But Comey’s interest in Niebuhr long predates 9/11, and I was interested in what originally drew him to the theologian. With Comey’s role in the Trump drama now unfolding, I tracked down his senior thesis to see what lessons there might be for understanding the FBI director’s run-in with President Trump
Niebuhr, Falwell, and Christian approaches to politics
Submitted in 1982, Comey’s thesis compares Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. At the time, the televangelist had emerged as a central figure in American politics following the election of Ronald Reagan. Comey’s study was an effort to understand how each man would answer the question: “Why should the Christian be involved in politics?”
Niebuhr and Falwell came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. One, a former socialist and—despite his support for the Cold War—an early opponent of the Vietnam War, believing it an obligation to be critical of American actions that were unjust. The other, a staunch opponent to socialism and a supporter of the Vietnam War.
As the co-founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell espoused the kind of America-first patriotism that Niebuhr condemned. Niebuhr rejected moral absolutes, believing they were beyond reach and that their pursuit could lead humans into sinful pride. Falwell embraced them.
Yet, each claimed Scripture as the source for their political doctrines. Falwell believed the Bible to be infallible whereas Niebuhr was sensitive to the ambiguities. And each believed in a politically engaged Christianity willing to seek power, accept compromises, and risk cynicism and cooptation to achieve justice or avoid moral decay.
But what does this have to do with Comey’s actions today? For starters, Comey’s thesis suggests what may have drawn him to a career in the Justice Department.
Many Christian theologians in Niebuhr’s day embraced love as the solution to the world’s problems. As Comey explains in the thesis, Niebuhr rejected that view. Since human selfishness gets in the way of perfectly emulating Jesus’ sacrificial love, they must instead inject love into the world through justice.
Reading Comey’s description of Niebuhr’s views suggests a theological-moral logic at work in his career as FBI director. A Christian has an obligation to seek justice, the theologian argued, and this means entering the political sphere because that is the realm where one can find the power necessary to establish whatever justice is possible in the world. Comey’s decision to work for the FBI can be understood as a way of fulfilling Niebuhr’s vision of Christianity as a defender of justice.
President Trump’s court
At the same time, however, the Christian commitment to justice can also compel one to behave like a prophet, to speak truth to power, as Niebuhr himself did during the era of Comey’s most infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.
By the late 1960s, Niebuhr had cofounded an anti-war clergy group deemed suspicious by the FBI, and one of his cofounders, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, had been the subject of an FBI manhunt, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. Niebuhr, a subject of FBI surveillance himself, was no fan of the bureau and felt moved to speak out against it.