Comey has sought to institutionalize such self-awareness in the FBI through programs that encourage FBI trainees to learn about Hoover’s mistreatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the complicity of law enforcement in the Holocaust.
But the theologian’s influence potentially sheds light on yet another side of Comey’s conduct as well. For a student of Niebuhr, justice is about using power to balance the power of those not predisposed to recognize any limits on their self-interest. Perhaps this helps to explain why Comey felt he had to criticize Clinton even though he found no reason to pursue a legal case against her. At that time she seemed to be on her way to becoming the most powerful person in the world, and her email troubles suggested someone who did not sufficiently respect limits.
Though there is no way to know what was going through his mind, one wonders whether Niebuhr’s influence was also at work during Comey’s fateful dinner with Trump. This time, if the reports are true, he faced his own moral predicament, asked by the most powerful person in the world to violate what Niebuhr regarded as the core obligation to do justly. Perhaps some day we will find out how Comey viewed his experience in the king’s court.
Whatever one thinks of Niebuhr’s theological views or Comey’s actions as FBI director, to me at least, it’s reassuring to think that for the first four months of Trump’s presidency, there was a high ranking and principled Niebuhrian in the executive branch standing up for justice. But maybe that is giving too much credit to Comey who has been criticized for falling into his own form of pride, what he refers to as the pride of virtue—“a moral pride revealed in self-righteous judgments based on highly arbitrary standards.”
In any case, it does not matter any more: neither “Reinhold Niebuhr” nor Reinhold Niebuhr are there any longer.
Steven Weitzman is the co-editor of the book The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11 and a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he specializes in the study of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.